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How a Series of New Music Documentaries is Shaking Up the Genre

How a Series of New Music Documentaries is Shaking Up the Genre

READ MORE: Review: Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse Documentary is Heartbreaking and Extraordinary

There’s a moment in Asif Kapadia’s extraordinary Amy Winehouse documentary, “Amy,” where the eponymous musician reflects on her struggle with depression. “I don’t think I knew what depression was. That’s why I write music,” she says with an assured clarity. “I’m not some messed up person. There’s a lot of people who suffer from depression that don’t have an outlet — they can’t pick up a guitar for an hour and feel better.” 

Any talking head could have informed the viewer how music helped Winehouse cope with depression, but hearing the words from the singer’s own mouth generates a far more startling and powerful reaction. Through the genuine relief that informs Winehouse’s vocal tone, the voiceover simultaneously tells and shows the audience the gratification for which she viewed music. You can hear in her self-consolation, and in the sorrow she expresses for those who aren’t able to find a creative outlet for their struggles, just how much she appreciated her supreme talent and was in debt to its savior-like abilities.

Kapadia’s documentary is made up entirely of moments like this, which is predominantly the reason it embodies the spirit of Winehouse herself and allows the viewer to witness her rise and fall with such a fragile level of intimacy. Largely eschewing one of the longtime traditions of the biopic-documentary genre — talking head interviews — the film relies almost exclusively on archival footage and interviews with Winehouse and her close confidants. The result is a film seemingly constructed by the subjective will of the artist herself and not by the objective director and/or fans who continue to sing her praises and mourn her loss.

“Amy” is a movie built by Kapadia, but it’s a story told by Amy herself from beyond the grave — no wonder it’s such a haunting, shattering and cautionary tale of an experience.

Returning the Narrative to the Voice of the Artist

In what is shaping up to be a welcoming trend in the biopic documentary genre, “Amy” joins three other music documentaries this year which take a similarly engaging approach to understanding its flawed icons. Completed by Alex Gibney’s “Sinatra,” Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” this quartet of music documentaries is forcing viewers to reevaluate the way they understand their respective artists and engage with their celebrated music.

In the frighteningly manic energy of “Montage of Heck,” the misunderstood remorse of both “Miss Simone?” and “Amy,” and the debonair sophistication of “Sinatra,” the directors have resurrected the voices of their artists and have returned the narratives of their lives back into their own subjective hands. 

“We had available to us a tremendous cache of audio interviews with Sinatra himself. For that reason, it seemed to make sense to structure the film like an autobiography,” Gibney recently told Indiewire, explaining why he approached the story this way. “That seemed smart because Sinatra had never written one and, equally important, we had access to his 1971 retirement concert. In my view, the set list of that concert was chosen as a series of chapters from his life. So, it made sense to me that Sinatra could tell his life story through talk and song (i.e. ‘Frank Sinatra: The Musical’).”

During an interview with Indiewire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Editor Paula Bernstein, Garbus revealed a similar experience in coming to this formal decision. The abundance of recorded interviews Simone conducted not only gave the director the inspiration of how to structure her film, but they also allowed her to follow Simone’s lead in how to tell her story. “I had so much of Nina to listen to — we had dozens and dozens of hours of her telling her story — that I could rely upon her for that guidance,” she said. “There were stories she came back to that clearly she was working through, and were kind of psychologically temples for her. If she’s talking about something in 1959 and then again in ’68 and then in ’76 and then in ’88 and then in ’92, you know that this is something important for who this person is. So I was able to kind of evaluate her on her own terms.”

On taking the same route with “Montage of Heck,” Morgen recently told Indiewire, “I’m not adverse to talking heads…but I’m primarily interested in creating films that are immersive and experiential, and I seek out subject matter that lends itself to the kind of films I want to make. ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture,’ ‘June 17, 1994,’ ‘Crossfire Hurricane,’ and ‘Chicago 10’ were all approached with this in mind. When I first encountered the repository of Kurt’s artwork, I felt confident that I could create the film entirely through Kurt’s point of view, as reflected through his art and, to a limited degree, through interviews that he gave.” 

Both “Sinatra” and “Amy” are told solely through voiceover interviews and archival footage (something Gibney believes helps “keep people ‘in the moment’ of the past”), while “Montage of Heck” and “Miss Simone?” alternate between these formal devices and on-camera interviews. But in what little traditional “heads” are included, the focus always remains on the subject and enhancing his/her personal story — not providing an objective opinion or critical analysis of his/her work.

“I appreciated in [Brett’s] film — that I think was also something that was important to this film — the people who are talking are people who are very intimate with that person and have a very deep connection to them,” Garbus said. “You’re not hearing just talking heads like,”Oh, he was crazy backstage!” It’s much more internal and psychological.”

Hearing from Winehouse’s producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, Simone’s musical director Al Schackman and Cobain’s childhood friend and “Nirvana” co-foudner Krist Novoselic prove Garbus’ point here — they aid in the exploration of the artist and provide an objective outlook that serves only to enhance the artists’ stream of consciousness like emotional support beams. Each outside source only talks in tandem with whatever the artist is revealing, and they never contextualize the subject to a larger degree of history. Whatever talking heads or narrators are included, they remain devoted to the spirit of the subjective archival footage. 

The Archival Process Becomes the Filmmaking Power

In relinquishing the authorial drive of these films to the artists themselves, a majority of the directorial power comes more from the archival scavenging and organization. As far as Kapadia, Garbus and Gibney are concerned, their films prove enthralling mainly because of how much access to revealing and personal material they were able to get their hands on as filmmakers. Take the recording session in “Amy” where the singer first rips into the scortching lines of “Back to Black,” or the stage footage of Simone glaring down the audience at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in transfixing silence, or the behind-the-scenes color footage of Sinatra on the set of Fred Zinnemann’s 1954 drama, “From Here to Eternity.” The filmmakers did nothing to construct these images per se, yet finding them and weaving them into the narrative to show us their subjects’ artistic processes is what makes their directorial work so praiseworthy. 

While the final presentation may seem straightforward to a fault in some cases, the pre-production archival process has its own tedious and demanding set of challenges. For Gibney, it meant exploring 50 institutions, 77 photo archives and 145 footage archives, in addition to interviewing 72 individuals and, most staggeringly, editing down 486 hours of video footage, 377 hours of logged audio and 14,500 photos into a cohesive two-part, four-hour miniseries. Considering just how extensive Gibney’s archival research was, the fact “Sinatra” plays so direct is something of a miracle. As Gibney said, “The decision about what to include is always a mix of story, theme and most important of all, what is the best shit.”

In investigating the life of Simone, Grabus relied on journalists who had previously covered her subject’s esteemed career. “All the audio interviews came from journalists or writers who had spent time with Nina Simone,” she said. “There were some university students at the University of Nebraska who had interviewed her and they kept her tapes. There was a woman down in South Carolina who had spent time with Nina in the ’80s who had done some interviews and kept those tapes. So we were able to pull from these. And then of course, there were these very early radio interviews with Nina, in the early ’60s and then moving into the late ’60s.”

Both Garbus and Morgen also gained access to diaries and notebooks. Full of resonant lyrics, troubled quotes and, in Cobain’s case, erratic doodles, the notebooks are yet another window that inform the viewer about the artists’ genius and conflicted emotions from a personal perspective. For those paying close attention, these images also show the artists’ developing minds in real time. Just see how the possible band names of “Nirvana” progress from silly to spiritual in the lists Cobain scrawled over numerous pages and in side margins, as if getting the right name was plaguing him. On the pages of Simone’s diary, she gradually reveals a host of problems — suicidal impulses, insomnia, glimpses into her abusive relationship with her husband — that are written in blunt fragments. Some are even scribbled over, as if the fear that consumed her seeped onto the very pages themselves. Including these texts further provide subjectivity that is incomparable to what any talking head could have possibly shared with the viewer about similar points.

Possessing the Spirit of the Artist

Ultimately, each films’ use of diverse archival materials helps dissolve the role of the director and inform the finished product with the artist’s soul, which can be enviously stylish in the case of “Sinatra” or troubling when it comes to “Miss Simone?” and “Amy.” But as many who have seen “Montage of Heck” already know, Morgen goes one step further in his documentary by infusing the manic energy of Cobain into the film’s very construction and exhaustive rhythm. Most memorably, he brings Cobain’s artwork to the forefront in montages of nightmarish animations. 

“I’m interested in creating films that are immersive, so I suppose you could say that I did not want to make a dry, academic film, but one that had an aesthetic relationship to Kurt,” Morgen told Indiewire. “Of all the media Kurt used to express himself, the one area that I don’t think he was ever that comfortable with was with interviews. With few exceptions, Kurt’s interviews lacked that same passion and energy that are benchmarks of his art. Kurt’s art is visceral, kinetic, and immediate. Accordingly, over time, it became clear that the most effective way to tell the story would be through the medium that Kurt himself used most effectively: his art.”

The power of these scenes aren’t just in the revealing darkness of Cobain’s images, but also in Morgen’s chaotic and invasive editing that owes much to the disorienting progression of films like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Natural Born Killers.” “Kurt was an artist with a capital A. From the moment he could hold a paintbrush in his hand, he was painting,” Morgen continued. “His own music, art, films, and sound collages illuminate his life experiences better than any interview ever could. And the thing with Kurt is that he expressed himself aurally and visually in equal measure, so his work really lends itself to an immersive, cinematic exploration. Animation would play an important role in adapting Kurt’s art and ephemera into a cinematic experience.”

“Montage of Heck” is presented in a much more experimental fashion than the other members of this year’s music doc quartet, and it seemingly manages to possess its subject’s tortured core as a result. No wonder the documentary can be such an overwhelming and darkening cinematic experience. In this regard, Morgen ups the exploration of his subject — he’s not only letting Kurt tell his own story, he’s forcing the viewer to confront Kurt’s own hysteria by plunging them right into the center of it. 

As a whole, the quartet embodies an approach to biopic-documentary filmmaking that is an altogether introspective and highly emotional experience. By letting their artists tell their own stories, Morgen, Garbus, Gibney and Kapadia have returned the music and legacy of Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse back to where they belong: with the artists themselves. As a result, no articles, critical essays or books explore these subjects as intimately and vulnerably as these music docs are able to. Fortunately for fans of the doc subgenre, it’s an approach that’s quickly expanding to artists of all kinds, as Steven Riley lets Marlon Brando recount his own life in the upcoming “Listen to Me Marlon.” Based on the results of these music documentaries, it’s a formative device we’re absolutely looking forward to.

“Amy” is now playing in theaters nationwide. “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Sinatra” are available to stream on HBO GO. “Montage” will also be getting a theatrical re-release starting August 7. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is currently on Netflix.

READ MORE: Tribeca: 6 Ways Kurt Cobain Comes to Life in Brett Morgen’s ‘Montage of Heck’

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