A good sign of the vitality of rock music at any given period can be found in its documentary movies — look back at the 1970s and ’80s, and almost all the rock docs on offer were contemporary. Whether it was hippie “Woodstock,” punk “Rude Boy,” “The Last Waltz” or “Stop Making Sense,” these films sought to capture bands and scenes in the present tense. These days it’s all about history. That may be a sign of the overall disposability and lack of new directions in rock nowadays, or it could be that because bands live so publicly online now — through websites, social networks, videos and streaming — that the documentary film is no longer needed. Take your pick.
“LennoNYC” is yet another foray into the life of the most talented and tragic member of The Beatles, John Lennon. This doc covers the final decade of Lennon’s life, beginning in 1971. London had become unbearable, as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, were besieged by a press corps that blamed Ono for breaking up The Beatles. So the couple fled to the relative anonymity of NYC, where a brief period of intense political activism was curtailed when President Richard Nixon tried to get the singer deported, resulting in a lengthy courtroom battle. (This has already been covered well by “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”)
The film is good at roping in the musicians who worked with Lennon throughout the decade, from the East Village group Elephant’s Memory through members of the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon’s passage through solo success (“Imagine”), failure (“Some Time in New York City”) and eventual withdrawal from the public eye (1975-1980) are all covered ably, along with the recording of his final album, “Double Fantasy,” shortly before being gunned down by a deranged fan in 1980.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses are one and the same: the full cooperation of Ono with the project. This means we get plenty of never-before-unearthed studio and live footage from the archives, but we also get a selective history. Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend,” where he left Ono and NYC for an alcohol-fueled stint on the West Coast, is covered, but the role of May Pang — an assistant to Ono who became Lennon’s mistress for nearly two years — is entirely glossed over: The only mention is Ono recalling that she asked Pang “to make the trip as comfortable as possible” for her husband, a turn of phrase that Bill Clinton would be proud of.
Liam Gallagher once claimed to be the reincarnation of John Lennon, yet his former band, Oasis, is but one chapter in the film “Upside Down,” which tells the story of British indie label Creation Records. Started in 1983 by Glaswegian Alan McGee with a ￡1,000 (¥126,000) bank loan, the label would go on to break such bands as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Super Furry Animals and, indeed, Oasis.
Creation had a line in big, loud guitar bands with a sense for vocal melodies (Ride had it perfected long before the Gallagher brothers came along), and McGee made a good impresario for a time, before the substance abuse caught up with him. (One artist recalls of Creation’s offices, “You’d go in on a Friday, and come out on a Monday.”) The label’s biggest innovation was the mutation of ecstasy-fueled acid house with indie rock, most memorably captured on Primal Scream’s “Higher Than the Sun” (although the film “24 Hour Party People” captured Manchester label Factory doing much the same).
Whether Creation’s output will stand up over the years with revered labels such as Motown, Blue Note or Chess remains to be seen, but the doc is a good testament to one of the few clear-cut pop triumphs of an indie in the postcorporate rock era; it may also be a document of a bygone age, as labels fade from the mixed pressures of declining revenue (thank you, BitTorrent) and bands’ ability to promote themselves on the Web.
In these docs, we learn how Lennon always tuned his D-string just a little flat — so his aunt Mimi could tell which guitar was his when she listened on the radio — and how My Bloody Valentine spent months in the studio perfecting their wall-of-guitar sound on “Loveless” (something else that won’t be happening again in an age of “free music”). But for the real skinny on guitarists, turn to “It Might Get Loud,” which brings together three different generations of guitar greats and contrasts their entirely different approaches to music.
There’s Jimmy Page of arena-rock kings Led Zeppelin, a consummate technical wizard from a blues-based era that rewarded flash and skill; U2’s The Edge, a far more restrained, minimalist musician, whose textural approach to guitar led him to seriously embrace electronics; and The White Stripes’ Jack White, rejecting both technique and technology in favor of a philosophy that elevates attitude over everything.
While The Edge will speak of how he’s “very interested in what hardware can do to sound,” and how he “got totally into listening to the notes I wasn’t playing” that would emerge from his effects boxes, Jack White will rail that a Gibson Les Paul guitar is “too easy,” while exhorting cheap plastic guitars instead. White, an heir to the indie lo-fi aesthetic, is prone to rants such as “technology is the big destroyer of creativity and truth,” while somehow forgetting that his beloved distortion box and amplifier are also electronic technology.
This casual, rambling doc has plenty of inside dope for anyone who’s a fan of these musicians. It’s interesting to see how, nearly four decades later, Page is still pissed off at a dismissive one-paragraph review of “Led Zeppelin IV,” while The Edge nostalgically visits the high school classroom where U2 used to rehearse as teens. The three indulge in a bit of a jam session at the end, and note the sheer glee apparent on the faces of The Edge and White as Page rips into that riff from “Whole Lotta Love” — it’s clear here that love of the instrument cuts far deeper than stylistic differences.