The Year of the Music Documentary

Posted August 14, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Roll out the flood of music docs for 2015. There’s a lot

After the mounting success of last year’s breakthrough film Twenty Feet From Stardom (which took home an Oscar and a Grammy), the flurry of decent music docs that surrounded its release (Muscle Shoals, Sound City) and with all the attention surrounding 2015’s Amy, a documentary on the life and legacy of Amy Winehousealready one of the best-selling docs of all time, it seems as if the film festival circuit will be blessed with an avalanche of similar films in 2015.

Leading the pack is the holy grail of concert films, the long shelved documentary focusing on Aretha Franklin‘s 1972 gospel live recording of Amazing Grace. The film was directed by the late Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, The Way We Were, Tootsie), and was intended to be released as a double-feature with Super Fly at the time of its original recording. Warner Bros. had rights of both films, and also owned Atlantic Records, the music home to Franklin. But the forty-three year old film remained in the vault for all these years. Pollack tried to pull it out of hiding before his passing and passed the responsibility on to record producer Alan Elliott, who helped in syncing the music with the lost footage. Thanks to modern-day technology, the kinks were ironed out. The only thing standing in its way was the gargantuan Queen of Soul. A 2011 lawsuit against Elliot made by Franklin tried to put the breaks on the video release, at least until she was ready. She also fought for legal rights, over the use of her name. But a recovered legal contract with Warner Bros. and Pollack revealed that she had no rights over the film, clearing the way for its eventual release. That day looks like it is bound to come.

Recorded at the peak of her career, Amazing Grace is Franklin’s return to gospel music, a decision that music producer Jerry Wexler fought passionately for. It was something he wanted, more than Franklin. “She didn’t want opprobrium from the church,” he said. “After all, she’s a deeply religious person and she’s been brought up in the ministry, and there’s been all the gospel people around, the Clara Wards and the James Clevelands. She had a lot of qualms about going in and doing church music, when here she’d be singing blues and jazz — ‘profainin,’ so to speak.” And there at the live sessions at Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on January 13 and 14 there stood gospel’s giants, Clara Ward and James Cleveland, on piano and acting as the master of ceremonies.

After weeks of the release of the double LP, it quickly went gold, becoming Franklin’s best-selling album and one of the top-selling albums in gospel music history. At the time, Franklin was still planted at the top of the soul music ladder with the release of Young Gifted and Black, a disc often accredited as one of her best discs. The concert film documentary, also named after the 1972 album, will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, which will be celebrating its 40th anniversary since inception.

Franklin has not commented on the breaking news of the documentary’s release, but in 2011, Franklin’s attorney told the Detroit Free Press that she hoped fans would see the movie one day, but that the terms of any release needed to be fair to everyone involved.

Toronto will also air music docs on the lives and legacies of many other music greats and contemporary artists. Janis: Little Girl Blue, directed by Academy Award-nominated Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), will focus in on revered rock goddess Janis Joplin. It will make its North American premiere at the Toronto fest. The film, which focuses on Joplin’s brief life, will put Chan Marshall (Cat Power) in the narration chair while uncovering some ofthe rock legend’s personal letters.

The Arcade Fire documentary, The Reflektor Tapes, will make its world premiere at the fest. Director Kahlil Joseph followed the Canadian art-rock outfit as they created their acclaimed 2013 LP, Reflektor, blending performance footage with band member interviews and “exclusive unseen footage, filmed only for cinema audiences.”

Miss Sharon Jones!, directed by two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, will also premiere at Toronto and will dig deep into the amazing story of the soul singing sensation Sharon Jones, the powerhouse fronting the Dap-Kings. Back in 2013, Jones announced to her fans that she was battling stage 1 bile duct cancer and reported steps in her medical journey online. Her struggle and eventual diagonisis of being cancer free is part of the story. “I am very excited that my film is going to premiere at the TIFF, one of the biggest film festivals in the world,” Jones stated in a Facebook post. I am so grateful to Cabin Creek Films and Kopple for capturing my life and can’t wait to share the love that went into making the film with my fans.”

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a documentary on renowned international cellist Yo-Yo Ma, will also premiere at Toronto.

Not everything new in the realm of indie music-focused documentaries landed in this year’s line-up at Toronto. Film festivals all across the country are rolling out their list of films and are proving the momentum behind 20 Feet From Stardom to be real.

The Record Man, a new doc powered by filmmaker Mark Moorman (Tom Dowd and the Language of Music), is an in-depth story on Henry Stone and his quest to establishing TK Records, one of the largest largest independent record labels of the 1970s. Under Stone’s watch, he gave birth to disco magnets and soul icons like KC & the Sunshine Band, Betty Wright, Latimore, Gwen & George McCrae and many others. Many of their stories are also chronicled in the film, with appearances by Sam Moore, Harry Wayne Casey, George McCrae, Bobby Caldwell, Benny Latimore, Timmy Thomas, Anita Ward and many others. The film, which has already been screened at Miami International Film Festival and several others, will make its next stop at On Location: Memphis International Music and Film Festival on September 5 at 2:30 pm.

Revival: The Sam Bush Story,  co-directed by Kris Wheeler and Wayne Franklin, focuses on the overlooked bluegrass innovator Sam Bush. Often pegged as The Father of Newgrass, Bush has fronted and played in a host of Americana and bluegrass bands and has worked alongside greats in the genre, but very often gets ignored by critics. His story comes to life in the film and is supported with powerful testimonies and accounts by noted musicians such as Allison Krauss, John Oates, Emmylou Harris, the Avett Brothers and Chris Thile. The next stop for the film will be at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Ala. on August 29.

The Brett Morgen-directed Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and posessing an impressive 98% overall rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was giving a limited theatrical run before it premiered on HBO in May. It is the first documentary on the Nirvana frontman that was actually approved with the cooperation of his family. The film, proudly sporting new animated scenes and exclusive unreleased footage, is scheduled for release on DVD and Blu-ray in North America later in November 6, 2015.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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