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Searching for Sugar Men

Why rock documentaries are bigger and smaller than ever

Rattle & Hum
At the end of 1987, U2 returned to the Arizona desert for the sake of posterity. That March, the band released The Joshua Tree, source of two no. 1 singles and mover of 12 million units. Over the next nine months, U2 played 111 shows in North America and Europe, selling out arenas and then moving on to stadiums. The tour ended where it had begun back in April, in Tempe, only now U2 was booked for two shows at Sun Devil Stadium before 120,000 people. The concerts were staged for the climax of U2′s tour documentary, Rattle and Hum, only things weren’t going according to plan. It was cloudy and cold, and the downpour drenched the cameras. Worse, Rolling Stone was there to document the drudgery. “Bono looks like one of the walking wounded,” writes Steve Pond, who wasn’t alone in using hellish, militaristic imagery to describe Rattle and Hum. “It’s like Apocalypse Now,” Bono says at one point, “without so many helicopters.”

Recently I revisited Rattle and Hum, ostensibly because the film turns 25 this year, but mainly because I was curious to see how one of the touchstones of my U2-obsessed youth looked all these years later. Rattle and Hum is remembered today as one of the band’s worst blunders1 — certainly the worst blunder not involving a supersize, lemon-shaped mirrorball — and as the catalyst for U2′s hard turn toward the Eurocentric art pop of Achtung Baby and the chin-stroke-y Marshall McLuhan–slash–Max Headroom multimedia extravaganza Zoo TV. Rattle and Hum both justifies its bad reputation and is somewhat ill-served by it. By November 1988, when Rattle and Hum was released, the media regarded U2 more like distinguished statesmen than like a rock band; never in the history of the world had grown men sporting the eternally questionable suit-vest-plus-naked-torso ensemble been treated with so much reverence. A backlash was inevitable, and Rattle and Hum unwittingly played into the perception that a metric ton of bullshit had been affixed to the bottoms of Bono’s cowboy boots in the wake of The Joshua Tree‘s success.

At the same time, a quarter-century removed from U2′s hectoring late-’80s persona, Rattle and Hum is surprisingly watchable. This might be the 13-year-old U2 fanatic in me talking, because I loved this movie back then, and even now that I can see (and make fun of) its flaws, I’ve never been able to completely extract Rattle and Hum from my heart. I don’t think it’s outrageously revisionist to declare Rattle and Hum the most quotable rock documentary ever; after rewatching it last week, I’m convinced that wannabe heirs like Coldplay and Kings of Leon have missed out by not referencing Rattle and Hum constantly, like rappers nodding to Scarface. “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya”; “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles; we’re stealin’ it back”; “OK, Edge, play the blues”; “Apar-TIGHT!” — Rattle and Hum is rivaled only by This Is Spinal Tap in the memorable-lines department, and U2 didn’t have the benefit of some of the world’s finest improv-comedy minds coming up with their material. Christopher Guest might be a genius, but he’s no Bono in Rattle and Hum.2

What’s most striking about Rattle and Hum now is how different it is from the majority of rock documentaries made in the past 10 years. The primary criticism of Rattle and Hum in 1988 was that U2 comes off as self-important and presumptuous about its place in rock history.3 But there really wasn’t a question about whether making a movie about U2 was valid; the band’s status at the time inarguably justified a film backed by a major studio (Paramount) that opened on nearly 1,400 screens. U2 is presented in Rattle and Hum with the assumption that the audience already accepts the band’s importance as a given. There are no talking heads making the case for The Joshua Tree being a seminal album, nor is there a brief history lesson on U2′s career achievements. The band members aren’t even formally introduced; like the ’60s rock films it emulates (Don’t Look Back, Gimme Shelter), Rattle and Hum operates in a world where guitar-slinging documentary subjects can be credibly portrayed as avatars for larger truths about contemporary society. When we see the Edge jam with a Harlem gospel choir, or Bono harangue a concert audience in Denver about Desmond Tutu, it’s supposed to mean something beyond the narrative of a successful rock tour. Even if the execution of Rattle and Hum isn’t entirely successful, that doesn’t mean pointing cameras at U2 in 1987 wasn’t a sound strategy for magnifying pop culture at the time.

Rattle and Hum (along with 1991′s Madonna: Truth or Dare) marks the end of this era of rock documentaries.4 If Rattle and Hum were made today, it would look like Mistaken for Strangers, a “very honest, personal narrative”5 about indie band the National that premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Strangers resembles Rattle and Hum in the broad strokes: It follows a successful rock band on tour behind its most popular album (2010′s High Violet) and shows the band members commiserating with Certifiably Important Public Figures (including President Obama and director Werner Herzog). But the films are dramatically different in terms of scope: Rattle and Hum attempts to place U2 at the center of the world’s most serious conversations about weighty issues like apartheid, the U.S. military intervention in El Salvador, and the “troubles” in Ireland, while Mistaken for Strangers uses the rock-doc format to tell a more intimate story about two brothers — the National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, and the film’s director, Tom Berninger — attempting to reconcile after a period of estrangement. Rattle and Hum, for better or worse, reflects the sociopolitical values and attitudes of a specific segment of culture at a specific moment in time; Mistaken for Strangers narrows its focus on one guy (and his quirky metalhead brother) in one band. Strangers does not set out to define what the National is supposed to mean in a larger cultural setting; like most 21st-century rock documentaries, it implies that music has no larger meaning.

Sugar Man
I like Mistaken for Strangers.6 I like rock documentaries in general. Chances are you like rock documentaries, too, as they’ve never been more popular. For the past decade, rock documentaries have experienced a golden age — there are more of them being made, and about a wider range of topics, than at any point in pop-music history.

Rock documentaries these days can be divided into four categories: There are self-effacing self-portraits of popular-ish contemporary artists with a measure of hip cachet (like Mistaken for Strangers and the LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits); there are really well-made career overviews for legacy acts that act as handy primers for neophytes (the best recent examples include the Rush movie Beyond the Lighted Stage and the two-part, three-hour film about the Eagles that aired on Showtime); there are glorified 90-minute commercials about massively famous celebrities that engage in straight-up hagiography with zero pretensions about telling the unvarnished “truth” (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Life Is But a Dream, HBO’s Beyoncé movie); and then there are the most critically reputable rock docs, the ones about little-known cult artists, what I like to call “Sugar Man” movies.

I’m referring of course to 2012′s Searching for Sugar Man, the Academy Award–winning film about “lost” ’70s folk singer Sixto Rodriguez. I’m using the term “Sugar Man” retroactively, but the classification fits Searching for Sugar Man‘s long line of underappreciated-genius predecessors. To qualify as a Sugar Man, you must strike an antiestablishment stance (like Anton Newcombe in Dig!), though ultimately your greatest battles will involve personal demons (like Daniel Johnston in The Devil and Daniel Johnston). While your music might not be immediately accessible or even seem all that exceptional upon first hearing, you are in fact hugely influential in spite of your lack of fame (like Scott Walker in 30 Century Man), or at least you would be if the public weren’t so prejudicial toward loner visionaries (like Arthur Russell in Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell). You don’t have to be male to be a Sugar Man (you can even be a woman like Mia Zapata in The Gits), but it helps, since the people most invested in these enigmatic figures are usually male. What’s most vital is that you’re somewhat obscure (like Arthur Kane in New York Doll) and definitely mysterious (like Jandek in Jandek on Corwood).

Where Rattle and Hum has no backstory, Sugar Man movies are all backstory, since the whole point is that these people aren’t prominent in culture. (Not being famous is what makes them doc-worthy.) The stars of Sugar Man movies aren’t really the protagonists, it’s the people who explain the protagonists — the record collectors, the music critics, the ubiquitous Rolling Stone journalist David Fricke,7 and guys like full-time articulator of cultural ephemera and part-time musician Henry Rollins. Sugar Man movies are about a niche audience asserting a version of rock history in which Cult Hero X is suddenly a lead character, and they get to be the supporting players who point this out to everybody else.

The search for the next Sugar Man continues with A Band Called Death, which premieres May 24 on VOD and arrives in theaters the following month. A Band Called Death isn’t about this band, but rather a group that was formed in the early ’70s by three brothers from Detroit — David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney — who played shouty, vaguely political punk-rock songs and never succeeded in launching a music career despite years of trying. (Supposedly, Clive Davis would’ve signed Death had it agreed to change its name.) It wasn’t until the Chicago-based indie label Drag City released a spirited collection of Death demos called … For the Whole World to See in 2009 that the group’s music was heard by the outside world. Not that it was heard by much of the outside world; other than a New York Times profile in which Jack White said the group was “ahead of their time,” Death’s fame is modest even in the low-stakes realm of indie rock.

This comes across in A Band Called Death in not entirely intentional ways. The movie opens with a testimonial from comedian and person who listens to music occasionally Artie Lange;8 later, a bad review of the Hackney Brothers’ band, the 4th Movement, in a college newspaper is depicted as a major setback in Death’s trajectory. The highs and lows of the relationships among the Hackney brothers form the film’s central narrative thread, but A Band Called Death also attempts to make a case for Death’s place in the pantheon of rock music. This argument is based on race (the Hackneys are African American) and the band’s dubiously prescient musical style: Death is frequently invoked as a precursor to the Ramones and Sex Pistols, which is technically true, though because Death came after fellow Motor City acts like the Stooges, MC5, and Alice Cooper, its role as a “proto-punk” innovator is debatable at best.

That A Band Called Death emphasizes the part about preceding the Ramones, and not the part about sounding like a lesser Stooges, is typical of a Sugar Man movie. Exaggeration fuels the storytelling: Sixto Rodriguez can’t just be a decent songwriter with a devoted corps of fans in South Africa, he has to be a rival to Bob Dylan and a Detroit music titan whose talents equal the greats of Motown. As viewers, we take this soft dishonesty with a grain of salt without realizing it; Sugar Man films are implicitly understood to be tall tales contained inside hermetically sealed-off worlds curated by music geeks.

There are only so many underground legends that can be dug up, brushed off, and repackaged in the form of a breezily inspirational narrative, and every single one of them will likely show up in a Sugar Man movie in the years ahead. Searching for Sugar Man was the first rock documentary to win an Oscar since Woodstock, the ultimate “statement-rock movie,” so if you’re looking for a symbolic moment for the genre, there you go. These films will be fine for what they are. (A Band Called Death is entertaining but slight.) But I want another Rattle and Hum. I still believe that pop music can be an entry point for making sense of the world we live in, and the Sugar Man documentaries aren’t giving us the contextual framework to do this. Instead, they’re reiterating, over and over again, the opposite message: Every band is an island unto itself, with no meaning or relevance beyond a pristine vinyl collection. I don’t think that’s true. Musicians are still big; it’s the pictures that got small.

Filed Under: Documentaries, Movies

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden