The Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival is now underway. We’ve picked on a few highlights and outliers from the programme to investigate, and here are the first three…
Underground Inc. – The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock is fascinating and irritating by turn. Based around the (mostly) American post-Nirvana alt. rock scene of the 1990s, where every band with loud guitars that was a little bit metal and a little bit punk was snapped up by major labels and then just as quickly discarded when they failed to match Nevermind‘s sales figures, the documentary features a lot of great acts I loved – Cop Shoot Cop, Helmet, Ministry – and others who never really impacted on me but sound pretty great – Handsome, Failure and such. Given how great an era this was for rock music – not quite the last hurrah, but certainly leading up to it – I was quite looking forward to this, and to a large extent, it’s impressive – assorted band members talk about how everything exploded and then imploded with many a cautionary tale about the false promises and temptations of the major record labels, how they will seduce you and then discard you if you don’t live up to expectations. And outside the label pressures, the film also discusses how bands were often their own worst enemies, falling prey to the temptations of drugs and fleeting fame, allowing ego to get in the way of the music and generally fucking up their own chances.
These are interesting stories, but Shaun Katz’s film often feels as though it is stretching the point somewhat – too many interviewees get to go on and on, making similar points, and there is little structure to the story – possibly because a story like this can only ever fizzle out. At 96 minutes, the film feels very long, and no amount of footage of great bands tearing it up on stage can disguise that. I did quite enjoy this, but it definitely felt as though it had run out of steam a long time before it ended.
An unexpected highlight, if only because he’s not an artist who particularly means very much to me, was David Crosby – Remember My Name, which is part career retrospective, part end of life confessional with producer Cameron Crowe. As such, it’s not dissimilar to the remarkable Glen Campbell film I’ll Be Me – an oddly moving look at a man in his final years, as he looks back with some regret at the things he’s done, to himself and others. Much of Crosby’s bad behaviour is well documented – primarily the drug addictions that ended with him on the FBI’s wanted list and eventually serving a substantial jail sentence – but here we also see a man look back at the arrogance, the temper and selfishness that has driven all his friends away. In truth, Crosby doesn’t seem an easy man to like, even now – there’s still a sense of arrogance, and the suspicion that he could cut you down with ill-considered words if the mood took him, and his falling out with Graham Nash and Neil Young is recent enough to suggest that he might still be someone who speaks before thinking. But the film isn’t trying to make him out to be a saint – it just allows him to explain, in his own words, where it all went wrong.
Crowe’s questioning is sharp enough to get decent answers, and the musical history of Crosby – from The Byrds to Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young) to his solo work – is unquestionably important in the history of Californian rock. This musical history is well documented throughout A.J. Eaton’s film, though not so extensively that you won’t find this interesting even if that sort of soft folk rock sets your teeth on edge. And in the end, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with Crosby, who is clearly looking death in the face as old age and bad health catch up with him – though he’s lived this long against the odds, so let’s not bet on him leaving us just yet. And his irascible nature is often amusing, especially when he’s bad-mouthing The Doors’ Jim Morrison.
In The Show’s the Thing, directors Molly Berstein and Philip Dolin make a good stab at turning rock promoters into fingures almost as glamorous as the stars they pushed. Telling the story of how Frank Barsolona set up a mafia-style network of local promoters like Bill Graham who would handle the acts that he was representing, while breaking local bands with support slots and keeping their ears to the ground for what was happening with the kids. While the story of how rock shows developed from makeshift affairs based on the vaudville model to the full size gigs we know now, the film does perhaps push the role of the promoter as tastemaker a bit far – saying that no one ever broke big without the assistance of a Graham or a Harvey Goldstein seems to be puishing it somewhat, rather edfging out the grass roots activities of local bands buidling local followings, the impact of shifting fashion scenes and the not inconsiderable impact of record releases (though FM radio is at least given its due) – when one promoter boasts how ‘he’ sold out an Emerson Lake and Palmer show in 1971, I did find myself wondering if the two successful albums that the band had released at that point might have also played a part in proceedings.
Still, this is a rock ‘n’ roll story that has rarely been told – and when it has, with promoters cast as the shifty, money-hungry side of the business (which certainly isn’t untrue – one story covers how Graham would pack out venues beyond capacity and then claim that only the official capacity had attended, keeping all the extra cash payments for himself). New twists on the history of rock are always welcome. And Berstein and Dolin do a good job of making what would seem to be a rather bland story of backroom business that only touches on the excitement of rock fast paced and visually impressive, with animation, innovative use of old clips and plenty of impressive archive material, as well as some curious interviewees (Jon Bon Jovi and Carlos Santana seem fairly random choices, perhaps based on availability; Bob Geldof, here described as a ‘philanthropist’ at least makes sense in the context of discussing Live Aid). Making promoters seem a vital part of rock ‘n’ roll artistry was always going to be a leap, and the film can’t quite manage that, but it gets close. Ultimately, this is the sort of music documentary that wouldn’t seem out of place popping up on BBC4, and that’s no bad thing.