Docs That Rock

MJ Docs: The Making of Thriller

Seems appropriate this week that this blog should focus on all the documentaries that examined Michael Jackson. It’s tougher than its sounds. He was one of the most difficult people to profile, given Motown, Sony and his own penchant for locked up control of his music as well as personal effects like photos. In many ways, it reflects an era hard to comprehend. All music was carefully apportioned and doled out at just the right time – in fact, before MTV, labels avoided any acts on TV in fear it would dilute the concert going experience or rob the recordings of mysteries. (Contrast that to today where the ideal is to get as much exposure on as many different platforms as possible and release things for free in hopes they’ll entice someone to pay for something.) So Jackson and his team zealously guarded the myth and mythmaking, presenting only the art and not the making of. (And obviously, MJ’s private life was always at arm’s length, until the ill-fated Bashir documentary, which will be the subject of a forthcoming post.)

But one early project that broke through the veil was this pathbreaking Making of Thriller project. At 45 minutes, director John Landis had the foresight to record the behind the scenes dancing and make-up discussions at the Thriller video shoot. It became a precursor and model to today’s DVD extras.

The Making of doc was the subject of a recent feature in the UK’s Telegraph before Jackson’s passing. When Landis submitted the script for Thriller, the 14 minute video length was longer than any video anyone had proposed, as was its price tag, rumored to be $1 million but more likely in the hundreds of thousands. MJ’s record label refused to pay for it at the time, arguing the album was already on its downward chart descent. So Landis did a deal with Showtime (with some funding from MTV) as well as the making of feature. Landis admits at the time:

We used to call it ‘The Making of Filler’. It turned out very well, but the truth is that it’s filled with scenes from American Werewolf because I owned them, and anything else we could find to fill up the time. When we found we were still six minutes short, we decided to put in pieces of the video itself. In fact, it’s very effective, but at the time I thought, ‘This is shameless.’

Check out the start of the Making Of piece above from YouTube. I believe the official release is out of print but searchable on eBay and Amazon.

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June 30, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The Fate of the last Michael Jackson Footage

jacksonlive Michael Jackson was being filmed during preparations for his upcoming concerts at London’s O2 arena. With Jackson’s death, what’s going to happen to that footage?

According to NBC’s Dateline, once executives involved in organizing Jackson’s upcoming shows learned of his death, they met at Staples Center in Los Angeles (site of Jackson’s final rehearsal) and secured all of the performance rehearsal footage. AEG Live the giant concert promotion firm who were underwriting the project, has control of it. They were planning to release a DVD and companion album about Jackson’s comeback tour.

Predictably, there is a lot of haze about what’s going to happen with the footage, almost as much haze as the rehearsals themselves. (Some reports said that Jackson was dutifully preparing for his London shows; other articles said he barely had shown up for practices these past few months.) And its not known whether the footage is just Jackson on stage or being followed verite style throughout the preparations for the show. Also, the video in question may just be footage from the last rehearsal, the night before Jackson died (the LA Times has details of that night from a variety of entertainment executives and Jackson cohorts who were there.) TheWrap did report that it was recorded in “multi-camera, high-definition video and multi-track audio.”

Some reports have speculated that the footage could cut together and exclusively shown as a doc at the London O2 arena, to avoid large scale rebates to fans who bought tickets to the 50 Jackson shows. Or maybe it will be rushed to create a theatrical film. Or even sold to television. But that seems to be the most valuable unreleased footage in the world right now.

UPDATE: A good friend with vast experience in rights and clearances reminds me of a vital point about this footage: although AEG has captured MJ’s last rehearsals, they probably only own the footage, not the music rights. If MJ lip synced at rehearsals, the underlying recorded music needs to be cleared with Sony. And if MJ sang anything live, it’s likely that MJ’s contract stipulates that Sony owns those as well. With money-losing music labels seeking maximum fees for licenses plus the Jackson estate’s web of attorneys, he predicts “this footage will never see the light of day.”

June 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Reggae Doc Takes Silverdocs

There were so few brand new music doc premieres at the Silverdocs festival this year that I didn’t even write my usual festival preview. And of course, the winning film for best music documentary was the rare one I haven’t hyped that had its U.S. premiere. So congrats to RiseUp, a classic 8 Mile, Rocky-like underdog story set in the underground music scene of Jamaica. Director Luciano Blotta tracks three artists in varying circumstances who all dream of becoming the island’s next iconic reggae figure. Lee “Scratch” Perry, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar make appearances which will please those hip to the reggae scene.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Trailer released for It Might Get LOUD


I’ve related the early reviews for It Might Get Loud, a doc about the electric guitar playing and the prowess of masters like Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White (again.) Finally, the trailer is out (see above) and a recent LA Times piece had some good quotes from Davis Guggenheim, the director, who famously did An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore. Guggenheim, who calls himself a “Behind the Music” junkie, nevertheless says his film was a “rethink” of the music documentary:

They’re either about car wrecks or drug overdoses, or they’re about celebrity worship, big platitudes about how they changed American culture. We wanted to go deeper.

I’m with him about platitudes, but sometimes the backstory is as exciting (or more) than the music. Nevertheless, it’s going to be fun to see a non-concert, non-making of the album doc about music.

Also worth watching as a technique was something Guggenheim repeated from Inconvenient Truth, where he built the narrative around audio interviews with Gore.

When the film crew was there with all the lights, Al Gore would be different. It would be more formal. The whole idea was how do we break through this facade and how do we become more intimate and more personal? When the film crew went away, I’d drive around the farm with him in his car and I’d get the greatest stuff.

The film opens August 14 in Los Angeles and New York.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

White Stripes Doc May Do Toronto Film Fest


Another close text scoop from the folks at The Playlist: The White Stripes doc (which they amazingly caught reference to in an otherwise longer piece in Self-Titled mag about Jack’s latest band Dead Weather) has a new doc on the way. Per Jack, there are 40 songs to be mixed. And now in Canada’s National Post (do those guys read everything or have the best settings for Google reader?), there is “speculation” that the doc The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights is expected to close out this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Per the Playlist:

The doc was shot on the Stripes 2007 Canadian tour, where they played a gig in every province and territory. A tribute, White says, to his Nova Scotia roots. White says about the tour, “I always thought it was an untapped frontier. We booked a show in every province and territory and we found out that no Canadian band had done that. It was great to be part of a new frontier there for a minute or two.”

I think Anvil played Toronto last year (it certainly opened Hot Docs) so credit Canadian cineastes to getting hip to rock docs. (The As Ugly As I Seem clip above is from Charlie Rose, not the upcoming film.)

June 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Another Rock Star Oenophile

Motley Crue’s Vince Neil got some attention a few years back for starting his own wine label. But Tool’s Maynard James Keenan is taking it a step further, by opening his own vineyard – and in an Arizona desert to boot.

His endeavor is the subject of an upcoming documentary, which is a very quirky rock doc. Keenan is an Arizona native and back in 2006, he discussed how he got hip to wine:

Being in an occupation that requires me to travel quite a bit, you’re just exposed to more cultural things than you would if you were growing up in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho. When you’re drinking warm Coca-Cola and your accountants and managers and booking agents are walking around with these nice glasses with nice red juice in it, you say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t look like what I’ve been drinking in the dressing room. What’s that? I’m not going on stage unless I get to have what you have.’

The recently released trailer is luminously shot (with the much hailed RED camera, which earns its props) and really gives a cool ghostly, mysterious, wild west vibe to what is basically an effete hobby.

The doc is being helmed by Ryan Page, most well known for his films Moog about electronic music pioneer Bob Moog, and the recent The Heart Is A Drum Machine . He’s hoping to finish the film for a 2010 release and I’m hoping one day to get a taste of wine that’s grown in the desert.

June 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

30th Century Starts Now

There’s enough “lost geniuses of music” to power a festival lineup. And such a mythical billing would certainly have Scott Walker as a headliner. With the Walker Brothers, he topped the English charts in the 1960s with a fan base as big as the Beatles. Greencine’s Guru Blog notes that the group’s “baroque, orchestral pop stylings…plays like the Jonas Brothers mixed with pre-Jesus Johnny Cash.” At the peak of fame, Walker leaves the band and basically goes Colonel Kurtz, decamping his studio and releasing some of the oddest, opulent, inchoate music I’ve ever heard.

I caught Scott Walker: 30 Century Man at South By a few years back and just remember being baffled, horrified and intrigued at the same time. (Watching someone craft a song to a drum beat of a fist pounding on a hunk of raw meat will do that. The dungeon-like atomosphere of his recording studio helped too.) But don’t trust my judgement. The film features stars like David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, Johnny Marr and more who hail Walker’s visionary brilliance. Credit the director Stephen Kijack for penetrating Walker’s private post-fame world and giving as approximate a view as possible (barring a futuristic brain scan) of how Walker’s twisted art is created.

The DVD has finally been released this week and there are still occassional screenings of it across the U.S. Check the official film’s blog for any lingering dates.

June 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

ODB Keeps on Giving

Gone but never forgotten Wu Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard has been the subject of multiple books and tribute albums since his premature death in 2004. He’s even popped up in a few docs, one of which will be released by his cousin, the also nicknamed Raison Allah Iceman of Zu Films. Called Dirty. One Word Can Change The World and excerpted in the clip above, the film features the host of interviews with OBD’s family, friends and fellow rappers along with highlights of the rappers career (“Wu Tang is for the children.” / “Me and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers.”) (The Spout blog raises a great headscratcher: who could ever play OBD in a biopix? And shouldn’t there be one?)

I’ll always have positive memories of ODB aside from his rapping. After getting out of prison for evading a drug charge, he let us exclusively follow him while he first went on parole. Our VH1 film ODB On Parole was a very raw documentary experience. He was unguarded, perhaps too unguarded, but as a producer and a viewer, it was something rare and unique: a star totally himself whether the camera was on or off. That production was the first time I’ve ever seen or filmed a drug test and saw a meeting between a parolee and his parole officer.


We got some flack after the doc aired from folks who said ODB may have been too mentally unhinged after prison to properly consent to being in a documentary. This is a serious accusation which deserves a longer response, but it’s awkward to do so without violating some of the filmmaking-subject trust we built up during production. I will say that after we finished our three months of filming, he went markedly downhill and wasn’t in the same state when the doc aired as when we were following him. But we also had his mother endorse our filmmaking (she frequently appears in the doc) made us confident in our approach. Of course, VH1 has redesigned the website so I can’t find the show page but here is the teaser for that documentary as a bonus video clip. Really felt this film was well made and very expressive and I wish it had a longer shelf life.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Late Tribeca Report: Soundtrack for a Revolution


Doc awards for bravery should be handed to anyone attempting to do a civil rights era project. Eyes on the Prize is just one many films that will teach future generations about the United States’ biggest injustice. And since the movement occurred in the heyday of television, there already exists ample footage of the events and headlines, which have been replayed often.

Noted documentarians Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman went at it anyway and came away with a fine survey called Soundtrack for a Revolution. The conceit was that contemporary artists like John Legend, The Roots, Wyclef Jean, etc. would do updated versions of the spiritual hymnals that gave strength to the civil rights activists. I thought there would be much more delving into the musicology and legends behind the songs, but there was little of it, perhaps because many of the hymnals have ancient roots even if the lyrics were modernized during the movement. Instead, the contemporary songs done in a recording studio served as accompaniments to the chronological storytelling moments. For me, Richie Havens was the standout but Anthony Hamilton (in the trailer above) also deserves props.

Yet the great music couldn’t augment the storyline, which was expertly told, but very well known by now, at least by my generation. I couldn’t help but think that the soundtrack of Soundtrack might be a bit more powerful experience than the film. A review in Variety sort of agreed and wrote, “a stirring civics lesson combined with glossy modern music videos of the movement’s greatest hits, the pic never quite reconciles its different agendas.” Of course, I’m sure the film would be immensely rewarding for younger viewers during their first encounter with this wretched history.

The film was funded by Danny Glover’s Louverture Films (whose most recent doc accomplishment was the Hurricane Katrina doc Trouble the Waters.) The company is dedicated to the development and production of films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity. Like Participant Media or Agape Films, these deep pocketed companies with a keen interest in the documentary arts will hopefully continue to birth many other films during this difficult media climate.

June 15, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Been Fishing

Please excuse the lack of activity as of late. I’m finding the blog life hard to reconcile with my other passion of basketball. The NBA playoffs are taking away my prime blogging hours! But next week I’ll be back with a ton of new posts and I plan to keep up the momentum afterwards too. Thanks for reading.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment