Winter 2020

Music Legends Resurrected

Far beyond the promo reels once popularized by MTV, the most penetrating documentaries underscore psychological insight and socio-political context

By Robert Koehler

Photo: Photofest

This past year may be viewed in the future as a watershed moment for a new kind of music doc that's been developing over the years, building on the seminal foundation of the Maysles Brothers and fellow direct cinema pioneer D.A. Pennebaker. The movies are no longer part of what Joni Mitchell memorably termed "the star-making machinery behind the popular song," no longer merely directed at the fans, no longer designed to sell product. Instead they take the viewer further inside the artist's work and mindset to place the music in its historical and social context.

In 2019 alone, a wide range of documentaries, including Stanley Nelson's Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice and Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan concert film Rolling Thunder Revue, illustrate the maturing and deepening of the music nonfiction form. What's emerging is a movement of movies about music that are made to last, far beyond a new album's half-life.

For four directors—Joe Berlinger, Liz Garbus, Brett Morgen and John Scheinfeld—who have plunged into the fascinating genre, all of them from different directions and with different intentions and styles, the projects often reveal more to them than just the musicians alone.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is veteran filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who first burst onto the scene with his and co-director Bruce Sinofsky's Brother's Keeper and their Paradise Lost sagas about the "West Memphis Three" murder case. It was during the course of making Paradise Lost in 1995 that Berlinger first contacted management for the superstar heavy metal band Metallica.

Berlinger and Sinofsky had a simple request. Could they license use of three Metallica songs to use in Paradise Lost, since the material had been cited in testimony during the West Memphis Three trials?

"It turned out that the band and their manager were big fans of Brother's Keeper, says Berlinger. "They even had the movie's poster in their recording studio. Once they saw some of our footage, they were all in and even gave us the music for free, which was incredible because Metallica had never licensed their music for anything up to that point."

Joe Berlinger (top left, with headphones) and Bruce Sinofsky (top right) documented group therapy sessions with members of Metallica for the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. (Photos: Photofest)

By the year 2000, Berlinger and Sinofsky had experienced a falling out for which Berlinger takes most of the blame. At the same time, Metallica contacted Berlinger to shoot some B-roll of the band working in the studio for the first time in five years. A minor project blew up into something bigger when the director arrived at the band's San Francisco headquarters to learn that longtime bassist Jason Newsted had just left the group, triggering an internal crisis. Metallica had actually hired a group therapist to help them—a far cry from the band's cultivated headbanging macho image.

Although Metallica's frontman James Hetfield was at first resistant, he came around and accepted Berlinger's notion of documenting the band's therapy, which turned into an astounding two-year marathon of emotional turmoil and creative catharsis summed up in the film Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004).

"I don't know how the universe put me there," Berlinger says, "but there I was with my camera and sound at a moment of real drama, and they were going through exactly what Bruce and I were going through." Like the band, the filmmaking pair had enjoyed great success at a young age. "It plays with your head," he says, "and we needed to deal with this, what drove us apart."

In perhaps the movie's most galvanizing scene, the band even ponders firing the filmmakers as they wonder if the camera presence is distorting their therapy process. It goes as far as Berlinger, on camera, offering to quit.

Few movies before or since have examined the ethical dilemma of cameras documenting a subject and, by doing so, changing and twisting it for unintended ends. But Berlinger learned a powerful lesson during production: "I would've told you before this experience that a documentarian's role is to observe without affecting things. It shouldn't be the observer effect, which states that the act of observing a thing changes the thing itself. But I realized during this that the camera can and maybe should change what's being filmed. That's because (Metallica drummer) Lars (Ulrich) told me that our cameras became a kind of truth serum for the band, allowing them to say things and cut through to honesty and solutions that might otherwise not have happened. It freed them. It was a fascinating philosophical dilemma that I wrestled with, but the results put my mind at peace."

While Berlinger, a big fan of cinéma vérité, dislikes interviews and talking heads—famously eschewed by director Asif Kapadia for his Oscar-winning, purely found-footage documentary on Amy Winehouse, Amy (2015)—director John Scheinfeld treasures them. The maker of a fascinating gallery of music portraits and studies, including Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016), The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006) and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) (2010), Scheinfeld builds his features on meticulous, time-consuming quests for rare archival footage, photos and other audio-visual elements that he uses to paint character studies of the artist. In this way, his method echoes the approach of Stanley Nelson, whose new film on Miles Davis' life and work is an ideal companion piece to Scheinfeld's heartfelt life study of Coltrane, who found his extraordinarily innovative tenor sax voice in the mid-late 1950s in Davis' first great quintet.

Liz Garbus' social justice-focused pedigree allowed her to apply a balanced view of Nina Simone's fascinating musical gifts and her serious attachment to political causes in 2016's What Happened, Miss Simone? "Her songs and music told the story of her life." (Photos: (Top) Courtesy of Liz Garbus; (Bottom) Alamy)

These features stand on two poles: engaging interviews with sometimes unlikely subjects, and highly curated and sometimes previously unseen images. Scheinfeld approached Coltrane differently from Lennon, and not just because of their obvious musical differences. "The general audience doesn't need the John Lennon life story, but they probably do for Coltrane," says Scheinfeld. "I always start from the question, 'How do I tell the story that's best about this artist and how do I tell it so it's in the spirit of their work?' The freshest way into Lennon was to look at the 10 years between 1966 and 1976, when he developed a political conscience and voice and became openly controversial when he declared that the Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus.'"

In fact, the project—containing an astonishing roster of interview subjects, including Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, G. Gordon Liddy and Mario Cuomo—represents how pop stars starting in the 1960s swerved out of the straight lane of musician and drove headlong into the stormy atmosphere of social-political protest. As Scheinfeld explains, the musicality of the Beatles is translated by way of the movie's relentless pacing and snappy editing. By contrast, the pace of Chasing Trane shifts according to Coltrane's musical evolution from a cool, post-bop player to an experimental sound that arguably went even beyond the category of "jazz" and into what became termed simply as "improvisational music."

"I didn't make it for the hard-core fan or the musicologist, and I got some negative reviews for not digging into his musical thinking," Scheinfeld says. "But that was deliberate. I wanted to tell a story that would have great appeal to an audience that might have only glancing awareness of Coltrane, maybe they know 'A Love Supreme' or a hit like 'My Favorite Things,' and nothing more. And then I give them something they can learn and expand their horizon."

Those talking-head interviews? There's an art to them, Scheinfeld argues, and while he recognizes that the format has come to be viewed as somewhat out of style, he thinks they're fundamental to his work. Complex by nature, interviews in Scheinfeld's view involve several precepts that the director must be attuned to: Cast it with people who were there as eyewitnesses and have strong points-of-view; provide the subject with a comfortable setting so they're relaxed and open to a give-and-take conversation, providing the director with unique insights or stories that they may have never told before; don't interview the subjects with a basic list of questions, but allow for a conversation that demands good listening.

Scheinfeld also notes a trick he deploys: "When they give me an answer, I don't jump into the next question, but instead let the answer sit there for a moment, which gives me extra frames I can use in the editing room. What happens is that they might want to fill in the silence with something more, and that can lead to a great story as they think they're filling in dead air."

John Scheinfeld uses his documentary portraits of John Lennon (top, with Yoko Ono) and John Coltrane (bottom right) to build character studies of his famous subjects. "I always start from the question, 'how do I tell the story that's best about this artist and how do I tell it so it's in the spirit of their work?'" (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Middle) Courtesy Of John Scheinfeld; (Bottom) Everett)

Director Liz Garbus, whose stunning 2015 doc What Happened, Miss Simone? examines the troubled career of singer-pianist-composer Nina Simone, shares with Scheinfeld a passion for what she describes as a "global" search for the best possible archival elements. Scheinfeld will regale the listener with incredible finds—like the previously unseen Super 8 footage of Coltrane in a garage in Van Nuys, or neglected, previously undeveloped negative from the CBS vaults capturing Lennon on the day of his 1976 legal victory to gain U.S. Green Card status—while Garbus will note that her quest for the best visual and audio artifacts entailed searches across Switzerland, where Simone spent much of her later years. "I'd call it a global scavenger hunt," Garbus says. "One of the challenges in the assembly is that much of the really valuable audio material, such as songs and especially audio interviews, came very late in the process during the editing phase."

But her first challenge was more fundamental: Ensuring the cooperation of Simone's family, particularly the on-camera cooperation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. "The family had been approached by various filmmakers and had said no a lot," Garbus says. "They were interested in me because my filmmaking focused on social justice," such as her acclaimed The Farm: Angola, USA, about Louisiana's most notorious prison. "Lisa and the family felt that I could bring the right kind of sensitivity to Nina's development from a talented entertainer to an activist for radical causes."

Because of Garbus' pedigree, she was able to apply a balanced view of Simone's fascinating music gifts, such as her highly individual and personal approach to a lyric, and her serious attachment to political causes that actually took her in a far more left direction than even Lennon. "Her songs and music told the story of her life," Garbus notes, "and these, along with the countless interviews she conducted, were the things that drove the story, and told me where to go and how to structure the material."

Filmmaker Brett Morgen, whose Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) stands as one of the most stylish and distinctive music docs of recent years, similarly finds his way into his subject by the material he uncovers. Keeping interviews and talking heads to a minimum—and even these are framed in unexpected and fragmented ways—Morgen approaches music subjects, such as his stunning audio-visual tapestry of the early decades of the Rolling Stones, Crossfire Hurricane (2012), by surrounding the viewer with the world of the artist. "I'm trying to create experiences, as a different way to approach the truth. Facts aren't truth—never confuse these two. We're mythmakers as filmmakers. Facts are important to society, but not to art. My colleagues in nonfiction filmmaking are all trying to reach the truth. We're just going about it in different ways."

Morgen's different tacks to Kurt Cobain and the Stones reveal a catholic approach to rock 'n' roll, guided by a cinematic attachment to the power of montage. With Cobain, he gathered up his vast array of notebooks, artwork, audio cassettes and animation (the late creative force behind Nirvana was far more than as a singer-songwriter) to place the viewer effectively inside his head. A happy childhood captured in ebullient Super 8 home movies gives way to a disturbed and emotionally damaged teenage existence, in which Cobain poured his growing anger toward a family whom he felt rejected him. The soundtrack is peppered with a rising tide of primal rock tracks that grow perceptibly into the signature Nirvana sound, molding basic punk lines and attitudes into a plaintive and existential mood.

Brett Morgen (top, middle, in jacket) keeps interviews and talking heads to a minimum in his 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, preferring instead to surround the viewer with the world of the artist "to create experiences, as a different way to approach the truth." (Photos: (From Top) Alamy; HBO)

"When I met Kurt's daughter Frances to get her blessing for the project," Morgen says, "she asked me not to portray 'Saint Kurt,' as she put it. Give me the truth. If Kurt was about anything, it was honesty and authenticity. The estate was complicated by the point we started production—Courtney (Love, Cobain's partner and Frances' mom) had lost control of the estate, and I needed to be on firm ground going forward. I realized that what I could do with the movie was to give Frances two hours with her father, since he died when she was 2 and so she never knew him."

Nevertheless, Morgen insisted on final cut. He learned a hard lesson on this front during the final phases of the editing of Crossfire Hurricane, which was produced with the Stones. "I didn't have final cut on that one, and that won't happen again," he says. "I wanted to finish the movie with an amazing 14-minute sequence of a stage performance of 'Midnight Rambler' that's like nothing they've done since. It would be the most decadent, hedonist thing ever, so overwhelming that the movie would have nowhere to go. I mean, it was the ending. And Mick hated it. Really hated it. I gave in some and trimmed it to four minutes. And at the very end before we locked, they demanded that the whole thing had to come out.

"Here's what I told them. 'If you do that, it'll be an Alan Smithee film.' 'What's that?' they asked. They didn't know. I explained the Alan Smithee provision in directors' contracts," a provision forged through Guild negotiations with producers. "My name wouldn't be on the movie. If a movie has an Alan Smithee credit, it's like death. I had never applied this kind of leverage, but I was so glad that I had it. And even though I didn't get the complete sequence I wanted, I managed with this leverage to keep the four minutes in the final cut."

The irony is that few movies about the Stones have captured them with similar devotion, fascination and understanding, far from a feature promo for the legendary band and yet not the kind of disturbing study that marks Montage of Heck, which according to Morgen was intensely disliked by some of Cobain's relatives. Crossfire, for example, introduces younger generations to late founding member Brian Jones, whose creative musicality drove the unit in innovative ways but whose drug addictions forced him out just before his drowning death in 1969.

"I'll ask myself, 'Am I making these movies for the fans?' It has to be no," Morgen says. "My wife will ask me if I'm worried that I'm messing up an icon. It's always a good question, but as a director, you can never operate from a position of fear. You have to trust your instincts. To do otherwise is crippling. I'm cognizant of the fans, especially when it comes to music subjects, but my intent is to always do the best job I can. The fans will come along, and maybe feel liberated in the process."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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