Our hunger for music films is limitless: these sagas of artists living lives devoted to their muse never lose their appeal.
By
Christopher Hollow

7 Dec 2016 - 11:48 AM  UPDATED 7 Dec 2016 - 11:48 AM

An album can make a musician immortal, but as important as the music is, the great artists are also the subject of the myth building around them. Music documentaries offer insight into the women and men behind the album. It's these glimpses into the real-life artist that are quite often where the public perceptions of the artist takes hold. It's where myth building truly takes shape.

SBS On Demand has no shortage of great, insightful music documentaries.

Finding Fela!

The Quote: “As far as Africa is concerned music cannot be for enjoyment. Music has to be for revolution. Music is the weapon.” – Fela Kuti

What You Should Watch: Fela Kuti is to Nigeria what Bob Marley is to Jamaica or Che Guevara to Cuba. More than just a singer or an activist, Fela was a guerrilla revolutionary, a folk hero. He transformed African music and wasn’t afraid to dissent against a hostile Nigerian military dictatorship. This meant harassment, beatings, jail and the killing of Fela’s mother – a pioneer for women’s rights in Africa. So, plenty to protest.

This is music you can chant to. Politics you can dance to.

Conchita: Unstoppable

The Quote: “It’s just a beard, it’s just a beard.” – Conchita Wurst

Why You Should Watch: Some people are just fascinating to look at – think photogenic types like Kim Kardashian, Elvis Presley, Françoise Hardy and Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Conchita Wurst is another face that defies all-angles.

The bearded Austrian singer dominated the 2014 Eurovision contest with a Bond-esque anthem called ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’. Unstoppable follows Conchita’s life in the wake of that triumphant victory and is exhibit A when it comes to proof that drag is taking over the world.

“I decided to wear the beard because I wanted to show everybody that your success, or the happiness of your life, is not dependent on your look. I don’t think I hurt anyone with my beard.”

 

Patti Smith: Dream of Life

The Quote: “Life is an adventure of our design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky, and unlucky, accidents.” – Patti Smith.

Why You Should Watch: Even when she’s being a high-minded poet, Patti Smith has a good sense of humour. Like when beat writer William Burroughs implores her to build a good name. ‘Yeah, but William,’ she says. ‘My name is Smith.’ Narrated by Patti in her crackling tone, Dream of Life was filmed as she was writing her memoir, Just Kids. It means her observations are sharp. It also means she honours other artists that inspired her. People like Robert Mapplethorpe, her husband MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Allen Ginsberg, who once tried to pick up Patti after mistaking her for a young man. She visits the graves of older poets like Percy Shelley, William Blake, Gregory Corso and Arthur Rimbaud. It’s deep and ruminative. It’s poetry.

Joy Division

The Quote: “I don't think I saw a tree until I was nine” – Bernard Sumner

Why You Should Watch: Just like Joy Division the band, the documentary is part Manchester kitchen-sink drama, part existential art experiment; but more fascinating than biopics 24-Hour Party People or Control. While the original band are at logger-heads these days, they’re incredible raconteurs with their off-handed honesty. But they’ve got competition. Charismatic Factory entrepreneur Tony Wilson sparkles, Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge steals the show with his insight while Annik Honoré, the inspiration for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, is finally interviewed about her association with singer Ian Curtis.

It’s not a happy ending but it is strangely uplifting.

The Doors: When You’re Strange

The Quote: “Jim’s been living on someone’s roof and writing a rock concert he hears in his head.” – Johnny Depp

Why You Should Watch: The Doors get a bum-rap. People snigger at the pretension, but what art isn’t pretence? You have to be pretentious when you create something because it’s all artifice, created from nothing. The Doors sounded like no-one else, they wrote songs like no-one else. They wrote chart hits (‘Light My Fire’, ‘Hello, I Love You’), they wrote FM radio anthems (‘L.A. Women’, ‘Roadhouse Blues’), they wrote underground epics (‘When the Music’s Over’, ‘Indian Summer’) and, like every band, they wrote some duds too (The Soft Parade album is hard to defend). Most were written when Jim Morrison was just 22. The hook for When You’re Strange is crystal clear vision of Morrison’s legendary unfinished 1969 film, HWY. The footage, used extensively here, finds Morrison bearded but not bloated. It’s so deep and rich on the screen, it looks like a modern actor is recreating key scenes from the singer’s short life.

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