Our music issue is the ideal time to explore some must-see music docs. We reached out to AFI Silver’s Director of Programming Todd Hitchcock to talk about the extremely malleable art form. From classics to coming attractions, films made from archival footage to stuff shot specifically for celluloid, here are 11 films that may be considered documentary films, may be considered concert films, may be something in between. Regardless of classification and categorization, all are worthy.
As told to Brandon Wetherbee; edited for length and clarity.
“Gimme Shelter” (1970)
I’ve seen this 1970 film by the Maysles brothers many, many, many times over the years and I still find it revelatory. Not only because I happen to be a Stones fan, but what the Maysles do with the documentary form, somehow it captures the Stones both at their peak and at their nadir, that’s an interesting thing. You’re getting a look behind the scenes, maybe in some surprising, not always flattering ways.
“The Velvet Underground” (2021)
I’m recommending this one because I love The Velvet Underground and I love Todd Haynes’ filmmaking. I think he did something extraordinary with this project. There’s an artistic achievement just in his approach to telling the story. I think it’s just perfectly well judged, how he’s also showing us the scene of New York in the ’50s and ’60s that this band came out of and how he’s appropriating some of the visuals. Yes, he’s working on archival material, but he’s also very intentionally doing some things compositionally that harken to other visual arts of that era. I was just blown away by how beautifully done it was.
“Jazz on a Summer’s Day” (1959)
Not only are we getting treated to a selection of the performers on stage at that year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, which includes many, many big names (Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, more). Woodstock was a long ways away, there wasn’t this infrastructure of large scale music festivals. It’s a concert doc by Bert Stern, who was a commercial photographer in fashion and magazines, so he’s got a great eye. And as much as I treasure the performances, it’s an amazing film for the people watching whenever it goes out into the audience. It’s like time travel.
“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer” (2007)
I was inspired to know more about her because she’s one of the stand up performances at Newport. This doc is from 2007. Not only is she a great jazz singer, she’s got an amazing life story with some highs and some lows. It typifies a certain kind of thing that you can get with a music doc where maybe you didn’t know that much about this person and this is your introduction. I would group it with “30th Century Man,” the Scott Walker doc and “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.”
“Summer of Soul” (2021)
Beyond everything that’s great about the archival footage and the telling of the story, it’s a masterclass in editing. There’s so much covered in the length of a normal feature length documentary, very skillfully interwoven between the music performance and the interviews. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking, as well as being really fun.
“Stop Making Sense” (1984)
Yes, it’s universally understood to be a great documentary. But the way it shows you another side of the band, the band beyond what you’re getting off the record, you know that the live show is something else in its own category.
“Prince: Sign ‘O’ the Times” (1987)
It’s amazing and now people can actually see it after not being able to see it for decades (it’s currently streaming on Peacock). And my goodness, it captures him absolutely at the height of his powers.
“Soul Power” (2008)
The documentary “When We Were Kings,” which won the Oscar, is about the Rumble in The Jungle fight. What also happened and was also photographed on the same shoot where we get the footage for “When We Were Kings” is the Zaire 74 music festival featuring James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, The Spinners, Celia Cruz, The Crusaders, this amazing showcase of acts. This concert was in the week leading up to the fight and the footage never made into a finished product for decades. I feel like not enough people have seen it. It’s just this incredible showcase of these acts in 1974 playing a concert.
“Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement” (2019)
The movie showcases amazing Super-8 footage of punk bands playing at Madams Organ, The Collective Commune House back then (1976–1983) and performance footage of Bad Brains and others. It’s unbelievable how good the footage is. It’s such a you-had-to-be-there kind of thing, but they were there and now we get to have a glimpse of it. You cannot forget that imagery. It’s incredible.
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” (2022)
From director Sacha Jenkins, it just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and it’s really good.
“Meet Me in the Bathroom” (2022)
There’s a one-night-only screening on Tuesday, November 8 here at AFI Silver. This premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It’s based on the book by Lizzy Goodman and it’s covering the early 2000s New York City indie rock scene so you get The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and others. I was surprised how it was able to communicate more to the story that wasn’t widely understood at the time. I found it really worthwhile.
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