2015 Reps Banner Year for Music Docs

jaco Pastorius Music Documentary
Courtesy of Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak

A documentary on the late bassist Jaco Pastorius will start screening on VOD at the end of November after eight months of special screenings and film festival appearances. It will debut the same weekend, Nov. 27, that Amy Berg’s doc on Janis Joplin begins a limited run in theaters.

Together they bring to six the number of high-profile music docs released this year, following films about Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone. In each case, the film chronicles individual artists who altered the public’s vision of a musical genre and each is told through an intimate storytelling technique that allows the subject to do much of the talking via home recordings, interviews and public appearances.

“This really is a golden age for music documentaries with Netflix, HBO, Showtime and the number of places to go now for funding,” says John Scheinfeld, currently directing a doc on John Coltrane. “And having more buyers in the world is wonderful.”

Back-to-back Oscar wins by music documentaries — 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and 2013’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom” — has encouraged filmmakers to dive into passion projects about lesser-known musicians, obscured chapters of music history and the private lives of very public people.

“Potentially every band or musician who has a fan base could have a documentary, but not every one has an interesting character-based story,” says Dan Braun, whose company Submarine has been involved with the sale and/or distribution of “Twenty Feet,” “Sugar Man,” “Muscle Shoal” and “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” “The biggest barrier to getting distribution is getting all the music cleared. No matter how exciting a film, if there is a problem with the original artist or the cost is just too high, it makes it very difficult. But primarily it’s a passion-based decision.”

Passion drove Robert Trujillo’s decision to become involved in Paul Marchand’s film about Pastorius, who died in 1987 at the age of 35 after altering the role of the electric bass.

“It’s been a complicated journey,” says Trujillo, the “Jaco” producer-writer whose day job is bassist in Metallica. “I pretty much adopted this five years ago because it needed a financial commitment or it wouldn’t see the light of day. This film was something I needed to make happen.”

Pastorius’ little-known story — rising from funk, R&B and jazz bands in South Florida to international stardom with Weather Report, Joni Mitchell and his own big band before succumbing to drugs and undiagnosed bipolar disorder — is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s look at the life of one of pop music’s brightest stars in the early 21st century, and Brett Morgen’s film about Nirvana leader Cobain, “Montage of Heck.” All three films rely on home movies and audio tapes, but in the Winehouse and Cobain cases, the stories told in the films are far more intimate than the ones MTV and paparazzi captured when they were alive.

“If you know anything about Amy,” Kapadia says, “it’s she was a singer and she died. Drugs. The interesting thing is that it kind of frees you up. It’s not about the ending, it’s about the journey. … It’s about love, it’s about friends, it’s about family, it’s about self-esteem, it’s about addictive personalities.

“One of the things I liked about her in the beginning is that she was in control, she’s got a guitar. It gave her confidence. And somewhere along the way, people made the decision ‘You’re not concentrating on the audience.’ They take (the guitar) away and she’s just hiding.”

In Cobain’s case, Morgen found what he calls “the meat of the film” in Cobain’s unheard audio, journals and art work. “It revealed a gentler, softer and often times funnier side of Kurt,” he said in an interview during SXSW.

Morgen started work on the Cobain film in 2007, an eight-year process from start to its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Music docs tend to be lengthy processes, usually held up by rights issues or a lack of funding. Berg, too, commenced work on the Joplin film in 2007; Colin Hanks started shooting his Tower Records story “All Things Must Pass” in 2008; and Denny Tedesco’s chronicle of West Coast session musicians of the 1960s and ‘70s, “The Wrecking Crew,” opened this summer 19 years after the first interviews were shot.

In each case, crowd-funding helped get each film to the finish line: “Wrecking Crew” picked up $313,000 Kickstarter capital; “Jaco” hit 161% of its goal on Pledgemusic; and “All Things Must Pass” registered $92,000 on Kickstarter.

“You better make sure you know there’s a niche audience for your film,” says Edwin Stepp, whose Django Prods. broke into the music doc world four years ago with “Vinylmania” and has a Howlin’ Wolf film on deck.

“While the technology and ability to reach niche audiences has exploded, there is more competition for funds. I’m bullish on being able to get every film I have in development made, but I’m not very optimistic about producing a profit beyond the production costs.”

This year’s profit leader is “Amy,” released by A24, with an $8.35 million B.O. gross. By contrast, “Twenty Feet” pulled in $4.9 million — its peak screen count was 147 — while “Sugar Man” earned $3.7 million.
“The Wrecking Crew pulled in $802,000 during its 19 weeks in theaters; “Montage of Heck” grossed $140,208 at three locations on April 24-26 before its May 4 debut on HBO was watched by 525,000 viewers. Gravitas Ventures’ “All Things Must Pass” earned a mere $20,000 in its opening weekend (Oct. 16-18) on two screens in New York and Los Angeles.

On TV, the first night of the two-part “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” attracted 963,000 viewers to HBO, a 73% spike over average viewership levels, while night two, up against the NCAA championship, pulled in 569,000, according to Nielsen. Netflix does not release viewership numbers.

Beyond their theatrical runs, which pump up home-video awareness, docs can often stoke sales of new music releases. Showtime’s premiere of Morgan Neville’s Keith Richards doc coincided with the rolling out of the Rolling Stones guitarist’s solo album “Crosseyed Heart,” which sold 33,000 albums in its first week of release, according to Nielsen Music.

Jimi Hendrix’s “Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival,” timed for release with Showtime’s debut airings of “Electric Church” in early September, sold 7,000 copies in its first week. RCA’s Simone tribute album has sold 13,000 copies and 26,000 individual tracks; its music has been streamed on demand 3.66 million times.

On the catalog side, Nirvana’s landmark “Nevermind” has sold 54,000 copies since the Cobain documentary’s premiere on HBO; Winehouse’s “Back in Black” has moved 50,000 units since the June 28 release of “Amy.”
Universal will target Nirvana fans this holiday season with multi-format releases of “Montage of Heck” on Nov. 13 along with a soundtrack, “Kurt Cobain — Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings.” Meanwhile, Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings released an expanded version of the Showtime film “Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church” on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 30.

“Jaco’s” release on VOD and homevideo on Nov. 27 is in conjunction with Record Store Day, when Sony/Legacy will release “Jaco: Original Soundtrack.”

Over the past four months, Pastorius’ legacy has been celebrated at concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, Monterey Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz festival and the Asbury Park Music in Film Festival.

And at its Los Angeles premiere Nov. 22 at the Ace Hotel, Trujillo and his rock collective Mass Mental will perform along with Hipster Assassins, which features Pastorius’ son Felix on bass.

“The goal for me is bringing awareness to Jaco and, where it calls for it, a celebration,” says Trujillo, who considers Pastorius his greatest influence. “So far, mission accomplished.”

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