I took piano lessons from the time I was 5 until I was in my early 20s, and I was pretty good at it, too. One week when I was 17, my teacher told me he wanted me to start learning Beethoven piano sonatas. Not the “Moonlight” or the “Pathetique” that are familiar to most people. No, he had me learn Piano Sonata No. 19 in G Minor, Op. 49, No. 1. As I was learning it, I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. There are ideas in here, in this music, that I just don’t understand. I may be able to learn this piece, but I won’t ever be able to fully grasp it and what’s going on with it.” That’s when I realized I had hit the limit of my talent and I would have to rely on being a wisenheimer for the rest of my life, the one thing at which I was truly outstanding.
The documentaries we’re going to review today are about musicians and bands that never hit the limit of their talent. These are the people who kept pushing themselves further and deeper into their own music. And we’re all the better that they did.
In 1983, the noted film director Jonathan Demme (who would later win a Best Director Oscar for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs) filmed four nights of concerts by the art rock band Talking Heads at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. He then assembled and edited that footage into this two-hour concert film—making a remarkable documentary. The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called it “close to perfection”, and Leonard Maltin said it’s “one of the greatest rock movies ever made.” It’s a fabulous concert movie. David Byrne and the rest of the Talking Heads are magnificent. The film builds from Byrne alone on the stage performing. Each successive song adds another band member until the full band is there. And then they just rock out. You may remember Byrne’s outrageously oversized suit that he wears in this film. It matches the ambition of the band and its music—oversized and unforgettable. If you enjoy this movie (and you should), also check out the band’s “musical,” True Stories (1986).
A couple years ago, Apple had a TV ad for its latest Macbook that featured a series of vignettes of users working on their Macbook Airs in various locations. The soundtrack music is Daniel Johnston’s song ‘The Story of an Artist Growing Old.’ It’s an oddly mesmerizing song that he sings in a childlike voice. The story behind that song and its artist is at the center of this moving and deeply affecting film. Johnston has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions. He writes and records his own music on rudimentary equipment in a garage. And for many years his means of distributing his music was to put cassettes into Happy Meal bags at the McDonald’s where he worked in Austin, TX. The documentary tells the story of Johnston’s life. It’s a pretty unforgettable film that may have you in tears at times.
Music is paradoxical. Any musical piece is rooted in the heritage and culture of the musician(s) who creates it, while at the same time, it has a universality that is difficult to explain or predict. Music from one location can end up being popular with seemingly-unrelated fan groups, just because it’s good music. One excellent example of this is the music of British singer/songwriter Morrissey. For some reason, his music is incredibly popular in Mexican and Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles. There are all sorts of Morrissey tribute bands who cover his songs in Spanish, the best-known of which is Mexrrissey. Another example is the Detroit singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a pair of critically-acclaimed albums in the late 1960s that never caught on…except in South Africa of all places. His records there have reportedly outsold Elvis Presley. Two South African Rodriguez fans decided to see if they could figure out what happened to Rodriguez, who was rumored to have committed suicide many years ago. This movie is the chronicle of their search for Rodriguez, the Sugar Man. They find he wasn’t dead at all, but living a quiet and simple life in Detroit! Their search and discovery of Rodriguez is reason enough to enjoy this movie, but it also introduces the audience to a truly great and completely forgotten musician.
This film chronicles country singer/songwriter Glen Campbell’s final tour, which occurred after he received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It is best watched in conjunction with another documentary, The Wrecking Crew (2015), which I’ll discuss next. While this film is about a musician, it primarily is a heart-rending portrait of dealing with Alzheimer’s. If you have a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s, this movie is a must-see. The theme of the film is “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, which was Campbell’s confession about how he felt about the impact of the disease on his family and friends. He knew at a certain point he wouldn’t remember any of them and thus wouldn’t be able to miss them. Talk about a devastating thought. The film is clear-eyed and unflinching. Highly recommended.
Prior to his solo superstardom, Glen Campbell was a member of a legendary group of Los Angeles studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. The musicians performed on thousands of recordings and can be heard on hundreds of top 40 hits from the 1960s and early 1970s. They were largely unknown to the public but deeply revered in the music industry. They worked with all sorts of diverse artists, including: Simon & Garfunkel, Nancy Sinatra, Jan & Dean, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and many more. My favorite character in the film is bass guitarist Carol Kaye. Kaye is the only woman in the group and she is a fireball of musical ideas and opinions. This movie is also a good reminder of what an outstanding guitarist Campbell was. This movie is one of those documentaries where you have so many flashes of recognition—moments where you say, ‘Oh, that’s who came up with that musical idea?! Wow!’ Very entertaining film, and one I’ve watched several times.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.