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

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 12 October 2013 09:02
A still in the film East End Babylon showing Cockney Rejects on stage in 1980
A still in the film East End Babylon showing Cockney Rejects on stage in 1980

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.

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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

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