Leave Music Documentaries To The Amateurs

I love Shane Meadows, don’t get me wrong. During the noughties the Staffordshire-born director and filmmaker did more than anyone to eradicate that feeling in your stomach that if it was British it’d be an embarrassing, schmaltzy mess. 1999’s A Room For Romeo Brass – Meadow’s second feature film starring inspired debutante Paddy Considine – signposted great things to come, and in 2004 that greatness duly arrived in the shape of Warp Films’ Dead Man’s Shoes, a work of genuine cinematic genius. This Is England followed and then the TV series of the same name, and neither did anything to tarnish the esteem in which Shane is held. And so it is with a heavy heart that I share any misgivings about The Stone Roses: Made Of Stone documentary. Misgivings even when the trailer gave me goosebumps.

The stunning cinematography, the human touch Shane clearly has when interviewing fans, the four members reunited at the iconic press conference looking like Fathers4Justice, it filled me with anticipation. “So what’s the problem?”, you ask. I hope I’m wrong but my foremost anxiety sprang from the director’s response to the fracas the band had in Amsterdam last summer. Ian Brown called Reni a “cunt” live on stage after the drummer had left the Heineken Music Hall, and for one horrible second it looked as though they were about to implode all over again.

“When all that stuff happened it made me feel physically sick,” Meadows told NME recently. “I hated it. I did the opposite of what most filmmakers would do: turned my cameras off, put my crew in a room and said that if anyone tries to sneak out they’re off the job. We’ve all seen it a million times, like the classic Metallica documentary [Some Kind Of Monster] which I love when they’re all in fucking counselling but it’s a bit Spinal Tap. I was setting out to watch the rebirth of my favourite band of all time. I’m not Michael Moore trying to expose the president.”

It all sounds a bit cosy doesn’t it? Meadows admits himself he couldn’t believe his luck getting this gig, but you have to wonder if a hungry first-time filmmaker would have done anything as reckless or counterintuitive as turning the cameras off. Chances are they wouldn’t have a career for very long if their decision making was swayed by emotion or at worst obsequiousness. Had Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin pulled the plug on filming at the Rolling Stones’ fateful Altamont gig in 1969 when things were going horribly wrong, then Gimme Shelter wouldn’t be anything like one of the greatest rock documentaries ever made. Instead they committed to celluloid the gig that burst the bubble of the counterculture as the 60s became the 70s. Prior to the show Mick Jagger crows in a press conference about how America can learn how to behave from this microcosmic event, only for Hell’s Angel’s, hired by the group as security, to stab and murder young black youth Meredith Hunter. There’s no comment and no talking heads, the events unfold sequentially, and the only additional footage is of Jagger and Charlie Watts watching the horror unfold.

It’s a sad fact that young directors without big reputations are always more likely to capture the zeitgeist where music documentaries are concerned, whereas the weightier the name, the less hungry and thorough they’re likely to be. Take Martin Scorsese. The celebrated American director has punctuated his soundtracks with the Stones’ vibrant rock ‘n’ roll, and when you see how glorious a scene Johnny Boy’s entrance in Mean Streets is, you know there’s a special relationship between him and the band’s music.

2008’s Shine A Light, where he filmed the sexagenarians on their A Bigger Bang tour (2005 – 2007) was OK, but it wasn’t in anyway essential like Gimme Shelter. The Stones are now past it, their best music is three decades old and the biggest ‘ohs’ of the tour this year will appear on Mick Jagger’s bank balance. Even if he could go back, the likelihood of a director of Martin Scorsese’s status traipsing through fields of hippies for days on end like the directors of Gimme Shelter did back in ‘69 are remote.

Scorsese also made a film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, shot in 2005. Well, you’d assume so. The film was actually made using footage of an interview conducted by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen back in 2000. Scorsese didn’t even speak to Dylan himself, electing instead to use five-year-old observations, and how objective an interviewer is Rosen likely to be? On top of this, the footage came almost exclusively from the cutting room flood of D.A. Pennebaker’s brilliant Don’t Look Back. Pennebaker, one of the pioneers of Direct Cinema, was hardly a fledgling auteur, but Don’t Look Back transcends mere rockumentary and cemented his reputation and made him a household name to boot.

Established filmmakers are far more likely to take the easy commission. Cameron Crowe’s personal involvement with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden made him a shoe-in to make Pearl Jam Twenty, a tedious two hours of middle-aged men backslapping. It’s not about youth or zeal or pandemonium, it’s a commemoration, and how dull is that? Give me first time director Sam Jones’ Wilco movie I Am Trying To Break Your Heart over that any day. Or first-time director Jeff Stein’s film The Kids Are Alright, which although just a montage of clips pieced together, captures the essence and intensity and sheer thrill of watching a band as incendiary as The Who at their peak.

Finally, timing is crucial. Ondi Timoner spent seven years filming Dig!, possibly because she had nothing better to do. The director hung out with the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre for the best part of a decade and her loss is our gain. It’s a sordid, Machiavellian rollercoaster whose protagonists are at best deluded and at worst revolting, and what a picture! Directors who’ve got multi-million pound films to shoot and promote with big name movie stars, as well as premiers to attend and Cannes and the Oscars, don’t have time to go chasing after solipsistic drug fuck-ups with a camera in their face waiting for them to do something stupid. Leave that to the amateurs and the great directors of the future looking to cut their teeth.

I love Shane Meadows, but the jury is still out on whether or not be can make a rockumentary. If in doubt, give it to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.