The chase for eyeballs has been a boon for eardrums.
With a flood of money pouring in from such streamers as Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ and Disney+ as they chase subscribers, artists young and old were are cashing fat checks for the screen rights to their lives, on and offstage (so long as they retained final cut). Meanwhile, acclaimed directors including Peter Jackson (“Get Back”), Todd Haynes (“The Velvet Underground”) and Edgar Wright (“The Sparks Brothers”) were drawn to music docs in ways not seen since Martin Scorsese fixed his lens on the Band for “The Last Waltz” or Jonathan Demme shot the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense.”
2021 produced so many first-rate music documentaries that a film on the “Black Woodstock” (Questlove’s revelatory “Summer of Soul”) was quickly followed by one on the mutant Woodstock (HBO Max’s “Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage”) .
Below, some great moments from this year’s bounty.
Best New (Old) Artist
This time last year, the Los Angeles sibling duo were better known in Europe than in the States, purveyors of curiously smart art-rock for nearly 50 years. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael roared back into pop culture consciousness in 2021 through Wright’s loving documentary “The Sparks Brothers” and “Annette,” the Leos Carax-directed, Sparks-penned musical psychodrama starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
Trailer for Edgar Wright’s ‘Sparks Bros.’ documentary
Best Use of a Stroller
“DMX: Don’t Try to Understand”
When the late hip-hop star DMX, then recently released from prison, pushes a stroller occupied by his toddler son into the Universal Music building in Manhattan in the film, the scowling, growling rapper vanishes and in his place arrives your average dad embarking on a take-your-kid-to-work adventure. Like all compelling biographical music documentaries, “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand,” reveals the person minus the mask.
Best Historical Corrective (and Document of Live Music’s Power)
“Summer of Soul”
Harlem, 1969: A professional documentary crew captures a summer-long gospel, soul, jazz and R&B concert series that featured artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone. The summer ends and, aside from a relatively unremarkable TV special that aired shortly thereafter, the canisters are archived. More than 50 years later, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s earth-shaking resurrection of that footage became one of the musical events of the year. Best, not only does the film present transfixing live performances but Thompson also uses the music and performances to explore race, cultural segregation and America’s selective memory.
Best Songwriting Tutorial
“The Beatles: Get Back”
One thing’s for certain: The success of Jackson’s doc, which traces the band’s final days through the precise culling and editing of 60 hours’ worth of filmed footage into eight, has legacy groups scouring their archives for their own documentary studio footage. Chances are, they won’t be as revelatory as this three-part, eight-plus-hour document, which offers a virtual TED Talk on the ways in which flesh-and-blood, tobacco-tethered humans transform stored energy …….