Music Documentaries – Guide to the Genres

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Written by Brian Dorsey
Published on September 30, 2011

There are as many different types of music documentaries as there are styles of music, but one of the first instances of music actually being combined with “film” in the [...]

There are as many different types of music documentaries as there are styles of music, but one of the first instances of music actually being combined with “film” in the United States took place in 1894. New York sheet music publishers Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern hired electrician George H. Thomas and various performers to promote sales of their song “The Little Lost Child.” Thomas photographed people acting out the song; the photographic images were then printed on glass slides and painted in color by hand. Musicians played and sang the song live in the theater while the slides were projected on a screen by means of a magic lantern. This would become a popular form of entertainment known as the “illustrated song,” the first step toward music video.

Thanks to illustrated song performances, “The Little Lost Child” became a nationwide hit, spawning a huge industry. At one time, as many as 10,000 small theaters across the United States featured illustrated songs. For music publishers, it was a gold mine. Marks, a former button salesman, and Stern, a one-time necktie hawker, became Tin Pan Alley titans.

Some of the earliest American music flicks, so-called “promotional shorts,” featured the jazz stars of that time. Among the jazz world’s most flamboyant luminaries was Cab Calloway. The Hi-De-Ho Man’s signature tune “Minnie the Moocher” served as the soundtrack to Max Fleischer’s 1932 Betty Boop cartoon episode of the same name. Calloway also recorded “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “The Old Man of the Mountain,” which were likewise featured in Betty Boop animated shorts.

Through rotoscoping, an animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement frame-by-frame, Calloway not only lent his singing voice to these cartoons, but his dance steps as well. He appeared in a series of Paramount “shorties” in the 1930s, where he can be seen performing a gliding backstep dance move – a precursor to Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk.” The orchestras of Calloway and Duke Ellington appeared on film more than any other group of the era.

It is difficult to say with certainty what could be considered as the world’s first music documentary, but here are brief overviews of some of my personal favorites:

The Kids Are Alright (1979) – [Read Review]
Director: Jeff Stein
Length: 101 minutes

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) – [Read Review]
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Length: 100 minutes

Step Across the Border (1990) – [Read Review]
Directors: Nicolas Humber and Werner Penzel
Length: 90 minutes

A Great Day in Harlem (1994) [Read Review]
Director: Jean Bach
Length: 60 minutes

Mata Tigre – Change through Music: El Sistema FESNOJIV (2008) – [Read Review] [Watch Film]
Director: Stefan Bohun
Length: 69 minutes
Language: Spanish /with English subtitles

Es muss was geben (2010)
Directors: Oliver Stangl and Christian Tod
Length: 104 minutes
Language: German /w English subtitles

Conclusion: Music docs can be as diverse as the music genres themselves. Often they are not only about music styles but also about the historical, social and political context; from jazz to punk music docs reflect changes in society. But of course one can just have a great time watching a film about one’s favorite band. To quote Bob Dylan: “Play it fucking loud!”

by Brian Dorsey