Jo Dressler recommends 10 music films to keep you entertained in a still club-less pub-less world
A lot of my favourite films are music biopics, and if not biopics then related to or featuring rich soundtracks, i.e Chef, The Boat that Rocked, Pride, The Harder They Come, Woodstock. I am greedy, I want my ears as satisfied as my eyes if I’m going to give away an hour and a half of my life. Here are ten suggestions for some very colourful, stimulating, enjoyable and thought-provoking watch time. If you’ve ever tuned in to my 1BTN radio show it won’t surprise you that my list takes you all over the world, from India, to America, to Africa, Indonesia, and on a time-trip back to the sixties. Of course, every film features excellent music, history and evocative insights into different times, cultures, lives, music scenes, and people. These are all things I am fascinated by, along with religion, ritual, and stunning film work. I would suggest watching all of these films with a significant sound set-up, but as that may not be possible, plug in some earphones to enjoy the music. Without further ado, here is a watch list of some of my favourite music related films and docs. Like me, you probably have ample time to actually watch them . . . .
“This is the story of someone who’s dad was a terrorist and how it fucked up the family and how it fucked up the people.” M.I.A.
Most of you will know M.I.A as the voice and creator behind the hit Paper Planes, but few will know the story behind that song or the artist who arrived in the U.K as a refugee in 1985. Maya and her family escaped from the war in Sri Lanka, where her father fought, and was the founder of the Tamil Resistance. As she narrates around low definition home videotapes from the 90s, “Music was my medicine, I had to deal with the fact that I was different”, we begin to understand the drive behind her provocative behaviour seen in the media and the music she produces. M.I.A saw and felt a lot of unrest during her life, firstly escaping a war, secondly growing up as an immigrant in London, she had to find a way to express not only the impact it had on her, but the feelings she had for her existence and father’s existence in Sri Lanka. Through a cache of her own video recordings, and interviews with M.I.A, we see her story unfold and understand the boisterous, precocious artist we know on stage; from fleeing a life that would have been shaped by war, to navigating student life as an immigrant, to critically-acclaimed musician, heavily influenced by hip-hop and brit-pop. I implore you to see this well-rounded documentary, and to get to know such a unique, creative and fiery artist.
Lee Perry’s vision of Paradise (2015)
Lee Perry’s Vision of Paradise is a wonderful, introspective documentary about one of the most influential creatives in the dub/reggae world. Considered one of the pioneers of dub, Perry has long established a unique way of producing, mixing, and versioning records. Sometimes recognisable from his own only slightly comprehensible rambling psychedelic prophecies, his sound is very particular. During his lifetime Perry has recorded with or produced the music of; Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Murvin, The Congos, Max Romeo, Adrian Sherwood, The Clash and The Orb, to name a few. His world is not black, nor white, it is psychedelic and spiritual, a vividly colourful and intricate work of art. This film delves into his extraordinary life, his ramshackle home in the mountains of Switzerland, the Black Ark studio, his rituals and spirituality, and his music and career; through interviews with an extensive list of artists and names in the industry. You will discover that Perry is not solely a musician but a visionary artist, everything he owns is dowsed in his beliefs and inscribed with his enchantments. His chosen deities, Emperor Selassie and the Queen are featured heavily throughout his art and his life. Filmed over the course of 15 years, Lee Perry’s Vision of Paradise is a captivating, humourous and beguiling unveiling of his life and all it’s idiosyncrasies.
An all-round stunning and inquisitive look at the life of Bob Marley, this film features rare footage and interviews with the Marley family and musicians that worked with him. Having read his biography early in my days of discovering Marley, I felt the film was a far more succinct and interesting way to learn about his life, painting a great picture of his humble background, of Jamaica in the 1960’s and days spent at Hope road. The film goes into great detail about the political messages behind some of his lyrics, which aren’t widely known. I found this particularly interesting as, like many, his music was the soundtrack of my childhood and adolescence and the love for it sparked a huge interest in reggae and it’s relations, ska, rocksteady, roots, dub, dancehall, lover’s rock, etc. When someone’s message and music has been so prolific and far-reaching that one could visit any corner of the world and hear his music played, see his face printed of t-shirts and posters and hear him being referred to as a “God”, to his music as prophecy, it is fascinating to watch such a affectionate account of and commentary on his life and music. I cried, my dad cried and my sister cried as the credits closed and we realised what an imprint Marley had left not only on us, but on the whole world.
Punk Vs Sharia Law (2014)
This short documentary from Vice epitomises the sentiment of Punk, rebelling against Sharia law must be one of the most punk things anyone could do, knowing the punishments they inflict are so extreme, but post-Tsunami, the people of Indonesia were traumatised and hung onto their rights and rituals that brought them together and provided community; for some, the punk scene. Only twenty minutes long, the film packs in the history of Punk in Indonesia, which really took hold in the early-90’s, through the disaster that ripped them apart in 2004, to the present day, where the punk scene continues to exist, despite the brutality the people have had to endure. Showcasing some horrific neglect of human rights, love, care and of artistic expression, the documentary really ignited the passion within me for people to own their freedom, especially in terms of expression, and of the anthropological and evolutionary purpose of music for survival. As well as freedom, music and trauma, one of main things discussed is religion, and will undoubtedly make you question both the liberation and the restraints it carries, making this doc a very thought-provoking piece. Shorter than the other films on this list, but in my opinion, perhaps the most affecting, this is a must-see. Available on YouTube.
Cobra Gypsies (2015)
Cobra Gypsies is a homemade documentary by film maker and musician, Raphael Treza, it is a beautifully, creatively shot travel documentary that follows his journey through Rajasthan, India, meeting and spending time with the Kalbelyas tribe. Through mostly dry, arid desert, the film captures the lives of the people living remotely and still in close contact with their land, some of them living in close relation with their camels. We see intimate footage of the day-to-day existence of the tribe, from family, to business, to leisure time, to sleeping arrangements and of growing up nomadically, marrying, laughing, playing, praying, being. As said before, it is beautifully shot, with firing, fearless stares akin to those of Steve McCurry’s portraits, making it a heartfelt watch especially for those interested in photography. High on my list of essential viewing, this fascinating documentary transported me out of lock down life for fifty-two minutes and exhibited a wonderful, anthropological look at a region and people who live their art, to it’s fullest and most vibrant potential. The whole documentary, just under an hour long, is available to watch for free on YouTube.
20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Twenty Feet from Stardom is a wonderful, gently provocative documentary following some of the most reverential back-up singers in the world. We see the wide disparity between front man/woman and them, exposed. This documentary questions fame, status and artistry, and for me, brought up questions of music as a commodity, a business and a livelihood, and of race and gender within the music industry, as the singers involved are predominantly African-American women. Sad truths are bought to light, interesting insights into the history of 20th century pop and rock music and some very exposing interviews, amongst brilliant footage of performances and recorded vocals. The voices of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Judith Hill and Claudia Lennear and have brought harmony to some of the most famous artists in the world such as The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, though have acquired not half of the recognition they deserve. This documentary plays tribute to them, giving them a voice and platform to tell their intriguing and sometimes glamorous stories. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy almost all of the music featured in the soundtrack, some of which is heart wrenching, most of which is deeply soulful and a lot of which will make you want to dance, and sing! (Netflix, rent from Amazon Prime or YouTube)
Africa: A Journey into Music (2017)
Throughout this three part documentary series, DJ Rita Ray, explores three of the epicentres of African music; Nigeria, South Africa and Mali. Entertaining as it is educative, the series explores the history of many sounds and artists that have influenced our dance music in the west, including trance, hip hop and rap. Rita is a beautifully spoken, amiable presenter who gets tentatively involved with all the people and music she discovers, joyfully and passionately learning and being absorbed all the way. We are shown all aspects of life and music, from street performances, to intimate family gatherings, to stadia shows and home vinyl sessions with some very significant musicians. Expect bewitching polyphonic harmonies from gospel choirs in South Africa, ancient melodies steeped in tradition from Mali, and intoxicating Afrobeat and Hi-life from Nigeria. The role of Art in Africa is shown as something deeply-rooted, spiritual, familial, political and social. This is a brilliant three-part watch whether you’re discovering Paul Simon for the first time, searching for more African music and want to know what the songs you’re listening to are about, or simply watching for a good nostalgic listen, you will enjoy this series.
Maori Metal (2018)
Another short (20 minute) Vice documentary follows the band Alien Weaponry, the metal band from New Zealand who are now known internationally, on their mission to preserve the Māori language which is part of their heritage. The Māori culture has been under threat and almost disappeared already, with less than 4% of New Zealand’s population still speaking the language. The family explain their lineage and their relationship to the Māori culture, going to meet with elders and introducing us to some of their unique traditions and customs. An interesting insight to anyone curious about culture, this documentary delves into the lives of a normal family still connected to and emphatically protective of their ancestry. A wonderful and hopeful demonstration of contemporaries finding a medium that feels relevant to them; metal music, and using it to express something deeper and more valuable than can be said otherwise.
Jimi: Be by My Side (2014)
Jimi: Be by My Side is a biopic about Jimi Hendrix and the friends, lovers and colleagues who backed him all the way to fame. As much as it is biographical, it is about friendship and romance, and the role a friend or lover plays to an extraordinarily talented and becoming musician, and sensitive artist. The costume and sets are to die for, the film flows effortlessly, corresponding with the laid-back drawl of his accent or the smoke spiralling from his cigarettes. The camera dwells meditatively over the profound, influential thoughts Jimi voices. For me, it is whimsical and romantic, and there is no other decade I would rather go back and visit than the psychedelic era of the sixties, with the exceptional soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix. I watched it twice in twenty-four hours, and not just because it stars André 3000. While we’re on the subject, check out my favourite, lesser know Hendrix riff from Rainbow Bridge movie soundtrack.
A Bigger Splash (2015)
A Bigger Splash stars Tilda Swinton (as Marianne Faithful) Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson, I found it to be a wild, romantic love story, with a little tragedy, a little jealousy and a little murder, filmed against the stunning backdrop of the Sicilian island, Pantelleria. Marianne goes there to seek an isolated recovery from a surgery that has left her mute, but for a few whispers, making her performance and part in the story, even more poignant and poetic. An old lover of hers joins them on the island. He is overbearing, extroverted, and recovering from alcoholism, they quickly fall back into their old intoxicating, outrageously fun and giddy relationship, which is provocative as it is fun to watch. A sense of glamour, of freedom, and a deliciously voyeuristic look at a passionate and problematic relationship, languid in the Medditeranean heat, A Bigger Splash ticked all my boxes for a good watch, and was the reason Emotional Rescue – The Rolling Stones, was so high on my most listened to songs of that year. The soundtrack features a lot of Stones tracks and Giacinto Scelsi, winning the Soundtrack Stars award at Venice Film Festival, not to be missed by musos I say!
Jo Dressler is on 1BTN every 3rd Tuesday of the month 2.00pm-4.00pm