Five Recording Studio Documentaries

I was going through some of the footage of the band in the studio recording the new album, and it gave me the itch to watch the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the unbelievably prolific LA session musicians who recorded most of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s. It was really good, so naturally it made me want to watch and re-watch some of my other favorite music documentaries.

I found a bunch of lists online of music documentaries, but to be honest most of them are either concert films (e.g., The Last Waltz) or retrospective interview-style profiles of bands of individuals (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). So that made me want to put together a list of some recording studio-centric docs in case anybody else wants to go down this rabbit hole with me.

It’s worth noting this is not an attempt at a “Best of…” list. It’s just some good flicks. We’re off!

Let it Be – The Beatles

This is the real deal, right here. The cameras followed The Beatles through rehearsing and recording what wound up being their final album. You get a sense of the dysfunction in the band, but there are some moments of joy, too, like the famous, impromptu rooftop concert scene. This movie’s been out-of-print for decades, but there are bootlegs floating around.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco

The story behind Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album is legendary — from the tensions between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which resulted in Bennett leaving the band, to the album being passed on by the band’s label, only for them to sell it to Nonesuch Records for buckets of money on its way to becoming a big hit. And cameras were there capturing it all as it happened. This movie was actually how I heard about Wilco.

A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica – Metallica

I don’t know how many times I watched this documentary as a teenager, but it was a lot. A LOT. Part one covers the recording of the black album, and part two covers their first tour in support of it. As much as Metallica became known as self-absorbed blowhards, this is on the whole a fun look at the making of an album nobody had any idea was going to change their lives forever. And the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Sound City – Various

I love Dave Grohl. This documentary tells the story of Sound City, its legendary Neve mixing console, the demise of the studio, and Grohl’s resurrection of the board in his own studio. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a music doc. Appearances by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, and tons more.

Muscle Shoals – Various

I’m cheating a little because I haven’t seen this one, but it’s about the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like The Wrecking Crew, it publicly tells the story of something that was never well-known outside of the recording industry. And also, a bunch of our fellow contributors to the annual Couch by Couchwest festival hail from the Muscle Shoals area.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam, 20 years on.

On August 27, 1991, Pearl Jam released “Ten,” their first album. A month later, on September 24, 1991, Nirvana released their second album, “Nevermind,” so for the last month there has been a ton of media coverage about the 20th anniversary of each of these landmark records.  I don’t need to say anything about how transformative they were — that’s what the media coverage and the “Alternative” section in the few remaining record stores are for.  What strikes me most about these anniversaries is the vast, heartbreaking chasm between how each is being celebrated.

“Ten” came out first, but didn’t find success until the entire Seattle scene was borne up on the wings of “Nevermind.”  I can’t remember which album I got first, but I got each within just a few weeks of their release, and have loads of memories about each band, each album, and that particular time of being a music fan.  It was invigorating, and I admittedly owe much of my life to those two albums, since as a 13-year-old kid who had just gotten his first drum set, they inspired me to play music.  “In Bloom” was one of the first songs I ever figured out how to play on the kit. Here I am 20 years later and still churning out music of my own.

Pearl Jam turned 20 and celebrated with a big book, a bunch of live and unreleased recordings being issued, and a retrospective documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe.  I’ll go see that this weekend.  For the “Nevermind” anniversary, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have done a couple of interviews with Butch Vig, the album’s producer, standing in the big hole left by Kurt Cobain’s absence.

Listening to an interview with Vig this morning, it just made me incredibly sad.  I know how the story will end three years later, and all of these articles and stories about “Nevermind” don’t feel to me so much like a celebration, but a requiem for a guy who desperately wanted the one thing in the world that was sure to destroy him.

Kurt Cobain was so shy of performing that in early Nirvana appearances chronicled on the “With the Lights Out” boxed set he had to sing facing the wall.  A couple of years later he was maybe the world’s biggest musical celebrity, and a couple of years after that he couldn’t sustain it anymore and he died.  Three years after the excitement he had walking into a Los Angeles studio to record his first album on a major label, he led off the band’s next (and last) album with:

“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.”

Even in his time, Kurt Cobain was assigned iconic status, and when you look at an icon it’s hard to recognize the human stuff going on with them, and I can’t fathom how awful it must have been to achieve everything you’d dreamed of and worked for and find out that it left you empty.  This guy going through this stuff, though, with a such a muddy view of his own life, gave people like me a vision of their own, saving lives, shaping them, and giving people hope where he felt none.

I can’t do the cosmic math to figure out how this all balances on the books, but more than anything, this week of looking back has made me glad that I have the albums and the memories, and sad that they cost so much.