Documenting Musicians

Over the past decade the number of music documentaries under production has significantly increased, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut reason as to why.

Over the past few years, something odd has started happening in the film industry: the number of music documentaries has exploded. You can trip the names off your tongue without even thinking about it: The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (2013), Metallica Through the Never (2013), Searching for Sugar Man (2012) and Marley (2012). Even biopics like Notorious (2009) about The Notorious B.I.G, Walk the Line  (2005) and an upcoming documentary about Tupac Shakur adhere to this trend. Musicians and their lives are hot property.

You’d think the answer lies in the finances – movie studios are, after all, always keen to look out for the bottom line, and like banking on sure things. But some of these films really don’t clear that much money. The Metallica film took $3.5m worldwide at the box office and, according to data website The Numbers, Marley  took $3m. Searching for Sugar Man, about the Detroit singer Sixto Rodriguez, was an anomaly, clearing $9m. DVD sales tend to be either the same or lower. So while these films make a profit, they aren’t pulling in the numbers that justify major studio time – for comparison, something like the recent Eric Bana movie Closed Circuit, generally considered to have flopped at the box office, took more than $5m.

So what gives? Charles Steel says he isn’t sure. He’s one of the producers behind Kevin Macdonald’s excellent Marley. Working at Cowboy Films, Steel has been behind a lot of Macdonald’s work, including The Last King of Scotland (2006) and the recent How I Live Now (2013). Although, he isn’t willing to venture a reason for the explosion of music documentaries, he knows a lot about making them. For one thing, he’s very aware, he says, that some music documentaries tend to hero-worship their subject. Marley  isn’t one of them. It’s a complex film, showing just how divisive a character Bob Marley really was – particularly with the people closest to him. The reggae singer died of cancer in 1981. “Discovering who that person – the real Bob Marley – was, was a pleasure, because there was a complex character at the heart of it,” says Steel. “The biggest challenge on Marley was [the interviews]. Kevin put together a wish list of people he wanted to interview and, early on, we decided to get people who had experienced direct contact with Bob, rather than people like Bono or Sting talking about the influence Bob had. We were wondering how we were going to get everyone, because there was such a mess: no will, money, rivalries, animosity. A lot of people would say, ‘if he’s in it, I’m not in it.’ It was a real challenge.”

The Marley film, incidentally, had a fascinating pre-production history. Steel’s fellow producer Steve Bing, who had the original idea of making a film about the singer, approached the fractured Marley family for permission and got it. He then managed to attach no less than Martin Scorsese to the project. When Scorcese had to depart for scheduling reasons, Jonathan Demme – he of Silence of the Lambs  (1991) – was brought in. Demme actually made a film, but there were creative differences between him and Bing, so it was shelved. It was reggae impresario Chris Blackwell who singled out Kevin Macdonald as the man to do right by the film.

There’s little question that documentaries about musicians present some immense stories for filmmakers to handle. Musicians at Bob Marley’s level of talent and fame lead incredible lives, as different from those of the rest of us as you can possibly get. The research has to be spot-on accurate though, as nothing will bring a documentary down faster than a fudged set of facts. If you get it right, you can tell some amazing stories.

Coming back to an earlier point, hero worship isn’t always a bad thing, not when it is explored from a rational perspective. Take the recent Stone Roses film, Made of Stone. Directed by Shane Meadows, it is a love letter to the band that had a vast influence on Meadows when he was younger. In storied film magazine Little White Lies, deputy editor Adam Woodward wrote: “It’s about seeing rock bands as brands, religions, sects, cults, bodies for which one must pay penances and relinquish earthly souls. It’s about what it means to adore a group of people beyond basic emotional and economic rationality.”

What Woodward knows about film in general – not just documentaries – is staggering. While it would be easy, he says, to view Made of Stone  as nothing more than a fan geeking out over his heroes, there’s more to it than that. “There’s a difference between it being about the band, and being a film from a fan – it’s not only of the band but of music,” he says. “It’s that perspective, rather than a filmmaker just documenting an aspect of their lives. It’s that shared excitement of seeing your favourite band play live.”

There’s also the question of genres. The music documentaries that have been released over the past few years present an interesting snapshot of the kinds of genres that get moviegoers excited. Rock, predictably, is at the top of the pile, but so are reggae and hip hop. Woodward, however, isn’t sure there’s a major trend: “It’s kind of hard to categorise them,” he says. “You’re looking over the course of a couple of years here but there have always been films made about musicians and entertainers. Something like Sugar Man  isn’t really about the music; it’s about the amazing story.”

Digging deeper, there’s a much more compelling reason for the rash of music documentaries and it links back to the genre question quite neatly. It’s to do with the filmmakers. Overwhelmingly, the people making these documentaries, such as Meadows, Macdonald and Metallica Through the Never  director Nimród Antal, are in their 40s. It’s an age at which they’re starting to mature as film directors, and make the movies they want to make. For their part, it’s about acts that inspired them in their formative years: Metallica, Bob Marley, The Stone Roses.

You can couple this with the increased ease of making movies. While making one is certainly still difficult, it costs much less to do than it did even a decade ago, thanks to advances in technology. So you have a combination of filmmakers coming of age, as it were, with the increased resources to make movies. “It’s a case of what’s crossing over into the mainstream,” says Woodward. “Take Metallica: I would argue maybe that wouldn’t have happened 10 or 20 years ago. They’re legends within their own scene and obviously this music has got a kind of crossover appeal now.”

Of course, it follows that other, younger genres will have their moment soon too. That’s not to say there haven’t already been documentaries made about newer aspects of the music industry – there are some major commercial documentaries about pop superstars such as Katy Perry (Katy Perry: Part of Me, 2012) and teen heartthrobs’ One Direction’s recent This is Us (2013) as well as Daft Punk’s The Collaborators Series. The major difference between these films though is that these latter creations are led by the musicians or their PR companies, rather than the fans themselves, a place that is potentially more genuine. Whether in the future these artists’ fans will be making movies about them is something that we will have to wait to find out; if the majority of fan-led documentaries are created by groupies in their forties, it may be a while before Katy Perry’s fans are ready to create them.

Documentaries will keep coming and they remain a uniquely challenging artform, one that is as beguiling for directors as it is frustrating, something Charles Steel learned while making a documentary about the 1970s West Indian cricket team, called Fire in Babylon  (2010). “Filmmaking is incredibly difficult to do,” he says. “You’ve got to get it right. Documentaries are a different process. It’s as much about defining the story once you’ve got the material, whereas in the film, that happens beforehand when you’re doing the script.” But as long as there continue to be new musicians, there will be documentaries that follow them, so there will be plenty more stories to come.

Rob Boffard