Five underrated music documentaries


Celebrities and musicians lend themselves to voyeurism; that is not to say that it is a negative thing, since it gives viewers an insight into parts of idol’s lives they may have not known. Documentaries humanize pop culture icons or overlooked greats as well as offer indispensable understanding into their own music.

Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s documentary film Until The Light Takes Us is an examination of the Norwegian black metal scene in the 1990s. The black metal scene in Norway left the initially peaceful country reeling in the aftermath of the mayhem it caused. A music scene that led to two murders, a suicide, and multiple church burnings caused a slew of misinterpretations and misrepresentation due to the media coverage. The documentary examines the forerunners of the scene, capturing the shocking exploitation some found in their friends suicide, the Scandinavian blasé attitude toward the music industry, and at times, terror.

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna is Sini Anderson’s documentary from 2013 on the Riot grrrl founder and leader Kathleen Hanna. Hanna has led a fascinating life to say the least. The film addresses Hanna’s underrated but crucial contribution to the feminist music opus with her band Bikini Kill. The film delves much deeper into the singer’s life than just her musicianship but also her feminist activism—and how her marriage to the Beastie Boy member Adam Horowitz was perceived as undermining said activism—and even the trials and tribulations she has suffered due to obscure health issues. The film, if nothing else, sheds light on an era of music and a singer who has been otherwise wildly underestimated despite her integral contributions to modern music.

Documenting the proto-punk, Detroit-based band Death is Mark Christopher Covino’s A Band Called Death from 2012. This is another documentary that draws up the curtain, showcasing little-known talents of the punk milieu. The documentary recounts the three African-American brothers who, in the face of discrimination of all kinds, started a punk band in the 1970s. The brothers Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney created groundbreaking music (perhaps the first of its kind in America) that defied all preconceived notions. These were African-American men playing punk music while they were expected to play jazz or R&B. Though the band’s work was not appreciated in its time, it certainly is a few decades later.

Daniel Johnsten is perhaps best known for the T-shirt seen on Kurt Cobain depicting an alien creature with “Hi, How Are You” written below it, as well as his song “Devil Town,” which was widely popularized by Conor Oberst when Bright Eyes recorded a cover of it. Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnsten, delved into the life of Johnsten and the inner turmoils he faced that many have not known. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression, the film peeks into the mind of an unstable albeit brilliant, artist whose self-destructive tendencies proved to be tolling (and even dangerous) to the people around him, despite the brilliant work he created.

Johnny Thunders is one of the greats in 1970s punk-rock, though he is one of the more forgotten musicians of the era. Danny Garcia’s low budget film Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders reveals the Queens-born Italian guitarist of New York Dolls as the quintessential junkie-punk icon that he truly was. Dubbed the American “pocket-sized” Keith Richards, this film portrays the mind behind The Heartbreakers (no affiliation with Tom Petty) and the rise and fall of a brilliant but drug-and-anxiety-ridden artist.

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