Home Viewing Volume One: Music Documentaries

With much of the world’s population now self-isolating at home, there’s never been a better time to dive into the huge range of film content available through on-demand streaming platforms. Our Home Viewing series collates some of our favourite picks, with each edition focusing on a different theme to help see us through the pandemic.

With the live entertainment sector now out of bounds, we’re kicking off Volume One with some of the best music documentaries and concert films from the archives. Enjoy!

Stop Making Sense

We were lucky enough to catch an incredible performance of David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ at the O2 Arena back in October 2018, in what many critics hailed as one of the greatest stage shows of all time. It did not disappoint. Part musical theatre, part live performance, ‘American Utopia’ was a spectacle not to be forgotten.

The blueprint for ‘American Utopia’, though, is something we can comfortably enjoy from the comfort of our own homes: in 1984, Talking Heads’ ‘Stop Making Sense’ set a precedent for what live shows could be. Energetic, unpredictable and full of creativity, in terms of concert films it has rarely been matched since.

Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

The BBC’s arsenal of expertly-crafted music documentaries is a treasure trove in itself, but one of their best is this exhaustive 2009 series on one of Europe’s most influential movements. Tracing its roots to World War Two Germany, the series focuses on the radical musical groups determined to create a new, forward-looking identity out of the ashes of conflict.

Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Popol Vuh all contribute their experiences as interviewees, helping to shape a comprehensive tale of how motorik beats, spacey synthesisers and experimental electronic sounds came to characterise German culture in the ’70s. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is a winner, too.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

In the 1980s DIY singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston was little more than a local curiosity, known for handing out home-made cassettes while working at a branch of McDonald’s. But he became a cult icon in the decade that followed after Kurt Cobain was pictured wearing a t-shirt featuring Johnston’s album art at the height of Nirvana’s popularity. An outsider artist who became well-loved for his charming approach and childlike compositions, he died in late 2019 as the result of a suspected heart attack and was mourned across the world.

In his lifetime, Daniel Johnston struggled with extensive mental and psychiatric problems, and in Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary these are explored head-on. Utilising years of home video footage, archive recordings and interviews, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ is a compelling and often tragic story that tells a unique story of mental struggle, creativity and love.

My Friend Fela

The most influential figure in the history of African music, Fela Kuti is a constant source of fascination. A pioneer the Afrobeat genre, he publicly denounced the activities of the corrupt Nigerian state government in the ’70s, formed his own republic (a commune and recording studio where he lived), and then dedicated his life to challenging social issues through music and political action.

‘My Friend Fela’, an insightful new documentary by Joel Zito Araújo, premiered at the BFI Film Festival in 2019. Aiming to dismantle the idea that Kuti was merely an eccentric African pop culture icon, Araújo’s feature examines the intricacies of the artist’s complex life. And through interviews with friends and family, he analyses why the Nigerian superstar’s music still resonates with the people of his home country today.

A Portrait of Arthur Russell: Wild Combination

Experimental musician Arthur Russell was famously so enveloped in his own work that he only released one completed solo record in his lifetime. But outside of 1986’s ‘World of Echo’, Russell made an impact with a wide range of collaborative projects and side projects that touched on contemporary classical, avant-garde electronica and disco music. He was an enduring presence across a variety of New York music scenes in the ’80s and was responsible for some of the strangest and most celebrated musical works of his time.

Filmed with VHS and Super 8 cameras, Matt Wolf’s documentary on the enigmatic New York musician is notable for its dreamlike qualities, which mimic the languid and mysterious sounds of Russell’s music. The film begins with Russell’s parents discussing his childhood and concludes with the final years of his life before he succumbed to AIDS-related throat cancer. The film is a poignant portrait of an innovator whose mystique remains as alluring today as it did during his lifetime.