Nothing takes you back to time and a place like the music of a particular era. That’s one big reason why music documentaries are flourishing at a time of enormous demand for high-end docu productions.
This year’s five Grammy Award nominees for best music film reflect the appetite for stories about renowned and beloved musical figures, from Whitney Houston to Itzhak Perlman to Elvis Presley to Quincy Jones. Music docus have a natural commercial appeal and a built-in core target audience, which provides a foundation for marketing efforts to spur word-of-mouth about a title.
“What’s beautiful about doing a music documentary is that it immediately transcends the borders of the docu-loving audience and the community of an artist’s fans,” said Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s head of documentary programming. “They’re emotional. There’s a nostalgia factor to them. At their best they give you new perspective on a period and on a band. The best thing you walk away from with a good doc is to hear the music in a different way.”
Showtime has stepped up its documentary slate in a big way during the past few years, and high-profile music subjects — notably the Eagles and David Bowie — have been a big focus. Showtime was the U.S. home of one of this year’s music film Grammy nominees, “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars,” directed by Lili Fini Zanuck. Vying against “12 Bars” in the category are: Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney,” Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones’ “Quincy,” Alison Chernick’s “Itzhak” and Eugene Jarecki’s “The King.”
Starting Monday, Showtime is promoting a weeklong string of docus with a beat that take aim at more esoteric figures including notorious punk rocker GG Allin, British guitar legend Jeff Beck, Korn’s Brian Welch and punk veterans Agnostic Front.
The expansion of the documentary form has opened the aperture of storytelling in intriguing ways, filmmakers say.
“Documentary filmmaking has gotten so good,” says Jones, a multi-hyphenate who spearheaded the Netflix documentary on her legendary father, producer-composer- entrepreneur Quincy Jones. “It always has been my favorite form of storytelling. It is such a unique mix of journalism, storytelling and filmmaking, and creating a point of view on a subject matter.”
Jones and Hicks shot some 800 hours of footage around the world for “Quincy,” which bowed Sept. 21 on the global streaming platform. That was only possible because digital cameras have become so small, portable and powerful, Hicks says.
“Now you can film for years and years and get to know a subject in much more depth,” Hicks says. “If you’ve got the time and patience, you can embed with these legends.”
Zanuck also had a deep personal connection to her subject. She became close friends with Clapton while working with him on the soundtrack to her 1991 film “Rush.” That period that coincided with the tragic death of Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor in March 1991. “Tears in Heaven,” Clapton’s poignant tribute song, was featured in the film.
The hardest thing about assembling “12 Bars” was finding the right people to offer deep insights into Clapton’s character and life experiences. The movie tells the no-holds-barred story of Clapton’s highs and lows, notably his history of drug addiction, his topsy-turvy personal relationships and his racist outburst while performing stage in England in 1976.
“The movie wouldn’t be the movie that it is without Eric having an incredible amount of trust in me,” Zanuck says.
Clapton approached her about doing a deep-dive on his life as he began to field offers from other documentarians. He went out of his way to help during the research and never asked for changes after the film was done. “I was not stifled in any way,” she says.
Zanuck came away from her first feature-length docu with some advice for aspiring music docu-makers. “You have to have a subject matter that is really important to you,” Zanuck says. “It’s an immersion unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”
With “The King,” Jarecki set out to make a movie reflecting the evolution of the American Dream through the prism of the rise and fall of Elvis. He was already working on the project when Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce came up for auction. Jarecki convinced the film’s financiers to let him buy the car (“for a few hundred thousand dollars,” he says) to help shape the movie. (It was later sold to the owners of Atlantic City’s new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.)
“The King” follows the luxury ride on a trek across America, with stops along the way to allow numerous musicians — some well-known, some not — to reflect on Presley’s influence and legacy 40 years after his death in 1977. Jarecki sees the Rolls as a symbol of Presley’s misguided focus in his later years on getting rich through mediocre Hollywood movies and touring stage shows rather than spending time on his artistic craft.
“I thought Elvis’ path was America’s path,” Jarecki says. “His Rolls reps Elvis at his most lost. I thought it was such a good metaphor for America itself.”
“The King” had a theatrical run earlier this year and is set to bow Jan. 28 on PBS’ “Independent Lens” docu showcase. Jarecki says he sees the movie as a “culmination of my career to this point as a concerned citizen and commentator on the American dream.”
Like Zanuck, Jarecki at times was humbled by the responsibility he felt toward the artists featured in the film, a list that includes Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Lana Del Rey, Chuck D and John Hiatt. “The King” marks Jarecki’s first stab at a music-focused film.
“Music can raise the profile of (a movie) and it also raises the expectations,” Jarecki says. “If you fall short you may rue the day you started out. I knew I had my work cut out for me.”
The race for best music film is hardly the most high-profile competition in the annual Grammy Awards derby, but the 2019 nominees aren’t complaining. Some were genuinely shocked when news of their nomination surfaced on Friday morning.
“It’s the nicest kind of surprise,” Zanuck says.
(Pictured: “The King,” “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars” and “Quincy”)