Pop Gets Personal: Inside 2017’s Unexpected Resurgence of the Music Documentary


Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Katy Perry, Pink, Pop Star Documentaries

Getty Images; Melissa Hebeler/E! Illustration

The music documentary is nothing new.

Artists have been giving fans a peek behind the curtain since the influential 1965 Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back, which included an opening scene that, even if you haven’t seen, you know. (The Love Actually poster board scene? Dylan did it first.) Over the years, there have been notable releases here and there—Madonna‘s seminal Truth or Dare in 1991, 2009’s posthumous Michael Jackson’s This Is It, 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and Beyoncé‘s 2013 Life Is But a Dream, not to mention the countless specials MTV has produced in its day.

But a funny thing happened in the fall of 2017. Suddenly, within the span of about a month, the pop star doc was everywhere.

It started out innocently enough, when Lady Gaga, coming off a banner comeback year that saw the release of her fifth studio album Joanne and the headlining of both the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show and Coachella (filling in at last minute for a pregnant Queen Bey), announced in August that a documentary chronicling the better part of that year, Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two, would debut on Netflix a month later.

For an artist whose career was literally structured around a playful tweaking of pop music’s artifice, this was the latest in a string of choices that began with the recording of the stripped-back Joanne, made to reveal the real Stefani Germanotta who’d been just out of reach all these years, hidden underneath the outré costumes. Directed by Chris Moukarbel, the film certainly documented Gaga’s process getting her most-personal album yet off the ground, but it also gave fans an unflinching look at the struggles with chronic pain that she’d only just begun to speak publicly about.

“I don’t know, particularly, what the ultimate goal is, or the vision is, of this story, because I’m not sure I can be objective about myself,” Gaga told E! News’ Zuri Hall ahead of the film’s premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. “I wasn’t interested in being part of creating a documentary that was perfect and a commercial to make people love me. I wanted something true and real to be made. And when I go in creatively, I like to go all in, you know?”

While she may have relinquished control over the project to Moukarbel, and the film did show one or two of the singer’s unflattering meltdowns so as to keep it out of pure hagiography territory, it should be noted that Five Foot Two was produced by the singer’s manager, Bobby Campbell, so someone with a vested interest in how Gaga was portrayed was involved in the process.

“I’m excited for people to really get to know the woman I work with everyday,” he said when the film was announced. “She’s one of the hardest working, most genuine and truly hilarious people in the world.” (Her humor was on full-display as she looked over an old, pre-braces photo: “If I had kept that gap, then I would have even more problems with Madonna.”)

Demi Lovato

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeart

And for a minute, it seemed like Five Foot Two would be 2017’s one and only bold-named addition to the pantheon of pop music docs. But as a handful of pop divas began to mount their musical comebacks in fall, what followed was a surprising deluge of docs promising fans a trip behind the scenes.

First up, Demi Lovato, whose sixth studio album Tell Me You Love Me was released on September 29, announced that her documentary, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, would debut exclusively on YouTube on Tuesday, Oct. 17. In the feature-length doc, fans will get to hear the stories of Lovato’s struggles with sobriety as they watch her make what’s shaping up to be her most well-reviewed body of work yet.

“My fans have been on this journey with me since I was eight years old and have shared in some of the most important moments in my life,” she said when the project was announced. “As I embark on a new journey both personally and professionally, it was important to me to create this documentary with a platform that would allow me to continue to bring my story directly to my fans.”

Not to be outdone, exactly one day later, Katy Perry announced that her unprecedented Witness World Wide 96-hour livestream held over the summer, done to promote the June 9 release of her fifth studio album Witness, would be edited into a feature-length film for YouTube’s subscription service, YouTube Red. The film, which was released on October 4, included never-before-seen moments, including her conception of the unorthodox livestream and her raw reaction to the entire experience once the feed stopped, well, feeding.

Hot on Perry’s heels was an announcement from Apple Music that they’d be unveiling a short film featuring Pink, chronicling the creation of her seventh studio album, Beautiful Trauma. Released the same day as the album on the subscription service, the film is the routine combination of candid interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, but clocking in at just 34 minutes, it’s safe to say it’s the slightest of the recent spate of releases.

The music films from these streaming services are likely only getting started. While Netflix has become home for all manner of original content, YouTube and Apple are relative upstarts in the streaming wars. But there’s a good chance that all could change, thanks to an insane influx of cash and musicians desperate to boost sales in this new Spotify-centric world. When Apple announced Pink’s film, they noted that there were several similar projects in the works with major artists due to launch in the coming weeks. Could Kelly Clarkson, whose new album Meaning of Life is due on Friday, Oct. 27, be next?

And that’s to say nothing of YouTube and its $86 billion in Google resources to develop its original library with. A documentary from rapper Warren G is next up in a plan that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, YouTube global head of original content hopes will help turn the viral video library into an “arbiter of taste and culture.” Consider these music docs, a natural fit for both YouTube (associated most closely with music videos) and Apple (associated most closely with your personal iTunes library), the key to getting subscribers to stick around for more ambitious, non-musical fare. And get ready for a whole lot more of them.


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Red Bull Music Academy documentary celebrates LA’s diverse car culture



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There is no greater democracy than car enthusiasm. Even in a city as wildly diverse as Los Angeles, with millions of people cramming onto freeways every day, the culture of cars — the part we love, anyway — transcends class distinctions that would otherwise shackle some groups under piles of preconceived notions and other social strictures. Cool cars can free us from that. From Bugattis in Beverly Hills to lowrider Chevys in East L.A., the love of cars is the same for everyone. This love is celebrated in the Red Bull Music Academy-produced documentary “L.A.: Cars + Music.”

“The city’s diverse, the car culture’s diverse, this will be the first time we bring it all together,” said Victor Carillo of The ID Agency, which helped create the documentary.

The 15-minute film showcases many aspects of California car culture. There’s a segment on artist and director Estevan Oriol and his beautiful blue lowrider; one on Rod Emory, who makes Outlaw Porsches at Emory Motorsports in The Valley, and we meet Dorian Valenzuela, the JPL engineer-turned Alfa Romeo restorer, as well as a group of donut lovers who occasionally hold impromptu spinout contests in intersections in the Crenshaw District.

Estevan Oriol's Chevy lowrider

Estevan Oriol’s Chevy lowrider Photo by Estevan Oriol

Each interviewee also describes the kind of music they like to go with their cars. Oriol likes West Coast rap; Emory likes Ozzy and Led Zep, Guadalupe Rosales likes old-school oldies to go with her lowriders.

“We all love cars and music,” said Rosales. “It’s all love. We’re all together for our passion.”

“To me, it came out pretty much perfect,” Oriol said of the movie. “To show lowrider culture as a positive thing instead of a negative thing, that was wonderful.”

“It started as an idea and turned into a really cool project to unite car culture in Los Angeles,” said Carillo. “Everyone loves cars.”

The film goes live at 11:00 a.m. PST on the Red Bull Facebook page. Try this link: here.

The film was created in support of another Red Bull arts project that debuts Oct. 15, the Ryoji Ikeda A [For 100 Cars], a musical performance that will be held at the Red Bull Music Academy Los Angeles Festival on Oct. 15. In that one, artist Ryoji Ikeda will present a new composition through the sound systems of 120 cars. That will be something to see and hear. You can get tickets for that here.


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Camerimage Festival to Honor Documentary Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman – Variety


Pioneering documentarian Frederick Wiseman will receive the Camerimage Award for Outstanding Achievements in Documentary Filmmaking at the 25th edition of Camerimage, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, which will be held in Bydgoszcz, Poland, from Nov. 11 – 18.

The festival will screen a selection of Wiseman’s films, and the filmmaker himself will be on hand to accept the award and talk to fest participants about his unorthodox approach to documentary filmmaking.

The Camerimage honor comes to Wiseman on the 50th anniversary of his seminal 1967 debut film, “Titcut Follies,” which casts a spotlight on the patient-inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, a Massachusetts correctional institution. The film won awards in Europe and sparked a career

In announcing the honor, the fest commented: “The cinema of Frederick Wiseman is not easy to digest, for it demands both the viewers’ complete attention, something which is becoming increasingly difficult in this constantly accelerating world of ours, and their intense participation… ‘Titicut Follies’ still evokes strong emotions, proving indisputably that the line between the primitive and the civilized was, is and always will be very thin.”

Wiseman’s films include: “Basic Training (1971),” which showed how young people are shaped into soldiers in preparation for the Vietnam War; “Primate (1974),” examining researchers working with simians and forcing viewers to wonder which group is stranger; “Deaf” (1986), about deaf students learning to communicate with the outside world; “Near Death (1989),” a tale of workers and terminally ill patients at a Boston hospital; “La Danse (2009),” which observes the intricate mechanisms of a ballet company; and “In Jackson Heights (2015),” a portrait of life in that multi-ethnic Queens neighborhood;

Wiseman typically shoots hundreds of hour of footage for each film, carefully observing its particular world, often in collaboration with cinematographer John Davey, who will also be a guest of Camerimage. Next, Wiseman goes into a laborious process of editing, reworking, adding, cutting, repeating, using carefully selected images and sounds to mold the footage into a self-explanatory narrative that presents his personal experience of that world.

Perhaps Wiseman’s greatest hallmark is his non-use of voiceover or talking heads suggesting how viewers should perceive what is taking place on the screen. His films tend to run long, testing viewers’ patience. “Near Death” is almost six hours long. In the past Wiseman has said that the only thing a documentary filmmaker can do is investigate and discover.

This year, Wiseman received an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Previous recipients of the Camerimage documentary prize include Jay Rosenblatt, Marcel Łoziński, Kim Longinotto, Joan Churchill, Steven Okazaki, Albert Maysles, Terry Sanders and Kazimierz Karabasz.


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