Unlike most people I know, I don't tend to get excited when I see that a documentary on a favorite band or artist is in the works. Since my editors send me most every music-oriented video with a distribution deal, I've seen it all, including an untold number of made-for-DVD documentaries.
If most are watchable, few cross the line into greatness (and this year, Searching for Sugar Man is the one to beat). Part of the problem is that most directors assume the Wikipedia approach will suffice, and for some viewers, it might, but once you've seen the same story lines enough times—rags to riches; rise, fall, and redemption, etc.—it gets pretty old, so it helps if the filmmaker has a strong visual or narrative sense. If I just want to hear the music or look at the pictures, I can do that on my own.
Consequently, some of the best docs I've seen lately concerned acts with whom I wasn't familiar, like the Kashmere Stage Band (Thunder Soul) or Marian Anderson (Last Fast Ride). Their makers found a way to capture my interest.
Granted, it's sometimes simply about latching on to an inherently dramatic story, and getting out of the way, which is to say: putting one's directorial ego aside, and prioritizing the artist's perspective or intentions, whether you agree with them or not. The filmmakers who try to put a happy face on a tragic tale, for instance, or who leave out crucial information, do their subjects—and their viewers—a disservice. I'd rather decide for myself what to think about their protagonist, and I certainly don't need to like a musician to appreciate their artistry or impact.
All of which is to say that I'm keeping my expectations in check for the new Big Star documentary, which premiered in New York this weekend (after a world premiere in London). I love the band, but the trailer makes it look like a standard biographical portrait. I'm still looking forward to it, and I'm glad Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori got the chance to speak with Alex Chilton* before his passing, but it would be hard to top the Memphis outfit's three amazing albums—assuming you count Third/Sisters Lovers as a group effort and not a Chilton solo project.
Check out the trailer below. Gotta say I'm a little psyched to see some Lester Bangs footage in there. As much as I enjoyed Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Bangs in Almost Famous, I think it's fair to say the two look almost nothing alike (but then, he didn't look much like Truman Capote either).
* In looking through the production notes, I found that Chilton, who passed away in 2010, declined to be filmed or interviewed, so I guess the following clip comes from the archives.
For those who put stock in such things, the reviews so far have been pretty good. No Seattle date yet, but you can find more info about the film here.