Old School Music Documentaries
by Kristin Battestella
This trio of recent music documentaries highlighting classic cool subjects is all about sex, drugs, and rock n roll – with some vinyl, music genius, depression, and shop talk bandied about for good measure.
The Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds – This fiftieth anniversary hour revisits the 1966 album's inception, recording, and legacy with Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks amid interviews with fellow musicians, engineers, and music historians. Surfboards, classic cars, and board shorts add to California Sound nostalgia, and familiar notes from the likes of “Surfin' Safari,” “Little Deuce Scoop,” “Surfer Girl,” and “California Girls” anchor the archive photos and video footage with the late Carl and Dennis Wilson as conversations at the piano and chatting in studio revisit childhood inspirations, early harmonizing, surf hits, and rigorous touring. Such tough travel broke Brian Wilson down, thrusting him into the studio at home for the titular sessions that would turn the group from sunny pop to something more serious with my favorite “Wouldn't It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” “I Just Wasn't Made for These Times,” “Here Today,” and more. This mostly track by track story is told quickly without a narrator slowing the intimate pacing, first hand facts, and reflections waxing on the musical experimentation, complex songwriting, and sixties influences like The Kingston Trio, Rubber Soul, and the Spector Wall of Sound. Original recording samples and isolated vocals or backing tracks break down the song constructs while debating the significance of that term 'musical genius' and dabbling with acid or LSD. Band arguments about the concept album as art rather than sticking to the repetitive commercial formula are also recalled amid the then progressive use of female studio musicians, unique sound developments, lyrical impressiveness, and sublime expressions of self in song. Mismarketing mistakes and lack of company support hampered the eponymous release at the time, however it's interesting to hear British music experts discussing The Beach Boys now respected legacy and influence – because we probably tend to thing Brits in the sixties were preoccupied with that other group that begins with The Bea... Perhaps viewers need to be familiar with Brian Wilson and Co. or mid century music trends before The British Invasion to keep up with the reflective dialogue and album timelines, but there are some great insights to disprove millennials who may dismiss this music as nothing more than Kokomo, John Stamos on the Bongos, or that Beach Boys Baywatch episode. This feature gives newer listeners a tip of the iceberg education in how rock and roll became a 'religious experience' while escorting longtime fans and baby boomer down memory lane.
Janis: Little Girl Blue – Music as creation, imagination, and rhythm quotes accent archive footage and feisty concert video to open this 2015 feature length documentary. However, the zany performances and fashion flair are countered with speeches on loneliness and voiceover letters debating talent versus ambition and the need to be loved or proud of yourself. Tearful recollections with family and friends mirror our subject's sad turn aways from the camera and disliking of her appearance as childhood photos, personal writings, and rare artwork anchor tales of bucking the old fashioned southern ways with a brash beatnik personality. The early Austin scene had its own bullying and lack of acceptance with Joplin voted winner of an ugliest man contest. Pain already influenced her songs – creating a constant need for a tight knit group of friends to tell her she was 'hot shit.' Moving to San Francisco in 1963 leads to Monterey encounters with Bob Dylan and Otis Redding, but bad boyfriends and conflicted lesbian leanings spiral into drug use, interventions, heartbreaking love letters unanswered, and a desperate seeking of happiness in any form. Additional writings apologize to her parents for not being who they wanted her to be, but Joplin finds counterculture camaraderie with Big Brother and the Holding Company and being true to herself on stage. Music journalists, sixties compatriots, and rare confessions from Dick Cavett recount bad record contracts, dalliances, rifts with the bad, and trouble to stay sober before Joplin's breakout at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Stunning renditions of “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Trust in Me Baby,” “Work Me Lord,” “I Need A Man to Love,” “Cry Baby,” and of course “Me and Bobby McGee” define her quest to be a star alongside studio behind the scenes, concert montages, and constant pressure to prove herself with difficult touring, hotels, and out of control heroin. All was right with the world while on stage – but what happens when the performance is over and you are alone with no audience cheering your name? Romance and healing travels can't stave off enablers, burning the torch at both ends at Woodstock, and a difficult Texas return. Joplin had an intuitive need to go on singing everybody's blues because she thought nobody cared anyway. If you somehow don't know how her story ends, viewers can tell it won't end well despite the sweet, sweet music along the way. This is a personal retelling sans narrator with a superb finale – a bittersweet biography always worth revisiting to appreciate the pain and sadness behind great rock and roll.
Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop – This 2013 British hour based on the book of same name chronicles the resilience of the mom and pop music shop from the early days of 78s and mass copies of Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones to the rise of Punk Rock, The Clash, independent record distribution, and recent retail upheavals. The conversational style recalls the popular hang outs, listening booths, and allowances spent on singles with rivalries over too many shops in the same town before the eighties hype salesmen and manipulating chart sales changing who was hot and what stock to order. The record business was good even into the nineties, and interviewees make an interesting case on whether it was wise to decrease the quality of vinyl and kill records all together in favor of the supposedly sounding better, unbreakable, and space saving Compact Disc rather than just letting the mediums coexist. Because, of course, physical CD sales are down now and records are back – and the niche market never really left if you knew where to shop. Small profits, expensive overhead, and the advent of streaming in the new millennium led to shuttered shops amid big box store price wars and the ease of instantaneous music. Listeners now think in terms of cheap, even free or illegal individual songs rather than the expense of an entire album, however vinyl stores still cater to customers with their personality and knowledgeability, appreciating the difference between discovering a treasure to love instead of the intangible cloud. Some of the business talk or British slang might be confusing to some, but this is a very informative recounting of the industry history as, pun intended, what comes around goes around – chain stores weigh music sales on price versus floor space and often don't have what consumers want. While some indie record stores are surviving, others featured here closed during filming and the fate of any stand alone shop remains uncertain even as music companies are re-releasing vinyl or issuing new music on deluxe LPs and popularity increases with connections on social media and Record Store Day celebrations. This might have been neat as a longer series touring the shops seen here, but it's a nice snapshot of the music business in the last forty years with a unique spin on appreciating the ongoing vinyl legacy.