Rock around the doc

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


4. "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A."

Does this verité view of fresh-faced Liverpudlians making their way into the American music biz mark the end of an innocence? The wariness on John's face as the Beatles shuttle from fan-mobbed taxicab to idiotic radio program suggests as much: He's amused for now, but won't be for long. The phenomenon of public infatuation--Beatlemania--is an incredible thing as seen through the Maysles Brothers' lens. Sinatra's canny publicists were known to have paid girls to scream on cue; no one is faking it here. (Michael Tortorello)


5. Decline of Western Civilization

Though not as purely entertaining as its trashy metalloid sequel, the music is better here. Well, not as much better as you'd hope--art punks Catholic Discipline, c'est merde. But the music is more, comment dit-on, epochal. Where Darby Crash epitomizes the mainstream's idea of cartoon punk decadence more closely than the L.A. scene's well-wishers might hope, Black Flag articulate punk's political beliefs more fluently than most well-wishers might manage to do themselves. (Harris)


6. Stop Making Sense

Even when the music ages well, most concert films don't, dated by technique as much as soundtrack hiss. But Jonathan Demme's interview-free document of a Talking Heads gig (actually three of them) from 1984 seems to grow only more wondrous in retrospect: Its languorous camera movements and calm cuts seem less pretentious and more generous with every accelerated year. Demme probably never made a freer, more joyful movie in his career. (Peter S. Scholtes)


7. Kurt & Courtney

If Truth or Dare revealed what happens when a documentarian hands the production to his powerful subject, Nick Broomfield's tabloid wade through the grungy muck reveals what's left when all cooperation and access is denied. Never mind the bottom feeders' half-baked theory that Courtney had the Nirvana frontman "whacked": What's really whacked here is the illusion of documentary objectivity in an age when truth is only truth if it bolsters someone's PR campaign. And isn't that part of what drove Kurt over the edge in the first place? (Nelson)


8. Truth or Dare

As spontaneous as D-Day, this documentary may have only comic value as a genuine backstage pass. But the punch line is that Madonna makes herself look occasionally unglamorous and even self-serving as a way of proving her humanity--or making the puffier moments seem more credible, or maybe just getting her rocks off. Still, the result is not just a testament to the media manipulation that is supposedly her true art form, but also to the music, which is the reason she got to manipulate us in the first place. (Harris)


9. Driver 23

So close in tone to the following year's American Movie that it might be dubbed American Band, Rolf Belgum's grainy chronicle of a struggling heavy-metal bandleader is an even weirder blur of the empathetic and the wry. While guitarist Dan Cleveland--with his homemade cement-brick exercise machine and his absolute conviction in himself--may certainly be one in a million, he is also probably one of a million. This is small-time rock 'n' roll pathos immortalized. (Scholtes)


10. X: The Unheard Music

Where Decline of Western Civilization was bemused, X is indignant, examining the period when L.A.'s most important group began to suspect it was being cheated out of an audience by the radio-distribution system. One priceless scene has director W.T. Morgan interviewing a dim-witted record exec who explains how he initially turned down X in favor of bands that sound, as he says, like REO Speedwagon. Yet after its art-house release, this beautifully shot doc never found its way onto video--still unheard. (Scholtes)

« Previous Page