The problem for most bands is that they learn the hard lessons too late. For every version of the now ubiquitous cautionary tale of reading closely that which you sign, or getting a band agreement early on, there are a thousand little things you forget to check along the way. With that in mind, we look to the intersection of film and music this month for some lessons we can derive from the mistakes and/or successes of the bands that came before us. The band documentary has come into its own as a legitimate genre of film: part bio-pic, part rock and roll fairytale, they regale us with their tales of what the view looked like from inside the ride.
They can come in many different flavors too – a film like Scorsese’s 1976 The Last Waltz, a farewell tribute to The Band, stands as a one-night only record of a sold out event where the who’s who of the 1970s music world all come together to say goodbye to the biggest band you may have never personally heard of today. It is artists that you love, saying goodbye to an artist that they love, and the result is beautiful. In contrast, a film like A Hard Days Night, Richard Lester’s 1964 take on a day in the life of The Beatles, is meant to give us a sense of just how hectic things had become for them. What is perhaps funny though, is that even with its scripted comic sensibilities, you do get the feeling that you are getting at least a bit of a real glimpse into their lives.
One caveat to keep in mind with band documentaries of course is that we must stay conscious to the fact that each band has a vested interest in telling you what they think their legacy is; they basically give you a prism through which they want you to see them. An important aside though is that, it does not negate the pearls of wisdom that can be found within. Sometimes, it is just great to get a perspective on (your own) music that you would not be afforded otherwise. With that in mind, here are a list of some top band documentaries and the lessons they provide. They are not the most famous bands, nor do you even need to like their music; they simply teach great lessons about the game/art/business of music.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart by Wilco
Lesson: Navigating the insides of an industry deal
Key Movie Quote: “The record so nice they bought it twice!”- Tony Margherita (Band Manager).
This band had long been indie-credible media darlings by the time they went to record their fourth studio record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This movie follows this Alt-Country Rock band after they received a roughly $85,000 advance from Reprise Records to deliver an album. The record, once completed, delivered and thus contract fulfilled, was threatened to be shelf-ed (basically tucked away in a vault-unreleased) by the company unless the band went back and re-recorded them a single. After the band refused, the label rejected the work and dropped them from the label. After the record was somehow leaked to a small but loyal audience and press machine, complete with the story that the label would not release it, a bidding war ensued and history was made.
Shut up and Sing by The Dixie Chicks
Lesson: How quick your entire Fan-base can turn on you
Key Movie Quote: “Can we just decide what kind of band we are gonna’ be here?” – Natalie Maines.
When Natalie Maines, lead singer of this Country music group, made an anti-war comment before an audience in 2003 London, stating that she was “ashamed of the President,” the outcry back in the USA was immediate and lasting; at least among a traditionally conservative Country audience. This movie follows the band from the moment she made this comment, through the backlash that followed, all the way up to the recording and release of their follow-up album Taking the Long Way. This album, both a departure from previous due to the people involved, the sound garnered, and how they would even go about selling it, is a direct response to their critics, loyal fans and even to each other. With all roads leading to eventual death threats that the band would receive, this movie represents a band looking inward toward itself to decide who they would be (to their fans and to each other) in the face of adversity.
Buena Vista Social Club by Ry Cooder, Wim Wenders, and the many players of the old Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, Cuba.
Lesson: The power of perseverance!
Key Movie quote: “I didn’t want to sing any more, I was very disillusioned. Life can be very hard. I was tired of singing and not earning anything.”
In 1997, Wim and Ry traveled to Cuba to explore a particular intersection of fallout from years of strained relations from the US and Cuban governments. Most specifically, to answer the question: What became of all the great musicians of Cuba’s once thriving nightclub scene after jet-setting, music-loving Americans (spending their tourist money) could no longer stop in anytime they wished? Many of the performers, once so highly regarded and renowned in these circles, went on to live lives all but forgotten, working in various lackluster fields (one popular singer was found to have been shining shoes in Havana for years). This film (and the corresponding record) sought to track down some of those artists, see what they were doing now, and give them the opportunity to try music one last time. This heartbreakingly poignant tale takes you on a journey that you will not want to miss and teaches that no matter how out of reach that goal seems, there is a chance that your wildest dreams can still come true.
Inside/Out discusses all things music and musician related. Feel free to send any questions, suggestions, or hate mail as you see fit. If you have any band documentaries you think should be added to the list—let us know about them!