Now streaming on Netflix–numerous music documentaries to show audiences the complex sides of musicians whose songs have become part of the public conscience. “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (2015) and “Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul” (2017) both tell the heartbreaking stories of the famous singers named in their titles.
Musicians as documentary subjects
I found the number of music documentary on Netflix shocking–in a good way. Certainly most of the performers who have become household names are worthy of feature film-length coverage. The good news is that this cache of films continues to grow.
The subjects are not limited by representative genre. Although, rock and punk comprise most of the titles, there are jazz, soul and rap titles, too. The popularity of the documentary as a means for audiences to learn more about their favorite artists is probably the result of a few converging factors. One of them is simply that in the information age, people are used to having access to the things they want to know. The other is that as music culture continues to grow as a scholarly subject, additional sources are warranted. Sadly, deceased performers often provide researchers more material. A full life gives researchers and filmmakers a plethora of sources.
“Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue” (2015)
The title hints at what most audiences might have guessed. The musical blues that Joplin clung to, ended up in her performances. But there were personal reasons for that pain, too.
Interviews with Joplin’s sister and classmates reveal facets of the singer’s life that are unfortunate, perhaps even cruel. Born into a comfortable family, she never wanted to make nice. Joplin was stubbornly herself, always. And that is the bright spot that shines through the film.
“Little Girl Blue” satisfies as a film in part because of the performances and candid photos it shares with audiences. There is a sense that viewers are really getting to know the singer. Of all the music documentaries that I have watched on Netflix, this still ranks as one of the best.
“Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul”(2017)
This documentary will be eye-opening for viewers of a certain age whose only knowledge of Cocker was as the singer of “The Wonder Years” theme song. Viewers will find that Cocker’s career spanned 50 years, and will be intrigued by the candid interviews provided by relatives, friends and music industry professionals.
The surprise of the documentary was the love story that Cocker shared with his wife. The saddest part of the film is Cocker’s addiction. The addiction seemed as if it would be fatal, but it wasn’t. Cocker’s battle with cancer is detailed, and in the end, it is clear that his life is to be celebrated.
Every media form has its limitations. But with documentary makers working to cover all the angles of a performer’s life, and not skimming or omitting the unpleasant parts, viewers get a real sense of who their musical heroes were. Having knowledge of where the music came from, emotionally, makes some of the newer documentaries satisfying to a discerning public.