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.
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.
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.