A Downer and a Half: 5 Music Documentaries About Failure & Disappointment

Music documentaries are often flat-lined, ordinary hagiographies that follow a fairly straightforward formula: humble beginnings, rise to prominence, personal/artistic decline, settling into stable elder-statesmanship. This progression is usually punctuated by lurid tales of scandal and drama, and manufactured (or, more often than not, Hollywood-heightened) inner turmoil that inevitably leads to the temporary implosion of the project, only to be followed by the rise back to the top (or, more accurately, the comfortable plateau they’ve convinced themselves is the top).

A big reason for this, and what most musicians refuse to believe, is that their lives are generally not that interesting. The generic template results in a story that has been told thousands of times before, in hundreds of different permutations. Generally, the artists being made films about are the same artists who are doing well enough to have secured the proper attention, funding and general interest to justify a feature film; chances are they’ve gone through the same process as those that came before them, resulting in yet another rise-fall-rise story. To be clear: not all of these “standard” stories make for boring films. A good filmmaker will draw attention away from the pedestrian story to provide insights on the music itself, create a visual representation of the musician’s general aesthetic, or simply show the musician in their environment, doing what they do best. These approaches are generally preferable to the Vh1 Behind the Music band biography format, and will generally result in more satisfying viewing.

For the last couple of months I’ve been thinking about failure quite a lot. I realize that’s a bit unusual, but it makes sense; I’m kicking several projects into gear and my mind veers into the turgid waters of “what if it doesn’t work out?”. I’ve been fascinated with documentaries that deal with disappointment. Stories of struggling to make a mark in the music world and either succeeding temporarily and then disastrously falling from grace, or never succeeding at all. Stories without the victorious third-act rise from the ashes. Stories about people falling out of love with music, and the crushing sadness that such a small thing can entail. Stories that leave you a bit uneasy. The humble retreat away from the limelight. Here are a few examples of those types of films.

“Let’s Get Lost” (1988)

Chet Baker has long been one of my favorite jazz singers and trumpet players, and I can’t think of another example of someone’s singing voice sounding so remarkably similar to their instrument; they both convey an understated, quiet sadness in their registers and melodic turns. It’s the same sadness that runs through the whole of  Bruce Weber’s brilliant “Let’s Get Lost”, a beautiful and desolate study of the most iconic and troubled figure in the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s.

The movie shows us two Chet Bakers– the early Baker, charming, impossibly handsome and the living embodiment of the word “smooth”– in sharp contrast with latter-day Baker, a detached, embittered, crumbling statue of a man. Baker’s story is told in subdued black and white, interviews with friends, family members and lovers interspersed with live footage from his later years, with gorgeous music serving as the glue that holds the narrative together. What really gets to me the most about this film is the crushing honesty and unadorned detachment with which some of it is presented, then quickly turning its protagonist human again for just the right amount of time. Much like Chet Baker himself, his unpredictable temperament made all the more intense by the drugs. 

There are no excuses made here for Chet. No cognitive reframing. The downfall is not a consequence of the capricious shifts in a fickle industry. The blame is put entirely on our protagonist, who remains oddly unperturbed by it. Going from working with legends like Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan to struggling to find work in the span of a few years, it becomes apparent that his genius took a backseat to his crippling addiction. We see a man whose world gradually whittles down to one thing: the high that “scares everyone else to death”. A devastating portrait of a tragic figure.

“Do it Again” (2010)

The Kinks have the peculiar distinction of being simultaneously legendary and tragically underrated. As far as I’m concerned, Ray Davies and company should be mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles, The Who and other British luminaries of the 1960s– as it stands, this happens almost exclusively in the internet, where legions of obnoxious bloggers bray indignantly about how underrated they are. I am glad to join their ranks with this post.

This wonderfully odd film is not so much about The Kinks themselves as it is about a man coming to grips with the end of his youth. Geoff Edgers, reporter for the Boston Globe and avid Kinks fanatic, in a wide-eyed quest to remind the world of how amazing the band was, decides to try to get them back together. He initiates a campaign that involves everything from busking in Hyde Park to coercing his interview subjects into joining him on impromptu singalongs of their favorite Kinks tunes (which provides plenty of comedic awkwardness to the whole ordeal– Paul Weller outright refuses, Sting embarrasses himself by forgetting the words to “You Really Got Me”, and Zooey Deschanel, surprisingly, turns out to be the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic of all interviewees).

The film itself hinges on the likability of Edgers and his contagious enthusiasm for the project– with his stuttering rants on the power of music and his endearingly awkward demeanor, we pull for him as an audience, even knowing that his quest is doomed from the start. When faced with Dave Davies, one of the few people who could revive The Kinks, he meets a rude awakening: the project is dead– the time has passed, the wounds are too deep and everyone involved just wants to move on with their lives, leaving Edgers out in the cold. In the end, it’s a lesson in humility, managing expectations and letting go. The scene playing as the credits roll is a rousing acoustic rendition of Weird Al’s parody of Kinks classic “Lola”– “Yoda”– delivered in a classroom full of preschoolers. After 90 minutes of following Edgers around the world and trying hard to get his favorite back together, it’s a bittersweet moment that manages to weave humor and disappointment into something sublime.

“Dig!” (2004)

“Dig!” is a film that is so outrageous and ludicrous at times, you get the distinct feeling you’re watching a mockumentary. A study of the overlapping histories of two bands I’d thought of as entirely independent and insulated– The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre– and their contrasting career trajectories, this film places you smack-dab in the middle of what I guess is called a “scene”. These bands are determined to work together to start a new indie revolution, their relationship slowly souring when one of them is picked up by a major label and the other starts to slowly fall apart at the seams. It’s an indie-rock reality show… set to great music.

Though represented least favorably here (in terms of mental stability and general human decency), the film’s most fascinating player is Anton Newcombe, frontman for The Brian Jonestown Massacre.  The volatile temper and brash arrogance displayed in this film can steal attention away from the man’s immense musical genius. A prolific and innovative songwriter, it kind of hurts to see his work overlooked in favor of The Dandy’s (still interesting, yet decidedly blander) work, and you genuinely take his side for a bit– before you remember he’s kind of an unreasonable jerk.

As the film winds down, however, we learn that neither band really took off, and the “revolution” amounted to little more than a few drunken punchups and a mountain of debt. But with tunes this sick, does it even really matter?

“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” (2005)

I watched this film online just the other night, for the first time since I first saw it in the 2006 Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival, and it got me thinking about Daniel’s music again. In some ways, I kind of wish it didn’t exist. Not because it’s bad– in fact, it’s an incredible film, not just because of its genuinely moving story but it’s also a great piece of documentary filmmaking in its own right. But it does seem, at times, like an unnecessary explanation. For years and years, Daniel’s haunting and fragile songs confounded the world– just what is this guy babbling about? Is he for real? Can he sing? Is he putting on a voice? Is he a mad genius?— and this film provides actual answers. Makes Daniel less of a tormented cartoon character. Makes him real. At times, terrifyingly so.

But no, I’m glad it does exist, because Daniel’s story is wonderful in the same measure as it is tragic and a little scary. This is the story of a man wrestling against his own demons– for him, quite literally, as he became convinced he was possessed by the devil– and using his musical instruments to purge his soul, resulting in low-fi recordings that would prove to be reasonable facsimiles of majestic pop songs. His struggles with bipolar disorder and self destructive behavior, his crushingly sad love story and fixation on death occupy the same place in his lyrics as they do in his everyday life; these are real specters hanging over his head, waiting.

Today, Daniel lives with his elderly parents. He’s gotten better, and has been recording and performing live more often. He’s drawing more, his crude illustrations selling for numbers that would make most artists incredibly jealous. And, thanks in part to this film, his status as a cult hero is more firmly cemented in music history. But in his eyes and in his words, there’s an inexorable sadness, an emptiness; it’s like he’s not even with us anymore.

“End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones” (2003) 

Nothing about the Ramones screams “rock stars”, so they weren’t. As much as they perfected the art of the four-chord pop song, incorporating heavy rock riffs into melodic teenage love songs, a group of denim-clad dorky-looking weirdos singing about sniffing glue and pinheads was never going to be topping the charts. I’ve already told my own Ramones story; they’ve always been one of the most significant and influential bands in my life, yet for the longest time I knew absolutely nothing about them. I kind of liked it that way, keeping a certain mythical air to them; in certain ways, they’re like costumed superheros, or a fictional street gang, or a pack of fucking wolves with guitars. Much like with the Daniel Johnston documentary, this was my first exposure to them as actual people. And it was… something.

This film starts off by putting you in the cultural context that led to the existence of the Ramones: mid-70s NYC, the grown-ups have abandoned the city in favor of the suburbs, music was boring and muted except for a few bands like the Stooges and New York Dolls. And so The Ramones came together, combining the aggression of those bands with the melodic sensibilities of Phil Spector, The Beatles and the Beach Boys, and played together for over 20 years in a career rife with drama, mental disorder, a string of disappointments, without so much as a hit to show for it. The anger surrounding their inability to break through to the mainstream even when everything seemed to accommodate it (the mid-90s punk boom), is reflected in interviews with the band members, friends and peers in the industry.

The personality conflicts present in the band are also explored in the documentary. Notably, Johnny (guitar) and Joey (vocals) were complete opposites; Johnny being a right-wing disciplinarian, Joey being a left-wing hypochondriac. Not only that, but Johnny actually took Joey’s girl from him (a betrayal which completely killed their relationship, and they went without talking to each other for 15 years– even while being in the same band and playing shows together every night). Dee Dee was a heroin-addicted nut, the drummers (Tommy, Marky, Richie and then Marky again) were all flakes or alcoholics. Radio wasn’t playing their songs. 20 years into their career, they were still playing tiny clubs. And yet, they kept on. Because there was nothing else for a group of people this dysfunctional to do.

The movie ends with a small vindication of sorts– after Joey’s death from Lymphoma, the band is finally recognized for all their hard work and influence, and are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dee Dee, finally clean and sober, steals the show with his humor. It’s all smiles. All pats in the back. But then backstage, as we see Dee Dee turn down a hall, we are told that a couple of months later he dies of a heroin overdose. And it hits like a ton of bricks.

And you kind of wish they had stayed fictional, in your mind, forever.

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