Still Searching for Sugar Men: How Recent Rock Documentaries Try to Fix Rock Music

By  · Published on July 2nd, 2013

June saw the buzzed-about release of not one, but two documentaries examining talented but underappreciated and not-at-all famous musicians: Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom, about the careers of female back-up singers, and Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, about an African-American, Detroit-based proto-punk bank who recorded music and broke up before The Sex Pistols initiated any anarchy whatsoever in the UK.

These two documentaries are hardly the first non-fiction films to focus on the lives and extraordinary-ordinary struggles of marginal musical subjects: Sacha Gervasi’s popular Anvil! The Story of Anvil was perhaps the first really visible instantiation of this subgenre, which reached its height when Searching for Sugar Man struck awards show and box office gold, resurrecting the career of long-forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez in the process.

Back in March, I argued contemporary mainstream documentaries seem to be heavily preoccupied with resurrecting exceptional but buried personalities, while mainstream narrative films do the opposite. Christopher Campbell tackled a similar subject in regard to music docs, but placed their appeal in more direct terms: we’re drawn to such docs because they essentially tell a Cinderella Story. It’s clear that films like these are compelling, entertaining, headline-ready, and can often be damned funny (and it doesn’t hurt that they typically have killer soundtracks). But perhaps one of the more interesting, little discussed aspects of these documentaries is what they ultimately say about the huge gaps we take for granted in ways we think about American popular music.

Similar Harmonies

Movies about popular music seem to be subject to a rigid set of conventions that can develop, cement, and evolve into a dismissed cliché within the span of just a few films. Ray and Walk the Line, for instance, are mainstream biopics about two incredibly different singers of disparate musical genres and cultures, yet the structure of each of these films is so carbon-copy similar that John C. Reilly starred in a Leslie Nielsen-esque parody of this convention. Similarly, the recent slate of “Cinderella” music docs have several remarkable similarities, especially the triumvirate of rock docs Anvil!, Searching for Sugar Man, and A Band Called Death (I haven’t yet seen 20 Feet from Stardom, but I’ve heard great things).

In each of these films, the missed window of opportunity to achieve justified fame is laboriously recounted by friends, band members, record producers and the like; established musicians are brought in to legitimate the discourse of underappreciated talent attributed to the film’s subject, hyperbole encouraged; each film features footage of the musician or musicians engaging in menial but dignified labor as a penance for not succeeding in an industry that only allows for astronomical success or abject failure. Hell, the three bands/musicians in these films are even from the same wintry North American time zone.

The prior list isn’t merely meant to connect the surface similarities between these three films. We shouldn’t be surprised that failure in the mainstream entertainment industry looks more homogeneous than success and fame. Working class daily life is incredibly common, but it’s something rarely depicted in film in total, whether or not the laborer in question has a secret life as a prodigious musician.

No, what’s important about these connections is the way they structure each film to similarly invite the viewer to participate in a seemingly exclusive conversation about the music in question. As Campbell points out, these films participate in bringing the long-unavailable music (or musician) back from much-delayed renown; we as viewers are invited to feel as if we’re sharing in that process, paying forward the musical contributions of a person or persons that, in any sense of rock justice, should have been recognized long ago. (This invitation often overlooks the fact that reissues and reunion tours of the musician or band depicted began years before the documentary was released, thus making such films an inconspicuous publicity arm for the obscure, aging rock musician.)

In doing so, these rock docs are beholden to romantic assumptions about rock n’ roll history (the notion that there are inherently great, justifiably famous rock n’ roll talents that Anvil/Rodriguez/Death should have stood beside) while at the same time maintaining an ambivalence, if not a palpable contemptuousness, toward the commercialized process that rock n’ roll fame must work through. Each of these films cover shady dealings of managers and/or record company execs who acted as bulwarks to the circulation of and necessary compensation for musical production.

Ambiance and Accidentals

The issue that each of these films dance around, but none are willing to fully admit, is that rock n’ roll fame is essentially arbitrary, an achievement that has more to do with timing, promotional strategies, and sheer dumb luck than the raw power of musical talent. This is not to say there aren’t very famous musicians who are not also astronomically talented; this is to say that it makes absolute sense that there are astronomically talented musicians who are also very much not famous. The notion that an injustice has been committed upon the undervalued musician relies on the myth that success in popular music is a barometer of skill. But these documentaries cannot fully challenge this myth because they participate directly in rectifying the dramatically compelling injustice.

Such tensions are highly evident in A Band Called Death. The film is advertised as a tale of punk that existed before punk had a name – before The Sex Pistols, before The Ramones. A Band Called Death and its promotion openly read the band through the benefit of hindsight. Death’s music existed most legibly in the category recognized as “punk,” but because “punk” did not exist as a popularly recognized musical form in 1973, the label is assigned retroactively.

And while I have no doubt that (as depicted in the film) latent racism played a role in the account of Death’s aborted production of a full-length record (that an all-white death metal band called Death found success shortly over a decade later is pretty compelling evidence that it wasn’t only the band’s name that made record execs – and police officers – uncomfortable), the racial politics associated with the band are similarly read in hindsight.

Punk, a genre that gained a name after Death, was a largely white-dominated form of musical production, and Death was made up of black musicians in Detroit whose music did not fit in any popular African-American genres of the time, like Motown-style funk or R&B. This is a workable initial explanation, but it prevents a more rigorous consideration about why Death drew the attention of a largely white record label in the first place. A Band Called Death presents the story of its subject as if it’s been stuck between two pages of a rock history textbook until now (the former chapter being Motown, the latter punk), but refuses to acknowledge that the historical categories we use to understand the development of musical genres are hugely limiting in the first place. Such categories prevent us from appreciating the complex and nuanced ways in which music evolves and gestures toward other possibilities.

A Band Called Death needs the label of punk more than Death itself does because the film requires the audience to be convinced that such labels are unchallenged truths of popular music history, rather than haphazard generalizations, in order for the film to convincingly exclaim, “Holy shit! How did this happen!?!” But when three mainstream documentaries have exercised this exact same formula, it provides less evidence of the singularity of the musical talent depicted, and speaks more to the fact that our conventional understandings of and assumptions about rock history often are, and have been, dead wrong.

“One Day the World’s Gonna Come Looking”

But it makes sense that these films are happening now. Our consumption of music today contains few ties to the Top 40 radio formula that dominated the heyday of Anvil, Rodriguez, and Death. Artisanal record companies, DIY production processes, and high-profile taste-forming “alternative” presses (Pitchfork was preparing to be so over Death back in ’09) make for a music business that is incredibly decentralized, reliant more on touring than record sales but also not entirely beholden to the oligarchic model that owned American rock n’ roll for decades.

Of course there have been small labels and smaller presses for a long time, but there’s hardly a sense of contemporary history being made when a band goes from farmer’s market to supermarket now. Just as listening to music becomes an ever more isolated activity (introducing the iEardrum), there is less of a collective cultural mandate for “making it.”

In other words, there have always been a fuck ton of bands; the 21st century has merely made this fact more visible. More so than movies, everything music is niche.

Documentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Searching for Sugar Man, and A Band Called Death essentially read music’s past through the omnivorous consumption practices of music’s present: not as a story of its greatest hits, but of its many B-sides and deep cuts. This can only be a good move towards of enriching our understanding of popular music’s history. Just don’t be so surprised next time you find out about a great band from the ’70s you’ve never heard of.

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