• 'The National: Mistaken for Strangers' screened at MIFF in 2013. (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Melbourne International Film Festival programmer Al Cossar gives us his picks from the collection of music documentaries, streaming right now at SBS On Demand.
Al Cossar

4 May 2017 - 1:42 PM  UPDATED 4 May 2017 - 3:27 PM

From the sticky carpets of our dankly inviting rock-pubs, to the sun-burnt sounds of our summer music festival season, it's undeniable that Melbourne is a music town. Likewise, in the middle of MIFF - 350 films large and 65 years old - it's also undeniably a movie town. And when you put those particular creative endeavours together, you have one of MIFF's most popular programs, Music on Film (previously Backbeat). It's a film haven for rap fans, funk aficionados, gutter punk snipes, or those singer songwriters with a sensitive soul; a suite of music films there to take audiences behind the fame, the 'creative differences', the trashed hotel rooms and those songs you just can't can't out of your head.

So it's with great pleasure, and some incessant humming along, that MIFF is co-presenting the Backstage Docs season with SBS On Demand - a special collection which includes a number of previous music doc highlights from the Melbourne International Film Festival!



But the question remains - jazz to pop to who knows what, what makes a good music doc?

To me, a good music documentary knows astutely, creatively, that there's a marked difference between the work of a fan and a storyteller, between rehashing the greatest hits and revealing what we don't know about the music we love. Some of the best docs aren't about simple celebration - they're about (re)discovery, and reclaiming those previously lost to new ears - such it is with Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett's A Band Called Death (MIFF 2013), an aggressive sounding, but actually completely lovely take on success found 30 years after the fact for the titular proto-punk band (a predecessor to Bad Brains et al) that features Mick Collins from The Dirtbombs, Questlove and Elijah Wood. 

Watch A Band Called Death:

Elsewhere, it's the filmmaker themselves who manages to take centre stage from the band in The National: Mistaken for Strangers (MIFF 2013), which chronicles the efforts of Matt Berninger's excellently schlubbish brother to document The National's tour (excellent sample scene - Matt using his former barbarian movie as creative evidence to allay their manager's anxiety in his abilities). What follows becomes not just a behind-the-curtain take of an indie-superstar band at the height of their powers, but an offbeat and convincing portrait of two brothers just trying to work out the mechanics of family within earshot of the rock life.

Watch Mistaken for Strangers:


Another untoward vision of rock stardom bursts forward in Bartholomew Cubbins' Artifact, which sees Jared Leto (directing under a Seussian-sounding alias) and his band Thirty Seconds to Mars take on EMI for a $30 million dollar breach of contract lawsuit; far from a tale of downwardly-spiralling rock excess, the film is a cautionary tale about the realities of the record industry, itself in crisis; not to mention a compelling showdown between the most old-world of enemies since cats and dogs - bands and record labels.

Watch Artifact:


Elsewhere there's the big films about the biggest acts:

Tom DiCillo's When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors (MIFF 2010),


Michael Rappaport's Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (MIFF 2011),


or you could try Finding Fela!, Alex Gibney's completist take on the original Afrobeat icon.


Also, be sure to check out Ben Lee: Catch My Disease from celebrated local filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson, a title that MIFF additionally supported through our Premiere Fund.


And once you've got to the end of Backstage Docs, remember that the movie amps will be turned up to 11 once more this year with the release of MIFF's Music on Film program for 2017, looking to be the biggest yet! 

It'll be part of the 66th Melbourne International Film Festival, all across the CBD, screening from 3rd - 20th August; for details around the festival and full program announcements as they happen, keep tuned to www.miff.com.au.


- Al Cossar, MIFF Programmer


Browse through the entire 'Backstage Docs' collection at SBS On Demand.

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