A lot of people turned to binge watching during the pandemic lockdowns. Although I wasn’t binging, I did take the opportunity to check out a number of documentaries about bands, events, and people associated with the music industry. Almost all are available on DVDs from Netflix, and/or through streaming on Netflix or rental from Amazon Prime or YouTube. Here are more fascinating looks at musicians, labels, and even a record store. All are highly recommended.
Laurel Canyon in Southern California in the mid-to-late 1960s was home to a unique confluence of musical talent, ideas, and camaraderie. Artists such as the Byrds, the Mamas & The Papas, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Frank Zappa, the Monkees, and many more made the canyon their home. Others, including Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, found their way there to visit. The rich history of this time and place has spawned numerous documentaries.
Echo in the Canyon
This look at the Laurel Canyon music scene was released a few years ago. The movie is about a 50-50 split between a) footage of the planning and performance of a tribute concert organized by Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob, with contemporary musicians including Beck, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, and others; and b) archival footage and more recent interviews with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills.
Legends of the Canyon
Legends of the Canyon was a prior documentary about the same scene, narrated by rock photographer Henry Diltz. There is some overlap with Echo, but this features more historic footage, and I think it is the superior film. It appears to be currently unavailable for streaming, and is a bit pricey on the used DVD market.
The Legends of Laurel Canyon
If you want more on this magical place, here’s a special done by a Los Angeles TV station. You can see it in its entirety with the link below
There’s also this, episode 1 of a Laurel Canyon miniseries by Wolf River Music Television on YouTube.
Les Paul: Chasing Sound
Les Paul comes across as a pretty sweet guy in this documentary that was part of PBS’s American Masters series. He was so much more than just the designer of the iconic Gibson electric guitar that bears his name (some used copies of which are offered on eBay at six-figure prices). Les was an inventor as well as a popular music superstar (with his wife, Mary Ford in the 1950s). Wisconsin-born Lester William Polsfuss is generally credited with originating sound-on-sound recording, overdubbing, and multi-tracking. He was still performing weekly at a club in New York in his 80s.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
Link Wray’s “Rumble” is the jumping off point for this PBS look at Native Americans in the music world. I was quite surprised by the number of well-known and lesser-known artists with indigenous heritage. Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and bands like Redbone are among the featured performers.
All Things Must Pass
You might be excused for thinking it’s about George Harrison, but All Things Must Pass covers the rise and fall of Tower Records, probably the world’s best-known music retailer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) directed this in-depth look at the iconic chain. From its beginnings as a side venture in founder Russ Solomon’s father’s drug store in Sacramento in 1941, through the expansion into four continents that ultimately led to its demise, the story is an intriguing one. Highly recommended.
Searching for Sugarman
This one unfolds like a mystery novel. Obscure Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez recorded and released a pair of albums in the early 1970s that, while largely ignored in America, inexplicably became huge underground hits in South Africa. Rumors of his demise circulated, including an onstage suicide scenario. A couple of fans set out to learn the true story of this enigmatic artist, making startling discoveries in the process. Saying any more would ruin the suspense.
The Stax Records Story
Here’s another rags-to-riches-to-rags story, but with a lot more intrigue than the Tower Records saga. From its beginnings as a country, rockabilly, and pop label called Satellite Records, founded by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, Stax evolved into a racially integrated soul music powerhouse that would rival Motown. White and Black musicians worked together to create a funky, unique sound. Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a racially balanced group, was the house band. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and The Staple Singers were among their biggest acts, with Hayes and David Porter writing a lot of the hits. An association with Atlantic Records helped build the label until things went south. It turned out that their contract had given all rights to the back catalogue to Atlantic. Stax rose again as an independent label with massive hits by Isaac Hayes. Their peak was probably reached with the massive Wattstax concert in Los Angeles, which was filmed and also released as an album. Subsequent financial problems resulted in bankruptcy and the sale of the label to Fantasy and then Concord.
A Band Called Death
I honestly don’t know what possessed me to rent this video, as I am not particularly a fan of punk or hardcore metal. I’m glad I did, though, because it is the unique story of three African American brothers from Detroit who fell in love with the sound of the Who and high-energy punk bands. To the consternation of their neighbors, they formed a band and played hard, fast, and loud. Despite garnering interest from major record labels, their steadfast reluctance to change the name of the band kept them from obtaining a contract. A self-produced single was all but forgotten when a punk music blogger came across one decades later. His promotion of the track led to one of the brothers’ nephews discovering the secret of his uncle’s past, and the formation of a new band to play the music of Death.
Young @ Heart
Septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians, oh my! In a completely different vein, this is the story of a retirement home chorus that performs contemporary rock and roll songs with band accompaniment. Thrill to the sound of retirees pouring their (young) hearts into such unlikely numbers as The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.” The chorus has performed internationally to enthusiastic audiences. This is a “feel good” movie, for sure.
I think you’ll find more than a few of these to be worth watching. I thoroughly enjoyed every one.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Victor Chapa.