Music has numerous documentaries to browse. Pop, hip hop, rock, country, blues, jazz, there’s something for everybody. The sheer volume of music-based documentary filmmaking in the past fifty years though has meant some films falling through the cracks. These might be hard to find but if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of these, watch closely ‘cause there’s a lot of tips and tricks a songwriter can pick up from there.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
This film explores the uncredited studio musicians who recorded Motown’s greatest recordings from 1959 through to 1972. For anyone seeking a greater understanding of the music that would then be rebirthed years later in hip hop, this is a suitable place to begin.
These backing musicians were known as the Funk Brothers. They performed on more hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined. A lot of the musicianship that lay behind the Temptations, the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder goes to these guys.
ABBA: The Winner Takes it All (1999)
Yes, so ABBA is not the coolest group to aspire to be. There’s something to be learnt though, from listening to the ways in which they constructed their music and getting to know why this style of songwriting works.
ABBA was able to come up with big choruses, massive production, spanning a number of styles, and a base of lyrics that reflected a generation. Does this sound familiar – it’s still a formula used by many today. Though the recordings themselves sound dated, the approach is not. Though it’s difficult to find, if you can find The Winner Takes it All, you may catch some inspiration from it.
U2: From the Sky Down (2011)
From the Sky Down delves into the making of U2’s Achtung Baby record. This is an example of artists taking the time to step away and re-invent themselves in the way that they wanted to be seen.
There’s no question that many artists get caught up in what it is to be popular and trying to chase that at the expense of who they are as human beings. From the Sky Down shows the merits of stepping away to find out who it is you are as an artist and to identify the most prominent, provoking way to assert that as an artist within a contemporary framework.
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006)
This short documentary delves into aspects of hip hop that are still taboo to discuss publicly – themes of sexism, violence, and masculinity in hip hop. This film measures the scene over a decade ago. It is remarkable to see how some things have changed and others have not. The context of the lyrical content of hip hop that some artists do not even bother to question is in need of prodding. As a writer, knowing what your words mean in a larger context is important. Take a spin through Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes to give it some thought.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, this is the last film on our list because it details the life of someone who did not even remotely adhere to what was popular around them. Harrison followed his own muses and made the music he wanted to make. He rose above contemporary fashions and sought to make something more spiritual, universal, and something more meaningful. Living in the Material World, from an artist’s perspective, is about identifying what is meaningful to you and then following that – instead of listening to everyone around you and what’s going around in the marketplace.