Top 10 Indie Music Documentaries

Most music documentaries are little more than 'companion' pieces; accompanying fodder for fans of bands who've already chewed up all their albums. From that most artless vanity exercise, the live-concert movie, to the ever-tedious behind-the-scenes piece, often music films can't stand on their own two feet. Except, of course, for the exceptions to the rule. To the film's that, whilst having music running through their veins, are stand-alone works of cinema, filled with theme and meaning, aching with humanity, and blessed with their own artistic genius. Here's ten of the best; witness them and feel blessed.
01
of 10

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Sony Pictures

The best music documentaries are works of compelling cinema in and of themselves; films made not for easy-to-please fans, but for those who may never have heard of the artist in question. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fascinating portrait of its singular subject; Johnston a celebrated 'outsider artist' who has long battled with bipolar disorder and mental illness. Jeff Feuerzeig's film is essentially a study of Johnston as human-being, and, due to his particular compulsiveness, is filled with all kinds of intimate audio and video recordings; home movies, taped conversations, and early recordings. As Johnston flirts with the edge of sanity, Feuerzeig essentially asks: is this craziness central or incidental to Johnston's art?

02
of 10

Dig!

Dig!
Dig!. Palm Pictures

Most music documentaries usually capture a single concert, perhaps a whole tour. Ondi Timoner's awesome Dig! follows its principle subjects, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, for over seven years. As she showed on her brilliant 2009 feature We Live in Public —in which the life of its subject mirrored the rise of the internet, and opened up countless questions of the online surveillance state— Timoner has a knack for being able to see the big picture. Here, as the Dandys' shift units on the back of a handful of novelty hits, and the BJM self-destruct in a toxic cocktail of ego, delusion, and drug use, Timoner sees their simultaneous rise/demise as symbols of the '90s alternative music era and an opportunist music industry.

03
of 10

The Fearless Freaks

The Fearless Freaks
The Fearless Freaks. Shout Factory

It's a moment intimate, infamous, and inspiring: Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd shooting up heroin on camera, talking candidly, the whole time, about his downward spiral into drug addiction. The Fearless Freaks is filled with such unfettered 'access': Bradley Beesley, an old friend of the band, essentially invited into the Flaming Lips family. Peering beyond the pantomimed happiness of their live-shows, Beesley sees the human beings behind the balloons. Looking at the life stories —and families— of band founders Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins, Beesley sees how their personal experiences inevitably leak into the music —the death of Coyne's father inspiring the immortal "Do You Realize??"— adding an extra layer of meaning to their music.

04
of 10

Meeting People is Easy

Meeting People is Easy
Meeting People is Easy. EMI

Following the monstrous success of Radiohead's OK Computer, the band undertake a mammoth world tour, filled with soulless stadium shows, corporate-radio showcases, and unending interviews. Grant Gee's documentary follows the band on a two-year promotional Groundhog Day, in which Thom Yorke and co yearn only to "disappear completely." The film's subtext is worn on its artwork: the band as product, the listener as consumer. In its most pointed moment, Jonny Greenwood recounts how Pink Floyd commissioned a documentary, then were appalled to discover it chronicled an endless parade of business meetings and financial breakdowns. Meeting People is Easy embraces that sad fate: its dystopian portrait of life-on-the-road an unblinkered look at corporate-rock misery.

05
of 10

The Power of Salad and Milkshakes

The Power of Salad and Milkshakes
The Power of Salad and Milkshakes. Load

Countless films have attempted to convey the visceral nature of live rock'n'roll: the physical gymnastics of performance, the pressed flesh of the crowds, soundwaves pummeling bodies. But few have done it like The Power of Salad and Milkshakes, an on-the-cheap, on-the-road, on-the-lam look at Lightning Bolt's live racket. This unairbrushed portrait of a pair of punks on the DIY circuit has few cinematic ambitions, but, placing the camera right next to their overdriven gear, the lens literally rattles as the band bash out their hyper-tight jams. Lightning Bolt set up in the middle of the crowd —be it at house-party or rock-club— and, as they get amongst the people, The Power of Salad becomes as much about those in the audience as those in the band.

06
of 10

Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed

Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed
Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed. 4digital

A handful of choice rockumentaries capture times and places long-gone; like grunge's twin book-ends, 1991's The Year Punk Broke and 1996's Hype!. But few double as a social and political time capsules quite like 1982's Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed. Hasan Shah and Dom Shaw's glorified student film looks at punk-rock becoming post-punk, oi, 2 tone ska revival, and mod revival; but, filmed between '78 and '81, it's a portrait of a nation in turmoil. The subtext is rich: The Winter of Discontent, gang violence, the rise of white-power movements like the National Front, and squabbles over 'authentic' youth culture in a swiftly-commodified age. Shot in DIY fashion, its warts-and-all portrait has a transportive quality that ably takes you back to back-in-the-day.

07
of 10

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. Oscilloscope Laboratories

The 'talking heads' approach is a depressing staple of rockumentaries; a Behind the Music cliché that mistakes hearsay for evidence and nostalgia for truth. Stephen Kijak introduces an interesting wrinkle to these tired tropes: sitting celebrity interview subjects down and playing them Scott Walker records. The music acts as a prompt, and David Bowie, Johnny Marr, Brian Eno, and countless others find their thoughts stoked by this unexpected act. 30 Century Man is essentially a three-act flick: first a chronicle of Walker's strange pop-idol-to-avant-garde-recluse career, then the interviewees, then a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Walker at work, making The Drift. It's not revolutionary itself, but it ably chronicles an artist who is.

08
of 10

Who Took The Bomp?: Le Tigre On Tour

Who Took The Bomp?: Le Tigre On Tour
Who Took The Bomp?: Le Tigre On Tour. Oscilloscope Laboratories

Stuck playing Australia's hyper-masculine, boy's-own Big Day Out touring-festival in 2005, Le Tigre have to keep their sense-of-humor. After all, what's a proudly-feminist, queer-friendly band to do when confronted with idiotic interviews, metal dufuses, and casually bigoted fans? Kerthy Fix's flick finds the familiar hotel-rooms, backstages, and tour buses of the tour doc, but neither she nor band go in for easy cliché. Who Took The Bomp? revels in the humans making these righteous anthems; their personal drive attempting to effect social change. Oh, and Kathleen Hanna also recounts her riot-grrrl days thusly: "I was being told by mainstream music critics that I was a fat, retarded slut who didn't know what I was doing." Sing it, sister.

09
of 10

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Plexifilm

Matt Wolf's Portrait is of Arthur Russell the person; a documentary attempt to uncover the human-being behind the archival tracks. Wolf spends time not with celebrity fans, but Russell's family: his parents, his sisters, and, most of all, his longtime boyfriend Tom Lee. Their recollections of Russell aren't the stuff of rock-star hagiography, but intimate biography; and what rises up is a portrait of the artist as a young man, Russell depicted in all his flaws, his conflicts, his pettiness, and his genius. Throughout, Russell's music shines brighter, three decades later, than it did in its day. In that light, Russell's 1992 death almost feels like tragedy anew; the genre-crossing producer a 21st century figure completely ahead of his time.

10
of 10

You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson

You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson
You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson. Palm Pictures

Roky Erickson is a '60s legend, but You're Gonna Miss Me has no interest in myths. Keven McAlester chronicles the contemporary Erickson: 50-something, disheveled, hulking, matted hair, claw-like figernails, and rotting teeth. As he sits blithely in a chair, cartoons and radio blaring, Roky becomes a pawn for his family: members competing to 'care' for him in pointed, political battles. This is no celebration of a career, but a painful family portrait of maternal vanity and paternal disinterest, sibling rivalry and jealousy, psychiatric problems and debilitating drugs. Amidst this study of familial psychology and the institutionalized cruelty of mental hospitals, Erickson is hero, victim, and symbol; a sad figure fallen from rock's great heights.