1. Woodstock (1970) – It’s sometimes hard to think of Woodstock as anything other than the enshrinement (for better or worse) of the entire 1960s counterculture: its political idealism, communal spirit, and electrifying music. But director Michael Wadleigh always meant Woodstock to be a cinema verité report on an event, not a museum piece. As a result, this film looks better with each passing year as the backlash against the boomer generation fades, and as Wadleigh’s footage ceases to be a lazy way for broadcast journalists and documentarians to sum up an entire decade.
2. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) – Because heavy metal isn’t as “cool” as punk rock, the second installment of Penelope Spheeris’s “Decline” trilogy sometimes gets the short shrift from those who prefer the spikier first one. But “The Metal Years” is the more meaningful film: an at-times-painfully-honest portrait of the superstars and wannabes who shared space on the Sunset Strip in the late 1980s. Spheeris captures rich rockers mired in self-loathing (like W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, who spends his scenes getting hammered in his pool), and up-and-comers who refuse to believe they won’t make it big some day.
3. Stop Making Sense (1984) – The late Jonathan Demme’s concert film is devoid of interviews and lacks any overt attempts to contextualize the music of the Talking Heads, but it’s still a documentary in its way because it has a narrative, and it frames a reality. The band’s leader David Byrne came up with a highly conceptual stage show for the Heads’ 1983 tour, starting with just himself on the stage and then adding one additional member for each song in the first set, and one prop or striking visual element per song for the second set.
4. Scratch (2001) – Anyone who still somehow doubts that a turntable can be a musical instrument should watch Doug Pray’s brilliant deep dive into the culture of spinning and sampling. Beginning with the origins of hip-hop — and the way innovators like GrandMixer DXT, Jam Master Jay, and Double Dee & Steinski used record players as both percussion and hook-generating machines — “Scratch” proceeds to cover more sophisticated, almost avant-garde modern artists like DJ Shadow and DJ Qbert.
5. Amazing Grace (2018) – Originally shot in 1972, director Sydney Pollack’s film of Aretha Franklin’s two-night live recording session for her gospel album of the same name sat on a shelf for decades, held up first by technical snafus and then by legal disputes. Though it ostensibly just films about a dozen songs that Franklin belted out in a sweltering south Los Angeles church — surrounded by a choir that both supported her and were transported by her — “Amazing Grace” is also a document of a movie crew scrambling to figure out the best way to capture the magic happening right in front of their eyes, and it’s the story of the crowds that packed into the chapel on the second night once they heard about the electric performances happening inside.
See the rest of the list at Vulture.
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