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MIFF 2014 Critics Campus feature: Rethinking the music doc

Films on Nick Cave and Pulp show just how good the music documentary can be when it focuses on character, while Alex Gibney's film on Fela Kuti shows how dull it can be when it does not.

There are many directorial bear traps to be stumbled over in the making of a music documentary. Fans need to be appeased, novices welcomed, performance footage included, an artist’s ego flattered. But the best ones, as proven by a couple of films screened in this year’s Backbeat program at the Melbourne International Film Festival, ignore generic strangleholds. The best ones are character-driven.

MIFF programmers Michelle Carey and Al Cossar say they are extremely conscious of finding interestingly told musical stories."You can very easily have those kind of hit-all-bases music stories which are just kind of straight biography," says Cossar. These are the sort of films, he adds, that "rest on the coattails of the music, or the performances, rather than the actual storytelling".

"As a genre they can be a bit formulaic," chips in Carey. "We see a lot and every year we see things we are disappointed in, ones we reject because we think the music is really awesome but the way it’s been told just feels a bit slap-dash."

Florian Habicht was similarly frustrated by established conventions when he set out to make a film about lauded Britpop band Pulp. The director says standard music docs most irk him "when everything is really focused on the band, and they make out that the band is the greatest in the world, the centre of the universe.

"When I was a kid I was in love with Freddie Mercury and I watched a lot of Queen documentaries and they were all like that, real standard format."

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Trailer: 20,000 Days on Earth

Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international cultural icon Nick Cave.

Pulp: a Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, which has been announced as a MIFF encore screening on Sunday, is Habicht's response to rockumentary tedium. As well as the mandatory – and thankfully, well-shot – concert footage, we get to see and hear the group’s rakish frontman, Jarvis Cocker, instruct us on how to change a tyre and talk us through his comprehensive backstage medical survival kit. For much of the film, he and the rest of the band are not on screen at all. Instead, Habicht has tasked the citizens of the group’s hometown, Sheffield, with the telling of their importance. Fishmongers, teenagers and pensioners discuss their emotional relationship to the band.

This deflection of attention from the band may frustrate those expecting salacious backstage anecdotes or even a biographical foundation. But through its intentional diversion, the film makes a larger point: Pulp as a band are much more interested in the plight of other people than they are in self-promotion. As Cocker says in the film, while Pulp are playing "there’ll be people doing all sorts of things. Some people will be watching the telly, some people will be scoring some drugs, someone will probably be giving birth. All these parallel stories are all going on."

Says Habicht: "They're very anti-rock stars. They’re just real friendly, artistic, creative people. None of us wanted to make a film that was getting into their private lives, or filming Jarvis waking up in the morning, that kind of thing."

Intriguingly, one of the very first shots of 20,000 Days on Earth presents us with just such a scene, as we witness Nick Cave lift his spidery limbs from bed and start brushing his teeth in a bright, capacious bathroom. But nobody could accuse this film of being conventional. Through a series of constructed scenes, Cave goes about his 20,000th day of living: therapy, recording, lunch with Warren Ellis, a car trip with Kylie Minogue.

Filmmakers Jane Pollard and Ian Forsyth are not interested in fact, though; rather, they are preoccupied with tone.

Habicht says 20,000 Days on Earth makes for an interesting comparison to his own documentary. "The Nick Cave one is the opposite to our film, and I really like both of them," he says. "In that film, Nick Cave is the centre of the universe; it’s very indulgent, but in a creative, beautiful way."

In a concert sequence, Cave stoops over the front row and stares into the eyes of a crowd member, like a cobra readying its poison. Tears of delight gush down one woman’s face. Cave looks, in a word, godlike. It is a description the musician uses himself in a discussion with his (real-life and on-screen) psychologist, when explaining the feeling of being on stage. "I was always an ostentatious bastard," he observes later when examining archival artefacts from his past. In a will-and-testament from the 1980s, Cave has opted for all his wealth (nothing at that stage) to be funnelled to a Nick Cave Memorial Museum.

And this is why the film gets away with its contrivance. Nick Cave as a figure has writhed his way so far into contemporary folklore (at least by Australian measures) that he is one of our few contemporary examples of a musical deity. He remains consciously separate from the rest of us, in a way that Pulp deliberately do not.

If the two films’ concepts were reversed, it would likely be disastrous. The storytellers have understood that the personality of the band should be integral to the mood of the film that is constructed around them.

A third film in the Backbeat program, Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela!, seems to miss this point entirely. The film should have summoned the fighting spirit of the famed Nigerian jazz musician Fela Kuti but instead Gibney introduces us to Kuti via the backstage meanderings of a Broadway show about him. The musician’s turbulent life is unfurled with historical depth, but without the electricity that exists in an actual Kuti performance.

It is a disheartening result from one of the most established and productive directors in contemporary documentary cinema (Gibney has made 13 films in the past four years). Conventions overrule interesting storytelling and Finding Fela! falls tonally flat.

There are moments of absorption; one of his wives, Sandra Iszadore, is an interesting screen presence; and the archival footage is illuminating: ultimately, though, we are served a second-hand retelling of an incredibly complex, formidable human being who deserved better treatment than he is granted here.  

What Finding Fela! does do is offer a contrast with the other two, and allow us to get some perspective. In its shortcoming it grants us an appreciation of just how good music films can be when they step outside convention to get the storytelling right.

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