Women Who Rock airs tonight on PBS and the one-hour documentary does its best to cover female musicians who have contributed to the shaping of rock and roll as we know it, from Etta James to Wanda Jackson to Heart to Beyonce. But it’s just another reminder to me that there are never enough documentaries or biopics about the talented array of women who make music.
Most recently, Tegan and Sara put out Get Along, The Runaways were the subject of a film made about their experiences in the 1970s and Patty Schemel put together her life story in Hit So Hard. It made me want to ask: what’s your favorite musical documentary or biopic?
Bridget McManus:I love The Dixie Chicks‘ Shut Up and Sing. They are badass!
Mia Jones: This is kind of a difficult one for me because I’ve found most musical documentaries to be incredibly boring (Wilco, I’m looking at you). One of the biggest exceptions to that rule is the utterly fascinating film Dig! The film followed the love/hate relationship between Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols. What started out fun turned into a lesson in mental illness, musical genius and downward spirals. I should add that all three of the lessons come courtesy of Newcombe while Taylor is seemingly along for the ride. (Editor’s note: It was directed by a woman, Ondi Timoner!)
Heather Hogan: Sigur Ros‘ Heima is one of the most enchanting things I’ve ever watched in my whole entire life. The 2007 documentary follows the band all across Iceland, from open air concerts in Reykjavík and Ásbyrgi to intimate concerts at high school gymnasiums and tea shops in Ólafsvík and Borg. They even perform a (mostly) acoustic protest show against a dam at the Jökulsá á Dal River.
There’s a reason Iceland is generally considered to be the most magical place on earth, and when you juxtapose Sigur Ros’ ethereal sound against an full-on Icelandic backdrop, it’s pretty dang bewitching. I actually don’t think I’ve ever watched the whole thing without crying. But then, I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter — magic has a powerful effect on me.
The Linster: Well, the greatest musical documentary is This Is Spinal Tap, obviously. But for the sake of discussion, I’ll go with Madonna: Truth or Dare, which follows the 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour. I paid what was then a fortune to get a ticket for her performance in Dallas — and it was worth every penny. The production was incredible, from the costumes to the music to the controversial eroticism and religious iconography. Twenty years later, I can still remember the feeling that I was in the presence of cultural genius.
Truth or Dare captures some of the production, but the most fascinating part is the behind-the-scenes Madonna. She always knew the camera was on, so who knows if she was acting or not? But who cares? She’s an icon for a reason — and Truth or Dare is a glimpse of why.
Ali Davis: There’s a part of me that wants to believe This is Spinal Tap is real. I think we should all make a commitment to re-watch it during this month of 11/11 especially.
Failing that, though, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is the next best thing. Every musician/actor/writer/artist has at some point wondered “How long do I have to keep this terrible day job?” Anvil offers the terrible answer: Maybe for another twenty years.
Anvil is a Canadian metal band that blazed a trail for their fellow headbangers yet somehow never quite caught on themselves. But they’re still chugging — delivering school lunches and raising families while waiting to finally hit. There is so much to love and cringe about — an ill-fated European tour, stormy recording sessions, and good lord, is he actually playing his guitar with a sex toy?
It’s fun, it’s excruciating, and there’s a moment that made me so happy I cried a little bit.
Dara Nai: Whenever someone declares, “Failure is not an option!” it usually means it totally is. Nothing embodies that fact in a sweeter, more heartfelt way than the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which details the travails of the epically unlucky Canadian heavy metal band. While other bands of the era, Judas Priest, Metallica, Scorpions and Whitesnake, sold millions and made bank, the biggest thing about Anvil ended up being their hair.
Try watching Anvil as they play to empty rooms, miss their train and sleep in the station, run out of money (again) and deal with homelessness and not root for these guys and their Sisyphean dreams. You gotta love a band whose story became a real-life This is Spinal Tap but never really gave up. It’s a hilarious, heartbreaking tale. For those who tried to rock, I salute you!
Trish Bendix: Le Tigre‘s Who Took The Bomp? (also called Le Tigre: On Tour) is the perfect look at the political pop band and how they dealt with the music industry on their own terms. The balance between performance clips and backstage life is right on. I especially love how the director, Kerthy Fix, captured the band’s sense of humor.
I also love Kerty’s other musical doc, Strange Powers, about out musician Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. The films are as different as can be, which is a testament to not only the people she chose to document, but her skills as a doc director.
Grace Chu: Come on. This is a no-brainer. This topic cannot be addressed without mentioning Wish Me Away, the documentary about chart-topping country singer Chely Wright‘s coming out process in a world that is often hostile to gays and lesbians. As her spiritual adviser warns her, “There’s nobody quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus.” Coming out in the country music world can only be handled by the PR equivalent of the A-team. Wright assembles such a team — I’ll just call them the Gay Team — to help her take the wheel and “shut up and drive” out of the closet.
Karman Kregloe: This is a tough one because movies about musicians, whether biopics or documentaries, are my favorite kinds of films to watch. My only gripe is that there are far too few about female artists! My top picks for female-centric films have already been mentioned above, so I guess I’ll toss out the one I’ve seen most recently, The Fearless Freaks, about The Flaming Lips.
As I’d only ever heard one song ("Do You Realize") by the band before I watched it, the film was my introduction to them and their music. Funny, poignant and packed full of charming weirdness, what I found most inspiring about the film was the way it stressed the importance of the band members’ roots to the evolution of their sound. As a person from a small town, I was touched by how these guys still live down the street from their families in Oklahoma, participate in their communities, and include their ex-con siblings in their creative projects. When frontman Wayne Coyne needed props to make his sci-fi movie "Christmas on Mars," well, he just went down the street and asked a neighbor if he could have some of his industrial scraps. The neighbor hauled them back to the house for him. It’s nice to be reminded that art happens everywhere and doesn’t necessarily have to take you far from home.
What’s your favorite musical documentary or biopic?