Another weekend, another chance to be overawed by the amount of entertainment just a button press away from reaching our eyeballs.
While some streaming services do the business of content discovery better than others, half of the battle can be deciding precisely what you want to watch in the first place. A buzz-worthy TV show to binge? An Ocar-winning film? Or how about a documentary?
Whether you were at Glastonbury Festival and are now struggling to come to terms with the 9-to-5, or you enjoyed the shows on iPlayer and would like a bit more where that came from; may we suggest a music documentary might be in order for this weekend's viewing?
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Summer of Soul
Not content with being the driving force behind The Roots and a hugely successful music producer, Ahmir K. Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, won an Oscar and a BAFTA for this eye-opening documentary, his directorial debut.
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) follows the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which despite huge crowds and performances from artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, has largely flown under the radar of music history in the last 50 years.
A mix of live music, news reports from the time, and talking heads, the documentary celebrates this forgotten musical history, while also examining why it was so over-shadowed by Woodstock, which happened at the same time.
The archive footage and joyous performances are the stars but the social and political context and commentary proves just as fascinating.
Inventing David Geffen
Whether you consider media mogul David Geffen a rags-to-riches sensation worthy of admiration for his unmitigated success in the worlds of music and film or a ruthless businessman cashing in on the talent of others, the story of his life, as he puts it forth, is a fascinating pop culture ride every bit as entertaining as the acts he represented.
This documentary features Geffen himself recalling his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn before making his way to LA and stealthily working his way up from mailroom boy at the William Morris Agency (a job he obtained by falsifying academic credentials) to talent agent after noticing that "they earn the most while knowing the least".
After going solo, Geffen managed acts including Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. By the time he was 30, he had founded Asylum Records signing artists such as The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell's recollection of writing Free Man in Paris about Geffen and his continued bashfulness about the song gives a brief glimpse behind his carefully constructed facade.
With a life and career that encompasses his eponymous label, home to a diverse roster with the likes of Nirvana, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, Peter Gabriel and Olivia Newton-John; founding Dreamworks film studios; and nearly marrying Cher, there's no shortage of glittering talking heads who gush over – and occasionally critique – Geffen. The result, fact or fiction, is an engaging treat for music lovers.
Seymour: An Introduction
Often documentaries about musicians can falter in trying to deliver an impossibly definitive biographical overview, swamping the viewer with facts and leaving little sense of the artist as a person.
In Ethan Hawke's directorial debut, Seymour: An Introduction, he assumes that the audience has no prior knowledge of concert pianist, composer and New York native Seymour Bernstein and instead takes a genial, laid-back approach, showing Bernstein teaching, chatting and philosophising over 80 minutes and crafting a cosy impression of warm familiarity.
Threaded throughout are intimate conversations as well as musings on artistry and the value of practice and perseverance, not just concerning music, but that will surely be relatable to anyone who ever tried to learn (or gave up) an instrument — a quintessentially New York documentary about a fascinating and inspiring classical musician.
Biffy Clyro: Cultural Sons of Scotland
When the pandemic began in 2020, Ayrshire rock trio Biffy Clyro found themselves back home in Scotland, kicking their heels for the first time in their adult lives. How did they cope? By heading to a dairy farm and making an album every bit as slick, heavy and anthemic as the rest of their oeuvre.
This thoughtful documentary follows the band as they overcome the Covid restrictions and limitations of the location to record their ninth studio album, The Myth of the Happily Ever After, and their first recorded entirely on home soil. Through interviews, and archive and self-recorded footage, it charts the band's 20-year history and dedicated fandom, culminating with a spectacular live show in Glasgow.
Given the amount of animosity and ego that pepper most rock docs, the genuine joy the members of Biffy Clyro seem to have at being around one another could seem ludicrous if it weren't apparently so genuine, and when bassist James Johnston says, “Everyone should join a band. If you get a chance to go join a band... that’s probably the best years you’ll ever have in your life,” you know he's speaking from experience.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
A fascinating story of extraordinary talent. The story of one of music’s truly troubled souls, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fairly by the book's documentary – but you can’t really go too wrong with a character like Nina Simone, as her brilliance and music shine through everything.
A life filled with difficulties is traced with a vast amount of wonderful archive material and contemporary interviews; it’s the story of a fascinating life that frustrated the young Eunice Waymon from the start.
She yearned to be a ‘serious’ classical musician, but as a black girl in segregated North Carolina suffered instead from racism and discrimination at every turn. She would become, as Nina Simone, a major participant in the civil rights movement – which again set her all too often on a different path from financial opportunity, much to the annoyance of her husband and manager.
The Beatles: Get Back
The overriding selling point of Get Back is the truckload of access and information – in fact, even though Peter Jackson has supplied a transcript during especially heavy moments of dialogue, we recommend watching it with captions turned on so you don't miss an utterance.
Today, we are so acclimatised to watching Netflix documentaries based on real-life events, that Get Back feels like a boot-shaking jolt of reality – in the best possible way.
When the band invite photographers to snap them during rehearsals at Apple in Savile Row, for instance, the rehearsal footage is interspersed with shots taken that day – as is often done in dramatisations to prove that the director's narrative did not stray too far from reality.
When the action resumes, we find ourselves rubbing our eyes, wrongly assuming these conversations are being performed by actors in the roles of John, Paul, George, Ringo and their new pianist Billy. It can't possibly be the legends themselves messing around, idly laying down one of the best songs we have ever heard, calling Ringo a "Scab-head", or washing down copious amounts of toast and marmalade with endless mugs of tea, can it? But yes it is. And that is pretty special.
Stop Making Sense
In 1983, Talking Heads were at the height of their sharp-suited, loose-limbed, avant-garde grooving powers and, fortunately, director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, The Manchurian Candidate) was around to capture it in all its frantic and joyful glory.
Stop Making Sense was shot over three nights at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre at the end of that year and kicks off with a razor-cheekboned David Byrne alone onstage with an 808. Gradually he is joined by the rest of the band in a performance that builds to an ecstatic and iconic finale. It’s no wonder that Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as one of the finest concert films ever made.
20 Feet From Stardom
Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary dives into the lives of the backing singers whose vocal chops prop up the records of many a beloved pop star. Neville talks to appreciative artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and a rakishly on-brand Mick Jagger. But, most importantly, he interviews many of the gifted singers themselves, some of whom are content with their supporting role and some whose longing for the limelight has never left them.
Delving into history, 20 Feet From Stardom, touches upon issues of gender and race in the music industry but, ultimately, this is a bittersweet celebration of music and the human voice that examines the reasons why incredible talent doesn’t always lead to success.
Before there was punk, there was The Stooges. Jim Jarmusch's documentary celebrates the career and influence of what he calls "the greatest rock 'n' roll band ever" in unashamedly fanboy fashion.
Mixing archival photos and footage with cutout animation and reunion-era interviews, the film is driven largely by the anecdotes of Jim Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop, whose debauched raconteur style is mesmerising even if his stories won't be terribly revealing to established fans.