At this stage, a clearer picture is coming together about “Michael Jackson’s This Is It.” Using a combination of rehearsals, fly-on-the-wall meetings and proper performances, it shows the once-unstoppable pop star gearing up for his big career comeback using some of his most beloved hits (and sending a message about hope and humanity in the process).
A great music doc is made up of a combination of signature moments, incredible performances and an ineffable something that can give the fan sitting on the couch that same twinge of electricity you get standing three feet from a sweaty lead singer in a packed stadium, or that awkward cringe you get seeing your favorite rock star fall apart on film. In his prime, Jackson had that magic (both kinds, unfortunately) when he took the stage, and we’ll find out for sure next week if he still had it near the end of his life.
In the meantime, here are some of my favorite music documentaries, all of which have one or more of the qualities that could make “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” great if producers decided to pull no punches and present the King of Pop in all his complicated glory.
Three Chords And The Truth
The Ramones, “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones”
How could I not include this bare bones 2003 movie about my favorite band? From their early days at New York’s defunct punk ground zero CBGB to massive crowds in South America, this low-budget flick is like the band themselves: Raw, fast and kind of messy. Mixing concert footage, interviews, home movies and classic TV appearances, members talk about their unlikely rise from the New York underground to legendary status, even as they lament their failure to grab the commercial brass ring and make no secret of long-simmering tensions.
Sold Out, Not Sell Out
Nirvana, “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!”
I will watch anything about Nirvana. Hell, if there was three hours of tape of Kurt Cobain tuning his guitar in a dark room, I’d get two copies on Blu-Ray. In the meantime, this 1994 live DVD will have to do, and considering it has classic takes on some of the band’s best and most beloved tunes (“About a Girl,” “Come as You Are,” “Polly,” “Lithium” and, yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). This band had to be experienced live and, unfortunately, this is the closest you can currently get.
Behind The Music
Metallica, “Some Kind of Monster”
I’m not a huge Metallica fan, but aside from some fascinating peeks at the musical process of the long-running thrash icons, this movie is, literally, a trip to the therapist’s couch with a group in crisis. Few bands have ever laid themselves so bare.
Leaving It All On The Stage
The Band, “The Last Waltz”
What else can be said of this 1978 “Citizen Kane” of rock docs, chronicling the final show by the Band? Directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring cameos from Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr and Neil Young, the title card says it all: “This film should be played loud!” Beautifully shot, packed with stunning performances and utterly unique — the show took place at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving and began with turkey dinners for the 5,000 fans — “Waltz” is considered one of the best concert films ever made.
Video Killed The Radio Star
Talking Heads, “Stop Making Sense”
Another visual feast shot by a major director (Jonathan Demme), this 1984 live movie of the punk icons exploded all notions of what a live rock doc could/should be. With multiple references to iconic films, dramatic lighting, feverish energy, crack performances and, of course, singer David Byrne’s legendary “big” suit, “Stop Making Sense” is another must-see.
Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius
Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”
This stunning doc has the holy triumvirate of great music movies: Drug issues, label problems and serious personnel tension. Aside from chronicling the sessions for the group’s amazing breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, we see singer Jeff Tweedy struggle with crippling migraines, musical conflicts with late foil Jay Bennett and pushback from a label that doesn’t like the direction he’s headed in. It sounds depressing, but trust me, it has a happy ending and a killer score.