Heroin, Alcoholism and Crispy Cornflakes: Our Favourite Music Documentaries

Beware Of Mr Baker: The Devil Takes Care Of Its Own.

Not many documentaries start with the subject breaking the interviewer’s nose, but then not many people are as angry as Cream and Blind Faith drummer (and heavy metal pioneer) Ginger Baker is. Filmmaker Jay Bulger manages to capture the true essence of Ginger Baker – a man who has lost none of the explosive fury that made so many artists blacklist him in his heyday and well into his 70s.

One of the best insights from the other members of rock royalty interviewed, which is the catalyst for Baker’s attack “I don’t want anybody else in my fucking film” is the formation of Blind Faith. Baker turned up to their rehearsal unannounced and asked when he was starting, ignoring the fact that Eric Clapton had ended Cream as he could no longer put up with Baker’s antics. Too scared to tell him otherwise, they accepted their fate and unsurprisingly only lasted for one album.

Baker’s early career saw him playing in jazz clubs with some of the best musicians of the day and it also saw him cross paths with some soon to be stars including Mick Jagger, but is clearly irked when asked about him, “I thought, who’s this effeminate little cunt?”. This is also around the same time as he meets Phil Seaman, one of his idols who introduces him to two of things that would dominate his life, Africa, and Heroin. These scenes and others are beautifully animated, adding an extra layer of depth alongside the film’s archive footage.

The film follows Ginger in exile in South Africa, financially ruined, in ill health and out of touch with his family and yet it never attempts to gather sympathy for him, nor portray him as a loveable rogue. Beware Of Mr Baker simply serves to tell the story of one of musics true wildmen, whilst providing plentiful moments of film magic and unforgettable quotes.

As The Light Takes Us

A huge amount of fuss has been made of Norway’s ‘90s black metal scene and has made it a decidedly tired subject captured by countless documentaries, books and even a musical (no really). If there’s one thing that these countless depictions of the scene have done, it’s been to paint the most prominent figures in the scene as corpse-painted demons acting out a modern-day Viking saga – As The Light Takes Us takes a very different approach.

The film’s framework is serene. It’s filmography calm and tastefully melancholic, lending the documentary a very real touch of Norway and Norwegian culture to the hyperrealistic backdrop of the story it tells. It’s the juxtapositional portrayal of life in sleepy Oslo that lends the documentary its charm – with establishing shots of the city, the surrounding locales, and Varg Vikernes’ prison accompanied by a soundtrack made up of the very best of ’90s Norwegian black metal.

Possibly the high point of this nuanced depiction of Norway’s black metal scene is convicted murderer Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes recounting how he likes to eat his cornflakes in the morning. As The Light Takes Us’ beauty lies in the fact that it doesn’t shy away from recounting the harrowing stories, the motivations (some problematic, some not so much), and most importantly, the humanity behind Norway’s black metal explosion.

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

AC/DC once sung “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll,” and if anyone can testify to this, it’s Anvil. Naive but loveable, band members Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow’s dedication to heavy metal was an unexpectedly touching excuse for a documentary that almost borders on mockumentary. But Anvil are no Spinal Tap, and this is not satire. Endorsements from the likes of Motörhead and Metallica open the film, a testament to the promise the band once showed, but fame eluded the Canadian thrashers. Nevertheless, despite the humdrum of day jobs and disappointing setbacks, they refused to give up.

British director Sacha Gervasi’s film about the once promising act was equal parts charming and hilarious, so much so that the band has seen a slight resurgence since it emerged in 2008. Despite some unavoidably comical elements, Gervasi (once the band’s roadie) is himself a fan, and avoids patronising or laughing at the band. Instead, the excruciating honesty with which he explores the band’s gutsy, unfaltering dedication to making it big is a source of heartbreak, as we see them play to crowds that can be counted on your fingers and in Croatian bars where they don’t get paid, but as the band receive a warm reception at a Japanese festival, the film ends on a happy-ish note.

Lemmy: 49% Motherfucker, 51% Son Of A Bitch

For fans of Motörhead, this movie could be considered something of a holy grail, with nearly two hours of hero worship that at times borders on overindulgence. Packed full of interviews with some of his arguably more successful peers such as Metallica, Guns & Roses and Black Sabbath its clear how highly regarded he is among the rock elite.

These interviews are in stark contrast to how the documentary finds him living day-to-day, in a tiny little flat in LA so crammed it’s amazing they got a camera crew in at all, amongst the various bric-a-brac, a literal wall of knives and WWII memorabilia, mainly of Nazi origin. When pushed on the Nazi issue he casually declares he can’t be a Nazi because he’s had plenty of black girlfriends and that if the Israeli army had the best uniforms he would collect those.

That’s the thing that really stands out, there’s a natural humour about Lemmy that comes from his understated deadpan delivery that keeps the doc engaging and stops any schmaltziness right in its tracks.  Whilst many stars from his generation were playing a character, Lemmy was just a genuine guy, the part-biker part-cowboy who was happy to chat to fans and sit and drink in his local bar, five minutes’ walk from the tiny flat he’s lived in for ages, and most of all play the music he loved. That’s why he kept on playing right up until the very end. What else was he going to do?

The Devil And Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of those documentaries that will have the viewer pondering his story for weeks in an attempt to somehow transplant his need for creativity into your own life.

“My hopes lay shattered like a mirror on the floor,

I see myself and I look really scattered.

But I live my broken dreams.”

The film chronicles the life of Daniel Johnston, the good times, the bad times, the roller-coaster that his life became and the role his friends and family took in picking back up the pieces that he continually would break again.

One thing that’s curious about the documentary is the simplicity of his recordings and how easy it is for them to get stuck in the head of the viewer. Sometimes you just need to make stuff to get it off your chest, Daniel is one of those people.

Last Days Here – It’s A Long Way Back From Hell

Considering the recent events surrounding Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling, handed an 18 months prison sentence for abuse/neglect of a vulnerable adult, believed to be his mum, ‘Last Days Here’ is an even more uncomfortable watch now more than ever.

Undoubtedly a talented vocalist, lyricist and live performer, Liebling has always been his own worst enemy, seemingly hell-bent on bringing everybody around him down with him. Pentagram’s early career was blighted with the frontman’s crack and heroin-induced destructive forces so much so that they are firmly in the category of ‘could have been legendary’.

The documentary follows the tribulations of super fan turned manager Sean ‘Pellet’ Pelletier and his determined attempts to get Pentagram to finally fulfil their legacy as doom metal innovators. He admirably deals with the complete chaos that envelops Liebling’s life, possibly the most thankless task in music history.

There are some extremely poignant moments in the film too. The film’s creators should be credited for the way they portray Liebling, never allowing him to become a figure to be mocked, and shining a light on various issues surrounding mental health and chronic drug abuse. Credit also should be given for how natural the feel of the film is. The frontman is clearly at ease with producer Demian Fenton, so much so that he names him and his manager as beneficiaries of his record collection if he ever smokes crack again. There’s no lack of irony that he has to hand over a huge rock of it to be held while he signs the contract.

No matter how hard to watch the documentary can be, the overall message is one of positivity and redemption. The only issue with the film is the lack of Liebling’s voice during the jams he occasionally has with other musicians throughout, which does leave you wondering whether his drug abuse has wrecked his voice completely. Why was this hidden from the viewer? Wouldn’t it have added to the complexity of the story being told?

Bueno Vista Social Club

In 1996 American slide guitarist Ry Cooder embarked on a mission to make an album of traditional pre-revolutionary Cuban music, with the help of singer Juan de Marcos González they managed to track down veteran musicians, most of whom were now retired and long forgotten.

The album was an unexpected international success, selling over 5 million copies, winning a Grammy and being voted in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘Greatest Albums of all time’ at number 260 in the list. The film is set a few years later, looking back at the success and profiling the veteran musicians involved in the recording, cutting in scenes of the few live performances that they managed to organize, culminating in a final performance at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

Probably the documentary’s most interesting character is Company Segundo, a 90-year-old Trilina player who defies his age while playing, singing, smoking massive Cigars, and talking about his love for women. Ibrahim Ferrer’s story is probably the most remarkable though as he was destitute before these sessions, earning money as a shoe shiner after retiring from a long career that spanned 40 years with little real success.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the footage of Cuba itself, showing the diversity and uniqueness that makes it so cinematic. These scenes, coupled with the constantly panning cameras during the profiling and clever use of cutting, create a smooth flow representative of the music itself.

Words: David Brand, Tom Kirby, George Parr and Richard Lowe 


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