Netflix's streaming service has replaced conventional rental services for many of us. The convenience of being able to access thousands of movies almost instantly has definitely changed the way I enjoy my down time, and allows me to watch a lot of material I probably would have a hard time tracking down otherwise. One of the cooler categories of film that Netflix makes available is documentaries, and quite a few should be of interest to music fans. Here are ten available now that are worth checking out.
10. SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON
Shep Gordon is a legendary music manager, and this documentary on him is both highly entertaining and thorough. After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Gordon began meeting rock musicians, and quickly became the manager of the Alice Cooper band. He was instrumental in steering their early rise to fame, and eventually went on to represent other performers such as Blondie and Anne Murray. Later in his career, Gordon helped create the concept of celebrity chefs, launching the careers of several. Although the Alice Cooper material might be the most interesting to rock fans, this film is engaging throughout, and Gordon is easily as interesting a person as many of the celebrity clients he represented.
9. BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME
This documentary of the legendary cult rock band Big Star is obviously worth a look for any fans of the group, but it's also worth checking out for individuals such as myself — folks who acknowledge the band's influence and place in musical history but have never really enjoyed their songs. A good music documentary can help create an appreciation for artists that we might not otherwise like, and I found that to be the case with this one. The band's rise to fame in Memphis, and its popularity with fans and lasting effect on other musicians, are captured well, making this a film worth checking out.
8. WE ARE TWISTED F***ING SISTER
This is another case of a documentary about a band I never really was a fan of but that won me over. Twisted Sister started as an early-'70s New York glam band inspired by acts like the New York Dolls, and their metamorphosis into the group that most of us remember from the early '80s is an interesting one. Before they ever found success with MTV videos for "I Wanna Rock," Twisted Sister was a successful regional live act hammering out Bowie and Lou Reed covers before finding fame with their own material. This might be one of the better documentaries about a working rock band eventually climbing the ladder to mainstream fame that I've seen in quite a while; I'll still probably never be a fan of Twisted Sister's music, but this film made me respect them.
7. TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM
At nearly four hours, this mega-documentary on the iconic rock band from Florida is mandatory for huge fans of the group, but there's plenty to keep others interested too. (It took me three sittings to get through it, though.) A lot of good rock documentaries are most interesting in the first parts — In most cases, the origin stories and strange events leading up to the band most of us are familiar with tend to be more interesting than the material presented later, but this one is an exception. Peter Bogdanovich manages to direct this film in such a way that it's consistently informative and entertaining, and I was left wishing that the guys in the Heartbreakers were friends of mine.
6. ORION: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Jimmy Ellis had a huge talent, but he also had a problem. He had a natural gift as a singer, and it became his passion. Unfortunately, Jimmy Ellis sounded just like Elvis Presley, and even had a passing resemblance to the King of Rock and Roll, which made it difficult for anyone in the music industry to take him seriously as anything but a clone act. After Elvis died in 1977, a series of strange events had music producers convincing Ellis to don a mask and play concerts as a sort of "What if Elvis didn't die, and I'm really him?" character named "Orion." While he found a certain amount of success as Orion, Ellis was never wholly satisfied with the situation. This documentary is a fascinating look at the oddball career of a talented singer who never escaped the shadow of a superstar he closely resembled.
5. I AM THOR
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jon Mikl Thor became a successful bodybuilder, before a stint as a nude waiter and then a stage performer bending steel bars and blowing up water bottles — before becoming a heavy-metal singer in the late '70s and '80s. This documentary about his rise to fame dressed as a barbarian working the metal scene and appearing in Z-grade horror films is definitely worth a look, either for fans of Thor or any of the things I just described. There's also lots of great footage chronicling what it's like to continue on and tour well after the apex of fame has passed. Part Spinal Tap, part awesome, I Am Thor is a fun ride.
4. HISTORY OF THE EAGLES
Like "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, I'm not a fan of the Eagles' music. Maybe it's just being burned out from years of hearing their songs on the radio, or that the mellow '70s California sound doesn't do much for me; I'm not sure. But I found this documentary about the band highly entertaining, and at more than three hours long, that's no easy feat. Their rise to become one of America's most successful and popular rock bands is interesting, but the tales of rock and roll excess, band fights, and other obstacles they had to overcome manage to entertain more than the typical Behind the Music-style band bios that many documentaries become. Needless to say, this one is mandatory for fans of the Eagles, but it has a lot to offer any fan of '70s rock.
3. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
This documentary about Janis Joplin is told through her letters and interviews with friends, family and musicians who knew her, and is touching and revelatory. While it's expected that a bio of an enormously popular and influential musical talent who died from a drug overdose will be sad, Little Girl Blue does a much better job than usual at painting a portrait of a long-dead musician as a real human being with feelings, rather than just a character in a series of events that most fans already know about.
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As the story of Jaco Pastorius, the virtuosic musician many credit for redefining bass playing, this documentary explores his music and life, taking an unflinching look at both his amazing talent and the demons that plagued him. Probably the most complete bio on Pastorius available, the documentary contains lots of great performance footage and interviews with both Pastorius's fellow musicians and those who were influenced by him.
1. REVENGE OF THE MEKONS
Legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs once referred to this band as "the most revolutionary group in the history of rock and roll," and whether or not that is true, their story is a long and interesting one. Beginning as an art collective in the late '70s, The Mekons erupted as part of the first wave of British punk rock, evolving through the years to incorporate elements of country music and other styles into their sound. Considered pioneers of alt-country and cowpunk, the band is engaging, and this documentary about them is, too. Worth seeking out for fans of the band, or for folks who enjoy unconventional music.