Each week, I'll cover the documentaries that are worth a view. Consider it a primer to be becoming a docuphile. I encourage you to leave your favorite documentaries in the comments or tweet at me at @robinhardwick. This week, three documentaries that cover my favorite era of music: the nineties.
What: Dig! (2004)
Who: Anton Newcombe, eccentric lead singer of the indie rock band Brian Jonestown Massacre, and his ultimate frenemy, with Courtney Taylor-Taylor, singer of the '90s indie rock band The Dandy Warhols. Dig! is equal parts character study, chronicle of the music industry in the 90s, and a story about friendship, and a story about self-destruction. Plus, really rockin' performance footage.
Why It's Intriguing: You don't need to know anything about either bands, about the music industry, or even about music to appreciate what filmmaker Ondi Timoner has created. Anton Newcombe is as equally frustrating as he is interesting. He's a raging egomaniac, a substance abuser, and he wears his pain right out there. Courtney Taylor-Taylor, who provides some narration, is definitely the more level-headed, rational one. Both bands were slated to become the next big alternative rock band of the '90s. The Dandy Warhols ultimately obtain the success, and it's easy to see why: their songs are radio-friendly, the members have a better understanding of how to act appropriately around record executives, and they are, ahem, "prettier," at least in the eyes of the public.
Anton Newcombe cares a lot about gaining success, but spends an exorbitant amount of energy giving the appearance that he doesn't care. His frustration and envy is clear, but as a troubled person can best handle it. It's actually a wonder his bandmates put up with him (although he has been kicked out of the band several times). Substance abuse is a large part of his behavior, which is only touched upon lightly.
The footage used for the documentary varies which keeps it compelling. Interview footage, home videos, industry interviews, and live performances are all equally exciting and is guaranteed to make one miss the alternative scene of the nineties. Surprisingly, both The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre are still releasing albums today, but I believe their music peaked in the nineties, and we're lucky to have Dig! to capture that.
Side note: if you haven't listened to the 1997 album ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down, drop everything and do it now.
What: 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)
Who: More of a concert film than a documentary, it covers the grandfathers of alternative indie rock, Sonic Youth, and their various tourmates of their 1991 tour of Europe, including Mudhoney, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and Babes In Toyland
What It's Intriguing: I first watched this on video cassette when I was fourteen, originally watching it because I had been caught up in Nirvana mania of the early nineties. I watched with wide-eyed wonder as I was given a behind-the-scenes look at my favorite bands. Thurston Moore and Kim gave various interviews about their band and the state of the music industry, interspersed with performances from the bands. They fill the role of the "cool parents" of all the other bands.
Now two decades old, this documentary captures the alternative rock scene on the edge of a bubble: when grunge broke but before it captured the runways of Milan. Watching this again several years later, I was savvy enough to pick up on Thurston and Kim's sarcasm and subtle mocking of the journalists they encounter. They often make references to the Madonna documentary Truth Or Dare.
For Nirvana fans, it's a treat to see Nirvana experiencing their first major tour and seeing them perform at their peak. We also encounter some of Kurt's flirtation with then-unknown Courtney Love. It's also a bit sad, knowing now that Kurt was likely drunk and high through much of the tour to self-treat emotional and physical pain.
What: Truth Or Dare (1991)
Who: Madonna in the early nineties, cone-bra, controversy and all. Truth Or Dare chronicles Madonna's infamous Blond Ambition Tour of 1990, which solidified her superstar status. The film was a subject of much controversy when it was released because it contained nudity, simulated masturbation, gay men kissing, and Madonna fellating a water bottle. Watching it now, these barely seem at all risque. I call it more acceptance of open sexuality, some call it looser morals. Whatever the case, this film would probably receive a PG-13 rating if released today.
Why It's Intriguing: Madonna is the ultimate performer. This includes the phenomenal performances from the tour (shot in color in a great contrast against the black and white of the rest of the film) and the performance Madonna gives offstage. She is playing the character of Madonna, the ultimate celebrity diva and superstar. I think in 1990, we were less adept at picking up subtle irony, and Madonna came off as a spoiled brat and not as someone just playing the part.
Whichever the case, Madonna is an entertaining spoiled brat: she melts down about a sound glitch in one of the numbers, she basks in her gay harem of dancers, she almost gets arrested for indecent exposure by simulating masturbation on a bed during "Like A Virgin," she breaks up with Warren Beatty and flirts with Antonio Banderas, and shows her sensitive side by connecting with her estranged brother. Madonna was really the ultimate reality show star before reality shows.
Have I mentioned how amazing the performances are? Especially "Express Yourself:"
Bonus: This produced endless parodies, the best being an entire episode of Blossom, as well as Julie Brown's Medusa: Dare To Be Truthful.