In praise of unsung musical heroes
It seems as though every filmmaker has made a documentary about music, and there are so many outstanding examples that they deserve their own genre. Alan Chebot, proprietor since 1988 of the Allston studio Parallax Productions, has made his share, including “Song for New Orleans” (2006), about the struggle to resurrect that city’s music scene after Hurricane Katrina, and this year’s “Outermost Radio,” about the noteworthy Provincetown radio station WOMR (the latter film screens June 18 and 21 at the Provincetown International Film Festival). Chebot especially favors docs about musicians who might otherwise be overlooked, and here are four such films that get his toes tapping.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
The Funk Brothers are the unsung heroes of Motown, the studio musicians without whom such hits as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “What’s Going On” might not have achieved such iconic status. Paul Justman gives them their moment in the spotlight in this documentary. “Everyone loves an underdog who finally gets well-deserved recognition,” says Chebot in an e-mail. “These stories of injustice and anonymity are compelling, and some of the musical pairings — like Joan Osborne singing ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’ — show how the Funk Brothers brought out emotional purity from a wide range of artists in a way that transcends classic Motown.”
Beware of Mr. Baker (2012)
Drummers tend to inhabit the extreme fringe of rock ’n’ roll, and few were as far out as Ginger Baker of the supergroup Cream. “This in-your-face profile of the volatile and insanely talented drummer who was once voted “least likely to survive the ’60s” shows that he is very much alive and is bitterly taking it out on everybody,” says Chebot. “That includes the filmmaker Jay Bulger, whose nose gets broken by a cane-wielding Baker while the camera rolls. Bulger tracked Baker to his home in South Africa, where he camped out and made the film. I love the chaotic pacing and unvarnished storytelling.”
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
“There’s something about neglected musicians that inspire great cinema,” observes Chebot. “Maybe it’s the search for that elusive X-factor that raises one musician to star status while most remain unknown. In this film, the late Swedish director Malik Benjelloul tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit native who sold a handful of records in the US, but was bigger than Elvis in South Africa. The twists and turns make this one of my favorite music documentaries.” The film won the best documentary Oscar in 2013.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Probably the best performance by the Rolling Stones comes from a back-up singer – Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter.” She is one of many such talents in Morgan Neville’s Academy Award-winning documentary. “It is filled with stories of those who pass from riches to rags to recognition, and features a cast of supporting soundbites from Springsteen, Jagger, and Stevie Wonder. I was at the film’s New England debut at the Provincetown International Film Festival and the audience responded like it was a rock concert,” says Chebot.