Rock music documentaries must be one of the most narrativised forms of documentary, featuring familiar genre elements such as the early lives of key figures, the founding moments of a career, live concert footage, witness testimonies and so on. Their appeal is primarily to fans of the artists concerned who are looking for both the familiar, the lure of nostalgia, and surprises, a filling of gaps in the history. For the general audience there is perhaps not so much difference between the ‘bio-doc’ and the fictionalised biopic. We might want to share the elation of success, to pass judgement on the excess of lifestyles and respond to the despair of decline or the triumph of survival beyond the short lifespan of most rock groups. The more outrageous the characters, the more the story is going to appeal to that wider audience. But, of course, the music has to be good too.
What should we make then of this conventional rock documentary about The Band and its central creative force? Once Were Brothers opened the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and toured other festivals before the pandemic curtailed cinema releases beyond Canada and the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand. It made nearly $500,000 worldwide at the box office. In the UK, the film has been broadcast on BBC4 and is currently available on iPlayer. There is also a rather expensive DVD. When the Guardian ran an interview with Robbie Robertson in October 2019 it generated comments from fans commenting on a film many hadn’t yet seen. If you aren’t a fan you need to be aware that the story of The Band covers not much more than the 15 years between 1961 and 1976. The five band members were all very talented musicians and performers but Robertson stood out as the lead writer and the most organised (and least distracted). The result was that after the band’s final concert, the ‘Last Waltz’ filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976 and released as a triple LP and a cinema film in 1978, Robertson retained rights to most of the songs written over the years of the band’s concerts and recordings. Robertson did indeed write the songs but all the members contributed to the arrangements and especially over the first two albums produced in the collective workshop atmosphere of the pink house in Woodstock. Three of the five members are now dead and Garth Hudson is a recluse. The ‘J’accuse‘ came from Levon Helm who in his memoir pointed the finger at Robertson. This documentary by the young Canadian documentarist Daniel Roher is based largely on Robertson’s 2016 memoir (Testimony: A Memoir) and he is the narrator of the film.
If you aren’t a fan, what can you expect from the film? The first section deals with Robertson’s childhood and his very early entry into the music business at barely 16 when he joined the Hawks, the backing band for the American rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins. This meant meeting an equally young Levon Helm, the drummer with the Hawks. But Robertson had to travel down to Arkansas from Toronto. This must have been a real challenge for a teenager with a Mohawk family on his mother’s side and a surprise on his father’s side (it was a surprise for Robertson when he found out and I didn’t know about it, despite having read a fair amount about the Band). Helm was three years older but since Hawkins also worked Canada, he would find himself travelling North. By 1961 the other members of the Hawks had all been replaced by young Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Manuel was 18 when he joined the Hawks. Danko was still 17. He came from Ukranian farming stock. Hudson was an ‘old man’ at 24 but he brought classical and jazz experience into the group. This quintet then spent four years playing in clubs and smaller venues from Arkansas through the North East US and into Ontario. Nothing of this appears in the film unfortunately, we have to rely on short statements from band members, some recorded many years ago. The band wasn’t famous but they were honing their skills and broadening their knowledge of American-Canadian music styles. By 1965 they had parted with Ronnie Hawkins and toured as Levon and the Hawks (because Helm had seniority in the band) and were about to be ‘discovered’ by Bob Dylan.
Dylan asked the Hawks to back him on tours during 1965-1966. In that transition period Dylan was playing an acoustic set and then an electric set and the Hawks played the second half of the shows. They had never played to large audiences and they were taken aback by the booing from traditional folk fans but for next three years they would become famous because of their link to Dylan. This could have become a burden for the Hawks and it’s interesting that Dylan doesn’t contribute a great deal in the film, despite the hours of recording and touring he managed with the Hawks and then The Band. The Band eventually re-united with Dylan in Woodstock where they bought a house in which they converted the basement to a ‘writer’s recording studio’. This is perhaps the heart of the film where the magic was born and which produced ‘The Basement Tapes’ (bootlegged before later official releases starting in 1975) under Dylan’s name and the first two albums by the newly named ‘The Band’, ‘Music From the Big Pink’ and the self-titled ‘The Band’. I think I enjoyed this part the most because of the photographs taken over a couple of years. Director Roher uses a technique in which he cuts rapidly between the beautiful B+W photos so that it is almost like watching an animator’s flick-book. As Robertson explains, this was the first time the five men had time together to relax and play new and old material. Here was the ‘arranging’ and the real discovery of a new form of music which combined blues and soul, country, R&B and more. Roher offers us confirmation of the standing of The Band within the fraternity of musicians. Bruce Springsteen argues that the quintet included three great lead vocalists in Manuel, Helm and Danko. Eric Clapton claims that he travelled to Woodstock hoping he could join the group and a brief clip of the great Taj Mahal sees him suggesting that if any North American band could be compared to the Beatles it would be The Band. Certainly that long history of touring or residency that both groups experienced followed by time to write, arrange and record without pressure was similar. (And can somebody produce a documentary about Taj Mahal please?) The other witnesses who appear in the film include Albert Grossman, manager of both Dylan and The Band, John Simon, The Band’s record producer and David Geffen who would later lure Robbie Robertson out to Malibu. Ronnie Hawkins still going strong provides some of the liveliest commentary and George Harrison in a more subdued testimony, gives weight to The Band’s place in any rock canon.
The tragedy in The Band’s story was unfortunately already beginning to unfold during their time in Woodstock. Robertson had married Dominique Bourgeois, a Montrealer he met in Paris, and started a family. He was writing all the time and was more grounded and more ‘professional’ in thinking about the future and his career in music. Some of the others were drinking too much and getting stoned too often. The alcohol was dangerous and there are footages of the car crashes that threatened the group’s future. Dominique, with whom Robertson would have three children, gives an honest appraisal of what happened in Woodstock and echoes other witnesses in arguing that these five men loved each other as brothers but were affected by the drink and drugs. Later she divorced Robertson and became a counsellor specialising in addiction therapies. Fan-critics see this part of the film as allowing Robertson and his ‘supporters’ to construct a narrative that in a sense absolves him of the charges made by Levon Helm later. The narrative moves swiftly through the triumph of the first two albums and then charts the beginning of the decline when Richard Manuel was taken ill on tour. The film ends with The Last Waltz and, significantly, Levon Helm’s lead vocal on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The last section is perhaps the most controversial part of the film because Robbie Robertson completes the narration which for some fans seems like an attempt to exonerate himself from the charges against him.
The film is visually very strong, Roher melds the photographs, archive footage and talking heads very well. He emphasises the range of still images by presenting original slides in their card frames or highlighting images on a contact sheet. Most of the excellent photos are by Elliot Landy who was presumably hired by the group to document the recording process in Woodstock. Roher similarly ‘marks’ some of the home movie footage. I’m not sure what this signifies beyond the ‘authenticity’ of the footage. The Last Waltz film was directed by Martin Scorsese and he acts as executive producer on Roher’s film and makes his witness statement contribution. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are also executive producers.
The film ends with The Last Waltz and Robertson claiming that although he was the one who decided to stop touring, mainly because of Richard Manuel’s health, all the members expected that after 1976 they would get back together. In reality Robertson started a new career creating music scores for Scorsese. Helm appeared in several films including Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and The Right Stuff (1983) and each of the five produced solo recordings. The quartet without Robertson played live together and in various combinations. ‘Once Were Brothers’ is a recent song by Robertson which makes an appearance in the final section.
I’ve written much more than I expected I would. I am a fan of The Band and I have music from across their whole history including a couple of the solo albums. I’ve been playing a lot of it since I watched the film. They were for me the best band. I don’t want to take sides and I admire Robertson for the long career he has had in music but I want to know more, especially about Manuel, Danko and Hudson. I treasure my tracks by Levon Helm and my memories of some of his film roles. I thought I knew something about the history of The Band. I know quite a lot more now. It’s well worth watching this film. The only real downer is that apart from Dominique there are no other women who feature prominently in the film.
Dont Look Back was broadcast on BBC4 as part of a programming segment celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I watched it again after many years and remembered some scenes very clearly but was surprised by others. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it documents aspects of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in late April – early May 1965 which comprised eight concerts in large venues in seven English cities. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t reach Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The film is a form of documentary, though not a ‘music concert documentary’ as such. More of the time is spent backstage, in hotel rooms or on the road. There is music, but often only snatches of songs on stage. The ‘best’ song performance may well be a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ sung by Dylan in a hotel room. There is also a prelude featuring the famous early ‘music video’ with Dylan presenting the scrawled lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on flash cards. This song shot into the UK singles charts during the tour.
Film scholars have categorised the film as an example of ‘Direct Cinema’, the documentary form that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Canada and the US, seeking to present an observational documentary with as little artifice as possible. Ironically, although it was one of the first such ‘backstage’ music docs, Dont Look Back‘s cinema release was delayed until 1967 in the US (distributors didn’t believe it would attract an audience) and it did not reach the UK until 1970 when the BBFC for some reason gave it an ‘X’ certificate. This meant that the film’s topicality was lost and in 1970 it was in competition with Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers, also like D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Dont Look Back, seen as Direct Cinema pioneers. Nevertheless the large Dylan fanbase and its desire for archival footage of Dylan has meant that Dont Look Back has been well supported over the last fifty years. (It appears that the original title didn’t have the apostrophe in ‘Don’t’.)
‘Direct Cinema’ appeared at roughly the same time as cinéma vérité in France. Both were made possible by developments in film technologies, especially the lightweight 16mm cameras which could be handheld, faster film stock and synchronous sound recording via a linked audio recorder. French pioneer Jean Rouch went out on the streets of Paris for his film Chronique d’un été in 1961 with the sociologist Edgar Morin. North American filmmakers such Robert Drew and his associates and documentary filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada had already started using the new technologies for a range of documentaries. Drew made the biggest impact with Primary in 1960, following John F. Kennedy on his early Democratic primary campaign in Wisconsin. This was made for TV in the US but seen on film in festivals around the world. Many people use the terms ‘direct cinema’ and ciné vérité interchangeably. One difference is that Rouch as a filmmaker had a direct dialogue with the people he filmed, interacting with them on screen. Direct Cinema projects were strictly observational.
The great strength of Direct Cinema is the chance to document interactions between their subjects and the various people they meet in their jobs. The filmmaker can to some extent prepare for these. For instance, at the beginning of the film Dylan meets reporters at Heathrow airport and the ensuing dialogue between rather po-faced reporters and a waspish Dylan could be predicted, whereas later scenes of young girls outside the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool seem spontaneous. I think, watching the film now, the main pleasure for me is in the way it documents aspects of British culture which are precisely about 1965. The one failing on this score is that perhaps to preserve the ‘no artifice’ rule, there are no inter-titles explaining where we are (which is usually pretty obvious) and, more importantly, who is shown on screen. Dylan is accompanied throughout by his manager Albert Grossman and fellow American folk-singer Bob Neuwirth (there primarily for ‘moral support’ I guess). For the first few days Joan Baez is present. It was the end period of their relationship and although we hear her singing in the hotel rooms, she doesn’t sing with Dylan on stage. At other points in the film there are glimpses of Marianne Faithful and John Mayall among the many musicians and performers hanging round the hotel rooms.
The two performers who are picked out in the film are Alan Price and Donovan. Price had just left the Animals and had not yet formed the Alan Price Set. He seems a little manic at times and his references will have baffled American audiences. He mimes and sings in the style of Dave Berry whose cover version of ‘Little Things’ was a UK hit in April 1965. Berry appeared on TV always hiding behind a prop or obscuring his face with his hands or with his jacket collar. Price also runs through a George Formby song. Formby was the biggest UK film star and music act (with his ukulele and comic songs) during the 1930s and 1940s. Donovan is featured rather differently. At this point he was a month away from his 19th birthday and had released just one hit single ‘Catch the Wind’. His first album would be released in the next few weeks. In a hotel room he sings for Dylan and the others gathered around. Dylan seems impressed and plays It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in response. In the next scene there is a discussion about how Donovan’s tour (with the same promoter as Dylan’s) is going (not well). The UK press was trying to create a narrative around Donovan’s ‘challenge’ to Dylan.
In fact, the UK press was very interested in the Dylan tour. 1965 was a key moment in the development of pop/rock culture and its place in the public imagination. Dylan was briefly a ‘pop star’ and his responses to interviewers’ questions were more intelligent than most of his peers. This was also a period when ‘youth culture’ became more important. All of the performers discussed here – Dylan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan etc. were under 25 whereas most of the reporters for both the national and regional press were much older. Pennebaker’s film, whether by accident or design, picks out elements of the new music culture. It includes a sequence in which the UK promoter Tito Burns, a major player as a manager and impresario since the 1950s, discusses with Albert Grossman how to increase appearance fees for Dylan. They phone the BBC and Granada trying to drive the fees up. In another scene Pennebaker captures the chaos at Newcastle City Hall when Dylan’s mike cuts out – the problem was discussed at length in the local paper. It’s noticeable that at this point, the major venues like the civic halls were still not properly equipped for rock ‘n roll. In 1965 Dylan was on the cusp of ‘going electric’ and the tour played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where a year later Dylan would be met with cries of ‘Judas!’ when he introduced the Hawks as his backing band.
I’m sure there is a lot to say about Dylan’s state of mind during this tour and I leave that to the Dylanologists to sort out. Simply as a direct cinema documentary, Dont Look Back is a gem, capturing a moment in UK youth culture.
This music documentary has a familiar format and was broadcast on BBC4 in the channel’s Friday night music schedule back in August 2020. It’s still available on iPlayer in the UK. Producer, writer and director Simon Sheridan’s work is usually much more likely to turn up on channels with lesser reputations. His other claim to fame is a number of books and films celebrating two major figures of British ‘soft porn’, George Harrison Marks and Mary Millington. There are some positive things to say about these two characters and the bizarre world of UK porn history and its part in British cinema, but it’s still a step away from what I think is an important film about the first, and most successful, all-Black British vocal group, The Real Thing and, very importantly, their emergence from Toxteth in Liverpool 8.
I certainly remember the tune that propelled The Real Thing to No. 1 in the pop charts in 1976, ‘You To Me Are Everything’. What I didn’t know or perhaps had forgotten was the earlier history of the Amoo Brothers in Liverpool. I feel that I should have known this history and I’m now grateful to have learned so much from this 59 min documentary. The documentary offers the usual collection of talking heads, photographs and news clippings and archive film. What is more unusual is the quality and the importance of the ‘witness statements’ and the analysis, most notably the Black music journalist Kevin Le Gendre and others including the singers Kim Wilde and Billy Ocean as well as other significant Black fans and industry figures. The two major points are that the origins of the The Real Thing are to be found in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, the home of the oldest Black community in the UK in one of the UK’s major slave-trading cities of the 18th century. It says something when a Black singing group was able to get the support of the Beatles early in their Cavern days and were also supported by the legendary Liverpool MP Bessie Braddock – only then to discover how difficult it was to get a hit record, even with this kind of support. This early group was known as The Chants who emerged in 1962 as a five piece a capella group singing doo-wop material from the US. Amongst the five was Eddie Amoo who also wrote material. The group were popular in Liverpool and were also booked in other UK cities and in Ireland. They recorded songs with several major record labels but just couldn’t find a hit.
A few years after the Chants were formed, Eddie’s younger brother Chris started up the group that eventually became The Real Thing with Dave Smith, Kenny Davis and Ray Lake in 1970. The group sang light/sweet soul versions of American originals and released several records without getting a hit single. Their breakthrough came as second billing to David Essex on tour and when The Chants broke up, Eddie Amoo joined The Real Thing. In 1976 in the midst of the hottest, driest summer for years they released ‘You To Me Are Everything’ (written for the band by Ken Gold, Michael Denne)and finally they made it – big, all the way to No.1 in the UK. In the US, it made the lower reaches of the chart but suffered from competition from several cover versions. In 1977, after several more hit singles they attempted what many other groups have tried, a different kind of record, one which meant more to them than simply a commercial entertainment. They released the LP ‘Four from Eight’, a title watered down by their record label which referred to four Black lads from Toxteth. The LP included the track ‘Children of the Ghetto’ and like the American soul artists they admired, they wanted to make ‘statements’, but it was difficult and the album failed to sell. However, ‘Children of the Ghetto’ was recorded by other artists and a version by Philip Bailey appears on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Clockers (US 1995). The Real Thing’s commercial songs were re-mixed in the 1980s and charted all over again. Eventually the four piece became a duo of Chris Amoo and Dave Smith who continue to this day, touring and still raising a storm. Eddie Amoo is interviewed in the film but he died in 2018. The film does explore something of the lives of all the personnel in the both The Chants and The Real Thing. I found it both entertaining and informative as a documentary and I was pleased to see it as an accessible way into an important story about Black cultural life in Liverpool and its presentation for a wider audience. Do check it out.
Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records is a conventional but very enjoyable music documentary about the brief period of independent success by the record label that introduced Jamaican popular music to the wider British public in the late 1960s/early 1970s and in doing so fostered the development of Black British music. In an interview, the director Nicolas Jack Davies says that he hoped that his documentary would record the history of black and white fans coming together in their love of Jamaican music in the 60s and early 70s and also present the context of an inhospitable and racist culture that young Jamaican migrants were forced to confront. I think the film does achieve this through its interview format and specifically its choice of ‘witnesses’. It’s a useful marker of the 50th anniversary of the emergence of an important record label and a distinctive music culture.
The film is a fairly straightforward chronology of the development of Jamaican popular music from the early 1960s Jamaican interest in American rhythm and blues and soul through to the development of ska and rocksteady and then the emergence of heavier ‘roots’ reggae and lighter ‘lovers rock’ in the UK in the mid-1970s. Much of this history can be found in a range of written music histories, including the detailed study, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley (2000). The history might have been familiar to me but it was good to see it brought to life in this film and there were certainly things I learned. Many of the original record producers from the 1960s are sadly no longer with us and others were perhaps not available. Davies decided on a three-pronged strategy. His principal ‘witnesses’ tell us their own personal stories which together provide the historical record. Brief filmed re-enactments alongside archive footage provide the context and illustrate some of the stories. The innovation here is that young actors play some of the older witnesses. This seemed to me to work well. We see a young Dandy Livingstone (played by Kyle Reece Bell) arriving in the UK and his initial reactions alongside the real singer and his memories. Similarly we get witness statements by producer Bunny Lee, performers Derrick Morgan, Pauline Black and Neville Staple, each I think with a younger actor playing their younger selves. Black and Staple were part of the later ‘Two-Tone’ movement, one of the important developments that followed Trojan’s success. Don Letts, Lee Scratch Perry and Marcia Griffith also contribute. The specifically Trojan story is presented in archive footage of founder Lee Gopthal who set up the Trojan label in 1968 in a deal with Island’s Chris Blackwell. Gopthal already had music shops and Jamaican music interests. The story is mainly told through statements by Trojan’s employees at the time plus fans and other commentators.
One of the pleasing aspects of the film is its careful preservation of aspect ratios for the archive material (much of it shot for TV) presented inside the 2.35:1 frame used for the witness statements and dramatic reconstructions. The careful presentation of archive footage helps in one of the film’s major aims – to provide younger audiences with a visual representation of how white working-class audiences became early supporters of Jamaican popular music. This is the history which informs Shane Meadows’ ‘personal’ story, This Is England (UK 2006). The two films together would make an interesting double bill. It was later in the 1970s that white skinheads would be targeted by the racist National Front. This in turn was resisted in the emergence of 2 Tone from 1979.
The actual story of the rise and fall of Trojan as a record label is perhaps the least successful part of the film for me. The label grew very quickly between 1969 and the early 1970s and at one point Trojan had five Top 40 records in the UK with most of the stars of Jamaican music making an appearance on the label at some point. The decline appears to have been a combination of a lack of resources and infrastructure necessary to fully exploit the popularity of the music and a classic ‘over expansion’ which raised costs when the business didn’t have enough capital to sustain its operations. The result was that the label had to be sold and, although it still exists today, most contemporary music fans will have come across Trojan (a name inspired by the type of truck which carried Duke Reid’s sound system around Jamaica in the early 1960s) as a re-issue label. It’s difficult to convey the economics of the music business in a film like this when the natural urge is to hear another interesting anecdote or simply to play another classic song. Music fans will be pleased perhaps to learn that one of the ‘wrong decisions’ was to attempt to ‘sweeten’ the sound of the early 1970s reggae records by adding string arrangements in order to attract more mainstream record buyers. This raised the production costs and alienated the ‘roots’ fans – a familiar story from several periods of music history. The result of the collapse of Trojan became part of the story of the divergence in the 1970s between the heavier ‘roots reggae’ with its deeper Rastafarian political and spiritual tones and the emergence of the lighter ‘lovers’ rock’ in London. But that’s another, and just as complex, story.
Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records has had successful festival screenings and is now lined up for VOD and physical media, initially in the US. I saw it as part of the ‘We Are One Festival’ online and it fitted in very well. I’d love to see it on a big screen and hear the music from a quality sound system. The official website has some info on releases.
This is a ‘Nick Broomfield film’ – an auteurist announcement by a documentarist who appears in his own films and adopts, using Stella Bruzzi’s term, a ‘performative mode’ of documentary presentation. This rang alarm bells when I contemplated watching Marianne & Leonard, but I have watched two of Broomfield’s fiction features, Ghosts (UK 2006) and Battle for Haditha (2007), both of which are worth watching. Since I tend to insert myself into my blog posts, I can’t really complain about Broomfield. In any case he limits himself to three or four appearances only in this film.
If you don’t already know the story, SPOILERS beware!, the Canadian poet and tyro novelist Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian mother with a small son from her first marriage, on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. The two lived together for a time in an expat community of writers, artists and musicians who all indulged in ‘free love’, retsina and various drugs of choice. Broomfield himself, aged 18, met Marianne and stayed with her while Leonard was away. Marianne was Cohen’s ‘muse’ and for several years they lived together for a few months at a time. In between times on Hydra, Leonard Cohen pursued his new career as a musician and rock star poet and slept with many women, having two children with one. Eventually Marianne lost hope that she could live with Leonard and they parted. Forty-odd years later, Marianne lay dying and Leonard sent her a letter of love, telling her he would join her soon. He died in 2016, three months after Marianne.
Broomfield has three main sources of material from which to fashion a documentary narrative. Leonard Cohen was a high profile, if poorly paid, poet in Canada from the late 1950s onwards and there is considerable TV and archive film material available. Once he became successful as a musician, coverage expanded considerably. Many of the friends on Hydra had super 8 cameras and, with still photographs, Broomfield could construct a visual narrative about both the Hydra community and aspects of Marianne’s life (some of this material he provided himself). ‘Witness’ interviews with various people close to both Leonard and Marianne comprise the third major source. The quality of archive footage varies considerably but some of the early stuff has survived well. It is skilfully edited by Marc Hoeferlin and presented in something close to 16:9. I didn’t really notice the cropping and nothing was ‘squashed’ or ‘squeezed’ that I could see (but the image below looks a bit dodgy). The narrative flows partly because of voiceovers taken from archive recordings of both Leonard and Marianne (who speaks in both English and Norwegian) and others remembering the period.
The problem for Broomfield is that the narrative promised by the title would make roughly a 45 minute film based on the material available. This documentary runs for over 100 minutes and the extra time is taken up largely with an exploration of Leonard Cohen’s career and a discussion of what he was doing, even when notionally still with Marianne. This has been one of the criticisms of the film with accusations that Marianne’s voice is overwhelmed by the material featuring Leonard. There is also a suggestion that Marianne’s memory has been exploited by Broomfield and that scenes at the end of the film featuring a very sick Marianne are intrusive. It is also likely that audiences wanting to know more about Cohen’s music and poetry may feel frustrated that the coverage of both is in a sense quite shallow.
I find it difficult to distance myself from my own emotional response to the archive footage. As a teenager I discovered the poetry and novels of Cohen and a few years later in the early 1970s I was a fan of the early albums – in the face of derision by many of my friends. I then lost touch with what Cohen was doing in the eighties and nineties before ‘re-discovering’ him in the last ten years of his life, partly through the use of his songs in films. There are several biographies of Cohen and I can recommend the one by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage 2012). After the screening I looked for archive material on YouTube. I recommend the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen (directed by Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965). If you check it out on the NFB’s YouTube channel, you can also find other fascinating Cohen material via YouTube’s algorithm. In fact you’ll soon realise that much of the footage in Marianne & Leonard is actually included in a range of other documentary films. The ‘extras’ in Broomfield’s film are some of the ‘home movie’ material, Broomfield’s own material and the interviews. Some of these are very entertaining, particularly Aviva Layton who was married to Irving Layton, the leading Canadian poet who was Leonard’s early mentor. Aviva deserves a film of her own.
Leonard Cohen was an extraordinary figure and the film certainly triggered all my responses to his genius and spirituality. But as Aviva says, he was both alluring to women and a terrible partner, but which great artist, writer or creative person isn’t both hugely attractive and seemingly hopeless about relationships? Marianne, as she comes across in the film, was a young woman who loved Leonard but felt out of place among the artistic community. She was damaged by her first abusive marriage and so was her son ‘little Axel’. The film also reveals other aspects of Marianne’s life which don’t show Leonard in a good light. Eventually Marianne returned to Norway and a job and a new and happy marriage. I was very emotionally engaged with the narrative, but whether that was because of the relationship between Marianne and Leonard or because of my own memories of Cohen’s songs I can’t say. I’ve seen several reviews of Broomfield’s film which seem most interested in criticising the 1960s culture on Hydra (which was certainly problematic for many of the expat artists) and denigrating Leonard Cohen because he slept with so many women and took so many drugs. For a more measured, but still negative, critical response, this Indiewire review is worth looking at. I can see all these criticisms but they don’t make me any less disposed to Leonard Cohen’s art.
If you are a Leonard Cohen fan, you will enjoy seeing the film on a big screen and it is still playing around the UK. You can find screenings through the official website. Since the BBC is a co-producer, it will no doubt appear on BBC4 at some point as well as on DVD.
This recent music doc/biopic offers an interesting comparison with 20 Feet From Stardom (US 2013). Whereas that film seemed to me to have wonderful material but lacked a clear focus, this documentary knew exactly what it was doing and achieved a great deal with the limited material available. I have to confess a strong sense of nostalgia watching the film about the brief career of Janis Joplin which lasted not much longer than four years. The performances on film look better now than I remembered from earlier films and I learned quite a bit more about the difficult life that Janis had – and the tragic circumstances of her death.
This Janis Joplin doc arrived in cinemas just a few months after Amy, the Amy Winehouse doc. Both films must have been in production at the same time so I don’t see one prompting the other. It is remarkable though that the ‘last acts’ of the two films feature the same event. Both young women died from an overdose at the age of 27 (Winehouse in 2011). Janis died in 1970 a few weeks after Jimi Hendrix and a few months before Jim Morrison. Both these young men were also 27. The big difference between the Joplin and Winehouse docs is that the latter includes lots of ‘found footage’ , including social media footage as well as ‘mainstream media’, whereas there are relatively few filmed recordings of Joplin apart from the three well-known festival films.
Janis Joplin was born in the Texas town of Port Arthur, close to the Louisiana border, in 1943 into a middle-class family. She was a misfit at school who discovered she could sing at 17. Her singing career started in Austin but didn’t really begin to develop until she moved to San Francisco in 1963. Even then she lasted only two years before returning to Port Arthur to ‘clean up her act’. She finally made it when she returned to San Francisco in 1966. Over the next four years she sang with three bands and recorded four LPs, the last one, ‘Pearl’, being released posthumously (a double LP of live recordings then appeared in 1972). Joplin was first signed as the singer for Big Brother & The Holding Company (first two LPs) and then became a solo artist backed by first the Kozmic Blues Band and then the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died in her motel room during the recording of ‘Pearl’. The cause of death was an overdose of heroin, assumed to be accidental (the drug may have been more potent than she expected).
Three of Joplin’s festival performances at Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1970) and on the Festival Express train across Canada (1970) were filmed and subsequently appeared as theatrical documentaries, the first two a few months after the festival in question. The Festival Express material was released as a documentary film in 2003. Various live footage sequences appeared in a Canadian documentary, Janis in 1974 and this is the film I saw in the cinema in 1975. There are numerous other DVDs of her performances but only the four cinema features, I think. There was a fictional biopic The Rose (US 1979) directed by Mark Rydell. This commercially successful film is only loosely based on Joplin’s story (it was initially known as ‘The Pearl’) but was recognised as such by audiences (without taking anything away from Bette Midler’s star-making performance in the lead role).
The director of Janis: Little Girl Blue is Amy Berg, an experienced documentarist and director of at least one interesting-sounding fiction feature. The film also has a host of producers including Alex Gibney, known for high-profile docs such as Finding Fela (2014) and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). It’s not surprising then that this Janis doc works so well. Berg’s focus is clearly on Janis as a young woman finding her way in the world and this forms the narrative spine using the letters that Janis wrote home and a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and still photos (which seem to jump out from the screen when set in the context of grainy home movie footage and 1960s TV news and features shot on 16mm). The authorial voice of Janis is provided very effectively by Chan Marshall (a.k.a. the singer Cat Power). Events back in Port Arthur are narrated by Janis’ younger siblings Laura and Michael and by one or two old schoolfriends. Events in San Francisco are covered by a slew of taking heads including friends and lovers and band members plus other media figures such as CBS CEO Clive Davis, talk show host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (who made Monterey Pop and tells us how he deliberately sought out Cass Elliott in the audience because he knew about the rivalry between the LA and SF acts – Mama Cass was suitably impressed by Janis). The one recurring image in the film is the single line railway track, presumably seen from the Festival Express train as it moves across Canada. This occurs at regular intervals in the film, seemingly functioning as a marker for the change from one sequence to another. I’m not sure if the symbolic readings of this image are intentional but it might refer to the trajectory of the short life of Janis Joplin – straight down the line as if decreed by fate.
Many of these films about performers and celebrities seek out the flaws in character or attempt to find those responsible so that a life becomes more like a mystery in a film noir. I don’t think this happens with Little Girl Blue, which feels like a humanist drama. Most of those interviewed are appreciative about Janis’ talent and her dedication to her art. She was let down by the men in her life and the party girl was more often the lonely girl. The film doesn’t analyse the music but presents it (with access to rights agreed by Sony) in ways which enable us to understand why it generated such interest. It certainly sent me back to the performances (and I realised that I knew some of her ‘between songs’ tales almost by heart on the live album). It is this sense of the rapport Janis had with her audience that stands out. She seems to have been happiest on stage – and lonely when the show ended. There is also a strong feminist sub-text about a young woman whose confidence was undermined by the cruel jibes about her looks made by university students in Austin when she first began to perform. She must have welcomed the chance to take on the guise of the hippy mama who could dress as she pleased – partly as a release from the restraints of her conventional home background.
Coming from a town with its own Klu Klux Klan chapter, Janis would have been conscious of her other identity shift which involved discovering Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin and being wowed by Otis Redding. Perhaps this where the film’s lack of deep analysis of Janis’ musical career is a weakness. I think you need to know a lot about American popular roots music in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the changes in the music Janis Joplin made and what she was most comfortable with.
After I’d seen this documentary, I came across a 2000 BBC documentary about Janis from the ‘Reputations’ series narrated by Tracy Macleod. At 48 minutes it is much shorter but actually much more informative about Janis’ life as a teenager in Port Arthur and her time in San Francisco. I think that I’ve also left out the Joplin parents in my account above. They didn’t take to the music Janis was producing or her lifestyle, but they were still supportive when she needed them. I recommend watching the shorter documentary (link below) in conjunction with Little Girl Blue.