Before information was accessible by the click of a button on your phone, there was a real, substantial mystique associated with being a rock ‘n’ roll star. Stories of absurdly trashed hotel rooms, bizarre sexual experiments, shocking on-stage antics, and links to the dark arts were fairly common among rock fans, as well as the various stories of in-band tensions and the occasional life-affirming philanthropic gestures. In fact, having a modern-day urban legend was almost a point of pride for many bands: a sign that they had become enough of a big deal that people were willing to say anything about them, whether it was true or not.
Of course, those days are largely gone; and, for the most part, those stories are often extremely exaggerated, if not flat out lies. That’s not to say these rumors still don’t exist in some form—especially those that existed on online forums before the age of social media)— but with artists and their representatives now directly plugged into their fanbases, these stories are more easily debunked (or, in the rare case, confirmed) than ever before. But one fairly big reason these larger-than-life stories are going the way of the dinosaur is because, in all honesty, rock ‘n’ roll – and the music industry in general – is no longer the bombastic world it used to be, and those who continue within it are doing so knowing the treacherous environment of stardom in the digital age.
Now, I don’t have to tell you about the rapid descent of the music industry, which used to promise fame and fortune for those with the right sound, look, and passion. Peer-to-peer file sharing decimated the livelihoods of musicians, bankrupted record companies, and has forced many of the existing stars of the medium into a constant state of touring in order to match the profits that once came with the territory. But this compromised professional state has also destroyed any sense of legend associated with rock and pop stars, with artists exposing their private lives more than ever and, frankly, knowing the raucous and insane behavior that once defined rock ‘n’ roll is frowned upon or, in some cases, a PR nightmare.
However, the culture that once shepherded the line between truth and myth in the rock world has also shifted in the sense that there’s rarely any gatekeepers anymore. Between the ‘70s and the mid-’00s, the personal lives of bands, artists, and the various underground icons of the music industry were brought into the light by rockumentaries, with story-minded filmmakers editing through hundreds of hours of footage to give the public a look at who these people truly were. In turn, the once-niche genre of the documentary was bolstered by association, with some of the most beloved, lucrative, and notorious films in the genre coming out of such eye-opening stories as Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, and Don’t Look Back.
Obviously, this is not to say that rockumentaries were solely for the purpose of creating a grand, iconic presence around music’s most influential performers. After all, D.A. Pennebaker made his name by presenting unflinching and honest looks at several artists in their heyday, including Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and Depeche Mode. Meanwhile, some rockumentaries chose to highlight the more controversial, depressing, and, in rare cases, despicable behavior associated with these artists, whether it’s the famously unreleased Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues depicting the band’s flagrant drug use, the image-shattering therapy sequences in the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, or almost the entirety of Todd Phillips’ G.G. Allin rockdoc Hated. Yet by showing these artists at their worst, one of the unintentional results is that it only solidified some of the more outrageous rumors associated with them, as it showed that they indeed walked the walk.
Furthermore, rockumentaries also served a purpose by allowing general audiences to experience the cult-like fervor that surrounded some of music’s most incredible fan bases. Films like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!, and 101 have all gained incredible reputations among music aficionados as a “gateway drug” into hardcore music fandom, with the former serving as a frequently shared VHS college campus sensation while the latter has been cited as an influence of MTV’s shift away from music videos towards reality programming. Rockumentaries have even shown the effects that determined fans can have on the artist: I’m the Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll paints the lengths that the fans of underground cultrocker Wesley Willis went to support the mentally-disabled musician, while Martin Scorsese has repeatedly gone behind the camera for the artists he most admires for films such as The Last Waltz and Shine a Light.
Ironically, the rockumentary is, in some ways, more popular than ever: almost every major music act that goes on tour will have an accompanying blu-ray with their release, if not a full theatrical film in the case of artists like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and One Direction. However, these films are now often commissioned by the labels, overseen by the artists, and rarely choose to offer much beyond the basic stresses of touring, painting multi-millionaire musicians as sympathetic figures sacrificing their personal lives for their passion. Add in the growing popularity of IMAX-enhanced limited-release concert films and the amount of content generated by artists via social media and YouTube, and the days of truly honest and multi-dimensional documentary filmmaking within the music industry are basically gone.
But then again, with tours and merchandising being the few avenues left by which artists can really gain from the medium, can we particularly blame them for attempting to manage their image? With audiences now expecting a direct link to their musical idols, it’s not like we’re going to see Green Day or fun. make the next Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle or The Filth and the Fury. And while documentaries have found a new life as a viable and profitable medium in the age of streaming, it’s less likely that Netflix or Hulu are particularly interested in funding a musical expose ala The Decline of Western Civilization as much as they are in the business of the odd and obscure; and even if they were, what subculture in rock ‘n’ roll is truly left unmuddied by modern digital documentation? In this sense, the rockumentary, in its most traditional form, has become obsolete, especially when many struggling filmmakers rely on these same artists for paychecks via music video work.
That said, the rockumentary used to be an art form unto itself, and one can’t get the same emotional experience from an extended biography on Wikipedia that they could from watching George Harrison literally walk out on the Beatles in Let It Be or David Byrne’s energetic push-and-pull in Stop Making Sense. Though you’re indeed likely to enjoy any of the myriad modern concert films you can get of your favorite artists, remastered for Blu-ray or shot with stunning 4K cameras on multi-thousand dollar camera rigs, there’s just something less raw and wholly less personal about the experience. You can’t go see Justin Bieber: Believe and get the same thrill you would from seeing Lee Ving dodging bottles and nearly starting a riot at the end of The Decline of Western Civilization.
In many ways, the rockumentary was most criminally wounded in the same way that most niche art forms have: the growth of accessibility in tandem with the decline of the subject matter. Documentaries are now ingrained in pop culture. Between the extremely popular 30-for-30 series, political and environmental documentaries, and the glut of docs on streaming services, one could feasibly go longer than a calendar year watching a different documentary per night at their leisure, a luxury that was not afforded in the heyday of the documentary. Factor in the decreasing profits towards the music industry in general, as well as the flash-bang popularity of so many artists within each genre, and the lack-of-interest of audiences towards these more human depictions of their heroes, and it seems that the rockumentary will be left regulated to the world of promotional tools and heartstring-tugging “farewell” films.
However, there’s always a chance that the rockumentary will find a way to survive, much like the music industry did when hobbled by the likes of Napster and The Pirate Bay. With the success of the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy last summer as well as the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, there are signs of life for an audience that once expected that level of honesty and spontaneity from the rock ‘n’ roll documentary— documentaries that can create gravitas by building on icons of our recent past more than our current crop. In the most coincidental turn of all, the rockumentary’ s future may belong towards demystifying the past, addressing those preconceptions and urban legends that were once so prevalent in the medium. And if that’ s the case, the good news is that there are plenty of spectacular musical artists out there whose legend has enveloped their real life, and should the right filmmaker come along without the strings of handlers, agents, and the artist’ s own ego holding them back, the rockumentary may live to roll again.