7 Gritty Rock and Roll Documentaries That Will Electrify You
Are you ready to rock? I SAID, “ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?” If your answer is a resounding “Yes!” and you’re making hand horns in the air, then these documentaries are for you. Topic’s got some of the grittiest rock documentaries ever made. They not only tell the never-before-heard story behind some of rock and roll’s most iconic, and possibly notorious, artists but also fill your living room with guitar riffs and drum beats that will get you moving (or headbanging). You might know some of these acts pretty well, but stick with us and you might discover your new favorite band (underground shows are the best anyway, am I right?). Now sit back, turn up the volume on your TV or laptop, and let’s rockumentary.
For decades, rock and roll music was outlawed in Cuba, considered to be “American capitalist filth” by the government. But that didn’t stop heavy metal band Zeus. Though they were persecuted for playing rock music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, their story took an unexpected turn in the 2000s when the government created the Agency of Rock and started sponsoring bands like Zeus. But that’s just the bones of the story. Nicholas Brennan’s documentary “Los Últimos Frikis,” which follows the band in Cuba over a 10-year period, allows viewers to devour the meat of Zeus’s story. Get an intimate look at the band’s daily lives, each member’s personal evolutions, and the trials and tribulations they’ve faced over the course of their career. One quickly learns that Zeus’s fight is not with the government, but with the changing times and the new genres of music that come with it. Now that they’re free to scream, is anyone still listening?
In 2011, LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy decided to retire his band when many considered them to be at their peak — but judging by how many bars played LCD Soundsystem everywhere I went in 2011, I’d say they were still far from peaking. The documentary sees Murphy internally struggling with his decision, but his doubt turns into focus as the band puts on their last concert, a four-hour spectacle of pure elation at Madison Square Garden. Like the ultimate goodbye party for LCD Soundsystem fans, the show filled the entire stadium to the brim with the band’s signature electro-indie-disco dance beats. It’s the kind of concert that attendees will be telling their grandkids about. Several members of Arcade Fire and comedian-musician Reggie Watts make guest appearances, performing alongside the band, Aziz Ansari and Donald Glover can be seen rocking out in the audience, while members of Soulwax are featured in the doc. LCD fans will not only get uninterrupted footage of the show and see the band play, yes, tons of their hits, with energy that jumps off the screen, but you will also get a rare and intimate look inside the life and thoughts of the band’s fearless leader.
For those of you who are familiar with the Riot Grrl movement, you’re probably well-versed in Le Tigre’s dancy electroclash — a pleasantly discordant mix of electronic and punk. That’s because lead singer Kathleen Hanna is essentially Riot Grrl’s founding sister. As the frontwoman for legendary Riot Grrl band Bikini Kill, her name is synonymous with the movement. “Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre On Tour” follows the band on its 2004-2005 international tour, giving viewers a front-row seat at their raucous live shows. In between sets, Hanna and the band talk about feminism and dealing with sexism and homophobia in the music industry. Le Tigre fans, this is appointment viewing for you. For the uninitiated, turn up the volume in your headphones and get ready to find out who took the bomp.
Janis Joplin has one of the most distinct and recognizable voices in music history. As soon as you hear it, it fills you with the energy of the revolutionary ‘60s and you feel a tectonic shifting of your soul. Joplin blazed through the world, redefining rock music and challenging gender norms before burning out at the age of 27, joining the infamous 27 Club alongside Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. “Janis: Little Girl Blue” is an affecting tribute to the singer, doing her rock legend status justice while also revealing a more tender side through never-before-seen letters she wrote her parents through the years.
You know the New York Dolls. You know the glam rock scene. In the early ‘70s, the New York Dolls were a notorious and outrageous act, known for their androgyny and unpolished musical style. The Dolls helped to define an era of noise, art, and dirt-cheap decadence as pioneers of New York’s burgeoning punk scene. “New York Doll” centers around bassist Arthur Kane, who was a founding member but was forced out in 1975. The documentary follows Kane’s life after the Dolls, when he wrestled with alcoholism and drug addiction, which eventually led him to join the Church of Latter Day Saints. In addition to a biographical look, the documentary also follows Kane’s reunion with two surviving members of the Dolls as they rehearse for a comeback concert in London. Will they reignite the punk scene? You will certainly hope so.
Though Pulp has die-hard fans from all around the world (including yours truly), no one feels more indebted to the band than the people of Sheffield, UK, the band’s hometown. “Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets” weaves together interviews with the willowy nerd-heartthrob hybrid frontman, Jarvis Cocker, and the rest of the band, but the heart of the documentary is meeting the residents of Sheffield, from kids to senior citizens, whose lives are clearly touched by the band. Like when a senior living facility has a sing-along to “Help the Aged” or when the Sheffield women’s choir sings “Common People” in the background. For a band whose biggest hit is about the everyday working class, it’s obvious that Sheffield was their biggest inspiration.
Not to be mistaken with the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker was an enigmatic rock musician whose experimental work influenced titans like Brian Eno, David Bowie, Damon Albarn, Thom Yorke, and Goldfrapp. Yet, he never quite surfaced onto the mainstream radar. “Scott Walker: 30th Century Man” proves that he was more than deserving of the recognition. The documentary follows his career trajectory, from his days in The Walker Brothers to his successful solo career in the UK, but it is perhaps his later years that make him the undefinable genius he’s known as today. “30th Century Man” offers viewers the chance to witness Walker’s creative process as he returns to the studio at the age of 63 to round out a career defined by boundary-pushing evolution. Pulp fans, look out for Jarvis Cocker’s appearance in the doc.
“Rock and roll is freedom, and every damn person wants to be free.” Russian rocker Andrey Makarevich’s words set the premise for “Free to Rock,” which recounts how rock and roll essentially helped to topple the Soviet Union. Pretty epic, right? Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, the documentary explores how rock music snuck behind the Iron Curtain and shook an entire society awake from totalitarian rule. Starting in the late ‘80s, bands like Bon Jovi, The Beach Boys, and Motley Crue started playing shows behind the Curtain, and ended up empowering a society to demand more social and personal freedoms. This rock-fueled societal shift culminated in one of the largest rock festivals in history when Metallica, AC/DC, Pantera, and The Black Crowes melted the faces of 1.6 million fans at Moscow’s first open-air concert. Shortly after, the Soviet Union dissolved. Featuring interviews from Billy Joel, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, various Russian artists, as well as former presidents Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev (who knew these two would ever share the screen with Metallica?), the doc proves that rock and roll truly does equate freedom.