As the year draws to a close, let’s reflect on the stories that have unfolded in the world of music. From the electric energy of rock ‘n’ roll to the intricate depths of classical music, here’s a look at eight of our favourite music documentaries of 2023.
Little Richard: I Am Everything (Lisa Cortés)
Little Richard: I Am Everything is a vibrant celebration of the man who laid the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll. Through a constellation of intimate interviews and archival footage, the documentary eloquently articulates the dichotomies that defined him—spiritual and secular, rebel and conformist. It’s a narrative that resonates with the complexities of identity and artistic creation.
Mutiny in Heaven: Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party (Ian White)
The tumultuous existence of The Birthday Party, one of Australia’s most seminal and potent bands. The film, narrated by the band members themselves, captures the essence of their journey from Melbourne to London and Berlin, showcasing their explosive energy and creative frenzy through a wealth of archival footage, audio, and stills, painting a vivid picture of the band’s rapid rise and the challenges they faced, including poverty, drug addiction, and creative differences.
Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis (Anton Corbijn)
Anton Corbijn’s fascinating documentary explores the revolutionary impact of the design studio Hipgnosis in the world of music. The film offers an enthralling journey through the 1960s and 70s when album covers were not just packaging but powerful art statements. It delves into the creative processes and stories behind some of rock history’s most iconic album covers, made for legendary bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Paul McCartney & Wings. Through interviews with co-founder Aubrey “Po” Powell and various music icons, the documentary is a vibrant blend of personal anecdotes, historical context, and visually stunning artwork.
The Tuba Thieves (Alison O’Daniel)
The Tuba Thieves is an innovative and insightful documentary that explores the world of sound through the lens of the deaf community. Rather than focusing on the literal theft of tubas from Los Angeles schools, the film uses this event as a springboard to delve into deeper themes of auditory perception and deafness. Using documentary and narrative elements, Alison O’Daniel crafts a unique cinematic experience that challenges viewers to reconsider their understanding of sound.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes (Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro)
A vivid portrayal of Max Roach, a titan in jazz drumming that weaves Roach’s artistic triumphs with his personal challenges, exploring his vital role in the evolution of bebop and his significant impact as a bandleader and civil rights advocate. Roach’s marriage to Abbey Lincoln and collaborations with artists like Fab 5 Freddy are also highlighted, delving into Roach’s emotional response to the loss of close friend Clifford Brown and his pioneering work in hip-hop.
Man in Black (Wang Bing)
Directed by the acclaimed Wang Bing, Man in Black is a strikingly intimate and harrowing portrayal of the life of Chinese modern-classical composer Wang Xilin. In this one-hour documentary, Xilin’s stark narrative of his survival during China’s Cultural Revolution is vividly brought to life. The film employs bold artistic choices, including the impactful decision to film Xilin completely nude, symbolizing his vulnerability and the raw emotional intensity of his experiences. Throughout, Bing masterfully blends elements of performance art with biographical storytelling, creating a powerful reflection on the human spirit’s resilience against ideological and physical torment.
Pianoforte (Jakub Piatek)
Jakub Piatek’s captivating documentary delves into the intense and prestigious Chopin Competition. Following several young pianists, the film beautifully captures the immense pressure and dedication required to compete in this renowned musical event. Through a mix of fast-paced performances and reflective moments, Pianoforte provides a unique glimpse into these aspiring musicians’ personal journeys and emotional struggles in their pursuit of musical excellence.
Peter Doherty: Stranger in My Own Skin (Katia de Vidas)
A profound and unfiltered glimpse into the life of the enigmatic British rock star, Peter Doherty. Filmed over ten years, it weaves a narrative that is as turbulent and complex as Doherty himself. The film captures the raw energy of his performances with Babyshambles and The Libertines, contrasting them with his private struggles. It doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of his life either, including his battle with addiction and the toll it takes on his art and existence.