Gimme Danger: When Great Directors Make Music Documentaries

Dan Auty

Wild, ear-shredding punk rock is not the first thing you might think of when considering the work of dead-pan veteran indie auteur Jim Jarmusch. However, fans will know that he has frequently cast his favourite musicians in his films, including Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer and The White Stripes. He used Japanese noise band Boris to score 2009’s The Limits of Control, and in 1997 directed the deafening Neil Young tour movie Year of the Horse. This month, Jarmusch’s outstanding documentary about Iggy’s legendary protopunk band The Stooges hits cinemas – fascinating, witty and affectionate, Gimme Danger is everything a rock fan could want from a look at this hugely influential band.

Jarmusch is not the only revered director to tackle a rock movie – there is something about musicians, performance and their stories that has frequently attracted great narrative filmmakers to the world of rock’n’roll over the years. The Rolling Stones were one of the first bands to become the subjects of a movie, and have over the years collaborated with a number of world-famous directors. French maverick Jean-Luc Godard made his name pushing back the boundaries of established taste in his films, so it’s little wonder that he was drawn to the wild world of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band. 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil mixes studio footage of the Stones rehearsing the iconic song of the title with seemingly unrelated footage of the Black Panthers and patrons in a pop-culture book store, combined with a voiceover extolling the virtues of Marxism. The result might be more Godard than Jagger, but it does capture something of the era and the studio footage is fascinating.

Other renowned directors who have put the Stones onscreen have included pioneering documentary-makers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Hal Ashby (Lets Spend The Night Together), and Martin Scorsese (Shine A Little Light). The latter is one of the several rock’n’roll movies that Scorsese has made over the years – it’s little surprise that a director so adept at placing pop songs into his fictional movies should prove to be a skilled rock movie director too. His epic 2004 Bob Dylan film No Direction Home remains a landmark for both chronicling the enigmatic folk genius, and showing what could be done with the music documentary. Scorsese spends nearly four hours on just five years of Dylan’s life, and while he doesn’t entirely untangle the mystery of Dylan’s art, he gets as close as we are likely to get without Bob’s own input.

Elsewhere, Scorsese has directed concert films, such as the ‘70s classic The Last Waltz, and other incisive documentaries like the George Harrison film Living in the Material World. Another acclaimed director who rose to fame in the 1970s and has subsequently documented the music of that era is Jonathan Demme. Before he scored his biggest hit with The Silence of the Lambs, Demme made the innovative Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which 30 years later is still considered the best movie of its type. Demme also delivered a fascinating look at the live performance of beloved singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock in Storefront Hitchcock, in which the ex-Soft Boys frontman performs for two hours in a shop window on a busy New York street.

Like Scorsese, music has played a vital part of Spike Lee’s movies over the years, so little wonder that the fellow New Yorker has turned his formidable documentary skills to music docs. Lee has directed two key movies about Michael Jackson, and Bad 25 in particular is a music-nerd’s dream. It dives into every aspect of Jackson’s classic 1987 album – writing, recording, marketing, touring – and Scorsese himself makes a key appearance, as the man behind the camera for the classic video from the title track.

Of course, being a famous film director does not automatically mean you are able to capture what is great about music on film. Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty might be a solidly enjoyable account of the grunge pioneers’ career, but there is the sense that he’s TOO close to the subject, offering a disappointingly straightforward, non-critical viewing experience. And of course, there are dozens of fantastic music docs and concert movies made by filmmakers who have never had any interest in narrative filmmaking, but who count among the best documentarians working today. But for those handful of rock movies from the hands of gifted creators of great fictional art, the results can be electrifying. Turn it up!

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more