Rock Documentaries You Need to See

zz top doc

WoodstockGimme ShelterThe Last WaltzStop Making Sense.  And, more recently, The Beatles: Get Back.

These are some of the most important rock documentaries ever made.  Many of us have seen and enjoyed them, often many times.

Here are some rock docs you may have missed, each well worth your time.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012)

Big Star is a 1970s rock band that was expected by many, including the members of the group led by the enigmatic Alex Chilton, to make it big.  However, while they reached for the stars with everything they had, these guys never quite succeeded in grasping them.

Still, Big Star’s sound and songs made a lasting and influential impression upon a whole host of musicians who did go on to live large.  Among these acclaimed artists are R.E.M., Wilco, and Jeff Buckley.

The documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is generally engaging and entertaining.  Still, one can’t help but get the feeling that this group is being made a bigger deal than may be warranted.

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) (2010)

For years I thought singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson was English.  Perhaps this is because The Beatles singled out Nilsson (who is actually Brooklyn-born) as one of the legendary British group’s favorite musicians.

The captivating documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) reveals that he was one of the most important American pop/rock artists of the late 1960s into the early ’70s.  And that he was widely regarded as hands down the finest vocalist in the business.

Prolific documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld presents a portrait of Nilsson as an overwhelmingly insecure soul who inexplicably chose to squander his awesome talent.  Instead of building on smash hits like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You”, Nilsson chose a life wasted on an insatiable pursuit of drinking and drugging.  It was these doomed addictions that drove a record label to pay him three million dollars to no longer work for their company.  And would inevitably kill him well before his time in 1994 at the age of only 52.

Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019)

Life is sorely lacking if you don’t like something from the magical music catalog of Motown Records.  This hit-generating machine was founded back in 1958, powered by pop and soul icons Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.  It’s these two legends who co-anchor the remarkable documentary Hitsville.

Amazingly, the roll call of 1960s singers and songs sprung from a modest suburban Detroit tract home turned historic recording studio.  The list of superstars is simply staggering, far too abundant to list here.

The dawn of the ’70s would inevitably bring more independent voices to popular music.  Motown artists including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, and The Temptations now were inspired to create their own work.  One by one they migrated away from the Motown camp. These were all artists being called to express ground-breaking song crafting and performing genius through more socially relevant and politically charged articulation.  “Hitsville” would never be the same.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (2019)

Gordon Lightfoot was a staple on commercial radio for much of the 1960s and ’70s.  “Carefree Highway,” “Sundown,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” were among Lightfoot’s mega-hits. These tunes showcased a genuine master of song crafting, composing, and performing.  Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is an entrancing documentary shining light upon an explosive talent and an oracular soul.

This film is packed with reverential tributes from fellow Canadian music icons the likes of Geddy Lee, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, and Sarah McLachlan.

ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

I grew up in Texas and was well aware of the rock band ZZ Top from a young age.  I wasn’t a gigantic fan of native Texans Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and the late Dusty Hill.  I did, however, fully connect with the full-force approach and aggressive style of the power trio’s rousing songs.  Nearly all of these tunes embrace the distinctly sovereign sensibility of “The Lone Star State.”

If not already familiar, expect to better understand what is meant by “A Texas State of Mind” after experiencing the provocative documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas.

As the boys in the band will tell you, y’all are welcome to share a Longneck with us anytime y’all want, pardner.

-John Smistad

Photo: ZZ Top (fair use image)

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John Smistad is a multi-published author living in the sensational south Puget Sound area of Washington state with his fabulous family. He is passionate about music, movies, sports and his Norwegian heritage. Uff da! John has enjoyed concert performances ranging from Paul McCartney to Melissa Manchester, The Stones to Barry Manilow. Rock on, man. Fun facts: John has no middle name (really) and once rode in a DeLorean he swears flew to the future. And back again. Hey, you don’t know.

2 comments on “Rock Documentaries You Need to See

  1. Eoghan Lyng

    Nice piece.

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