Music Docs: Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain Among Featured Artists

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Amy Winehouse

Famed musicians are memorialized and others are followed into unfamiliar territory in this year’s doc films.

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When you think documentaries, the first image in your mind may not be of turning it up to 11, yet music-based docs — most prominently those that memorialize lost artists — filled the screens of art-plexes in 2015 as in no other recent film year. “It’s a strange quirk of fate,” says Asif Kapadia, the director of Amy, his documentary about Amy Winehouse, which is competing for music fans’ empathy with similar films about Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin (opening Nov. 27). “Like having three films about Steve Jobs.” Brett Morgen, the director of Cobain: Montage of Heck, says for his film, it wasn’t a matter of jumping to follow a trend. “When we started this film on Kurt in 2007, Amy Winehouse was just becoming a star,” he notes. “I wanted to get this film out for the 20th anniversary of [Nirvana’s debut album] Bleach. I was convinced we’d be at Sundance 2009!”

Liz Garbus, the filmmaker behind What Happened, Miss Simone?, says the plethora of sad stories about legends whose lives ended prematurely “has to be a coincidence. Films about great music figures have been staples of the nonfiction form for decades. Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter are some of the greatest films by the great practitioners of the form. We’re standing on their shoulders. But I do think that in the case of some of the [current] films, people have realized they can make money, so labels have more of an incentive to allow their artists to be promoted.” Her look at Simone isn’t in that category — there was no cooperation with the singer’s record companies — but the Cobain and Winehouse projects both have soundtracks of rare material coming out this month in conjunction with the films’ home video releases.

“There was a dearth of music documentaries in the ’90s for a good reason,” says Morgen. “There was something called Behind the Music, and it pretty much owned the landscape.” A desire to distance his film from the still-oft-parodied style of that ancient staple was one reason Morgen added the animations and other enhancements that gave Montage of Heck its viscerally thrilling quality. The director’s deal with HBO didn’t include a guaranteed Oscar-qualifying run, but after Heck drew raves at Sundance, the network agreed to a week’s run at the ArcLight Hollywood — where the film had a not-very-documentary-like $73,000 opening weekend, on only a small print ad. “Playing at the Dome was the highlight of my career,” says Morgen. “We were selling out three other screens in the main building, too. I had to pinch myself and say, ‘It’s a documentary!’ ”

Cobain with wife Courtney Love in Montage of Heck. 

It’s not just dearly departed rock stars who got their due this year, as the late and lamented Tower Records chain is recalled in a featurelength eulogy: Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass. Rock managers rarely come up for cinematic tribute, but Lambert & Stamp explores the unlikey dynamic duo behind the success of The Who. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll memorializes a generation of pop musicians lost not to drugs, drink or depression, but to genocide, many of them murdered under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. A more contemporary, less wrenching tale of ethnomusicology, Songs of Lahore, follows a group of Pakistani classical musicians coming to New York to capitalize on their web popularity.

Music figures only tangentially in Sweet Micky for President, about The Fugees’ Pras getting into behind-the-scenes politics back in Haiti, and In My Father’s House, which has Chicago rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith looking up the father he hasn’t seen in two decades. If the Academy’s documentary branch gets desperate for something in a major key, there’s always Ethan Hawke’s documentary directorial debut, Seymour: An Introduction, the story of a classical pianist who mentors youngsters — the rare recent music doc to leave audiences whistling a happy tune, by Bach or anyone else.

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