Rock documentaries are clearly all the rage right now following the Oscar win for “Searching for Sugar Man.” The latest to open in theaters today, Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino’s “A Band Called Death” profiles an undiscovered band that was doing punk even before the term was coined, pre-dating the Ramones. Below, the filmmakers share their picks for their favorite rock documentaries. “A Band Called Death” is also available on iTunes, VOD and for digital download now.
When we originally set out to make “A Band Called Death” our intention was to document an important missing link in the genesis of Punk Rock music. What began as a film about a band ultimately became a 40 year history of a family, a tale of the bonds of brotherhood and a journey to musical enlightenment. Our “Rockumentary” grew into something much more, something that transcends the music. And, at the forefront of this untold story was an innovator, a man who had a vision and the conviction to stick to his vision. Even when his beliefs jeopardized the band’s success, he stayed true to his ideals and his brothers stayed by his side. This man was David Hackney, and it was through his tenacity and belief in the band that we found the core of our story. David predicted that the world would come looking for his music someday. We’re just happy and honored that we were there to document it.
“New York Doll” (2005)
A great documentary about the life and legacy of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player and founding member of influential protopunk band, the New York Dolls. This is more a film about redemption than it is about music. Yes, music plays a part, but what helps make it unique is director Greg Whiteley’s personal friendship with Kane. It allows for one of the most intimate and emotional experiences you’ll ever have watching a Rock Doc. Upon revisiting the film, I couldn’t help but notice all of the parallels to “A Band Called Death.” When “New York Doll” comes to a close, if you’re not shedding a tear, you’re not human.
“The Last Waltz” (1978)
Known by many as the quintessential concert documentary, this film captures The Band’s historic farewell performance. Featuring an astounding guest line-up, along with various interviews and anecdotes interspersed throughout, it’s not hard to see why. Director Martin Scorsese might not have set the groundwork for how to make a rockumentary, but he sure as hell perfected it. This film was shot beautifully in glorious 35mm (as opposed to the then-standard 16mm), and multiple camera angles were pre-determined, which resulted in a more cinematic look. I drew heavy inspiration from “Waltz” when directing the concert that Death performs at the end of our film.
“The Who: The Kids Are Alright” (1979)
Eat an entire sheet of acid, drink an entire bottle of scotch and press play on the complete filmed history of The Who. By doing so you just might come close to emulating this anarchistic mess of a rockumentary…and I mean that in the best way possible. I have yet to see a Rock Doc that is so erratic, yet so linear in its storytelling. You leave this film feeling like you were right there with the band, from their pre-Who days as The High-Numbers, right on through to Keith Moon’s final appearance with the band in 1978. Director Jeff Stein’s dedication to collecting every bit of archival footage available, as well as filming some of the best footage ever shot of The Who, was a true inspiration to me as a filmmaker.
“This is Spinal Tap” (1984)
Yes, it’s a partly-scripted satire, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s one of the greatest Rock Docs every made! Rob Reiner skillfully directed this film as a straight-up documentary- and in many ways it is. For the most part, all actors were in character, ad-libbing their own dialogue and playing their own instruments throughout. That aside, “Spinal Tap” holds a special place in my heart. Back in 2003, some friends and I decided it was time to make our first feature length film. With no money (and limited equipment), the plan veered towards doing a mockumentary. Real interviews with a scripted subplot, that way our tracks were covered when people saw the poor quality of the filmmaking. Needless to say, the film was a complete piece of shit. That said, it was a great learning experience, and if it weren’t for this film’s influence, I might not be making documentaries today.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, this is an excellent documentary about an artist/musician who struggles with mental illness while creating amazing art. On a personal level, I love this film because it really hits home in terms of family and friends who have struggled with various mental illness, as well. The film also deals with how certain family issues can arise, but how that in some cases, when properly addressed, the artist can shine through and still create amazing art/music.
“Stop Making Sense” (1984)
I know both Mark and I love this film for the simple fact that it is a great example of a solid concert documentary. As a viewer alone, things like the lighting, the simplicity of the opening sequence, the final crescendo and, of course, the music, were pure genius on both co-writer David Byrne and director Jonathan Demme’s parts. It was required viewing in my music class upon its release in 1984, and inspired me not only as a musician, but as a filmmaker, as well. It did so in that I admired how well it kept the structure of both music and film simple and direct.
“Anvil! The Story of Anvil” (2008)
This is a great documentary about the lost metal band Anvil. I love this film. I think that director Sacha Gervasi did an amazing job of going behind the scenes and discovering who these guys were, and what they are currently doing now. For me, it was refreshing to watch the raw love of music and the band, but more importantly the love that Steve and Robb had for one another. Even with all of their struggles over the years, they stayed true to their belief in the band, and that’s an inspiring thing.
“Another State of Mind” (1984)
This is one of my favorite punk docs. Directed by Adam Small and Peter Stuart, it features great music along with a really solid behind-the-scenes traveling journal of the DIY ethic of the early 1980’s hardcore punk scene. It really shows you what it’s like to be going on the road with next to nothing.
Below as a little extra, download a free, never-before-released Death demo recording of “Politicians In My Eyes” from 1974.