Portraits of Musicians

Oliver Lunn

Out this week is Beware of Mr Baker, a far-reaching exposé of the feral force that is drumming hellraiser Ginger Baker. In celebration of the film’s release, we thought we'd knock out a list of our favourite portraits of musicians, rather than straightforward music documentaries, which we also did a while back. Did we miss any good ‘uns?

1. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)

Lo-fi legend Daniel Johnston is legit to the core. He’s the original wimpy lo-fi kid, recording songs in his parents' basement, the original ‘outsider artist’. He inspired a generation of kids to go out, buy a 4-track cassette recorder and lock themselves away in the hope of producing a basement masterpiece. Feuerzeig's documentary has plenty of insights into Johnston’s music, as well as all the tragedy surrounding his life: his drug problems, his attempted suicide, his unrequited love for a girl in his art class. But at the heart of it all is Johnston’s intensely personal, tape-hiss laden music. If you're not familiar with him, do yourself a favour and grab his 'Songs of Pain'.

2. The Fearless Freaks (Bradley Beesley, 2005)

OK, so it’s about a band rather than a musican. But what emerges from Freaks, arguably, is an engrossing portrait of two inspirational men from the band known as The Flaming Lips: Steven Drozd (pictured) and Wayne Coyne. The latter is known to be the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, with his enthusiasm for life fuelling his jaw-dropping productivity. This inspirational make-the-most-out-of-life philosophy defines everything the band does, including their outlandish performative approach to their gigs – Coyne climbs into a huge, plastic bubble to crowd-surf like no-one has ever crowd-surfed before. 

3. Year of the Horse (Jim Jarmusch, 1997)

Jim Jarmusch is known for using musicians as actors in his fiction films (Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), but he also made a great, little-seen documentary on veteran singer-songwriter Neil Young. And it's definitely not your average music doc. First off, he shows performances of Young’s songs in their entirety, and what’s more, these aren’t the big hits you’d expect; this is Jarmusch’s playlist and it is near perfection. It also has the kind of raw, lo-fi aesthetic that you might associate with some of Young’s more explosive sounds.

4. Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (Don McGlynn, 1998)

This is one of the greatest jazz docs ever made - simple as that. And it follows…one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Thankfully he’s not only a great musician but an intriguing, unpredictable character, as you'll see in the great use of archive footage of him slapping his double bass in New York. But don’t worry, you don’t need to be into jazz to dig this one. Ya dig?

5. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)

This is not only the best documentaries on Dylan ever made, it’s one of the greatest documentaries ever made, full stop. Made by ‘Direct Cinema’ pioneer D.A. Pennebaker, the film doesn’t do the whole floating heads with captions thing; it’s über-naturalistic and, as such, feels intensely personal, as if you yourself were just chilling with Dylan in his hotel room.

6. The Outsider: the Story of Harry Partch (Darren Chesworth, 2002)

There is NO musician like Harry Partch. None even come close. This is a classic case of a documentary where you don’t have to be into the music or even know anything about it  – the music in this case leaning heavily toward the avant-garde. Partch was a trained classical composer but later rejected traditional notions of composition and even built his own instruments! You can watch it here. Trust us, you won’t regret it.

7. Biggie and Tupac (Nick Broomfield, 2002)

The story of two great friends who became deadly enemies. Most people know the story of the two rappers whose well-publicised feud eventually led to both their murders. Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) is known for dividing audiences with his provocative approach to documentary, but with Biggie and Tupac he provides us with the most comprehensive portrait yet of the two rappers.

8. The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart (1994)

Sadly, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) died three years ago. And he still deserves far more recognition than he gets for his groundbreaking music, which fused many different genres in a wholly unique way. Narrated by the late, great John Peel, this doc pulls back the curtain on the eccentric Vliet, a man who was so devoted to his music that he locked his band up for eight months until they had the songs the way he wanted. From the results it's clear to see that running a tight ship sure does have its plus points. 

9. The Soul of a Man (Wim Wenders, 2003)

Wim Wenders, like Jim Jarmusch, has always made his love of music clear in his feature films. Produced by Martin Scorsese as part of a series of blues docs, The Soul of a Man stands out as the best insight into the haunting blues music of Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J.B. Lenoir. Wenders’ touch is evident in the shots of freight trains in big landscapes (think Paris, Texas) and in the graceful way in which he puts music to images.

10. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012)

And last but not least the doc about an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story. As with most of these portraits, the film is centred on a fascinating, endearing character, one that you’ll want to Google as soon as the credits roll. Sugar Man is also a film that works around a central twist, so the less you now about it before you see it the better. We better keep schtum here, then, eh.

Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn

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