Thursday, 21 April 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 96 (Top Five): AAA Documentaries

You’ve read the books, you’ve heard the music, you might even have read all our reviews. But where else can you look for the best footage of the bands you love? This week – our top five documentaries on AAA bands and artists:

5) Paul McCartney and Wings “Winsgpan” (1999): This documentary rather caught fans on the hop near the millennium when it was first screened on television (it came out on DVD the following year). ‘Wingspan’ doesn’t have the depth, the drama or the footage of the Beatles’ Anthology project from three years earlier(see below), but in many ways it’s better. Very much a McCartney home-made production (Paul’s daughter Mary presents and there’s not much input from ex-members), this film has a charm and tongue-in-cheekness that’s very refreshing after sitting through 10 hours of Paul George and Ringo pontificating and arguing. Best of all, it works as a great tribute to Paul’s late wife Linda, a key member of all five Wings line-ups who’d died two years before,and there are lots of great snippets of home videos and rare music footage for fans to go alongside the usual stories. What with daughter Mary’s involvement (and production by her then-fiance, now husband Alastair MacDonald) it’s as if the Macca family is trying to make sense of recent events and has invited Wings’ biggest fans into their grieving. Aaah. One question though – the person who made Wings more than just another McCartney solo project was the great Denny Laine whose comments are curiously absent from this project – was he not asked or did he not want to take part? A shame too that the badly missed Jimmy McCulloch (who died of an overdose age 27 months after leaving the band) isn’t given a better send-off. Still, all round, a very good doc, accompanied by still the best McCartney solo CD compilation around (even if a quarter of the tracks are by McCartney solo and not Wings at all!)  

4) The Beatles “Anthology” (1996): Much ballyhooed before it was on (with four television networks competing to show it in the UK), there was overall a bit of disappointment after the whole project died down (the ratings dive after episode one and the embarrassingly small amount of viewers still around by week eight). On the plus side, you get masses of terrific footage you can’t see anywhere else and the production team take the sensible decision to show it more or less complete (unlike the bastardised records that went with it!) Highlights: a breathless Beatles at Shea Stadium going quietly mad, the unaired psychedelic promo to ‘A Day In The Life’ and some classic little seen TV gems plugging Hey Jude, Paperback Writer and many more. On the other side, you get Paul, George and Ringo as they were in the 1990s, aging before your eyes thanks to the years it took to finish this project and they alternate between being forgetful, argumentative, disrespectful and genuinely moved. It’s the moved moments that work best as you see all the remaining Beatles struggle to come to terms with the importance of their past and there are some great quotes, such as George’s comment that ‘the world used us as an excuse to go mad’. But, to be honest, without Lennon around to give his input (and the quotes used to represent him add little to the story) the producers might have been better off re-creating the magic of the 1982 doc ‘The Early Beatles’, stringing footage together with captions and letting the story speak for itself. Most people on the planet know the story so well already anyway– and if Anthology was meant to attract newcomers then there are simply too many long passages where nothing really happens, hence the dive in viewing figures. For all that, though, it’s worth owning the 11 hour set for the hour’s worth of really good 1960s footage alone.

3) The Beach Boys “Endless Summer” (1998): If ‘Anthology’ was too long long long then this later Beach Boys doc was too short, cramming 37 years worth of continuous music into two hours. By and large it’s better, though, thanks to a cornucopia of really good early footage (especially the mid to late 60s) and a sensitive handling of Brian Wilson’s very public breakdown (and Mike Love’s less public one). People come and go, collaborators disappear without a backward glance and there are too many great Beach Boys songs to squeeze into the programme’s two episodes to fit them all in, but despite the breathless rush this does feel like a full and rounded story being told, with everyone’s point of view being represented well. There’s an excellent ‘soundtrack’ CD out as well featuring a treasure trove of outtakes, rarities and curios that puts the six volumes of Anthology to shame too, although only a handful are heard properly on the soundtrack doc itself. Movingly, too, we hear the last thoughts of a clearly ill Carl Wilson, who died from throat cancer just before this programme’s first broadcast. The only downside is – the extras on the DVD are disappointing, with the chance to see the rare footage in full restricted to just a few of the more obvious bits of footage fans will own 20 times over already. Surprisingly, perhaps, this pretty much definitive doc caused a wave of Beach Boys docs (‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ ‘Classic Albums: Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile: Beautiful Dreamer’, all of which are worthy additions to the canon but not quite as far-ranging and exhaustive as this one).   

2) The Grateful Dead “Classic Albums: From ‘Anthem’ To ‘Beauty’” (1993): There have been a few AAA albums covered in the much-missed ‘classic album’ series and they’re nearly all good and recommended (‘Pet Sounds’ ‘Who’s Next’ ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘Graceland’, ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’, even Lennon’s weakest solo album ‘Imagine’ suddenly sounds like a lost epic). But it’s this doc, also available on video, that’s a nose above the rest. The reasons are numerous: firstly, we hardly ever get any Dead docs in the UK and when we do they’re usually squeezed in with someone else vaguely appropriate, like the Airplane (good choice) or The Band (you’re having a laugh!) Secondly, the band are pretty much all involved in this one, with one of Jerry Garcia’s last interviews finding him on fine form, pontificating on the hippy scene with his usual mix of earnestness and self-deprecating chuckles. Even lyricist Robert Hunter comes out of hiding and his interviews are some of the best of all – confounding, confusing, memorable and moving in equal measure. Thirdly, there’s lots of great footage not just of the chosen 1968-70 period but before and after too, rare early clips of the band looking like wayward teenagers and later in concert footage of the band looking like wayward OAPs. Lastly, dedicating the programme to not one but two albums – completely different and desperately under-rated (and both covered on our ‘review’ pages) – gives the documentary a much wider scope than normal, with a cyclical story. I learnt masses from this documentary, with anecdotes I’ve never found anywhere else, while enjoying every second and that surely is the sign of a classic programme. When is this great series coming back?!

1) The Paul Simon Story (1991): Perhaps the best AAA-related documentary series of all didn’t come out on television but radio, with eight whole episodes dedicated to a scholary and respectful analysis of one of the best back catalogues of all. Paul Simon has never been the most prolific of artists and altogether this series covers just eight solo albums and five Simon and Garfunkel albums – and yet, despite an eight hour running time, it barely seems long enough to cover the history of all those great songs. Paul Simon is the perfect host, offering up nuggets of little-heard information without pretending to know all the answers or have perfect insight. He also has several enthusiastic interviewees including drummers Hal Blaine and Steve Gadd, S and G engineer Roy Halee and, oddly enough, Art Garfunkel himself, who reveals not only why the pair butted heads so many times over so many little details but why he kept coming back for more. Honest and articulate, with songs played in full for the most part, this is an excellent series that badly needs to be re-issued or given a repeat broadcast (how about it, BBC6?!) which only lags in the episode for the over-rated ‘Graceland’.  

Well, that about wraps it up for another seven days. In the meantime remember all things must pass and even coalitions and furore over royal weddings cannot last forever. See you next time!

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