A Few Great Music Documentaries

  1. Searching for Sugarman

Searching for Sugar ManSometimes you see a documentary and you walk out thinking if that had been a fictional movie it would have seemed too preposterous. This is one of those stories.  This guy in Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez makes a couple of records in the 70’s (Cold Fact, 1970;  and Coming From Reality, 1971 ). He is his 20’s at the time. Pretty much nobody buys them. He then spends several decades working in Detroit as a manual laborer often doing nasty demolition jobs. Thanks to the slimebuckets who owned the rights to his music he has no idea that somebody was buying those records. In fact so many hundreds of thousands of South Africans bought up his two albums that he was a legend in that country.

Rodriguez possibly would never had known that, and he never got a dime for all those sales, but for the  fact that a South African record store owner, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, dedicated himself to tracking him down. And he did. And before you know it Rodriguez is playing live in Cape Town before a packed house of adoring fans some 30 years after his records were released.

I was fortunate to get to see Rodriguez last year at NJPAC. Now in his 70’s, he’s had a long, hard life and it shows, but the venue was packed with people who came to celebrate his story. And to listen to his music. Because while this incredible tale overshadows the music itself, he’s a quality songwriter and the music is really good. I don’t know why Americans let this guy slide by until the South Africans, and these filmmakers, woke us up to his music.

See trailer.

  1. 20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet From StardomNot just a great music documentary, this is a great movie. The story of the trials and tribulations, as well as the massive talent, of backup singers. Among those whose career the storyline follows is Darlene Love, hard-working, underappreciated and exploited for much of her career. The movie reminds us that at one time she was taking on housecleaning jobs. She rises above it all, builds a successful solo career, and eventually is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Bruce Springsteen backing her up at the induction ceremony. She’s the exception.

There’s Claudia Lennear who started as an Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, worked with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, and was the inspiration for the Stones’ song “Brown Sugar.” She wasn’t successful in building a solo career and now teaches languages at Mt. San Antonio College in California. There’s the story of Merry Clayton, asleep and with her hair in curlers, summoned to the studio to belt out lyrics about rape and murder in “Gimme Shelter.” (A song that was in my head for weeks after seeing this movie.) When you watch Lisa Fischer do a duet with Mick Jagger during a Rolling Stones tour, you forget to even notice Jagger.

While not front and center these talented women did not always go unnoticed by the musicians they worked with. Among the folks who pay tribute in the film are Springsteen, Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Bette Milder. Turns out that when you tilt the focus at little bit off center you might discover the reason why some of your favorite songs are as good as they are.

See trailer.

  1. Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story

Respect YourselfThe rise and fall of Stax, the Memphis label that positioned itself as the antithesis of the mass-produced cookie-cutter sound of Motown. Running through this film are themes about race relations in America, about the evolution of the entertainment industry and the struggle of small independents to survive. But mostly it’s about the corps of brilliant musicians who passed through Stax.

To be honest, I had no idea how good Booker T. is until I saw this movie. He also seemed to be the heart and soul of Stax Records even though they had some better selling acts. From the early 60’s Booker T. and MG’s was a mixed-race band in the segregationist South, a symbol of what Stax stood for. There’s also Otis Redding, who arrived at the Memphis studio carrying someone else’s bags, but with a demo tape in his pocket. They ended up cutting a record right then and there. As far as I’m concerned, Otis Redding has no equal.

Stax was founded in 1957 by brother and sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. He ran the studio in an old movie theater and she operated the adjoining record shop. It lasted until 1975. In addition to Otis and Booker T. and the MGs, the Stax roster included Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and Carla and Rufus Thomas.  You’ll be amazed at how many great songs came out of Stax. A few of them are on the trailer.

  1. David Bromberg Unsung Treasure

Unsung TreasurePerhaps more people would be aware of David Bromberg if he hadn’t decided to a take a couple decades off. But that’s what makes the story as told in Unsung Treasure so interesting.

Bromberg’s heyday was in the 70’s and 80’s. An accomplished guitarist, he played blues and bluegrass, jazz, rock and folk. He played at the head of the David Bromberg Big Band and he played solo.  And he’s a pretty interesting guy to listen to as he is not adverse to telling a story or two on stage. The movie has some vintage clips of Bromberg performances and also shows some of his more recent collaborations with Keb’ Mo’ and Dr. John. The latter pronounces in his ever more raspy voice, “David Bromberg is an American icon.”

At some point in the 80’s he packed it in, decided he had enough of touring and wanted to stay home and hang around with his wife. For 20 years or so he ran a violin shop in Chicago. Later he moved to Wilmington, Del., (said he couldn’t take the cold in Chicago and couldn’t afford New York). The documentary shows how he achieves some success in working to revive the desolate downtown area he relocated to.

Bromberg plays some gigs now and again mostly on the east coast. I saw him last year at William Paterson College with the remnants of the big band. He was as good as ever. If you get a chance to see him, you won’t be disappointed. You can get a taste of the film and his music here.

What are your favorite music documentaries?

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24 Responses to A Few Great Music Documentaries

  1. I must try and catch up on these movies, thanks for listing them (and with excellent reviews) so well. P.S. You’re absolutely correct – Otis Redding has no equal


  2. I have only seen 20 ffet from stardom and I loved it too!! Now i’m humming gimme shelter!! Happy Thanksgiving!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jacquiegum says:

    Thanks for the heads up on these. I’m a little geeky…I love documentaries! LOL It’s my first “go-to” on my On Demand. I loved “20 feet from Stardom” and now I’m on the hunt for the others.


  4. Seems I’m like Jacqueline. Love documentaries but have not watched any of the ones you mention. If I get a chance I will.


  5. Beth Niebuhr says:

    I love stories like these. It is great to hear about where these folks came from and the various paths their music took. I’m so glad that Sixto Rodriguez got found! Backup singers are so amazing and don’t get the recognition they deserve, except for occasionally, for example the movie Dreamgirls.


  6. I love the line up. I too love documentaries. It’s our first “go-to” on Netflix. I am a big fan of “20 feet from Stardom”. It’s really worth watching. I have yet to see the others and will make a point to do so when time permits. 🙂


  7. Meredith says:

    I love music, and stories about the underdog. These sound like they’re right up my alley! I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for such a great list.


  8. Thanks to NetFlix, I’ve seen more documentaries than I ever thought possible. I did finally catch the Pearl Jam 20 documentary on my flight back from Munich a couple of months ago. It brought back so many memories. The way music shapes society is vice versa has always intrigued me, plus I was that kid with walls (and ceiling) plastered with big hair metal bands from the late 80s and early 90s.


  9. Andy says:

    I once saw The Song Remains the Same, although I don’t remember it very well as I was ‘dazed and confused’ at the time, if you get my drift.


  10. andleeb says:

    I love documentaries but I have not got the chance to check any of above mentioned. I hope when I will get time to check documentary, my first choice will be from the give list. From the comments I also came to know about Netflix , I do not know about that either.
    Thanks for Information.


  11. I grew up in Detroit and love Motown music. Will have to check out #1. I did see #2 and #4. Both excellent. Thanks so much for sharing with us and Happy Thanksgiving.


  12. Wow, do I feel dated. During the 70s and 80s I was to busy to pay attention to anything besides our growing family and so have not heard of any of these singers and documentaries. I also don’t have NetFlix so that limits my chances of catching up. but….the story about Sixto Rogriquez was amazing – so glad his talent was finally rewarded – 20 feet from Stardom also sounds really interesting as do the others. I wonder, can you rent this on DVD?
    Happy Thanksgiving Ken – hope you have a wonderful day.


  13. I keep meaning to catch 20 Feet From Stardom – I know I’d be grooving right along. My fave music doc is Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which is an incredible story of some very gifted and overlooked musicians. Also recently saw and recommend Keep On Keepin On, about Clark Terry, a jazz trumpet legend, who mentors a blind young pianist – their relationship is very moving, and the film is profoundly inspiring!


  14. crystalzakrison says:

    I heard about sugar man and that it was good. I want to see it. I love walk the line by Johnny cash. I have watched documentary s on Bob Dylan. i took a rock music history class in college and it was interesting. Good idea for post! 😉


  15. jankedonna says:

    The only one of these I’ve seen is Sugarman and I loved it. I highly recommend it. Thanks for letting me know about the others.


  16. jbutler1914 says:

    I haven’t looked at any of these documentaries. They seem interesting especially the Stax Records story. My favorite musical documentary is “2pac Resurrection”.


  17. william rusho says:

    It is a little sad, you pit a teenage vampire, or a celebrity in a sex scene, and it’s a smash hit, but a great documentary like these are never seen.


  18. Duke Stewart says:

    I’ve been out of the loop with docs but these look and sound like awesome choices. I’d probably go for Sugarman if I had to choose one. Thanks for the great read!


  19. Searching for the sugarman story was in the news recently here in SA and it is quite sad that his own would not recognize his worth only to be hailed by those from far off…interesting story.


  20. Tim says:

    I too was captivated with the whole Sugarman documentary and saw it in the theaters when it first came out. A remarkable story with an unlikely ending. It is good to hear he has finally gotten the recognition he deserved. Another incredibly good music doc is Muscle Shoales. Make sure you see this Ken; it’s an amazing tribute to rock.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: 10 Most Viewed Off the Leash Blog Posts in 2014 | off the leash

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