Dig! documentary

In a perfect world, all albums would be self-contained universes. A good album can communicate complex emotions and ideas with the aid of just a little context; a great album can communicate beautiful ambiguities with none. All you have to do is listen closely.

Even great albums and great musicians can benefit from context, though. Background information can bring new depth and color to a well-loved song. That’s why behind-the-scenes stories about musicians (and Behind The Music episodes) have historically proven so popular: We crave knowledge that might help us to know how and why the music came into being.

Any good music documentary offers loads of context. (I’ll spare everyone the word ’rockumentary,’ and I pray that you all afford each other the same courtesy.) A music doc should explain where the musician or musicians in question came from. It should give you a sense of the thought process and emotions behind their art. It should show you how its subject behaves offstage. Not that it should neglect the onstage stuff, mind; a music doc worth its salt will also include plenty of quality live footage.

A great music documentary does more than offer context. The best music docs are great movies first and fanboy goodie bags second. They tell compelling stories that appeal to viewers outside of their subjects’ existing fanbase. They don’t have to sell you on the music, but they should speak to your spirit, or at least make you laugh really hard.

I’m not a fan of all of the musicians and bands documented in these 10 films, but each one touched me somehow. Several of them saddened me and filled me with empathy for their subjects. (Indie rock is full of painful stories.) Some of them cracked me up endlessly. A few of them even made me feel good about the world — no mean feat for a true story.

Here they are: the 10 best indie rock documentaries. Let’s hear some alternate cuts in the comments!

10. Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story

When Morphine frontman Mark Sandman collapsed and died onstage in 1999, he left behind few people who truly knew him. Sandman played against type for a musician — he was a genuinely private person. He famously refused to cooperate with interviewers, and he kept much of his personal history secret, even from his bandmates.

Cure For Pain Directors Robert Bralver and David Ferino thus face a challenge: telling the story that the man himself refused to tell himself. The first third of the film is devoted to establishing Sandman’s history in Morphine and his pre-Morphine outfit Treat Her Right. Once it has sketched out his musical legacy, the film turns to his personal history. This is where things get interesting: It turns out Sandman lost two younger brothers while growing up, and experienced some considerable hardship during his globe-trotting youth. Cure For Pain makes the case that these experiences shaped Sandman’s personality for the duration of his life.

Most of the Sandman story as it’s told here is available to read online, but Cure For Pain doesn’t sell itself as an exposé. Rather, its value comes in the form of sentiment — hearing Sandman’s tale from the people who love him gives a better sense of this gifted, enigmatic man’s essence than any Wikipedia article could.

9. 1991: The Year That Punk Broke

The Year That Punk Broke gets a lot of lofty comparisons. I’ve seen it stacked up against everything from Woodstock to The Last Waltz to Heavy Metal Parking Lot — not bad for a flick that was cobbled together from just nine hours of Super 8 footage.

Like those movies, The Year That Punk Broke captures an essential moment in rock history. It follows Sonic Youth through the European festival circuit during the film’s titular summer. The band pals around with such luminaries as Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland, and some group called Nirvana. Though filmmaker Dave Markey sticks largely to his intended subjects in Sonic Youth, it’s Nirvana’s proto-fame footage that really electrifies — you can feel the wave that would permanently mingle mainstream and independent rock start to crest.

The Year That Punk Broke also casts a harsh light on the era’s rock royalty. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are so awash in self-satisfied cool that they’re grating to watch; J Mascis mumbles like a shut-in; Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love run amok like little kids on a sugar high. The unflattering backstage footage lends the film a note of sadness that historical context only sharpens. Thurston and Kim have split. Courtney is a laughingstock. Kurt, of course, is dead. So too is the murdered roadie Joe Cole, to whom the film is dedicated.

8. You’re Gonna Miss Me

Roky Erickson might not qualify as part of the indie rock pantheon. He’s a ’60s figure; he and his bandmates in the 13th Floor Elevators literally invented psychedelic rock. Still, Erickson’s music continues to influence indie rock today, and this film is too good to leave off this list.

Erickson’s musical career exists mostly as background for You’re Gonna Miss Me. The film’s narrative begins in 1999; Erickson had suffered declining mental health for two decades and was no longer playing music. He’s a mess at the film’s outset — his tiny house is crammed with electronic noisemakers, his mind is vacant, and his body is a foul wreck.

Since Erickson can barely string together a sentence, his mother and four brothers serve as the film’s cast. They’re certainly colorful enough for the job, and You’re Gonna Miss Me plays out as a painful family drama. Evelyn Erickson is nearly as eccentric as her famous son, and each of his brothers displays considerable weirdness. The struggle between Evelyn and her son Sumner over the disposition of Roky’s medical care serves as the film’s primary conflict. Both sides genuinely care for Roky, but neither offers a particularly credible path to Roky’s recovery.

You’re Gonna Miss Me ends on an uncertain note; Roky’s condition has improved, but filmmaker Keven McAlester implies that he’s still quite ill. The DVD’s special features includes a happy postscript, though: In 2007, Roky Erickson performed live for the first time in decades, and has since returned to recording.

7. Instrument

Many bands would like to be remembered as ideologies made flesh. Fugazi is among the few who deserve to be — their obsession with independence and self-management allowed them to toe their own rhetorical line for their entire existence.

Instrument is characteristic of Fugazi’s GOP-level message discipline. Filmmaker Jem Cohen grew up with Fugazi mastermind Ian MacKaye, and the band participated actively in Instrument’s decade-long production process. Most of Fugazi’s myth-making moments can be found here — Guy Picciotto cramming himself through a basketball hoop in Philly, Ian’s legendary “ice cream-eating motherfucker” rant, the Lorton Correctional Facility show, and quite a few more. The band takes the opportunity to expound at length upon their anti-corporate ideology, which continues to echo through the indie music world.

Some critics have knocked Instrument for its length (about two hours) and lack of clear narrative structure. These criticisms make sense, but the underlying issues jibe with Fugazi’s character. The band used impressionistic means to express complex ideas. Instrument follows suit.

6. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco

The more popular the band, the longer the album gestation period can get. I’ve often wondered why it takes some big-budget bands months, or even years, to move a record from studio to store. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart satisfies my curiosity. It follows Wilco through the famously convoluted nascence of their 2002 opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The first half of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart covers Wilco’s time in the studio. Anyone who has ever recorded music knows that the tracking process is a crucible. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s ambitions heighten the strain on the band, which nearly cracks under the pressure. While the drama heightens, Wilco fanboys can devour a host of nerdy recording details: drum tone discussions and alternate takes abound.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart morphs into a David vs. Goliath tale during its second half. The band’s (nefarious) Warner-owned label Reprise rejects YHF as too inaccessible to sell. Wilco gets the last laugh, of course: After fleeing their deal with Reprise, the band sells the album back to a different Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch. As one member puts it, “Warner liked the album so much that they paid for it twice.” It’s incredibly satisfying to watch underdog musicians fleece a major label for once, instead of the reverse. Director Sam Jones makes Wilco look plenty cool in the process, dotting the film with lots of well-shot live footage.

5. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker boasts one of the weirdest career arcs in music history. Born Scott Engel, Walker broke into music as a teen heartthrob in the late ’50s. He later joined the huge-in-England ’60s boy band the Walker Brothers. (In one notable moment, we see a live poster for a Walker Brothers concert that includes Jimi Hendrix as an opening act.) When the Walker Brothers dissolved, Scott began releasing solo albums in the ’70s pop-crooner style.

After securing an incredibly favorable record contract in the late ’70s, Walker virtually disappeared. His next three albums, each produced a decade after the last, twisted and parodied his earlier work with increasing glee. Only Walker’s unmistakable baritone ties the nightmare soundscapes of his recent material to his early career.

30 Century Man Director Stephen Kijak gains remarkable access to the notoriously reclusive Walker, who has not played a live show since the ’70s. The film bears witness to the recording sessions for 2006′s The Drift, which reveal just how strange Walker’s music has become — session musicians slam cinderblocks into wooden boxes and punch uncooked pork ribs under his direction.

30 Century Man’s most notable achievement is the coherent narrative it assembles out of Walker’s convoluted story — his many strange decisions register as natural outgrowths of his personality. It sells his work effectively, too. 30 Century Man offers supportive testimonials from such music luminaries as Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Julian Cope (by letter only, of course), and David Bowie, who served as the film’s executive producer.

4. The Devil And Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston is a creative Renaissance man, best known for his lo-fi singer-songwriter music and cartoony art. Johnston achieved cult notoriety in the Austin music scene of the 1980s, and briefly enjoyed semi-mainstream success when rock tastemakers cottoned to his music. Johnston also suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; his struggles with his illness occupy most of this film.

The Devil And Daniel Johnston’s many interviewees constantly reiterate their belief that Johnston is a genius, which is deeply debatable. Nonetheless, his story is entrancing. The film skewers the romantic tortured-genius archetype by documenting the very un-romantic havoc that Johnston wreaks on himself and those around him. (One memorable scene involves Sonic Youth frantically searching the streets of New York City for Johnston, who has run off after an unsuccessful performance.) At the same time, it treats the man and his work with great tenderness; director Jeff Feuerzeig is clearly a Johnston believer.

At its core, The Devil And Daniel Johnston is about the therapeutic power of art. Johnston’s muse gives purpose to a life that might otherwise involve little but suffering. It’s heart-wrenching to behold Johnston’s devotion to his music — a number of live sequences show him crying as he performs. The film tells its story largely through footage and audio clips from Johnston’s immense library of home recordings. The technique makes for a dreamlike, nostalgic narrative that befits the man it follows.

3. Dig!

Indie rock history doesn’t involve many serious inter-musician feuds — that’s hip-hop’s territory. But even in this kinder and gentler world, tempers and egos can get out of control. Dig! documents a particularly insane rivalry: the Dandy Warhols vs. the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Director Ondi Timoner structures Dig! around the diverging fortunes of the two bands over the course of seven years beginning in the mid-’90s. At the film’s opening, the two acts are peers and friends. As the film progresses, the Dandy Warhols enjoy massive European popularity and release a string of major-label albums. Meanwhile, the Brian Jonestown Massacre botch countless opportunities and break up several times.

The accomplishment gap between the two bands turns their relationship toxic, with hilarious results. Dig! gleefully confirms what most of us already suspected: Musicians are unbelievable assholes. Despite the fact that he narrates the film, the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor comes off as a smarmy narcissist (“I sneeze and hits come out!”) who mercilessly exploits his friends in TBJM. His bandmates don’t look much better.

Dig!’s real star, though, is TBJM frontman Anton Newcombe. The film presents Newcombe as a cartoonish caricature of every negative stereotype about rock musicians — he’s a fey, megalomaniacal, occasionally violent drug addict with just enough charm to attract followers. I won’t recount his antics here — they’d lose a lot in the retelling. Suffice it to say that his performance alone is worth the price of admission.

2. Meeting People Is Easy

It’s hard for normal people to swallow the idea that rock stardom is a burden. In the popular imagination, the life of a successful touring musician consists of cathartic concerts, backstage debauchery, and hangovers slept off in tour bus bunks, ad infinitum.

Meeting People Is Easy shows how harsh the spotlight can be. It follows Radiohead, that most Eeyore-ish of rock bands, through their OK Computer tour and press cycle during 1997 and 1998. The film focuses as much on the drudgery in the wings as on flashy live footage. Radiohead’s members cope with exhausting travel, taxing video shoots, and endlessly repetitive promotional duties. If partying happened on this tour, the filmmakers missed virtually all of it. By the movie’s end, the band’s obligations have left the musicians drawn and irritable. Thom Yorke performs “Creep,” which the band notoriously hates, with visible contempt for his audience; Colin Greenwood gives rote answers to interview questions; the musicians bickers openly with each other. Negativity is part of Radiohead’s spirit, but this window into their dreary day-to-day renders that negativity more sympathetic.

At first, Meeting People Is Easy’s presentation seems amateurish — it’s full of disorienting crossfades, cluttered audio, and jarring glitches. It quickly becomes clear that, like all things for Radiohead, the sensory confusion is deliberate. The constant visual and aural chatter mirrors the band’s mental state: exhausted, frustrated, and buzzing like a fridge.

1. We Jam Econo

Listening to Minutemen is always a bittersweet experience. Their 1980-1985 run is one of the most creatively fecund periods in punk rock history; the band produced four full-lengths and seven EPs of genre-shattering awesomeness over just five years. Minutemen were on the verge of breakout success (including a collaboration with R.E.M.!) when guitarist D. Boon died in a van accident. He was 27.

We Jam Econo does what any whole-career band documentary should: It details virtually every aspect of Minutemen and their music. Rarely do such films feel so complete and extensive. Each of the band’s three members spends considerable time in the spotlight, and most of their releases get screen time via live footage or studio tracks. Minutemen were an unusually humble and personable group of musicians, and We Jam Econo illustrates their amusing rapport. Their idiosyncratic lingo (’econo,’ ’mersh,’ ’spiel’) makes frequent appearances.

We Jam Econo places special emphasis on Boon’s friendship with bassist Mike Watt. The two men had a brotherly rapport more intense than that between many actual brothers. (In one interview, Keith Morris speculates that all three Minutemen were born in the same hospital at the same time.) It hurts to watch Watt recount stories about his lost friend; he’s visibly pained by Boon’s absence, even 20 years after his death. We Jam Econo serves as a tribute to the big man’s oversized legacy.

Comments (92)
  1. You forgot “The Runaways”.

  2. White Stripes under Great White Northern Lights?

  3. Gotta love that indie rocker Scott Walker.

  4. the fearless freaks?

  5. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  6. “Shut Up and Play the Hits”?

  7. To omit “Who Is..Harry Nilsson?” negates the entire list

  8. You forgot the Magnetic Fields, “Strange Powers.” Nice list though!

    If you haven’t seen Strange Powers, it’s a must! It documents their whole career and gives you an inside look at one of the best brilliant songwriters of our time.

  9. Woah woah woah, what about The Band That Would Be King?

  10. Shut and Play the Hits is definitely as good or better than some of these. No Distance Left to Run is also pretty good.

  11. Meeting People Is Easy shockingly doesn’t include “Let Down”.

  12. Wesley Willis’s Joy Rides yeah?

  13. Birdman’s MTV Cribs episode??

    duh, hello.

    • if anyone can find, I will bang for free, or not.

      there will be bangs.

      • sorry tilla, but i’m still waiting on sunday’s blowjob/meth-for-an-upvote offer to come through. i try to accept only one act of bizarre internet prostitution at a time… any more and i tend to think i’ve gotten too weird with it.

        • there’s nothing wrong with planning a head (pun intended)

          • So there’s this couple who try for years to have a baby. One day, miraculously, the wife tells her husband that she’s pregnant. Joyously, they celebrate. Nine months later, there child is born as only a head. No arms. No body. No torso. Just a head. But they tried for so long to have a child that they don’t care. They take their head home and love it the same as any parent would love their child. They roll it back and forth and play catch with it, all the things parents normally do with their children. The head grows up, starts school, and even though it’s constantly made fun of, it starts to make friends. For the heads tenth birthday the parents decide to throw it a huge party! All of it’s family and friends are invited and everyone is having a great time. Then, when it’s time to sing happy birthday and blow out the candles on the cake, they set the head on the edge of the table and say, “Make a wish!”

            POOF!!

            Gasps, shrieks and inhales of breath all around the room.

            Like magic the head suddenly has arms! And legs! And a torso! It jumps up and looks at itself in wild-eyed amazement. It’s so happy that it screams and runs outside to the street to play like a real kid for the first time…. where it promptly gets hit by a car and dies.

            The moral of this story; quit while you’re a head.

          • this here isn’t a home run,

            its a grand-mudddddddddddafucking slam.

  14. The Power of Salad

  15. A Good Band is Easy to Kill.

  16. This is Spinal Tap?? Seriously, people. Had a better grip on reality than Dig! It’s none more black!

  17. Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. Because who doesn’t need to see GG smear himself with feces and jump around like a berserker.

  18. Humble suggestion:

    When splitsider does a similar type feature on comedy documentaries, they end with a line that says “Can I stream it on Netflix?” with a link to the movie on Netflix if applicable.

    Just a thought on increasing your workload to save myself 5 seconds of googling!

    • Perhaps it was a little unclear, but 6 (I think) of the video streams above will actually stream the whole movie in question! I believe that I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and Cure For Pain are the only two that aren’t accessible on Netflix/Youtube/Vimeo.

  19. You left off Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, which has a 100% positive Rotten Tomatoes score.
    But sometimes I forget that Indie Rock somehow always equals Caucasian musicians.

    • I’m a huge Fishbone fan and believe 100% that more people should see Everyday Sunshine as soon as possible. However, they were not an “indie” band until well into the second half of their very long career. Everything they did from the beginning until sometime around 2000 was backed by huge record labels with vast amounts of capital. That takes nothing away from the brilliance and originality of Fishbone, it’s just a fact.

      • Wilco didn’t go indie until thier 8th album.
        Radiohead didn’t go indie until In Rainbows and this movie was put out by EMI.
        Scott Walker has never been on an indie label.
        Morphine hasn’t been on an indie after the first album which was re-released major.

        Exceptions are made for skinny caucasian guitar bands. Every time.

  20. Lack of Kill Your Idols.

  21. I’m kind of surprised that anyone thinks Meeting People Is Easy looks amateurish (even if you did qualify that by saying it’s only until you get used to the style). I think it’s one of the most beautifully-shot documentaries I’ve ever seen, from start to finish.

    I’m very glad to see it included on the list though. I’ve noticed that a lot of people tend to dislike it simply because it isn’t a typical rock documentary – the actual performances of the music decidedly take a backseat to the film’s message, and the live concert footage that is there obviously isn’t selected simply for its aural awesomeness. But I think for anyone who can accept the fact that it was never meant to be about Radiohead rocking out, it’s a really poignant and insightful film. I think my favorite parts of it are the scenes that show the making of the “No Surprises” video (which was directed by the same filmmaker as Meeting People Is Easy). The film contains plenty of uncomfortable moments, but the clips of a bunch of sarcastic journalists making fun of the final result, contrasted with scenes of Thom Yorke repeatedly trying (and repeatedly failing) to hold his breath underwater as long as the director wanted him to, are some of the most effective. Those three minutes sum up the entire point of the film in a nutshell: http://youtu.be/2XAJxQrUfC0

  22. I believe you may have left something (I consider) important off your list.

    • Also thank you for putting Econo at #1. Watt is such a great storyteller and the Minutemen continue to be an inspiring example of true love for both music and your audience.

    • Also, thank you for putting We Jam Econo at #1. Watt is a great storyteller and The Minutemen continue to be an inspiring example of love for both music and your audience.

  23. No criticism of this list intended, but may I recommend “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns?”

  24. Well, at least “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” made this list

  25. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • “I resent that these bands are considered “indie”. It’s lazy journalism at best, and at worst it’s co-opting several generations of music into one for the sake of an article. Second… ‘best of’ lists are stupid. #MyFavoritesAintHere.”

  26. Not really an indie rock film though it is an indie film about rock which I suppose could also be called an indie rock film but “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about the life of California DJ Rodney Bingenheimer is a really cool one.

    • Another good flick that I excluded on the grounds that it isn’t about bands is I Need That Record, which is about independent record stores.

  27. Arthur Russel?

    Jandek?

  28. You might have to update the list depending on how good the LCD Soundsystem flick turns out to be

  29. Control?

    Some great movies here, but maybe we can make the list go to 11?

  30. Better Than Something is a great one.. I don’t know if Jay Reatard qualifies as indie rock but that was one of the better music documentaries I’ve seen recently..can’t wait for Shut Up and Play the Hits

  31. Don Letts’ “Punk: Attitude” is one of the best music docs I’ve seen and I’d say its subject (the birth and early evolution of punk in the US and UK) is as ‘indie’ as Roky Erikson or Scott Walker (or Radiohead). His interviews, storytelling (via structure and editing), and live footage really set the standard for me when it comes to rock docs. Only criticism of the film is the way it breezes through just about everything between early hardcore and Nirvana, but I can’t imagine a better survey of the first stages of punk and alternative music.

  32. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  33. This list is absolute BULLSHIT! DiG is by far the best indie doc of all time!! followed by the year punk broke and the devil and daniel johnston. And how in the hell cold you forget Fearless Freaks and LCD Soundsystems Shut Up and PLay the Hits!!!! WTFFFFFFF!

  34. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  35. I recently saw “The Nomi Song” about Klaus Nomi and found it to be a very interesting look at a much overlooked artist. His music isn’t really the type that is going to get heavy rotation on my ipod, but his connection to everything that is excellent about post-modernism cannot be denied!

  36. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  37. I really enjoy watching the Pavement documentary ‘Slow Century’. It does a great job of documenting the rise of an independent band in the early college radio days.

    Also, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) about They Might Be Giants is very well done and fun to watch.

    I can’t argue that they should be included in this list though, because I haven’t seen more than two of the ones you list.

  38. Seen most of these documentaries but the two that really stuck out for me were the Roky Erickson “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and the Minutemen “We Jam Econo”

    One can only imagine what the Minutemen would sound like now if D.Boon’s life hadn’t ended so abruptly at 27yo. As a longtime fan, it was great to see all the footage I never thought existed.

    As for the Roky Erickson movie, I got turned onto Roky via ANTiSEEN and have to say Roky has the strangest, yet alluring style of songwriting. His story is incredible and after seeing “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, almost anybody would be compelled to feel for the guy.

  39. FWIW the doc Pitchfork did on Modest Mouse’s ‘Lonesome Crowded West’ is definitely worth 45 minutes of your life

  40. I have to suggest Heima. It’s one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Its also probably my favorite documentary, maybe tied with King of Kong.

  41. Not including GBV’s _Watch Me Jumpstart_ is a massive oversight, and should be in the top 5.

    I thought Jandek on Corwood was good, but some of mythos got deflated when he did his first public gig a few months before it came out. it was like if Sasquatch came out of the woods for the red carpet premiere.

    _Such Hawks, Such Hounds_ is a little disjointed (and i could really live without Fatso Jetson having so much screen time), but it’s a really solid documentary.

  42. While there is a definite and obvious 90′s bias to this list and this article, I have to put forth:
    The Decline of Western Civilization

    It’s incredible. The scenes with The Germs are haunting and hilarious, and as ridiculous as they are, they are also incredibly sad.
    Aside form those guys, there is a lot of great insight and history here.
    A MASSIVE oversight.

  43. what about Spinal Tap

  44. Also not really indie rock but I’m going to mention Don Was’s Brian Wilson doc “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” which I would recommend over sugarcoated Beach Boys films like “Endless Harmony” or “American Band” any day. It’s probably the most honest and intimate portrayal of Wilson there has ever been, with great performances and filmed in a gritty black and white that actually fits really well.

  45. WHERE IS “WE FUN : ATLANTA” ?!

  46. Indie or not (I don’t know how to categorize them really?) but ANVIL is a wonderful documentary.

  47. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fantastic film that provides a look at the fascinating mind of one of our generations most unique creative minds. I actually saw Johnston recently in Chicago, and the concert was a painfully enjoyable experience. Johnston’s songs were great, but it was sometimes difficult to watch him struggle with lyrics and chords on stage. Read my full review of the show here: http://www.onrecordmusic.com/punching-daniel-johnston/

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