There was never any shortage of material about the Beatles, whose impact has been analysed over and over again over many years. This still doesn’t take from their importance, and we all recognise that the Beatles were one of the most important groups of all time.
But sometimes in music, there’s also reward in seeking out some of the lesser-known stories too. Today I’ll mention a few of them, that at least got to the big screen. For every one that did, there are many more that went untold, and many greats died broke and unheralded. But we can be thankful for music archivists and filmmakers and all of the others who have brought some great music stories back to life over the years. There’s so many so I’ll limit today's piece to soul music. Let’s start off with Motown!
Standing in the shadows Of Motown is a powerful documentary directed by Paul Justman, telling the story of the Funk Brothers, the group who basically played on every Motown hit from back in the day.
These guys were effectively jazz players who did Motown sessions by day, for little pay, and little credit. Despite playing on some of the most famous tracks of all time, the group received little credit and royalty payment from the Motown hit machine, and it’s a sad but uplifting tale about the surviving musicians nearly 30 years on. These guys produced more hits than the Stones, Beatles and Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined.
Fans of soul music may also appreciate Charles Bradley: Soul of America, a 2012 documentary charting the unlikely rise of this singer who only became a star in the later stages of his career. It’s a heartwarming story about an amazing artist.
Searching for Sugarman is another brilliant music documentary, this time tracing the efforts of a few fans who wanted to find out if the artist Sixto Rodriguez was actually dead, as had been rumoured.
The film, finished on an iphone after the directors ran out of money, went on to be a huge critical success. Like Charles Bradley, Rodriguez later found belated fame, though he had already achieved cult success in South Africa and elsewhere. The filmmakers were fans of him originally in South Africa, and it’s another great story.
I recently covered Questlove’s amazing Summer of Soul documentary here, and it’s remarkable that such important music footage lay in storage locked up for about for 50 years.
It really is the must-see documentary of the year, and it probably should have got more mainstream attention.
Questlove is now turning his hand to Sly Stone, one of the most important and influential musicians of all time. The likes of Sly Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, the Temptations, Prince, Parliament-Funkadelic and more, deserve the kind of treatment that the Beatles are getting with in depth documentary studies, so I’m glad that the Sly one is in good hands. Aretha Franklins Amazing Grace is another amazing documentary.
Nina Simone has been the subject of a number of documentaries, including What Happened Miss Simone, while another great troubled soul, Amy Winehouse, was recently the subject of Reclaiming Amy. I would love to see more documentaries about other important soul singers, like Minnie Riperton, who’s impact on the world was ultimately much broader than simply her musical contribution. In soul music there’s lots of made-for-TV movies and documentaries too, but not all of them are worthy of our time.
Take me to the River is a very good documentary on Memphis and the soul of american music, while Muscle Shoals tells the powerful story of the influential Alabama studio.
A few interesting looking docs which I have yet to see include the self explanatory, Teddy Pendergrass, If you don’t know me, Gospel according to Al Green, and Disappearing Voices; The decline of Black radio. There are many more too no doubt, so apologies if I’ve left some out.
Finally, a shout out to Still Bill, telling the remarkable story of the recently departed Bill Withers, one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and another artist who decided to walk away from it all on his own terms. There’s so many good stories out there, and many more are yet to be told!