So here we find ourselves in the midst of another holiday season. It feels more normal than last year, but there's still a lot to feel apprehensive about. Nonetheless, I'm feeling grateful, and perhaps the grief and sadness about the lingering pandemic makes the gratitude even more heartfelt. Pandemic or no, one of the things I love about the holidays is the time to hunker down and enjoy movies. My family has a few holiday movie traditions: Planes Trains and Automobiles, Elf, A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. And between those favorites and the steady stream of televised sports that course through our house this time of year (not a complaint, just a fact), it's an act of will to schedule family viewing of a high-quality movie that feels like hearty nourishment rather than junk food in the end. I've convinced my husband and son to join me in rewatching 5 music documentaries that have taught, inspired and entertained me. They feature dedicated, talented musicians who in many cases did not receive the recognition they deserved. These movies tell colorful stories of perseverance and strength, and the music is pure delight. If you're looking for a movie to feed your inner music nerd, here are a few that I recommend.
1. Summer of Soul (2021)
Stevie Wonder. From Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Summer of Soul chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was organized by Tony Lawrence and held at Mount Morris Park in Harlem over six weeks. Directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the movie weaves concert footage recorded by Hal Tulchin with moving interviews, as well as loads of political, social and musical history from the time. The festival was packed with an incredible line-up of performers, including Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, BB King, The Staple Singers, and The 5th Dimension. A wealth of content is presented in a creatively edited package, and the result is entertaining, educational, profound and uplifting. This film has received lots of recognition and awards, and it really lives up to the hype.
2. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Singers Jo Lawry, Judith Hilll and Lisa Fischer. From 20 Feet from Stardom.
This film follows the behind-the-scenes experiences of several professional back-up singers, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Claudia Lennear. Directed by Morgan Neville, the film blends archival concert clips, recorded rehearsals, and in-depth interviews. You'll see performances by the Rolling Stones, Sting, Talking Heads, Ike & Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, George Harrison and David Bowie. I especially appreciated hearing singers describe the magic of finding vocal harmony that resonates in every way. An excellent movie for a cappella singers!
3. The Girls in the Band (2011)
This film explores the stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their journeys to pursue their music, often in the face of sexism and racism. Directed by Judy Chaikin, the documentary focuses on musicians who played in bands in the 30s and 40s but also interviews more contemporary jazz players about their careers. While the tone of the film leans heavily into the barriers that have limited opportunities for female musicians, it's impossible not to be impressed and moved by the artistry, tenacity, and autonomy of these remarkable women.
4. The Wrecking Crew! (2008)
Bassist Carol Kaye. From The Wrecking Crew!
This film covers the story of an LA-based group of session musicians that played on many hit recordings throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The Wrecking Crew provided the instrumentations behind several young pop-rock bands of the time, including the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Monkees, Sonny & Cher, and the Ronettes. These musicians provided were often uncredited in the liner notes, serving as "ghost players" for the pop stars on the album covers. What's surprising is how content they seemed in the shadows for the most part. The Wrecking Crew! was directed by Denny Tedesco, the son of guitarist and Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco.
5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Bassist James Jamerson. From Standing in the Shadows of Motown
This film, directed by Paul Justman, tells the story of The Funk Brothers, a group of studio musicians who did the heavy lifting behind the scenes for Motown's Golden Era. What's fun about this documentary is that it combines archival footage and interviews with a reunion concert, where the surviving members of The Funk Brothers perform with a variety of singers, including Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne, and Gerald Levert. While parts of the documentary seem dated, it's filled with fascinating music history and is a must-see for Motown fans.