Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion.This week we look at a possible trend with music docs that includes recent Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man.
When Searching for Sugar Man won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last month, the film had the distinction of being the first music doc to do so in 26 years*. It also helped to continue the “Cinderella story” at its center, even if fairy tale subject Sixto Rodriguez declined to appear at the Academy Awards or take any credit for the film’s merit and achievement. He’s no doubt thankful, at least, for what the film has done for him personally, making a difference for his life and career, as I discussed in the last Doc Talk column.
You could almost make a separate documentary, perhaps a sequel, chronicling what’s happened to Rodriguez since the film was made, his rise from obscurity in America beginning with a live performance at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in concurrence with Sugar Man’s premiere there and then. Because, while the film itself depicts a kind of mythic yarn on its own, a lot of what the media sees in the subject as a “Cinderella man” concerns the next level fairy tale continuing in the aftermath.
Compare that to Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, a blatant Cinderella-esque music doc opening in theaters this Friday. The film, directed by Ramona Diaz, follows the story of Arnel Pineda, a poor Filipino singer who was plucked out of the blue to be the frontman for the enormously popular band Journey. Pineda’s fairy tale -- a term he uses to describe his own circumstances -- is a more familiar sort of rags-to-riches case of the American Dream. We’ve even previously seen major rock groups hire new singers from respective tribute acts (Judas Priest and Yes are other examples). Of course, with Pineda being from the Philippines, his story is an example of how even the American Dream is outsourcing these days.
It’s hard to watch Don’t Stop Believin’ without thinking of Sugar Man, even though the films themselves are very different and the former can’t take any credit for Pineda’s rise out from nowhere into the limelight, which had already happened. Both subjects do come across as anti-rock stars, so humble and grounded, seemingly sober (Pineda is a recovered drug and alcohol addict while Rodriguez admits in interviews to enjoying weed and “too much” brandy), which make their ascents all the more uplifting for film audiences.
You also might think of another, more popular music doc: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Like Bieber, Pineda was discovered via YouTube. Both performers could be seen performing covers of their favorite songs, and through the combination of talent and the international accessibility of the video-sharing site wound up with fame just dropped in their laps. There’s work involved, sure; these stories aren’t really about luck, although they do tap into a culture that centers on a level of happenstantial opportunity and exposure. It’s why American Idol continues to be followed year after year, not so much to create new music stars but to watch the fairy tale process (and here it really is a process) unfold, and also be a part of it.
"The Cinderella story has been around forever, but this is with a modern twist," Diaz told me over the phone when interviewed for Documentary Channel. "If you add in YouTube and social media, it's very interesting, because it makes it more contemporary. It's also a snap shot of this age, of what's happening right now. It's such a phenomenon. This story would not have happened at all say 10 years ago. YouTube came in '05? If the band had been looking for a singer in '04 they would never have found Arnel. And we wouldn't have the film."
Rodriguez wasn’t found (or re-found, as it were) through the Internet or a TV show, however, so there are multiple sides to the trend, if there is one. Andy Markowitz, editorial director for the music doc site MusicFilmWeb, commented on the notion via e-mail: “On the Sugar Man side, I think to some degree these stories resonate because they're like messages from the pre-Web past. We're kind of trained now to think nothing can happen that we don't know about. If we have the right connections we hear about bands the instant they do something. People like Rodriguez and Bobby Liebling bring back a bit of the mystery and a sense of discovery that used to be a big part of what you loved about music but isn't really part of our world anymore.”
Liebling is the subject of another film that could be labeled a Cinderella story, Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s Last Days Here. But this documentary, which chronicles a push toward recovery and a comeback for the crack-addicted heavy metal singer, is also merely in line with a long-running focus for music films that mean to answer the question of “Where are they now?” and tend to be attracted to the dramatic circumstances of artists dealing with substance abuse or mental problems. They only manage to become fairy tales when they have happy endings and/or deal with recovery and resurrection. In the case of Paul Williams Still Alive, which catches up with the titular songwriter post-rehab, like Sugar Man the film adds to the rediscovery and functions as an added fairy godmother.
"The music world is filled with so many amazing characters, tragic tales, brushes with greatness and rags to riches to rags stories, that it provides an obvious backdrop for compelling storytelling," Argott told me, also via email. "Audiences love a comeback story and documentary comeback stories are even more rewarding because they're real."
VH1 Rock Docs executive producer Warren Cohen believes that every music doc is a Cinderella story. “Against great odds, an artist found a voice or instrument and/or a group of disparate individuals that could work together found one another,” he explained via e-mail. “Being it’s a creative endeavor, many are inspired by -- and succumb to -- temptations that both enhance (and detract) from creativity, like sex, alcohol and drugs. These struggles along with each subsequent confrontation with magic (they reached millions before; can they do it again?) has great built in narrative drive.”
Cohen is right, though some docs offer stories with a more distinctly fairy tale feeling than others. One such project is the VH1 Rock Docs acquisition Anvil: The Story of Anvil!, directed by Sacha Gervasi. Again similar to Sugar Man, this film is itself a part of the story, as it documents a tale of musicians who seemed destined to be bigger stars than they’d amounted to and in turn has boosted their popularity by way of this documentation. But the events presented in Anvil itself aren’t quite the plot of a fairy tale. Maybe it’s the first act of one, as well as the first act of a trend.
“Anvil was the kick-start,” Markowitz stated. “But in a larger sense I think [the trend] shows people, both filmmakers and audiences, coming around to seeing music docs as a vehicle for storytelling, human drama, human comedy... not just showcases for big bands/artists.”
The fact that a certain kind of story is prominent in music docs right now could also have to do with the economy. Audiences have historically preferred uplifting entertainment related to the American Dream in hard times -- the term “Cinderella man” was popularized in the Depression-era films of Frank Capra, for instance. Producer Eddie Schmidt (Troubadours) noted via direct message on Twitter that a crowd-pleasing narrative in a documentary “makes audiences feel better about life on a gut level (in a narrative package they can identify with), and then intellectually they realize that this happened in the real world, so it makes reality seem a little less bleak, where such things are still possible.”
And this effect is even stronger with music films, according to Markowitz. “Music and music fandom are so universal,” he added. “Once Anvil opened the door for music films as a vehicle for these stories, it seemed natural. Living out a rock star fantasy or resurrecting/discovering a music hero are such broadly relatable experiences.” Yet, ironically, Diaz admitted to me, "I would resist calling [Don't Stop Believin'] a rock doc, because that was never my interest to begin with." Rather, she was zoned in on the broader Capra-esque story of Pineda. "My interest was really Arnel and how he would handle the fame and how he would, as a Filipino, be able to carve his niche."
“Great music stories come and go and are a staple of documentary in my opinion,” argued filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Under African Skies), also via e-mail. He added that the real story to pay attention to is that Sugar Man won the Oscar and that it may not be a rare circumstance going forward thanks to the Academy's change with the rules for the documentary feature category. "Obviously if Sugar Man wasn't deserving in terms of quality, it wouldn't have ascended the ranks, but given the fate of many other great but snubbed music docs in the past, I think it is the rule changes that opened the door as much as the film itself."
Whether the next one is also a Cinderella story or more reflective of the Internet age is to be determined (as much as I like Don't Stop Believin', I don't believe in it for Oscar consideration), but it will obviously be something that audiences find compelling and genuine. In terms of its following in the footsteps of Sugar Man, it might also be something that resonates as a tall tale rather than a fairy tale.
"I think it’s about authenticity and stature," Cohen told me on the topic of music docs' abundance and popularity. "Whereas the Idol/YouTube world shows the messy public process of becoming an artist/finding a voice, its also a little too overt for mythmaking. It’s real but the fact its so observable perhaps undermines its authenticity a bit – or at least puts it in a different category (I like Idol/Youtube a lot, too, so I don’t want to be dismissive – it's just different). Pop music (and music docs) always contain an element of societal transformation – there was a world before the Beatles/Zeppelin/Michael Jackson/Nirvana, but the world after them was never the same. It didn’t evolve in real time so much as it exploded."
*The last doc to win the award that we tend to associate with the music doc genre was Brigitte Berman’s Artie Shaw: Time Is All You Need (it shared the honor in a tie with Down and Out in America), but we could possibly also technically qualify the 1992 winner, Allie Light and Irving Saraf’s In the Shadow of the Stars, which is about professional singers who make up the chorus of an opera.