Ring of familiarity reverberates in pop probes
Although Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” was conceived as a parody of the world of rock ‘n’ roll, three current music docs — “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” “End of the Century” and “Dig!” — reveal that Spinal Tap’s backstage feuding, ego clashes and creative squabbling were no joke.
Unlike “Spinal Tap,” any humor derived from these nonfiction portraits is inadvertent as they are meant to be honest looks at music and the people who create it. But in an age of “E! True Hollywood Story” and VH1’s “Behind the Music,” such chronicles of the rise and fall of pop figures are bound to run headlong into cliche.
Once upon a time, concert documentaries were in vogue, precipitated by “Woodstock,” which won feature documentary for 1970. In the years since, movies like “The Last Waltz,” “Stop Making Sense” and “U2: Rattle and Hum” offered viewers an intimate look at pop royalty. But the growing popularity of MTV and its various offshoots in the ’80s and ’90s along with readily available live pay-per-view events eliminated much of the genre’s rarified atmosphere.
“In the ’70s, concert films had some merit because that was the only time you got to see filmed rock ‘n’ roll more or less,” says Joe Berlinger, who helmed “Monster.” “But with 24-hour coverage of music, anyone can hire 12 camera crews and cover a concert. MTV does it blindfolded. So the experience of watching music is no longer that special. That’s why I think the (rockumentary) form has evolved (beyond live performance) tremendously.”
In the three aforementioned docs, the focus is on dramatic conflicts that tore at the bands — Metallica, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre in “Dig!,” and the Ramones in “End of the Century.”
“Rockumentaries were not really a character-based genre but there was plenty of room to do that,” says “End of the Century” director Jim Fields. “It seemed like it was time.”
Adds Berlinger: “Rock documentaries traditionally glorified sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, making rock stars them larger than life. I think Metallica humanized themselves by letting us film them at their most vulnerable — it’s a very 21st-century, self-help-era kind of thing.”
Berlinger acknowledges the link of the Metallica doc to what he refers to as one of his favorite films of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” a chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ disastrous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway that resulted in violence and death. It is largely viewed as the flip side of “Woodstock’s” three days of love, peace and music.
The filmmakers behind 1970’s “Gimme Shelter,” Albert and David Maysles, never intended to be a concert film per se. “We didn’t know or care what the event would be — happy or sad, that would just come about on its own,” Albert Maysles explains. “We felt that there would be another story beyond the concert itself.”
However, unlike “Monster,” “Gimme Shelter” didn’t follow the Rolling Stones to therapy sessions or family gatherings. Instead, the Maysles brothers relied on fly-on-the-wall observations to capture the band’s personality and, ultimately, humanity.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, too, ended up with a different film than he started when “Let It Be” — a chronicle of the Beatles recording their penultimate album — was released.
“The sense of collaboration was very frayed by that time,” explains Lindsay-Hogg. “I thought it was going to be a record of the Beatles rehearsing and then we were going to release it as a TV special.”
The cameras were so pervasive during the sessions that, as the director recalls, “they didn’t know they were being spied on.” What was intended as a half-hour special ended up being an often painful look at the deterioration of the world’s greatest pop band.
“A documentary doesn’t get beneath the skin, so to speak, is all appearances,” says Maysles. “If you have a very good eye behind the camera that appearance reflects upon and reveals a lot of stuff going on underneath.”