There’s been a slate of theatrically released music icon film bios released in to theaters over the last few years. No doubt this was a response to the success of “Searching For Sugarman”, “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and “Amy” – all of whom won Oscars between 2012 and 2015. So, for me, musical biodocs that are released in to theaters fall in to one of three categories:
- Docs that, while resembling something you might see on VH1 Behind the Music, illuminate an artist so interesting that the film transcends the lack of creativity of the film itself.
- Docs that fit in to the above, or below, but are either terribly made, slimy, or overly reverential.
- Docs that, regardless of the artist, stand on their own merits as works of documentary art – either defying categorization or exceeding expectation.
Streaming services are littered with films that were theatrically released yet fall in to that second category. One doesn’t have to look that far back to find example A. “Whitney” was a terrible, terrible film from almost every angle. Less horrendous, but certainly falling well short of the mark was “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” (how you fail making an interesting film about Grace Jones is beyond me). Well, luckily, neither “Linda Ronstadt…” nor “David Crosby…” need worry about falling in to the same hole.
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Clearly a member of the first category, “The Sound of My Voice” is insightful, heartfelt, nostalgic, and, above all, of and about the strength of both the voice and the person it belongs to. It’s told in a chronological manner, with Ms. Ronstadt acting as her own narrator…which is both grounding and confounding (apologies to Clyde Frazier). While it lends weight to the numerous stories of how she challenged the status quo of the male-dominated record industry, it also feels ever-so-slightly insincere – a little too “PBS American Masters” at times. However, this is a teeny complaint, and the doc certainly packs a wallop emotionally, as it inevitably leads to the reasons she seemed to drop off the face of the pop music cliff…which I won’t give away in case you don’t know.
Regardless, her story, her art, the stories of the people she collaborated with, and those she defied, are absolutely worthy of a big screen treatment. And, as you would expect, it is the inside info that keeps us incredibly invested. The talking heads, who include Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne and Don Henley (plus a literal who’s who of seventies and eighties pop culture) have been edited extremely well…pushing the narrative along just slowly enough for us to gain insight from each artistic decision in her life. And, obviously, the performance footage is extraordinary…like watching a fond memory repeat in our mind’s eye – a phenomenon nearly exclusive to the songsters in our lives. And, luckily, there are one or two bits of interview footage. Alas, one wishes there were more…but that could simply be a result of an artist who preferred to let her vocal chords do the talking.
So if the biggest issue I have with the film is that it seems less personal than a film like “Amy” or “Sugarman” (and the fact that it fails to make any mention of Lowell George & his band, Little Feat, even as we see her perform one of their songs), then you know it’s pretty damned good. Just not as good as…
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
Directed by A.J. Eaton
This is quite simply a terrific documentary – both because of the the honesty of the subject’s introspective processes and because the director gets the hell out of the way and allows the film to unfold in an utterly organic manner. It helps that David Crosby is one of those pop icons that you can’t believe is still alive…and, best of all for the film’s sake, neither can he. Filled with regret, love, rage and joy, listening to him tell the story of his life, and those whom he shared it with, is about as entertaining a way to spend ninety minutes as I can think of. And, of course there is that voice and music, both so much a part of our conscience, our political history, and our personal experience.
But Eaton has another trick up his sleeve that makes this doc more robust and unique than most…and that is to utilize Cameron Crowe as the disembodied interviewer. Crowe interviewed Crosby when he was a new reporter. So, with decades of experience behind them both, and with decades of pulling no punches in front of each other, he gets as much out of Crosby as, say, Errol Morris would. Maybe more. As a result, each story is not a simple re-telling. They are, to almost a one, brimming with real emotion, regret, joy and rage. And, there are several interviews conducted for the film with the major players in his life…and in the psyche of all Boomers or Gen X’ers. So, while the director does tell us the chronology of Crosby’s journey, he presents it in a format that is beautifully tinged with a personal depth – as deep as the lines on his face. And, as in the Ronstadt film, there is the performance of the music…and the creation of it…and it’s place in society and culture. And thanks to all that, and the brilliant work of co-editors, Elisa Bonora and Veronica Pinkham, “Remember My Name” is great biographical film-making. Just great.
Oh…and for the record (and before the Ronstadt fans come after me), I am not saying one performer is more important, better, or gifted than the other! Neither am I suggesting that their place in our artistic, political and historical culture is somehow hierarchical (though it obviously IS patriarchal). I am simply responding to the success of each film in documenting their respective subject.
Trailer for “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”
Trailer for “David Crosby: Remember My Name” (WARNING: spoilers)