Despite 2020’s best efforts, not everybody is having a complete write-off of a year. Liverpool won the Premier League for the first time in 30 years, and Bong Joon-ho celebrated the most decorated spell of his career. 2020 will also be a definitive year for music documentaries, which have delivered insight into some of the most iconic performers ever, from Bruce Springsteen to Billie Holiday.
This rise in the medium doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Some releases were long in the works, from Taylor Swift’s access-all-areas-except-her-relationship Netflix film Miss Americana to Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys movie for Apple TV+.
However, some of these films would not have happened were it not for the pandemic, with artists like Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, and Laura Marling staging one-off recorded concerts in response to the live music industry – worth more than $30bn a year – temporarily being snuffed out.
Cave’s planned 2020 tour was rumoured to be large scale and kitted out with a gospel choir. Watch his self-directed, solitary performance in the cavernous West Hall of Alexandra Palace, captured by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robbie Ryan, isn’t so much a compromise, as a different direction entirely. Fans loved it so much that the one-off streaming event expanded to a full on-demand release.
If Cave’s Idiot Prayer isn’t the kind of floor-clearing, foot-stomping concert film experience you’re craving, then David Byrne’s American Utopia has you covered. The Spike Lee directed take on Byrne’s Broadway show encourages living room dancing as the former Talking Heads frontman delivers hits from his lengthy and lauded career. Yet there’s another layer to the performance that rings especially true during COVID-19.
During the carefully composed setlist, Byrne talks to his audience about his life, his hopes and how everyone – himself included – could be doing better. Less of a self-righteous TED talk, more of a rally cry during tumultuous times, American Utopia joins Stop Making Sense as a milestone in the performance film canon.
Where Byrne’s pre-song sermons are delivered in a familiarly off-kilter fashion, Bruce Springsteen’s come directly and disarmingly from the heart in Letter To You. Surrounded by the E Street Band, Springsteen shares memories and reflections from his six decades on the stage. It’s a visceral, mostly monochrome scrapbook of archive footage, crisp and natural exterior shots of New Jersey along with studio footage, with Springsteen’s voiceover toggling between nostalgic and speculative offerings on grief, life, and God. Filmmaker Thom Zimny is lucky that Springsteen is so open, because his frankness results in a late-in-life letter to fans who – due to the pandemic – are even more grateful for a little intimate time with The Boss.
Where Letter To You is peppered with nostalgia, Beastie Boys Story is positively drunk off of it. Another pristinely shot Apple TV+ production, this ‘An Audience With…’ formatted collaboration between Ad-Rock, Mike D and their friend Spike Jonze traces back through a career that first started when they were teenagers. The infectious cheek of the two bandmates as they share anecdotes and bittersweet memories of the dearly departed Adam Yauch fills the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. It works as a film thanks to its bizarre, ironically formal set-up. Imagine the pair coming in to present at your school assembly, and you’re on the right track.
Already this year we’ve had plenty of fascinating music films – but there’s even more to come. Billie Holiday fans can look forward to James Erskine’s new film about the trailblazing jazz singer, out in the UK on November 13. Stuffed with unheard audio testimonies, Billie has been praised for the way it shows parts of Holiday’s story away from singing. This includes myriad of misfortunes that ended with her tragic death at the age of 44 in 1959.
Close on its heels is Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, arriving early next month. If the title suggests an intimate session with the former frontman of The Pogues that’s because it is, while simultaneously charting his genesis as one of the founding fathers of Celtic punk.
While nothing can quite beat the static, sweaty air of a real live music experience, the films this year are an opportunity to get reacquainted with our fave rockstars and musicians. At a time when we really need comfort and catharsis, that’s a real blessing.