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From Kanye West to Bob Dylan: Five music documentaries that have done their subjects justice

Sam Cox rounds up the best music documentaries, old and new, for you to sink your teeth into.

By Sam Cox, Second Year English

The last year or so has seen the music documentary as a format launched into the streaming age with panache. Disney+ and Netflix respectively released the eight-hour The Beatles: Get Back and the four-and-a-half-hour jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy one part at a time, mirroring the staggered releases of many recent TV serial hits. Elsewhere, Questlove’s directorial debut Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) deservedly won the Oscar for Best Documentary, a moment that was definitely not overshadowed by anything else at the 75thAcademy Awards. So without further ado, here are some of the best music documentaries, old and new, for you to sink your teeth into:

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008)

Director Matt Wolf’s story of disco-cellist and maverick Arthur Russell’s life and work contains an intimacy which matches Russell’s hypnagogic and mesmeric music, no small feat given that so little archive footage of Russell existed that the director had to film Super8 footage of an actor walking around Iowa and New York to evoke the artist. Between accounts from contemporaries and family, Wild Combination is a kind and tender celebration of an artist posthumously getting their due. (Incidentally, the documentary is screening at Cube Cinema in Stokes Croft on April 19th - you can get tickets here.

The Beatles: Get Back (2021)

When Peter Jackson announced that his forthcoming documentary on The Beatles’ final album would be eight hours long, even the most dedicated of Beatles fans winced at the idea of such a time-consuming undertaking. As it turned out, Get Back didn’t waste a single minute of its runtime and the footage, taken from 1969’s flawed Let It Bemaking-of film, contains revelation after revelation, and Jackson is even petitioning fans to encourage Disney to release even more footage from the vaults. Even for those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Beatles fans, the documentary provides an insight into the creative process which is profoundly moving. Imagine being able to travel back in time to witness Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and you get an idea of how special Get Back is, plus a candid fart from Ringo is not to be missed.

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005)

Matching Wild Combination’s intimacy, We Jam Econo tells the tragic but heroic story of Californian hardcore punks Minutemen through the eyes of the band’s bass-player Mike Watt, who drives director Tim Irwin around in his van, pointing out the spots in San Pedro that explain the band’s origins. Despite a-list stories from everyone from Henry Rollins to Thurston Moore, the documentary compliments Minutemen’s DIY attitude and aesthetic, and footage of the late D. Boon playing ‘History Lesson Pt. 2’ with his bandmates is as emotional as Watt’s reminiscence on their shared childhood together.

jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy (2022)

jeen-yuhs is a documentary that is split distinctively into two sections; the first two chapters sit firmly in this first section, following Kanye West pre-fame, pre-Kim and pre-MAGA, while the third and final chapter catches up with the Chicago rapper some ten years later, considerably richer and more volatile. The footage in this first section, captured lovingly and candidly by fellow Chicago-resident Coodie Simmons, contains one jaw-dropping moment after another, and it’s hard for even the most hardened Kanye-cynic not to fall in love with this hungry, witty and talented young artist, who takes his retainer out to rap, will regularly show up to record label offices to play his demos to dismayed staff members and is always kept levelled by his wise and loving mother. A particular highlight is a piece of footage in which Pharrell Williams, evidently uninterested in Kanye’s music but feigning interest out of vague courtesy, being entirely won over by Through The Wire, to the point where, speechless, he walks out of the studio in disbelief, presumably realising that the hip-hop scene is about to be changed irrevocably. This is the kind of footage you can’t fake and, like Get Back, it’s exciting to see these cultural behemoths in their more unguarded and honest moments. Inevitably, Chapter 3 makes for more uncomfortable viewing and while watching Kanye eagerly agreeing with Tucker Carlson on Fox News is considerably less endearing, Simmons treats his subject with just as much respect and irreverence as he always had.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)

Rolling Thunder Revue is markedly different from the rest of the films on this list for one sole reason: it’s not actually entirely factual. It follows a real tour Dylan undertook in 1975, and contains interviews and archival footage of several real contemporaries – Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg – but in Dylan’s typically equivocating style, the film also contains interviews and references to several characters who Dylan and Scorsese gleefully trick the viewer into thinking were also involved in the tour. Stefan Van Dorp for example, a filmmaker supposedly documenting Dylan and co on tour, simply does not exist. Although Dylan ‘fucking with’ his fans is nothing new – Scorsese’s earlier Dylan documentary No Direction Home attests to that, portraying his controversial move away from the Greenwich folk scene into rowdier, plugged-in rock’n’roll – it is heartening to see Bob still up to his old tricks in his fifth decade of making music.

Featured image: IMDB

What's your favourite music documentary?