The Criticwire Survey: Best Rock Docs

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by Matt Singer
March 4, 2013 10:06 AM
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"Metallica: Some Kind of Monster."

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:

Q: In honor of "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey," what's the greatest rock documentary of all time?

The critics' answers:

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

"'Dig!' is the best rock and roll documentary of all time. Filmmaker Ondi Timoner spent seven years with two bands, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the way they contrast each other is fascinating."

Stephen WhittyThe Star-Ledger:

"'Stop Making Sense' is probably the most carefully planned, philosophically thought-through rock docs. But I still love the Maysles' 'Gimme Shelter' for its troubling evocation of anarchy, violence, lust, joy, impulsiveness, and unintended consequences (which is probably closer to the real emotional core of rock than anything else). Exhilarating and depressing."

James WallaceCentralTrack.com:

"Upon seeing 'Sound City,' it made me feel like a rock wizard riding a unicorn throwing lighting bolts. It may only be a month old but for me personally, it earned its rightful place as 'greatest rockumentary of all time.' Dave Grohl created a beautiful mix tape of a documentary about the evolution of the music industry and what it is to be a true musician, crafting an album as a labor of love versus relying on technology to craft it for you."

Anne-Katrin TitzeEye For Film:

"In honor of Martin Scorsese presenting the First Time Fest John Huston Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema to Darren Aronofsky at the Closing Night Awards Ceremony on this Monday, March 4th and since the question asked is clearly not greatest rock concert film, Scorsese's first rock documentary, the theatrical 'The Last Waltz' is the one. He transcended the genre, with a blend of performance and insight rarely captured."

Luke Y. ThompsonTopless Robot:

"I'm thinking 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil,' because it requires zero prior knowledge of the band and their music, it isn't above making fun of them when they deserve it, but it also laughs and cries with them, finally cheering for them. Even if you don't give a rat's ass about the music (and I totally do, by the way) it is, like 'American Movie,' a story about never giving up on a dream even if everybody else thinks you're a bit of a goofball."

Craig SkinnerBleeding Cool/Hey U Guys:

"'Wild Zero.' That's a documentary, right?"

Don SimpsonSmells Like Screen Spirit:

"At first, I was going to choose 'Space Is the Place,' but then I realized that answer wouldn't make much sense since it isn't actually a documentary. So, I think it makes much more sense to choose 'Stop Making Sense.'"

Jason ShawhanNashville Scene/Interface 2037:

"Depeche Mode's '101.'" 

Joshua RothkopfTime Out New York:

"I love so many of them, so it's hard for me to choose the "greatest." But a film I like drawing attention to is '101,' the 1989 documentary by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and David Dawkins. Apart from being a wry record of Depeche Mode's breakthrough tour for 'Music for the Masses,' the doc invites several superfans to follow the band and be on camera. It's arguably the beginning of reality TV. Pennebaker recently told me that '101' is his favorite of all his films, a significant statement from the maker of 'Dont Look Back' and 'Monterey Pop.'"

Matt RorabeckMovie Knight:

"I know this isn't a 'real' documentary, but I'm going to go with it anyway. The best rock documentary ever made is Rob Reiner's 'This is Spinal Tap.' It's an incredibly smart and funny satire on '80s rock bands and rock documentaries. McKean, Guest, and Shearer are golden, and the film even led to Spinal Tap creating 3 full rock albums. It's parody done correctly and with originality, which is something we don't see very often anymore. Now, if I had to pick an actual rock documentary, I'd go with Martin Scorsese's 'No Direction Home,' which tells the incredibly captivating story of Bob Dylan's career."

Andrew RobinsongmanReviews:

"Am I allowed to say 'This is Spinal Tap?' Because that movie is amazing. Also I don't know that much of the great rock documentaries and find them overall trivial. Mostly when I see them I just see a much less effective version of 'Spinal Tap,' so I'm going back there. Thank you Rob Reiner."

Rania RichardsonCommunity Media:

"'Jandek on Corwood.'"

Jordan RaupThe Film Stage:

"I love 'The Last Waltz,' 'Dont Look Back' and 'Gimme Shelter,' but my personal favorite has to be Sigur Ros' 'Heima' -- gorgeous, beautiful and makes for either a perfect introduction to their music or a gem for a long-time fans."

Matt PriggeMetro US:

"I should probably say 'Stop Making Sense' or 'The Decline of Western Civilization' (1 or 2 -- quite different approaches to quite different scenes) or even something like 'Last Days Here.' But I feel like someone should mention 'Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies.' It's slapdash and exploitive and superficial. But that's weirdly appropriate given that it's a doc about GG Allin. In any case, it's the strongest work of Todd Phillips. All downhill from here!"

Pat PaduaDCist/Blogcritics:

"A great undersung performance documentary is 'Let the Good Times Roll' (1973), made from a series of 1970s concerts that were 1950s revivals. The split-screen editing rivals that of 'Woodstock.' Best about the music life? 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil,' which heroically rocks out of heartbreaking dysfunction."

Sean O'ConnellCinema Blend/Fandango:

"Tough call, though I immediately thought of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,' which captures the emotional frailty of virtually every rock band, and also boasts head-slamming Metallica metal. It's revelatory. It's entertaining. It's my pick."

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

"I suppose the answer to this question hinges on one's taste in music, so I'm going to chose the documentary made about one of my favorite bands. 'Barenaked in America' is a 2000 film that follows Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies at the exact moment they hit it big in the United States with their ubiquitous song 'One Week.' The documentary does a lot of things well, including showing the pressures put on a band when massive success abruptly arrives. In this case, that success coincided with keyboard player Kevin Hearn being diagnosed with leukemia and taking a leave of absence he nearly didn't return from. 'Barenaked in America' also perfectly captures the unique performance style that makes Barenaked Ladies such an amazing live band. Concert sequences show them adapting their songs into different musical styles and improvising numbers on the spot, based on what city they're in. (One of the three times I saw them live was in Hershey, PA, and they ad-libbed an entire song about chocolate.) 'Barenaked in America' only received a limited, one-week theatrical run, and it's never been released on DVD, so it can be hard to find. Still, it's worth seeing if you should ever stumble upon it. And did I mention that it was directed by Jason Priestley? Yes, that Jason Priestley."

Vince ManciniFilmdrunk:

"If you want to be heartwarmed, 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil.' If you want to laugh, 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.' 'Some Kind of Monster' is actually a fascinating sociological study, in addition to being hilarious. And if you can't do a Lars Ulrich impression after watching it, you'll never be able to."

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

"I have to go with either of my two personal favorites, which are 'The Last Play at Shea' and 'The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town.'' The former combines two of my favorite things (Billy Joel and the New York Mets), while the latter is a fascinating look at one of Bruce Springsteen's most interesting albums. They may not be the 'greatest' of all time, but they're the best to me in terms of which brought me the most satisfaction while watching them."

Germain Lussier/Film:

"'Shut Up and Sing' by Barbara Kopple. Yes, I know, it's a 'country' doc but what the Dixie Chicks do, stand up to an entire country with their music, is more rock and roll than the entire careers of some rock bands. Whether you agree with their politics or not, this is a phenomenal movie."

Adam LowesHey U Guys:

"A performance-based film like 'The Last Waltz' is a worthy (if obvious) choice, but 2003's 'The Major of Sunset Strip,' the late George Hickenlooper's look at celebrated east coast pop impresario Rodney Bingenheimer is a truly fabulous account of one man's unwavering devotion in sharing his passion with the world. It's a fascinating snapshot of an era where an individual's influence and musical tastes could still have a monumental cultural impact."

Christy LemireAssociated Press/What The Flick?!:

"Such a fun question to ponder because there are so many excellent ones but my first thought was 'Gimme Shelter.' It's amazing how you know what's going to happen -- you know what sort of chaos and violence are in store at Altamont -- yet the Maysles are so skillful in their steady pacing, they place you on edge and full of dread the whole time. Even watching the usually commanding and charismatic Mick Jagger standing there, helpless on stage like a confused child, is just so disturbing. The music is great of course but it's also a great little time capsule of the shifting, darker tone at the end of the '60s."

Joanna LangfieldThe Movie Minute:

"Perhaps I'm tilting my hand to recognize 'Woodstock,' 'Gimme Shelter' and 'The Last Waltz,' but as much as I admire and appreciate the historic and musical importance of these films, I suppose my out and out favorite is 'This Is Spinal Tap.' By sticking to the genre's key elements (especially the reverential self-importance), Rob Reiner and company delivered not just an irreverent surprise, but also an uproarious comedy that's as funny today as it was when it debuted in 1984."

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

"'Dont Look Back,' which shows two artists at their prime."

Adam KuntavanishNext Projection:

"If we're talking concert documentaries, it's the inevitable decision between 'Stop Making Sense' and 'The Last Waltz;' otherwise, Pennebaker's Dylan portrait 'Dont Look Back' is the ultimate in rock docs."

Gary KramerGay City News:

"If 'This Is Spinal Tap' counts as a rock documentary, than I would say it is perhaps the greatest, but for me, 'Stop Making Sense' is the definitive rock documentary -- an intoxicating, spellbinding concert film that showcases the music, and it's all about the music."

Chris KlimekWashington Post:

"I'm assuming that we're separating documentaries from concert films here, which can be a fine line.  To my way of thinking, 'Stop Making Sense' is a concert film, 'Gimme Shelter' is a documentary that contains some concert footage, and 'Rattle & Hum' is two-thirds a good concert film and one-third a ham-fisted documentary. To equivocate a little more with the lame-O disclaimer that I haven't seen 'The Last Waltz' or 'Dont Look Back' in about 15 years. I'm going to say that Sam Jones's 2002 Wilco movie 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' is at the very least the best rockumentary of the 21st century. It started out as just a process documentary about making what became the 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' album and -- because of the inter-band and label intrigue that Jones' camera happened to witness, and Jones's courageous decision to follow the story to its end -- became a larger exploration of the weird position that even a critically praised band with a strong following found themselves in at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, I doubt I would've responded as strongly to it if the period it captures hadn't also happened to be Wilco's creative pinnacle, in my opinion."

Glenn KennyMSN Movies/Some Came Running:

"Not to be a buzzkill but I'm gonna have to go with 'Gimme Shelter' here."

John Keefer51Deep.com:

"My personal favorite is 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.' If you have a person in your life who doesn't love Wilco just show this black and white beauty to them and then laugh while they say things like, 'You know I think 'AM' is really underrated' or ''A Ghost is Born' asks a bit too much of me but the live versions from 'Kicking Television' make more sense.' 'Pssh, I already knew that unbeliever,' you'll say."

Sean HutchinsonLatino Review:

"'Dont Look Back' (no apostrophe, people!) because of D.A. Pennebaker, the 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' scene, and Dylan being such a jerk to Donovan."

Peter HowellToronto Star:

"Greatest rock doc? Tough choice, beginning with definitions. Are we defining 'doc' as strictly concert films like Jonathan Demme's 'Stop Making Sense' (captures Talking Heads at their peak), a hybrid like Martin Scorsese's 'The Last Waltz' (farewell to both The Band and an era) or pure rock 'n' roll cinema such as Robert Frank's officially unreleased 'Cocksucker Blues' (the Rolling Stones at their most swaggering). But in the end, it's an easy choice: The Maysles Brothers' 'Gimme Shelter,' an intended celebration of the Stones' 1969 American tour and free show at Altamont Speedway that turned into a bloody epitaph for the disillusioned 'Woodstock Nation.' Documentary film at its most vital. Just watching the angry Hells Angel biker staring at Mick Jagger in mid-performance still gives me the creeps."

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com/ScreenCrush:

"'Gimme Shelter.' Anyone who says different has problems."

Melissa HansonCinemit:

"The best of recent memory would be 'It Might Get Loud.' Rather than a documentary about one musician or band, it explored the passion of three from different genres/generations of rock. Entertaining and insightful, it was like no other before."

Jason GorberTwitch/Filmfest.ca:

"We've seen a slew of amazing rock docs, from fly-on-the-wall films like 'Dont Look Back' or 'Woodstock,' to Scorsese's mad 'Last Waltz,' through to 'Under African Skies,' a truly remarkable film that I think is significantly under-appreciated. That said, I think some of the most important music documentaries have been the 'Classic Albums' series, often produced by Nick de Grunwald and Martin R. Smith, that have been released on disc by Eagle Rock. While some lack the scope of their theatrical counterparts, at their best they provide a deep look into the creative and technical DNA that make up some of the finest records ever made, and do so often without concern about 'dumbing down' the narrative. When at their best (think 'Graceland,' 'Songs in the Key of Life,' or even 'Face Value') these works do a fabulous job of documenting some of the most important pop and rock recordings of all time. The television versions of the show, edited to an hour length, are fun, but the real meat is often found on the discs, with another 30-90 minutes of so-called 'supplemental material' that usually contains the best bits for any real fan of musical expression. The series proves fascinating even for records I don't particularly care for (be they from Iron Maiden or Jay-Z), the sure sign of the power of the form, and an indication just how well crafted and presented most of the series has been over the last two decades."

Jessica ElgenstiernaThe Velvet Café:

 "Film criticism is always subjective, but even more so in the case of rock documentaries. At least that’s how it works for me. How I feel about a film in this genre is inevitably depending on how much I appreciate the music in it. So I’ll have to rephrase the question a little bit. The rock documentary of all time that I love most is 'Pearl Jam Twenty.' It portrays one of my favorite bands ever in a wonderful way, hitting a perfect balance between concert footage and behind-the-scenes material."

David EhrlichFilm.com:

"Grant Gee's 'Meeting People is Easy,' an abstract, Lynchian doc that follows Radiohead on their endless, dislocating 'OK Computer' tour. Never even *starts* making sense."

Alonso DuraldeTheWrap/What The Flick?!:

"Assuming we're not counting 'This is Spinal Tap,' I have to go with Jonathan Demme's 'Stop Making Sense,' a Talking Heads concert film that communicates the sheer joy of the concert experience for performers and audience alike. Runners-up would be 'Home of the Brave' (if we can count Laurie Anderson as 'rock') and the recent 'Big Easy Express.'"

Edward DouglasComing Soon:

"I love all rock docs so I really can't choose, but I'll give shout-outs to 'End of the Century,' the Ramones doc; 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,' which followed the band during troubling times, and 'Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who.' I was also really impressed by Dave Grohl's recent 'Sound City,' which was edited by one of the co-directors of The Who doc."

Billy DonnellyAin't It Cool News:

"If you're going to make me choose a legitimate rockumentary, it'd have to be 'Woodstock,' which, to me, absolutely captures the essence of the historic music festival and makes you feel as if you were there, minus all the uninhibited sex and mud. It is nearly impossible to get every single band represented, but Michael Wadleigh's doc gives you a taste of the best of what was on-stage and a real glimpse into what was taking place off on those grounds which really weren't all that aware of the greatness that was taking place at the time. However, if you really want the best of the best when it comes to films of this ilk, 'This is Spinal Tap' is second to none. Not real, you say? Don't care. It doesn't matter. Rob Reiner's mockumentary absolutely satirizes the self-importance of rock and rock musicians who behaved badly and acted ridiculously, all in the name of music. This is your typical rockumentary turned up to 11, thanks to Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, making it that much better than the others which take themselves way too seriously and only go up to 10."

Steve DollarWall Street Journal/GreenCine Daily:

"'Dont Look Back'... the first and still the best."

John DeCarliFilmCapsule:

"There seems to always a bit of confusion between 'rock documentaries' and 'concert films,' though I don't see why a concert film can't also be considered a documentary. So my answer is easy. With apologies to 'The Last Waltz,' the best is definitely 'Stop Making Sense' by Jonathan Demme. His camera is intimate and always in the right place at the right time, catching the band at their arty, funky and quirky best. I love the way the performance is designed to evolve with each song, adding more band members and creative staging as it rolls along. Byrne is a force of nature, but also effortless and the film just feels joyous throughout."

Jake ColeNot Just Movies:

"Leaving out a performance film like 'Stop Making Sense,' the rock documentary that most consistently fascinates and entertains me is 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.' It captures a band in a creative and personal spiral, formerly the biggest band in metal being crushed by its own weight like a beached whale. Rehab trips, trend-chasing artistic decisions, shockingly unethical therapy sessions, and more create a train wreck that could only have been authorized for release by a band as exhausted as the one documented here. It's tragic but also damn funny, as in a scene where new bassist Rob Trujillo sits in on his first sessions with the band and the camera stays on his face as James Hetfield's and Lars Ulrich's therapeutic venting registers more and more as barely checked terror. In one final, cruel blow, the film's triumphant conclusion is predicated on the release of 'St. Anger.'"

Christopher CampbellDocBlog

"I always change my mind, and usually my favorite is 'Gimme Shelter,' but right now my opinion of the best is an equal split tie between 'Woodstock' (concert) and 'Dig!' (non-concert)."

Daniel CarlsonPajiba:

"'The Last Waltz.' Great interviews, candid footage, and some of the best concert footage ever shot. It's Scorsese's love letter to Robbie Robertson. Buy the movie, buy the album, and know happiness."

Sean M. BurnsPhiladelphia Weekly/The Improper Bostonian:

"Murray Lerner's criminally underseen 'Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival' doesn't just contain blistering performances from Hendrix and The Who. It's also got The Doors' sloppy swan song, Kris Kristofferson being booed off the stage, Joni Mitchell having a meltdown, a hippie dickhead who doses his child with LSD, and a backstage drama involving the promoters that plays like a semi-sequel to 'Spinal Tap.' I love this movie so much that I've managed to almost block from my memory the gentleman sitting behind me at Film Forum, who was so excited by Jimi's rendition of 'Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)' that he began to masturbate. Sometimes I don't miss New York movie theaters."

Danny BowesYahoo! Movies/Movie Mezzanine:

"The name of the band is Talking Heads. 'Stop Making Sense' is the closest cinema has ever come to replicating the je ne sais quoi of live performance. One of the greatest bands there ever was, at the height of their powers, showcased perfectly by Jonathan Demme, of whose career this is one of the highest peaks."

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second:

"There's a couple of great answers that I'll always fall back on, with Scorsese's 'The Last Waltz' probably my most often tread out response to this question. But alas, and to shake things up a little for my own benefit, I'm going to select Jean-Luc Godard's 'One Plus One,' which was also released in a slightly more accessible cut as 'Sympathy For the Devil.' The film, which came at the crossroads of Godard's career as a mainstream filmmaker and his second life as a more politically energized, experimental artist, captures both sides of the filmmaker in a fairly unique way, as does his approach to the manner in which his narrative plays out, with the director choosing to focus on the conception and birth of a particular song, over say the traditional in-depth 'making of' or tour video."

Raffi AsdourianThe Film Stage:

"'Meeting People is Easy' which documents Radiohead during their 'OK Computer' tour in the most Radiohead way possible."

Edwin ArnaudinAshvegas:

"'No Direction Home,' though it owes a good deal of its greatness to 'Don't Look Back.'"

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on March 4th, 2013:
The Most Popular Responses: "Amour," "Zero Dark Thirty." (tie) 
Other Movies Receiving Multiple Votes: "Django Unchained," "Like Someone in Love," "Stoker," "Leviathan," "Side Effects." 

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2 Comments

  • G. H. Lewmer | March 6, 2013 7:42 AMReply

    Surprised that no mention was made of the ongoing BBC music documentary series "Brittania." Also very surprised that neither "Oil City Confidential", the saga of Dr. Feelgood , or Bob Dylan's extraordinary documentary "Eat the Document", made the grade.

  • GFriday | March 4, 2013 3:54 PMReply

    Adam Lowes: The movie is Mayor of the Sunset Strip, not "Major", and Rodney is a west coast figure, not east coast.

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