Musical footnotes to movie stars: How rockumentaries looked to the margins

Rockumentaries used to focus on chart-toppers, but now the cult heroes of times past are in the spotlight, says Pierre Perrone

In the Seventies, documentaries like A Film About Jimi Hendrix, Janis: The Way She Was – about the late Janis Joplin – and The Kids are Alright – about The Who – used to take music's biggest stars and tell of the trials, travails, triumphs and tragedies behind their rise to the top. In the mid-Nineties, the VH1 channel inaugurated its Legends series of music biographies and continued with the Behind the Music strand, still going strong with its mix of excess and success.

However, in recent years, a new trend seems to have developed: what could be called “cult hero” docs, films about minor rock, punk, soul and outsider acts best described as footnotes in the rich tapestry of popular music. Even the Oscars have got in on the act. In February, Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul's deeply flawed film about the Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary did enable its elusive subject to return to performing once again, but rather glossed over his previous come-backs in Australia in the late Seventies and early Eighties. It also let Clarence Avant, so-called Godfather of Black Music and the owner of Sussex Records, Rodriguez's label, get away with unspecific answers about the singer's royalties.

Much better is Soul of America, Poull Brien's film documenting Charles Bradley's troubled life and his transition from James Brown impersonator to bona fide retro-soul artist recording his solo debut, No Time For Dreaming, despite being in his early sixties. Soul of America played a crucial role in launching Bradley internationally. Bradley has released a second album, Victim of Love, is currently touring the UK, and enjoying his belated success. “It took so long for the world to find me but I'm here now,” the vocalist admitted while appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival this summer.

A heartwarming, human-interest story, and one that is replicated across the recent raft of music documentaries like Basically, Johnny Moped, the lovely film directed by Fred Burns about the British punk group who never made it despite appearing at The Roxy, the home of punk in London's Covent Garden, and being included on the seminal compilation The Roxy London WC2 alongside The Adverts, X-Ray Spex, the Buzzcocks and Wire, four influential names still bandied about by young groups today. Basically, Johnny Moped recently premiered at London's Koko, formerly known as the Camden Palace and called the Music Machine in an even earlier incarnation. Johnny Moped last appeared there in 1978, an occasion overshadowed by the antics of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and returned to the stage after the screening, along with their friend and former guitarist Captain Sensible, later of The Damned. It was a proud occasion for Fred Burns, Captain Sensible's son.

His documentary drew inspiration from Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston about the bipolar American musician. “He came out of it really well. Daniel is an outsider artist and now he is playing gigs all over the world. I was definitely aware of that given the mental disability issues around Johnny Moped. He was written out of history despite having had my dad and Chrissie Hynde in his band,” says Burns of the musician who played guerilla gigs in his native Croydon before Pete Doherty was even born.

Burns thinks the “cult hero” docs redress the balance. “We are over-saturated with films about bands who make it when the vast majority don't. These stories need to be told.”

Richard England concurs. He produced Oil City Confidential, the 2009 documentary about the influential pub-rockers Dr Feelgood, directed by Julien Temple, before making East End Babylon, about Cockney Rejects, the unloved Oi! group whose brief flirtation with the charts lasted all of two singles in 1980 – their own ''The Greatest Cockney Rip Off'' and ''I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles'', the tune associated with their beloved West Ham football club.

He was inspired by Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, made by Sacha Gervasi about the early 1980s Canadian heavy metal band who influenced the big four of the thrash genre – Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax – battled against the odds and only found success thanks to the 2008 doc. “I thought who the hell is going to watch a film about Anvil? They're rubbish! I watched it and it's a brilliant film,” says England, who found the Rejects story irresistible. “Coming from an underdog perspective is a lot more interesting. It doesn't matter if you like the music. It's all about the people. I copied all of Julien Temple's tricks. He hates the term 'rockumentaries' but he was the innovator and originator. It all goes back to him.”

The American director Penelope Spheeris was also crucial to the development of the genre. Before helming Wayne's World, she made The Decline of Western Civilization, an exposé of the Los Angeles punk and metal scene in the 1980s, only she didn't have the nous to focus on one single act. It's not an accusation you could level at Steve Barker, who directed Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure: Otway The Movie. Funded by the fans of the two-hit wonder, cult singer-songwriter John Otway of “Really Free” and “Bunsen Burner” fame, it premiered in London's Leicester Square and is still doing the rounds with its indomitable subject.

Martin Kelly of Heavenly Films backed the Moped project after helping his brother Paul Kelly make Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story (2008) about the post-punk trio, and Lawrence of Belgravia (2011) focusing on the delusional but endearing frontman of Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart. “You don't even have to know anything about the band for it to stand up. That's one of our rules,” he says. It would seem cult-hero docs are here to stay.

Charles Bradley plays Manchester Academy on Saturday. 'Soul of America' goes on sale in December. John Otway presents his film and tours until December. 'Basically, Johnny Moped' is out on DVD. Cockney Rejects tour the UK in November. 'East End Babylon' is on sale now

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star