Rolling Stone just published a list of the greatest rock and roll documentaries, a list that includes concert films, behind-the-scene stories, portraits of an era and more. Contributors included Rolling Stone film editor David Fear, Tim Grierson, Jason Newman, Eric Hynes, Kory Grow, and Criticwire’s own Sam Adams. The full list is here, but here’s the top ten:
1. “Dont Look Back” (1967), D.A. Pennebaker
2. “The Last Waltz” (1978), Martin Scorsese
3. “Gimme Shelter” (1970), Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin
4. “Stop Making Sense” (1984), Jonathan Demme
5. “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981), Penelope Spheeris
6. “The T.A.M.I. Show” (1964), Steve Binder
7. “Monterey Pop” (1968), D.A. Pennebaker
8. “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (2004), Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky
9. “Woodstock” (1970), Michael Wadleigh
10. “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” (1964), Kathy Dougherty, Susan Fromke, Albert Maysles
Other films on the list include Spheeris’s “The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years,” Michel Gondry’s “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” Ondi Timoner’s “Dig!” and Julien Temple’s “The Filth and the Fury.”
As with any “Greatest Things” list, there’s room to quibble with the omissions (cough, Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” in favor of Jim Jarmusch’s “Year of hte Horse,” cough) and the rankings – as always, Rolling Stone is committed to ranking Baby Boomer favorites above later films, with 13 of the top 20 films being made before 1980. But that shouldn’t overshadow the excellence of the films included, or the strong cases made for each by the contributors.
I might have a different personal favorite (“Stop Making Sense”), but “Dont Look Back” (the original title doesn’t have the apostrophe) is a pretty unimpeachable pick. It’s a film that captures what made Dylan one of the most fascinating presences of the 1960s and how that made him kind of a dick. Pennebaker has a few films on the list (“Monterey Pop,” “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”), but “Dont Look Back” is perhaps the best encapsulation of his cinema verite style, not to mention of Dylan’s enigmatic nature.
Tim Grierson on the number 1 pick:
Even if you’ve never seen “Don’t Look Back,” you know it by heart. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opener — nicked by everyone from INXS to “Bob Roberts” — is the most obvious cultural reference point, but in a larger sense this documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour is the permanent blueprint for the public’s image of mid-Sixties rock & roll. The glories and agonies of the road, the exuberance of a quicksilver new talent setting the world on fire, the clueless journalists: Director D.A. Pennebaker’s handheld camera captured it all. In the process, he made Dylan an icon, galvanized a generation and helped transform a singular moment in the evolution of “youth music” into riveting, indelible drama.
Eric Hynes on Michael Wadleigh’s landmark “Woodstock”:
Far more people claim to have attended Woodstock than was feasibly possible, and it’s likely Michael Wadleigh’s watershed, kaleidoscopic documentary is to blame. The film captures the three-day festival over three immersive hours (a 1994 re-release pushed it to close to four), often employing split-screen to accommodate spectacles both onstage (blistering sets by Hendrix, the Who, and Richie Havens) and off (traffic jams, overtaxed Port-a-Potties, and open-air sex). An Oscar winner and box office smash in 1970, “Woodstock” also launched the still thriving collaboration between co-director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Just as crucially, it’s warned several generations away from the brown acid.
Sam Adams on “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (available for free on Crackle):
Both a celebration and a cautionary tale, Jeff Feuerzeig’s portrait of the legendary outsider artist captures the heartbreaking simplicity of his songs without downplaying his mental-health issues — or glibly equating the two. The movie doesn’t condemn fans who take Johnston’s illness as proof of his authenticity, but neither does it spare exploring just how difficult it can make his life, or how much anguish it causes his loving and supportive parents. You’ll never hear “Speeding Motorcycle” the same way again.
David Fear on “American Hardcore”:
Machine-gun drumming, warp-speed guitar strumming, screamed lyrics about politics, punk ethics and personal alienation — this is hardcore, and Paul Rachman’s doc traces the underground movement’s ebbs and flows in places like D.C., L.A. and N.Y.C. throughout the Eighties. More than just a musical idea of stripping rock down to its bare necessities and brutalizing what was left, hardcore midwifed positive lifestyle templates (see straight-edge), a strong sense of community and an alpha-thug notion that violence was an inherent part of the show/scene; to his credit, Rachman looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of it all, as well as getting major players (Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, Greg Ginn) to weigh in. It’s worth its weight in old Xeroxed gig flyers.
Jason Newman on “Rhyme and Reason”:
Peter Spirer’s ambitious doc stands out both for its breadth of testimonials and skill in placing hip-hop as part of a broader contextual musical continuum. Eschewing flash for substance, the film interviews more than 80 rappers — including Chuck D, Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy and Dr. Dre — to provide the most widespread examination of the form’s culture circa 1997 as well as its history. Anyone can find archival footage of a Bronx block party in the Seventies. It takes skill, though, to tie the genre back to its jazz and gospel roots without sounding didactic.
Kory Grow on “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years”
Director Penelope Spheeris’ first “Decline of Western Civilization” captured the ragged desperation and willful poverty of L.A.’s hardcore bands in 1981, but “The Metal Years” showed what happens when the same types of musicians got a little money, a lot of drugs and gallons of hairspray. W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes steals the show by drunkenly floating in a swimming pool while arguing with his mom, but jaw-dropping scenes of Ozzy Osbourne cooking breakfast in a leopard-print robe and Kiss’ Paul Stanley flanked in bed with scantly clad women also help the film live up to its “Decline” title. Sadly, the film remains unavailable on Blu-ray and DVD for the moment, so YouTube is still the best way to see it.