The Pros & Cons of Music Docs

For me, it started with “The Future Is Unwritten,” a documentary on The Clash’s guitarist, Joe Strummer.

I was around 14-years-old and just got busted by my folks before I could do something bad. I was quite the rebellious teenager at this time. My mother, the angel and brilliant neuroscientist she is, discovered in her research that punishment is not really effective on adolescents. So, instead of them grounding me or screaming at me, they gave me a calm lecture on why I couldn’t do what I was about to do (I know the mystery of the act makes it sound like I was about to go rob a bank or something, but it really wasn’t anything too bad) and told me I had to hang out with them that night instead of with my friends.

Honestly, I was just glad they didn’t blow up at me or disown me, so I went along with them. My father, being the angel and punk rocker he is, decided we should go see a movie, but not just any movie–a music documentary that just came out about a band that my dad loves; it was “The Future Is Unwritten.”

I walked out of that theater and was obsessed! I didn’t want to listen to anything other than The Clash. I yearned to have lived in that era. I had posters, t-shirts, CDs, records, watched every live video there is of them online, I even started an awful garage band that, thankfully, never left my garage; I wanted nothing else but to be The Clash. I didn’t even care if my friends thought I was lame for getting caught, because I had The Clash—the only band that matters.

The part about my parents successfully preventing me from doing something bad, though amazing as it is, is another story full of research and science, and for right now we’re going to talk about music documentaries and how they affect your taste in music, because I’m a music journalist, not a scientist. Luckily, I am also an amateur philosopher, because this thought gets a little philosophical.

“What if you found out that Lou Reed was actually a total dick, (which is rumored he was) or that Paul Anka never really wrote about his true love and was actually a total fuck boy? Would that affect your opinion on their music?”

Plato once conveyed that no one could ever be unbiased when viewing art, thus never being able to see the truth of the art. The philosopher had quite the love/hate relationship with art—some philosophers today even think that perhaps he didn’t truly understand art at all, but seriously, who really does?

If what Plato was trying to portray is true, then does that mean by viewing music documentaries, which help us get to know the artists, their backgrounds, tastes, all that fun stuff, does that make us extremely biased about their music? Could it be that, because we’ve found out that we love them as a person, that’s why we love the music they’re making, even though the music may actually be shit? Is it better as a music connoisseur to listen to the music first, without knowing a thing about it?

There are probably hundreds of music documentaries floating around today, maybe thousands. In 2013, Pitchfork released a list of 20 music docs available to view online that I would say is a mighty fine list, even though it’s missing “The Future Is Unwritten.” These are music documentaries that bring you closer to some of the most monumental artists in rock’n’roll, such as, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Rolling Stones, Kraftwerk, and even Paul Anka.

If you’re already a fan of these artists, your first thought is probably that you have to watch these documentaries; it was mine. However, what if you found out that Lou Reed was actually a total dick, (which is rumored he was) or that Paul Anka never really wrote about his true love and was actually a total fuck boy? Would that affect your opinion on their music? That is the definition of being biased.

“It wasn’t just about the music to me anymore, it was about the lifestyle. So in this particular case, perhaps Plato was right; I didn’t and will never grasp the truth about the sound of their music.”

I am both a music enthusiast and a fan of music documentaries. So I believe the first question you need to ask yourself is why do you listen to music, or why do you listen to a specific artist in general? Did I listen to The Clash because I yearned to be rebellious and live a carefree life like Joe Strummer? Or did I listen to them because I enjoyed the easy to learn, catchy lyrics, face-paced short songs about living your life, and raspy voices of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones?

This is an easy question for me to answer, because before I saw the documentary on Joe Strummer, I was already a fan. Sure, I had a few songs by The Clash on my pink iPod classic, along with dozens of other punk rock artists. However, before I saw the film, The Clash was just another band that was on my list to check out—they weren’t yet a pivotal contribution to who I was to become.

It’s obvious in my situation that the documentary created an unbelievable bias in my opinion of The Clash. It wasn’t just about the music to me anymore, it was about the lifestyle. So in this particular case, perhaps Plato was right; I didn’t and will never grasp the truth about the sound of their music. I can never say truthfully if the sound of the music that The Clash made was actually great moments in musical history, but I can say it helped spearhead a movement called Punk, and that movement helped me to survive puberty.

So, what came first—becoming enamored by the artist after getting to know them or the enjoyment of their music? Honestly, I’m going to go with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” instead, and embrace blissful ignorance, because if I like the music, I’m going to keep listening to it whether it’s because I like the person or the sound! In my opinion, it would be a fruitless endeavor to enjoy music for one characteristic, unbiased “truth”—music is about how it affects the listener.

Go ahead and watch all the music documentaries you want, guilt free! Sorry, not sorry, Plato…

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