If critical accolades, award nominations and honors are anything, 1969 might have given us the “Summer of Soul,” but 2021 could become the year of the music doc.
Summer of Soul (…or, when the revolution couldn’t be televised) is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It sees music enthusiast and drummer of modern R&B/hip-hop powerhouse The Roots put his vast historical knowledge of the genre to good use while dealing with previously unearthed footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring a plethora of iconic stars of soul music. , with the respect it deserves.
The end result moved audiences and critics alike. The film’s premiere at Sundance in January 2021 was backed by a Grand Jury Prize and People’s Choice Award for Documentary, and a host of accolades followed, with six wins at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards alone, including for Best Feature Documentary, Best Editing, Best Archival Documentary, and Best Music Documentary. Streaming on Hulu, at press time, the doc has grossed US$3,671,773 theatrically worldwide.
But Thompson’s exuberant effort wasn’t the only music documentary to make headlines in 2021. Another archival-rich project that brought new life, and likely substantial new audiences, to a major event from the 1960s. 1960 – the final kick at the can of what was then the world’s biggest rock band – was also heavily on one streamer’s schedule.
that of Peter Jackson The Beatles: Come Back saw the director and his team apply the same meticulous, state-of-the-art restoration process to an archival treasure trove – in this case, 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio from Beatles recording sessions So be it album – which he made for his WWI review, 2018 They won’t grow old. Although Disney+ has yet to release viewership data for the eight-hour docuseries, it’s safe to assume that at least for one demographic the project caused a flood of subscriptions last fall.
“For the first time [record labels] begin to see that a documentary is much more than a promotional piece. It’s a chance to create a work of art for that band or artist that can support the records as part of their legacy.
Not to be outdone, in 2021 HBO unveiled a music documentary tier, “Music Box,” created by Bill Simmons, a former sports analyst and founder of the sports and pop culture website. The ring. The first season featured films such as Penny Lane Listen to Kenny G; by Alison Klayman Shreddedwho explored the making of Alanis Morrissette’s iconic Little shredded pill album; and Jean Majeur Mr Saturday night, an archival look at the life and career of music impresario Robert Stigwood. Also airing on HBO Max, the episode has been renewed for a second season.
All of this music-centric programming is a godsend for fans. But it’s also a welcome trend for documentary filmmakers, who are already reaping the benefits of a genre renaissance supported in part by content-hungry streamers; archival producers who scour the vaults to bring stories to life; and the music labels that house the recorded legacies of featured artists.
“We used to do one project a year, or have one start while another was ending,” says Nigel Sinclair (pictured below), co-founder with Guy East of prodco White Los Angeles-based Horse Pictures. “Now we have eight projects going on, which is fun, but kind of overwhelming.”
In addition to its slate of big-budget narrative films, White Horse has earned a reputation as a leading producer of major music documentaries, many of which feature top-notch directors weaving complex stories through the use of documentary material. exhaustively researched archives. Examples include No direction at home: Bob Dylana look at the iconic singer/songwriter’s meteoric rise from 1961 to 1966, led by Martin Scorsese; George Harrison: Living in the Material Worldalso directed by Scorsese; The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Yearsdirected by Ron Howard; Apollo, Roger Ross Williams’ loving look at the famous Harlem nightclub; and Pavarottianother Howard project celebrating the famous Italian operatic tenor.
“I’ve been doing this since 2005, and the idea of taking high-end feature narrative directors like Martin Scorsese or Ron Howard wasn’t generally followed back then,” Sinclair says when asked how documentaries music have been evolving like for some time. “The documentaries were made by documentary filmmakers. But that’s in the past, and now the people who grant the licenses realize that they have a unique commodity, without which the film cannot be made.
Enter the major music labels. While considerable amounts of footage can often be licensed through various news outlets and archival specialists with specific collections (White Horse has a production partnership with one such specialty store, Reelin’ in the Years, in 2019), the labels that have guided artists’ recording legacies are building on these considerable assets with visual material and, in several cases, establishing film divisions to co-produce projects featuring their stars.
Recent music documentaries made with the participation of these divisions include The Bee Gees: How to mend a broken heart, directed by Frank Marshall and produced with White Horse Pictures for Polygram Entertainment, airing on HBO; and The Velvet Underground, the much-vaunted Todd Haynes documentary acquired by Apple TV+ and produced with Universal Music Group. In 2021, two other label groups with sizable back catalogs unveiled special content divisions and deals with production studios: Concord Music, which boasts legendary artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Taylor, Phil Collins and The List of Stax Records in his stable; and Universal Music Group’s content wing Mercury Studios, which houses Mercury Records’ portfolio and partners with BBC Studios’ documentary unit for upcoming projects.
“Now that we have more visibility within the industry, we get a lot of proposals and ideas from outside,” says Sophia Dilley (pictured below), senior vice president of Concord Originals. “It really depends on the artist and the catalog we’re looking at. In many cases, we are also looking for partners for projects that we have under our roof.
Concord and White Horse are currently in production on a documentary project featuring acclaimed keyboardist Billy Preston (photo, top – photo courtesy of Preston Music Group). The famed sideman and solo artist passed away in 2006, but is back in the public eye again via the To recover docuseries, as it was Preston’s entry into The Beatles’ orbit during their 1969 recording sessions that galvanized the group to move forward with what would be their final release.
Dilley says Concord currently has about 900,000 copyrights under its roof. Besides the Preston project, Concord is also working on a narrative “genre thriller” that will incorporate Robert Johnson’s back catalog, and is teaming up with Jennifer Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions to develop projects based on the label’s portfolio of musicals.
“We hope we can add value in this way and hopefully provide a filmmaker with the ability to come in and objectively tell a story with a unique perspective using the assets that we have,” Dilley says. However, she warns that there are still hurdles for documentarians to jump through when working on music documentaries, especially projects featuring artists who have recorded for multiple labels. “It’s never complicated,” she laughs.
White Horse’s Nigel Sinclair agrees that the increased interest in music documentaries has created new challenges for filmmakers as well as opportunities. On the one hand, the era of YouTube, which allows anyone to download rare material at any time, makes images easier to find; conversely, Sinclair asserts that the cost of licenses is increasing.
Such considerations could make music labels, with their wealth of resources – financial and otherwise – increasingly important partners for music documentaries in the future. “For the first time, they’re starting to see that a documentary is so much more than a promotional piece,” Sinclair surmises. “It’s a chance to create a work of art for that band or artist that can support the records as part of their legacy.”
This story first appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of real screen Magazine, which has just come out. Not a subscriber ? Click on this subscription link for more information.