I Have Very Intense Reactions to Music Documentaries and These Are My 4 Favorites

A few of these are still "on my list," because I just don't know if I'm ready yet.

As you may have noticed, I'm pretty into one Mr. John Prine. I'm also very into music documentaries (or "rockumentaries" if you will) so the short documentary below about John Prine is what my dreams are made of. The best part is that you don't even need Netflix or anything like that; you can watch the whole thing on Vimeo.

The weird thing is that I haven't been able to watch it yet. Oddly, though I love watching a good music doc, I sometimes find the experience to be a little too intense, and I get overwhelmed by all of the emotions and feelings that they can bring up. Watching Pitchfork's Belle & Sebastian documentary (which, sadly, has been taken down off the site) made me feel equal parts joyous, panicky, and morose, and I couldn't listen to anything other than B&S for about a month. This is obviously a weird reaction to have, but it happens whenever I go to a particularly good concert as well.

I'm obviously happy to experience the music, but then I get panicky because I realize that I will never do anything as creative or worthwhile, and then I get sad because I realize that I will never affect the lives of these people like they have affected mine. (I also get sad because seeing these people as real people reminds me that I'll never be best friends with Stuart Murdoch or Mick Jagger or any of my other idols because only a crazy person would think that was a real possibility.)

I remember being 15 or so and having to psych myself to watch the Jean-Luc Godard film Sympathy for the Devil, which is less a documentary and more an arty political film with footage of The Stones recording the song of the same name. I'd be lying if I said I understood the political message of the film, as I mostly fast-forwarded through all of that to watch the Stones footage. Showing the recording process was supposed to "deconstruct the myth of the genius creator" but that was also lost on me. Seeing the process, and knowing that these songs were created by actual people, and not by some mysterious, magical enigma, made the whole thing seem even more genius, and fueled an already deep obsession. (In fact, this is right around the time I started drawing the tongue and lips symbol on everything I owned, which culminated in me getting that symbol tattooed on my hip.)

My point is that I have intense emotional responses to films about the artists I love, which sometimes means I delay viewing them until I am in a place to deal with a lot of intense feelings. As such, I haven't seen nearly as many rock docs as I should have. Twenty Feet From Stardom and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me are all still "on my list," because I just don't know if I'm ready yet. Luckily, I've managed to make it through a few, and below are some of my favorites.

The Last Waltz

I actually have a lot of conflicting opinions about The Last Waltz. On the one hand, it is a brilliant concert film that captures on of my favorite bands (The Band) at the height of their musical talent and popularity. One the other, it's basically Robbie Robertson's vanity project and everyone else was forced into participating. I will also never cease to annoyed by the fact that Bob Dylan takes the lead vocal on "I Shall Be Released." I understand that he wrote the song, but Richard Manuel's rendition is empirically superior, and it should have been his moment.

That being said, the film is beautifully shot and directed, and features stellar performances from some of the most iconic rock stars of the sixties and seventies, such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and Neil Diamond. (Fun fact: Muddy Waters was almost cut completely to make room for Diamond — because Robertson was producing Diamond's next album — but then Levon Helm almost punched someone and Muddy was put back on the bill.)

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

Though this little show was recorded way back in 1968, it wasn't released until 1996 because Mick Jagger was unhappy with how the Stones had performed. (They went on much later than anticipated, and Jagger thought they seemed too tired.) Maybe it's the nostalgia factor, but I've never found anything to complain about. There are several truly fantastic performances by all sorts of wonderful people like Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and John Lennon, but my favorite moment on the DVD is the exquisite Marianne Faithful singing "Something Better" (which I tragically cannot find the video for).

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt is one of my favorite singer-song writers of all time, and I have no desire to meet him. I find him to be terrifying, and am 100% sure that any conversation I had with him would end in tears, because I am bad at talking to famous people and he doesn't seem to like anyone other than Claudia Gonson.

That's okay though, because this doc pretty much answered all of the questions I had about him. If you are even the slightest bit into the Magnetic Fields, this is very much worth your time.

Mistaken For Strangers

This film isn't really about The National as a band. The band is in it, but it's really "about" Matt Berninger's relationship with his brother, Tom. It is funny and poignant and (at times) deeply uncomfortable, but if you have any siblings, you will enjoy several, extremely relatable moments.

I actually saw this in New York when it first came out, and the showing was followed by a Q&A with both Matt and Tom Berninger, which almost killed me. I asked a question and I don't even really remember what it was, but I think it was dumb.

What are your favorite music documentaries? Am I the only one who has this weird, intense reaction to learning more about artists they love?