This story originally appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Film festivals have been enamored of music documentaries for years, well aware of the drawing power and audience appeal that comes from putting popular artists on the big screen. But in recent years, the Academy has gotten into the act, too, giving two of its last three Best Documentary Feature Oscars to music-themed docs: Searching for Sugar Man in 2012 and 20 Feet From Stardom the following year.
This year’s roster of Oscar contenders is alive with the sound of music. There are three separate films that detail the lives of troubled rockers who all died at the age of 27: Asif Kapadia’s Amy, about Amy Winehouse; Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” about the Nirvana frontman; and Amy Berg‘s “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” about Janis Joplin. Then there’s Liz Garbus’ rich but cautionary tale of Nina Simone, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which took the opening-night, music-doc slot at the Sundance Film Festival that had gone to “Sugar Man” and “20 Feet” the previous two years.
Other music-related films include “Lambert and Stamp,” a chronicle of the Who and its managers that often buries its nonstop music beneath virtuoso talkers like Pete Townshend and Chris Stamp; Colin Hanks‘ “All Things Must Pass,” the story of the rise and fall of the Tower Records chain told mostly through a succession of talking heads; and “In My Father’s House,” about the relationship between rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith and his father.
Films about international music include “Song of Lahore” (Pakistan), “My Voice,” “My Life” (Hong Kong), “Song From the Forest” (the African jungle) and “Don’t Think I’m Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“Music is an amazing tool to have as a filmmaker,” said Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for “20 Feet From Stardom.” “It brings with it emotion and familiarity and maybe nostalgia. But I also think the best music docs use music as a Trojan horse. Music is a great way to bring in an audience–but the best music documentaries work because they’re about things far beyond music: life or politics or gender or race.”
The two music docs with the highest profiles, courtesy of big film-festival launches in the first part of the year, both deal with artists who died young. “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which premiered to a raucous reception at Sundance, is structured around pages from Cobain’s childhood notebooks, audio collages he made and videos that gave a glimpse inside the mind of a troubled but endlessly creative artist. “The art,” said Morgen, “is leading the narrative.”
When he started wading through 4,000 journal pages and 200 hours of audio tape, the director added, “I knew how I would build the story, but I didn’t know what the story was.” Though it was authorized by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and made with the cooperation of his mother and sister and as well as input from his daughter, Frances, the film doesn’t shy away from Cobain’s darkest days, including sobering footage of the singer nodding out on heroin while cutting his infant daughter’s hair.
“Frances told me, ‘Keep it real, and keep it honest,’” Morgen said. “She didn’t want to do another retelling of the myth of St. Kurt.”
Four months after “Montage of Heck” premiered, Kapadia’s “Amy” debuted in Cannes to rave reviews. The disturbing doc about British singer Amy Winehouse begins with home movies of a teenage Winehouse, draws connections between her songs and her life and lets no one off the hook as she careens toward a drug- and alcohol-related death.
“I lived in Camden, and her story was happening half a mile from my door,” Kapadia said. “I was so aware of her being messed up onstage or outside a pub, and always being on the news or in newspapers–it was just one bad thing after another. I remember thinking, ‘Why are you being seen onstage in that state? Why is no one stopping this?’ And those questions were part of what I wanted to answer when I made this film.”
A fierce and powerful young woman is also at the center of “Janis: Little Girl Blue.” The Janis Joplin estate approached Berg in 2008 about making a film about the Texas-born blues, soul and rock singer who died of a drug overdose in 1971. With singer Cat Power reading the letters Joplin wrote to her family as she tried to cope with sudden success, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” mixes intimate glimpses of a protean talent with raw concert footage; unlike “Amy,” it doesn’t dwell on its subject’s demise.
“Yes, she had a tragic ending, but she really lived her life to the fullest every day,” Berg said. “She was conflicted about the same things that people get conflicted about when they leave their family back home, and when their star is rising faster than they can keep up with it. She was trying to find balance in her life, and her career was just taking her everywhere else.”
As Berg was working on the film, her friend Liz Garbus was putting together “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” a doc about the gifted but troubled jazz singer and political activist Nina Simone. The film chronicles Simone’s revelatory music, a political passion that was born out of the civil rights movement but grew angrier and more violent, and a life-long struggle with mental illness. It also forced Garbus to find a way to get close to a woman who had often kept people at arm’s length during her life.
“Nina was a nomad, she had a long life, she lived all over the world and she burned bridges left and right,” Garbus said. “But for a long time starting in the late ’70s, Nina wanted to make a book about her life. She worked with a series of co-authors, then left them behind because she didn’t feel properly understood. But we were able to track them down and get a lot of audio tapes of her talking about her life.”
The narrative spine of the film, she said, came in the music, in songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam” and a haunting version of Janis Ian’s “Stars” that Simone sang late in her life. “At some point I started thinking of the film as a musical, from an editing standpoint,” she said. “The songs could be used to provide narrative momentum and to illuminate chapters in her life–and that was a crucial discovery.”
Amidst all the music docs about tortured artists, “Song of Lahore” stands out for its sheer joy. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s film tells the story of a group of Pakistani musicians who come from a town in which generations had performed traditional music. But they had to go underground in the 1980s when Sharia was imposed–and by the time restrictions loosened, Pakistani youth were more interested in pop music than in the culture of their country.
“I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of a very vibrant culture where music was played on street corners and people danced,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “It was a time that I never experienced. And it made me angry that this rich heritage in music and culture was being lost.”
She began to follow a group of traditional musicians who’d taken to recording American jazz standards as a way to attract an international audience–a gambit that worked when their recording of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” aired on the BBC and got them an invitation to perform with Wynton Marsalis’ group on the Jazz at Lincoln Center program. “It was every documentary filmmaker’s dream come true,” said the director. “You don’t know where your film is going to go, and it ends up onstage at Lincoln Center.”
All of those films will be struggling for a spot on the 15-film Oscar shortlist–and observers of the category know that the biggest awards hurdle for pop-culture docs can often be making it onto that list. Still, even if they don’t all wind up advancing, their filmmakers can take solace in the special resonance these films often have for audiences.
“I find that the special thing about music docs is that they have a gift that they give you for many years after,” Garbus said. “After you see the film, you go back to the catalog and you can have this very deep experience with the music. The film helps you see the human experience, maybe the political experience, and it lets you understand the context of the music and its time. And that’s something you’ll always have when you listen to these artists.”