Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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