Tag Archives: rock docs

Dance till You’re Dead

Meet Me in the Bathroom

by Rachel Willis

Based on the book by Lizzy Goodman, Meet Me in the Bathroom finds documentarians Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace exploring the New York City rock scene of the early 2000s.

Opening in 1999, the film treats us to a little history of the popular music scene of the time. Artists like The Offspring, Blink 182 and Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit dominated the radio and airwaves (mostly courtesy of MTV).

Our introduction to a new wave of rock in New York begins with the duo that made up The Moldy Peaches. We’re treated to several home movie moments of the two getting acquainted, not only with their new city (many of these bands are transplants to NYC) but also with the young men who would make up the band The Strokes. 

The biggest benefit of adapting a book about a music scene is the access to footage from some of the early concerts. Watching bands like The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play to small crowds is one of those things that cannot be replicated in book form.

The film also adapts the book’s narrative style – overlaying the footage and images with soundbites from several of the people who were part of the scene. You’ll find no talking heads here – the best part of the documentary is getting to watch the timeline unfold.

The trick of adapting such an expansive book is knowing where to concentrate your focus. The majority of the film focuses on three bands – The Strokes, Interpol and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem). And though the filmmakers reduce the number of bands covered compared to the book, there are still too many others brought into play.

The Moldy Peaches are our introduction, but they drop out as the film passes through 2001. TV on the Radio comes into play briefly, and one of the scene’s most interesting bands, The Liars, gets even less attention. Several other mentions are made, but each is so quick as to be forgettable.

Because of this shifting focus as we weave from The Strokes to Interpol to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and beyond, things get messy. It’s impossible to keep track of every band and person introduced.

If the filmmakers had whittled down the book’s focus just a bit more, they could have delivered a more interesting documentary.

God is Irish

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan

by Hope Madden

Sloppy and ruinous, raucous and charged, and more than anything, punk rock—honestly, this could describe about a dozen Julian Temple movies. In this case, crashing the party of his Sex Pistols docs and his intimate Joe Strummer film is Shane McGowan. And he’s pissed.

Drunk, I mean.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan is Temple’s exploration of life after punk.

The poet of Irish rock, a traditionalist who set gritty street ballads to Celtic tunes, McGowan wanted to save Irish music. This was the legacy he was after, and as frontman of the Pogues—Ireland’s second most successful and likely most Irish band—he did.

Yes, here’s where all rock biopics ask, “At what cost?” Temple’s film doesn’t wait, though. Opening as it does on McGowan, 60-years-old, slurring, wheelchair bound and still drinking, Crock of Gold never hides from the ravages of a punk rock life.

The young McGowan railed at the cliché of the drunken Irishman even as he personally confirmed it. “You want a Paddy?” he says of the British establishment. “I’ll give you a fucking Paddy!”

The film faithfully follows McGowan’s chronology, from boyhood in County Tipperary to angry adolescence in London, on to thrashabout music and eventually international stardom before the inevitable crash, slow rebuild, and crash some more.

And McGowan himself is right there, either narrating the unfolding events or listening in to earlier tapes of him narrating. His constant presence anchors the wild, fascinating tales with their physical toll.

Temple also fills the screen with bizarre animation, old movie footage of the Irish War and of bucolic country life, as well as images of McGowan’s late 70s London, Sex Pistols show and all. What he conjures is an image of clashing ideas and ideals that found a home in McGowan’s imagination and translated into melancholy street music.

McGowan’s touring life of drink and drugs, violence and very little toothpaste are well documented. It’s hard to pin down the feelings drummed up by all these stories. The modern day balladeer—a full set of dentures on display when he smiles, which is rarely—seems simultaneously brash and regretful.

For passing fans or newcomers to McGowan’s music, Crock of Gold is an unusually clear-eyed testament to the toll of punk rock excess. These guys were not meant to live forever.

But for true fans, it’s a painful and strangely beautiful look into one remarkable if misspent life.

Detroit Rock City

Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine

by Hope Madden

Documentarian Scott Crawford has an interest in location-specific counter culture. His 2014 doc Salad Days recounted a decade of unsurpassed DIY punk rock transforming the underground of Washington, DC.

Now he turns his attention to Detroit.

Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll MagazIne documents the inner dysfunction and outward impact of the Motor City’s “screw you” to the rock establishment. (Lookin’ at you, Rolling Stone.)

Launched in 1969 by Detroit head shop entrepreneur Barry Kramer, the magazine immediately defined itself among rock mags as the most personal, most irreverent, least sophisticated and most vital. Like the decaying, even dangerous city it represented, Creem Magazine existed outside the mainstream.

Boasting a litany of groundbreaking rock writers and more women on the editorial and writing staff than nearly any other magazine at the time, the magazine pushed boundaries. It didn’t just cover punk rock, it was punk rock. And like punk rock (or Detroit, for that matter), it was basically doomed.

Crawford’s gift is in establishing the period, time stamping the singular moment in rock history he wants to unveil. Archival footage and behind the scenes photos illustrate the hard core, nearly derelict quality of the working conditions. Kramer’s commitment was almost blind, and the untested staff—many of whom would reveal themselves to be rock writing geniuses—attacked their assignments with equal self-destructive passion.

We hear directly from many of them: Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Jaan Uhelzski (who co-writes the film). We also hear from the rock stars that were covered (Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, a very testy Joan Jett), as well as those modern day musicians whose young minds were warped by Creem’s pages (Michael Stipe, Kirk Hammett, Chad Smith).

The film’s production design does justice to its source material. Scott Gordon’s animated sequences are an inspired avenue into reenactments. Between the cartoons, stories, photos and excerpts of his writing, a provocative image of Lester Bangs emerges. And who could be more fitting to provide all the movie’s original music than MC5’s Wayne Kramer?

The film, produced by publisher Barry Kramer’s son JJ, is absolutely a mash note to rock’s most rebellious rag. For many it will be a lesson on the significance of Detroit, even after Motown, in the evolution of American music. More than anything, though, Crawford’s film is a testament to the legacy of America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.  

F*ck Y’all, We’re From Dayton

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero

by Hope Madden

It’s been an ugly few days, and while we reel from our country’s 251st mass shooting, this one painfully close to home, it’s a good time to remember that Dayton, Ohio is an amazing town teeming with fascinating, resilient people.

Eric Mahoney knows that, which explains why he returned to his hometown for this second documentary, this one on the Nineties indie punk force Brainiac.

The adjective used most frequently in Mahoney’s rock doc Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero is “weird.”

Fitting, really, for a film that dives into the brief and electric career of Dayton’s pride and one of the most innovative and surprisingly influential indie bands on the young scene.

Haven’t heard of them? Now’s your opportunity.

Don’t just take it from Mahoney. Take it from Hole’s Melissa Auf der Maur, The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, The National’s Matt Berninger, Fred Armisan and tons of others who still mourn the loss of this genuine and unique and weird presence in music.

Filmed 20 years after the freak accident that took the life of the band’s songwriter and main creative force, Tim Taylor, Transmissions After Zero makes itself comfortable with those who knew him best: his mom, his sister, his band.

Mahoney’s timestamp of a picture offers a refreshing break from the Behind the Music style of so many rock docs—partly because Brainiac’s trajectory ended days before signing with a major label.

What results is a candid look at what happens to the rest of the band, dealing not just with grief but also with the abrupt end of their forward progress, the end of their dream.

The film, in the end, is less about Tim Taylor himself and more about the band. Taylor’s presence is never far from mind, but at the same time, Mahoney and his subjects never manage to truly articulate that presence. Perhaps it’s a lack of interview footage, but the absence is felt—which partly frustrates but also fuels the doc’s overall sensibility of loss.

Without Taylor, Mahoney relies on bandmates Juan Monastrio, Michelle Bodine, Tyler Trent and John Schmersal to keep things lively. Their candor, wit and weirdness compel attention and empathy. Their openness with Mahoney is touching and often very funny.

Mahoney offers mainly talking head footage with brief snippets of the band onstage and some low-key but inspired animated sequences. He exhibits a little electro punk flourish himself as he pieces together the elements, but his style never upstages the content.

Instead, he lets the music and the musicians tell their own story. Like a lot of rock docs, Transmissions After Zero introduces or reintroduces a group of voices that should not have been lost. And in this case, it also reminds us how great Dayton and its people really are.

Cry and Laugh Again

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

by Hope Madden

For fans, there is something endlessly fascinating about Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s because, regardless of the volume of his work—songs, novels and poems—or the intimacy of his words, it’s still impossible to feel as if you know him.

In Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, it’s clear that Cohen’s longtime companion and eternal muse Marianne Ihlen felt the same way.

Ihlen inspired the Cohen classic So Long, Marianne, obviously, as well as dozens of others including Bird on a Wire. The two had one of those Sixties relationships—open but committed, tumultuous but loving, and ultimately doomed.

For eight years they lived together, on and off, along with Ihlen’s son Axel in a humble cottage on the Greek island of Hydra. An artists’ refuge of sorts, it was the kind of pre-hippie paradise where eccentrics engaged perhaps too freely in freedom.

It was there that Broomfield first met Ihlen. Their friendship and the director’s clear fondness for his subject give the film a fresh and odd intimacy.

Though his personal connection to Ihlen is an interesting inroad into this story, the doc sometimes feels like two separate and uneven pieces sewn together.

That seems partly appropriate, given that Leonard and Marianne spent increasing spans of time apart as the years wore on. And there’s no question that—for Leonard devotees, at least—the behind the scenes footage of Cohen on tour in the Sixties, commentary from his bandmates, and snippets of background intel from close friends is as engaging as it is enlightening.

Unfortunately, we lose Marianne almost entirely by Act 2. The titular character becomes a bit of a ghost, and not even one who looms large over the material in the foreground.

Of course, as the film was made posthumously (both Ihlen and Cohen died in 2016), their own insights are limited. In this way, though, Ihlen’s presence outweighs Cohen’s in that Broomfield dug up audio conversations in which she discusses the relationship.

The lack of Cohen’s own thoughts on their pairing—outside of one or two rambling, drug-riddled onstage song intros—makes its absence known.

Still, there is a melancholy beauty in the way Bloomfield’s documentary—his love letter to Marianne and Leonard—follows Cohen’s song lyrics, telling of a fractured, unconventional but nonetheless loving connection.

Indeed, it is Cohen’s final words of love to Ihlen, a note sent to her hospital room as she lay dying, filmed at her request, that illustrates that very point.

A bit disjointed but never uninteresting, Words of Love is an often compelling look at the relationship between muse and artist. For Cohen fans, it’s required viewing.

Gonna Break Into Your Heart

American Valhalla

by Hope Madden

An aging musical icon wants to end his career on a fresh note and reaches out to an esteemed industry powerhouse to help him.

A modern master gets a text from his childhood hero, reminding him in a rush of all that informed the direction of his life.

In what could easily have been a simple marketing tool – a documentary to support Iggy Pop’s last album, Post Pop DepressionAmerican Valhalla instead offers a look at the creative process. But, more than that, it’s a glimpse into the kind of rock star adoration we’ve all felt, and an image of the all-too-human object of that worship.

In this case, the adored is punk rock godfather Iggy Pop; the adoring, Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme, (who also co-directs).

Reading directly from their own journals written during the planning, recording and touring process, Homme, Pop and the rest of the band narrate the clashing emotions, nerves and anxieties that fueled this partnership and the ensuing album and tour.

Pop, now in his late sixties, is a small, crooked, humble guy, and still every bit a spectacle. His raw, unpredictable humanity is etched in the deep lines and huge eyes that haunt his famous face.

Homme – every inch Pop’s physical opposite, tall, sleek and handsome – opens himself up on camera in a way that’s disarming. Between Pop’s honest humility and Homme’s almost paralyzing adoration, the film somehow strikes a deeply sweet note. It’s validation for the overwhelming awe your own personal heroes can inspire. At the same time, it’s a touching reminder that even our heroes are deeply human.

Homme, directing with Andreas Neumann, shows great instincts visually. The documentarians cut between live footage, portraits and stills, creatively framed talking heads, and lonesome vistas. The pieces weave together to create an image that’s simultaneously haunting and energetic.

The music also happens to be outstanding.

Most surprising may be the film’s sweet, open heart. It’s a mash note for fans – all fans, but particularly Iggy Pop fans. If this is, indeed, to be Pop’s final hurrah, it is a lovely way to go out.