Rock around the doc

U Film's "Sound Unseen" festival projects our mythologies of music onto the screen

Or that there isn't something to be learned from the contradictory sentiments they express: One kid talks about his straight-edge commitment; another concedes that, yes, he does come for the drugs. The documentaries playing at "Sound Unseen," as a general rule, work best when they avoid the rush for an official historical consensus and describe the differences between their subjects. What can seem like a stylistic border skirmish or a semantic quibble to an outsider can be integral to the dynamics of a subculture. And it's the duty of the documentarian to convey this. A far from stupid dispute in Songs for Cassavetes regarding what it means to sell out, for instance, allows different bands to explain their varying degrees of opposition to consumer capitalism. In the process the film demonstrates that Sleater-Kinney pledge allegiance to the same subculture as the aggressively dimwitted Make Up--always worth a reminder. We can also see that by risking an encounter with the outside world, Sleater-Kinney has managed to grow philosophically without being compromised. Even more important to these subcultural dynamics is that such disputes remain unsettled; a good fight is an invigorating thing.

These same documentaries fare even better when they link artists' values to the craft itself. This may seem like a fairly obvious point: If you were making a film about plumbers or ophthalmologists or actuaries, you'd delve into the specifics of their jobs. But rock documentaries often gloss over the act of making music as something too technical. Battle Sounds, by contrast, takes off when DJs begin arguing about the "proper" way to DJ, tsk-tsking those rivals who start doing headstands behind the turntables. And Freestyle isn't even always sure what its title means. Is freestyling the act of rhyming off the top of your head, with no prewritten lyrics? Or is it a rap, written or not, that flows without being tied to a single topic? At the heart of the hip-hop community, we realize, isn't any simplistic "unity," but a debate over artistic values that doubles as a self-serving argument between competitors.

Similarly, the local doc When We Play For Real (Monday, October 9 at Bryant-Lake Bowl) manages to capture the texture of another artistic clique by asking questions such as What keeps emo- and pop- and crusty-punks apart? Even more than in Freestyle, the contradictory sentiments inject a much-needed subjectivity into the proceedings. The scene is worse than ever, one punk grouses. The scene is better than ever, another suggests. The film's ultimate decision: It all depends on your perspective.

At such moments, these films seem to capture the grain of the communities they depict--the petty differences, the small triumphs, a sense of what is shared and what stands to be lost. This is a move away from the standard rock documentary, which articulates, sometimes subtly, sometimes merely implicitly, the divide between fan and musician, and between musician and star. (Such a discrete division of categories is certainly the case in Decline II.) Which doesn't mean that Alice Cooper may not be as close to right as any rock star has ever been.


The "Sound Unseen" festival runs Friday, October 6 to Friday, October 13. For more "Sound Unseen" reviews, see Film Clips, p. 46; for a full calendar of events call (612) 627-4431, or check the festival Web site,

Battle of the Bands

ROMANTIC COMEDIES in the pure sense of that phrase--fond portraits of creative folly--rock docs

have played on the cultural stage for nearly 40 years. Despite that august history, more people have probably seen the Bee Gees episode of VH1's Behind the Music than have seen all of the movies mentioned below, combined. Understanding that the television won't be revolutionized, we here offer a 100 percent objective list of the best films ever to mix cymbal crash with celluloid--that is to say, THE GREATEST ROCK DOCUMENTARIES IN RECORDED HISTORY! (Read loud.)


1. Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One)

So supernaturally central to the rock-doc genre as to suggest they sold their souls to the devil, the Rolling Stones here hand final-cut privileges to Jean-Luc Godard and suffer the consequences. The endless fly-on-the-wall scenes of Mick and Co. wanking over the title cut in a recording studio circa 1968 are subversive enough. And then the most radical filmmaker of the 20th Century adds Black Panther rhetoric and Weekend-style executions. Culture is war and war is hell--and the Stones are the devil. (Rob Nelson)


2. Wattstax

In August 1972 more than 100,000 people attended the so-called black Woodstock: a seven-hour concert at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (co-sponsored by Stax and Schlitz) commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. As the Stax aesthetic bridged Black Power and the almighty funk, the Staple Singers led a choir of thousands in "Respect Yourself"--proving, like the co-billed Richard Pryor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, that this was about more than just a groove. Would even another riot be enough to bring about a musical "day of black awareness" 30 years later? (Nelson)

3. That Was Rock

This snip-and-clip hodgepodge represents the only way you can presently acquaint yourself with 1964's The T.A.M.I. Show and 1966's The Big T.N.T. Show, two musical revues organized by Phil Spector that included everyone from the Stones to Ray Charles to the Ronettes. Poor Chuck Berry appears as narrator between live segments, referring to Bo Diddley and Gerry and the Pacemakers alike as his "friend." But these live spots are as revelatory as you'd hope. More so, even: You knew James Brown was dynamite in his prime, but you had no idea Smokey Robinson was this raw. (Keith Harris)

« Previous Page
Next Page »