Sunday, November 24, 2013

Music Sunday: The Rock Doc Edition

Today, I'm thinking about rock documentaries. This probably is because about a week or so ago I watched a great documentary about Jimi Hendrix, called "Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A'Comin'", that was part of the American Masters Series on PBS here in the States. It was two hours long, and followed Hendrix's entire life, from his birth in Seattle, Washington, in 1942, to his untimely death in London in 1970 at the age of 27. It is a good look at his career, from playing with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard to his biggest successes, first in England and then in the United States and around the world. Here is a trailer for the film, which includes commentary from not only Hendrix's friends, but from musicians such as Paul McCartney and Steve Winwood:

You probably know, if you've been following along here for very long, that I love documentary films in general. One of my favorite sub-genres with documentary film-making is rock docs, as they get called sometimes. One of the first, and one of the best, is "Monterey Pop", directed by D. A. Pennebaker, that chronicles the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, held in Monterey, California. The festival was organized by music promoter Lou Adler, singer John Phillips (of The Mamas and The Papas), producer Alan Pariser, and publicist Derek Taylor. Because of Taylor's work with The Beatles, it was widely believed that The Beatles would perform at the festival, but that did not happen, although Paul McCartney recommended both Jimi Hendrix and The Who for the festival, and their appearances at the festival their first major performances in the United States. It was also Janis Joplin's first large-scale performance, although her performance (and Hendrix's) did make it into the original cut of the film. You can find footage of their performances, though, on YouTube. One performance that did make it into the film was that of Otis Redding, in his first major appearance in front of a largely white audience.

I don't think this clip made it into the first cut of the film, but it is a good clip, so I'm including it anyway. It is The Buffalo Springfield, with David Crosby guesting (in a sign of things to come), singing "For What It's Worth" (yes, I think I did share this song last week, too), introduced by Peter Tork, of The Monkees. This was a key feature of Monterey Pop, acts being introduced by other musicians, who didn't necessarily perform at the festival:

The year 1970 saw the release of three rock documentaries, all of which are good (although at least one of them got lukewarm reviews when it was released) and all of which are still worth viewing today. In order of their release, these are "Woodstock", "Let It Be", and "Gimme Shelter".

I've written about the Woodstock festival here before, and probably about the film, directed by Michael Wadleigh (one of the editors was Martin Scorsese), as well. It documents, of course, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which has become legendary in the history of music festivals and of the history of rock and roll. Coming in at about three hours long, the film does not feature performances by everyone who played at the festival, but it comes pretty close. Those whose performances appear in the film include, among others, Crosby, Stills, Nash, (and Young, in one song), The Who, The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Arlo Guthrie, and famously (or perhaps infamously), Country Joe & the Fish. Among those who didn't make it into the original cut of the film include The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Grateful Dead. There are a couple of later versions of the film that are also floating around. One is the director's cut, which was released in 1994, and a 40th Anniversary edition, from 2009.

This did make it into the film. It is Country Joe & the Fish's performance of "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag". It figures that there would be some anti-war music at the festival. After all, it was 1969, during the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam. And so this band obliged, with a fairly clever protest song. Alas, the Fish cheer, which came right before they sang this song (and is what really makes the band's Woodstock performance infamous in some circles), is not included in this clip:

"Let It Be" was a whole different kettle of fish from "Woodstock". This film documents the recording of The Beatles' album of the same name, right about the time the band began to fall apart. In fact the film, which is a bit difficult to find these days, includes the last public performance of all four Beatles together. This was the much talked-about and written-about rooftop concert in the middle of London that ended up being shut down by the police because it was disrupting business in the area. The film didn't really get wonderful reviews when it was released in May 1970, but it was and remains an interesting look at a rock band in the final stages of its career. Here is the original theatrical trailer from the film:

And then, in December 1970, "Gimme Shelter" was released. It chronicled the Altamont Free Concert that turned into such a disaster for The Rolling Stones. As the film shows, the concert started out as a nice gesture by the Stones but due to lack of planning, poor choices, and just general bad luck, the event turned into a disaster. In the event, one concert-goer was stabbed to death by security - which was being provided by the Hell's Angels, a choice that no one seemed to be willing to own up to later. The fact that the man who was killed, Meredith Hunter, was carrying a gun, was just one in the whole constellation of things that went wrong. He shouldn't have been carrying a gun, but professional security might have been able to handle the problem by other means. The film shows not only the planning for the show and some of the show itself, but the aftermath, which seemed to shock the members of the band as much as it did everyone else. Here is the original trailer for the film:

And here is the part of the film when Mick Jagger is looking at the footage from the concert where the killing of Hunter is shown, and the aftermath of that:

Certainly, this isn't what the Stones set out to do when they proposed the concert, and it isn't what the filmmakers had in mind in documenting it. But, sometimes, it feels when watching the film like it is a precursor of things to come as American society has gotten more violent and developed more of a gun culture. It's a frightening thing to watch, but I think this is an important film because it documents this and also shows what can go wrong even when most of the parties have the best of intentions.

Because I don't want to end on such a depressing note, I'm going to close with mention of one of my favorite rock docs of all, the 1978 film "The Last Waltz", which documents the farewell concert of The Band, held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco California, on November 25, 1976, Thanksgiving Day. I've written about The Band and "The Last Waltz" here before, so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail, other than to say that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, and to post a clip that I haven't posted before here, as far as I can recall. It is from some songs recorded in the studio a few days after the concert but included in the film. This is "Evangeline", with The Band and Emmylou Harris. You might notice that a couple of band members have switched instruments, with Richard Manuel on drums and Levon Helm playing mandolin:

These are, of course, only a few of the many rock documentaries out there. Go find one and watch it. And, if you will, leave me the titles of a few of your own favorites in the comments.

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