Do Music Documentaries Still Matter?
    • TUESDAY, AUGUST 22, 2017

    • Posted by: Meredith Nardino

    The music documentary is far from a new concept. What we now recognize as "rock docs" began in the 1960s. Fans were able to take that extra step closer to their favorite artists, watching their day to day lives pan out on screen and learning more information than could be discovered through songs alone. These films often feature exclusive tour footage and behind the scenes access, two things that make the genre unlike any other.

    Recently, it feels like there are more films about musicians than ever before. The digital age in which we live allows for greater access to artists - practically every moment can now be documented, even without professional film crews. Limited series on premium cable networks and exclusive videos on streaming platforms are released at a remarkable pace. While these events tend to be hits among critics, it's usually unlikely that they're ever as successful with the general public. Any way you spin it, music documentaries are geared to extremely niche audiences, sometimes leading to disappointing box office runs or unfavorable TV ratings.

    The recent trend in music docs seems to have started with HBO's mini series, Sonic Highways, in 2014. This project was unlike anything ever broadcast on television. Each episode, the Foo Fighters visited a famous recording studio in a major American city, learning the musical history and culture of the area. Directed by Dave Grohl himself, the series was insanely popular, earning two Primetime Emmy wins and a Grammy nomination for Best Music Film. The final result was an 8-track album that Grohl called "a love letter to American music."

    Sonic Highways was a once in a lifetime passion project. The time and effort it took for the band to travel across the country, interview local artists, and record original songs with a film crew following close behind is unimaginable. This series put a unique twist on the traditional music documentary format, leaving many to question what the future of the genre would look like and how viewers would respond.

    The following year saw the release of Montage of Heck, a harrowing look into the life and untimely death of Kurt Cobain. At the time, the documentary received mixed reviews: people were able to see more of Cobain's life than ever before, but some of the singer's colleagues questioned the accuracy of the information. Rather than deify Cobain or romanticize his story, the film portrayed him as an artist, a father, and a human.

    It was difficult to predict how successful a film like Montage of Heck would be. Not only is the story inherently dark, but it was released at a time when the a lot of the younger generation audience might not have been as interested in Cobain's life. He's a hero and an icon, but unfamiliar and unreachable to a lot of the prime movie-going demographic: teenagers. Again, the film seemed far more successful among critics and longtime grunge fans than with a large part of the public.

    This year, the trend continues with HBO's The Defiant Ones and the independent release, Other Music. The HBO series certainly has the advantage of a major media conglomerate and a star-studded cast - Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre are just the tip of the iceberg. Other Music, on the other hand, demonstrates the one of biggest problems with modern music documentaries. Sure, it has interviews with members of Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, and The National. Sure, it paints a picture of New York City in its musical prime. But Other Music (the film) struggles in a similar way to Other Music (the store) by being too niche and a bit off-putting.

    The indie record store closed its doors just last year, but its legacy as "THE place where a generation of New Yorkers at the dawn of the Internet age went to discover groundbreaking music" will hopefully be preserved by this documentary. If their Kickstarter earns enough money, that is. In the trailer, a former staffer of Other Music called the store "a place for misfits." That's likely the audience of the documentary itself: music nerds and purists who want to relive the glory days of mid-2000s New York City. Having this target audience is by no means a problem, but it makes it more difficult for the story to gain the audience it deserves.

    Just like music itself, the power and reach of these films is always changing. Documentaries were once the best way to get an inside look at life on the road and in the studio, and to see huge stars as regular people. In an age when artists are already so accessible on social media and when history is uncovered at the click of a button, it's hard to appreciate the cultural staple that is the music documentary.

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