Now that everyone’s entitled to 15 minutes of fame, we’ve moved into an age when anyone can be the subject of a two-hour documentary. All you need is a successful Kickstarter campaign, two or three people going on about how “important” you are and lots of old photos and rehashed B-roll. Then draw up some slapdash animated sequences to help tie it all together, and—congratulations!—you’re yet another questionable subject among the thousands of mediocre docs currently available on-demand.
Here are four documentaries I viewed recently. All are music-related. Two are largely unnecessary. One has good intentions. The other is utterly fascinating.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words As someone eternally incapable of listening to a Frank Zappa album all the way through who has long-admired Zappa’s raconteur skills, I was really looking forward to this career-spanning compilation of interviews. Like Fran Lebowitz, Zappa was an irresistible public speaker—witty, intelligent, both arrogant and likeable—who marched to his own dissonant beats. But by the end of the ’70s, he seems less like a free-thinking satirist and more like a bitter jerk who doth protest far too much about the music biz. Is it possible to feast on sour grapes and still call it parody? Question prefers not to answer that.
Danny Says As the legendary scenester who midwifed The Stooges and the Ramones, Danny Fields has long been a documentary-in-waiting. This definitely unpacks some goodies: fun backstage dish (Jim Morrison had a lovely penis), priceless archival material (tapes of Iggy Pop talking about methadone, Lou Reed hearing the Ramones for the first time), plus Fields and his endless supply of juicy episodes and sordid details. But visually, it’s dull as can be, and there’s zero sense of an overall narrative. Maybe I’m too familiar with this milieu, but 104 minutes is an awful lot of time to just say, “Hey, this guy did some nutty stuff with cool people!”
Oasis: Supersonic Whether you like this or not depends on how you feel about Oasis, really. If you think they were the last great rock band to conquer the world before the Internet broke us into little bits, then two hours of heaven await. For those who, like me, think Noel and Liam Gallagher are a couple of derivative twats, this will not change minds. Early demos and rehearsal footage never convey a sense that something powerful is assembling, and even the Gallagher brothers’ infamous rivalry feels unremarkable. Supersonic mostly demonstrates how it’s possible to achieve a raucous, global success and still not matter all that much in the long run.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith You know that sinking feeling when you move into a new building and realize your neighbor is a musician who keeps odd and loud hours? What if that neighbor was Thelonious Monk? If you’re photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, you set up some mics, grab your camera and spend eight years recording it all. The Jazz Loft uses roughly 4,000 hours of music and 40,000 pictures acquired by Smith to illustrate a mythic time in jazz and New York history. Unlike so many documentaries that come around these days, it tells a fascinating story, one you wish you were part of.