Whatever you want to say about the intensely over-covered 50th-anniversary tour of the Rolling Stones this year, you've got to admit this much: Between last winter's release of the hitherto-scarce vintage verité doc Charlie Is My Darling and the recent arrival of the career-spanning Crossfire Hurricane, the most cinematically overexposed band in music history is still delivering the goods movie-wise. Together, these documentaries stand tall even at a time when the non-fiction music movie appears to be entering a golden era.
While the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man is the most household familiar of the genre, it's really only one of a conspicuous crop of noteworthy recent music docs: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me; Marley; Beware Mr. Baker; The Last Pogo Jumps Again; George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage; The Ballad of Mott the Hoople; Anvil: The Story of Anvil; and The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Their resurgent vitality might be because digital video equipment provides an immediacy and intimacy that permits closer proximity to musicians than ever before – much in the way handheld 16-mm equipment did during the Don't Look Back/Monterey Pop/Woodstock/Gimme Shelter heyday – or it may be simply because the form has matured. Now that popular music is such an entrenched part of our cultural experience, it is approached with the same sense of analytical curiosity once reserved for politics, ethnography and movies about nature.
But I think it's also because, in the hands of a skilled filmmaker examining a complex musical artist, film can reveal something of the nature of the creative personality no other medium can nearly as effectively: The way that background, personality and environment can converge on inspiration to inform why a musician makes a particular kind of music. To see the bare-bones life in Detroit lived by the musician Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man), to compare the delicately melodious music of Big Star to the fragile chemistry of key band members Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, to watch George Harrison tentatively emerge from the monolithic mythology of the Beatles, to track the ascendancy of Bob Marley from hardscrabble Jamaican roots to unlikely international superstar: These are all means of revealing the artist. And they enrich our musical appreciation through the careful juxtaposition of interviews, archival footage, performance and informed commentary that is particular to the documentary. It may well be that documentary is now the best medium for popular musical understanding.
It's been a gradual process, arguably dating back to the moment when Al Jolson, then America's most popular musical performer, provided the very first burst of synched sound in a movie with The Jazz Singer. But that was before the documentary even had a name, and the symbiotic relationship between popular music and movies had an evolutionary stage or two to go through before cameras first poked their way to the unscripted backstage.
Already the intersection where so much ends and begins in popular music, the crossroads marked by the King of Rock and Roll is also the signpost where the popular music movie meets – or perhaps collides – with the documentary medium.
By the time Elvis exploded, the new portable moviemaking technologies were freshly up and running, and it's no coincidence that so much of the new mobile movie-making energy is drawn to the music Presley delivered to just about every North American home with a radio or record player.
Rock and roll was not only music, but a force of seismic generational shift, and it drew the lenses of the Bolex army as inevitably as any earthquake, war or catastrophic eruption would.
The sixties unfolds not only relentlessly on camera, but with its generationally galvanizing musicians on camera, so that the images of Dylan in Don't Look Back, Joplin at Monterey, Hendrix at Woodstock and the Stones at Altamont are as historically iconographic as footage of the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and the horrors of '68. Music is as much seen as it is heard and it's impossible to imagine it having nearly the same world-shaking impact without the cinematic accompaniment.
It seemed tamed for a while. Especially through the seventies and especially during the MTV eighties, when the most common form of musical moving image was the hermetically sealed, musically contained rock video, a reduction of music and image to a kind of televisual jukebox. Significantly, the most memorable rock movie of the day was 1984's This Is Spinal Tap, a film which borrowed classic rock verité documentary form in the service of satirical fiction. Loops were closing.
But then, with the rise of digital technology after the millennium, the musical documentary also resurfaced, not only in greater numbers, but demonstrating unprecedented vitality, intelligence and strength. Significantly, it comes back with fans operating the cameras as frequently as professionals, which only bodes well for the continued making of fascinating music movies. In contemporary pop culture, there's no force more unstoppable than an amateur with a camera.