The music documentary has become a genre in itself – an often stark portrayal of a struggling band trying to work together is, at once, entertaining and heartbreaking. You come to realize that a group of people working together on anything for long enough can become like a troubled marriage, giving up on proper communication and opting instead to passive aggressively punish each other in musical form. I’ve rewatched my favorites countless times, and it’s hard to narrow down my top five without mourning the ones I left out, but here goes.
Some Kind of Monster
Thinking about starting a band, and excited about the idea? I don’t recommend starting with this one. In 2001, Metallica enters the studio to work on their eighth studio album, St. Anger, and things get painful. Immediately following the departure of their bassist, Jason Newsted, the band’s management hires a Cosby-sweatered therapist to help the band work out their problems, and it’s as uncomfortable to watch as you would expect. Frontman James Hetfield checks into rehab, and when he returns to the studio, he’s insistent that he can only work until 4pm each day, and doesn’t want the band to even listen to playbacks when he’s not around. Drummer Lars Ulrich is not happy about it, and the whole thing plays out like the lead-up to a contentious divorce. The resulting studio album still polarizes fans and critics to this day (SPIN scored it 8/10. Pitchfork gave it 0.8/10).
Key moment: The aforementioned debate over Hetfield’s post-rehab curfew culminates in Ulrich screaming “Fuck!” in Hetfield’s face.
A small and ugly carpeted series of rooms played host to some of the most successful recordings of the 1970s-80s. Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — even General Hospital‘s Rick Springfield. Known for its distinctively punchy drum sound and an analog recording console built by Rupert Neve himself, Sound City Studios practically sculpted the sound of the hitmakers. In 2011, the studio is finally closing shop, and director Dave Grohl is rolling when they power down their Neve board for the last time — before selling it to him to use in his own studio.
Key moment: After a series of failures, the owners are just about to call it quits on the old building when Nirvana bursts on the screen to their song ‘In Bloom’ to resurrect it from the dead with their Diamond-selling album Nevermind.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
A harrowing — and at times, terrifying — look at a case of escalating mental illness in a bizarrely talented songwriter with a unique voice. Daniel Johnston started writing songs on a badly out-of-tune piano and an electric chord organ in the basement of his parents’ house, recording cassette tapes with his own hand-drawn artwork, and then giving them to anyone who would listen to them. In one incredible scene, MTV is filming a special in Austin, when Johnston literally strong-arms his way on-camera, trying to promote his tapes. The film also highlights a long-eduring crush on a classmate, who has unknowingly served as his muse for his entire life.
Key moment: A creepy tracking shot down the hallway of a mental institution as a cassette tape plays in the background, with Johnston (confined in the institution at the time) making up a jingle that he wants his manager to try to sell to Mountain Dew: “They tell me I’m crazy because I love the Mountain Dew so much…”
The Beach Boys: An American Band
The Beach Boys are best known for their early to mid-1960s songs about cars and surfing, but they continued to make albums regularly up until 1992. Many are bizarre, and some are downright creepy — particularly when middle-aged, bald, and thickly bearded lead singer Mike Love continues to sing about the little blonde ‘cuties’ he’d love to take for a ride in his little Honda.
Songwriter Brian Wilson is undoubtedly the architect of their greatest music, including the 1965 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, which made even The Beatles want to ‘get better’ — but by the end of the 60s, Wilson was mentally deteriorating and attempting to flee from public life. He had a studio built in his living room for the band to record in, but even then, he refused to even get out of bed to work with them downstairs. His two brothers, Carl and Dennis, and his cousin Mike Love were left to keep the band afloat, and the results were a mixed bag.
Particularly interesting is the 1966 studio footage of the band’s lost album, Smile, which include Brian and the musicians in firemen’s helmets as they record an instrumental ode to fire — the last gasp of a brilliant composer before he disappeared into his bedroom for a decade.
Key moment: In a comedy sketch from 1976, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (dressed as cops) walk into Brian’s bedroom, where he’s lying in a blue bathrobe, and demand that he come to the beach with them to surf again. Filmed in the actual bedroom where he spent most of the 1970s, Wilson doesn’t even resemble himself at the height of the Beach Boys’ success.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Country rock band Wilco have made a few straightforward albums, and are ready to shake things up. Firing their drummer, they invite Jim O’Rourke into the studio to help them reshape their sound, which becomes a carefully crafted collage of static, noise, clanging, and literal bells and whistles. Director Sam Jones films as they deconstruct some of their new songs, rebuilding them in new and inventive ways. The resulting record is so confusing for their label that they drop the band and allow them to walk away with the album. Big mistake, as the album is a massive critical success, and ends up getting sold back to a subsidiary of the same label, who reap all of the benefits.
Key moment: Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and frontman Jeff Tweedy argue in circles about how to mix the 3-second intro of a song until Tweedy literally vomits from a migraine.