From David Byrne wig-outs to Lou Reed's Berlin, here are the best underground music films
When iconic underground stars of old shuffle off the mortal coil, we're lucky if they leave behind so much as a shaky Super 8 film of themselves in their prime. Fortunately, that's not the case with Lou Reed. His 2008 concert film Lou Reed's Berlin – shot at St Ann's Waterhouse in Brooklyn by Julian Schnabel – screens tomorrow (Saturday 2 November) at London's Renoir cinema at 4.30pm. Initially panned as too much of a downer when it came out in 1973, he didn't manage to tour the orchestral concept album – a dark vision of a Germany capital he was yet to visit, about a couple of speed freaks in descent – until decades later. Here's our pick of other docs of rock legends and myths.
Todd Haynes (who daringly used six actors to play the legend of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There) was already questioning the workings of stardom in his brilliant first film, which he made as a student. His 1987 take on the life of Karen Carpenter uses Barbie dolls, with the singers literally whittled away as she becomes thinner. A campily dark, horror-infused depiction of her controlling family life and the anorexia battle that underlay her wholesome image, it depicted her as a woman of unique talents under intensified body-image pressure, and was subject to a copyright lawsuit by her brother.
Antony Hegarty - of Antony and the Johnsons fame - collaborates here with video artist Charles Atlas. Awash with the singer's startlingly beautiful vocals, the film documents his high-concept European concert tour Turning, which featured a live feed of "13 remarkable women" from New York revolving on a platform. The performance footage is cut with piercingly candid interviews between Hegarty and the women, some of whom are transsexuals, about their lives and senses of body and identity.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
This classic was shot by the Maysles Brothers in the Direct Cinema movement style of "reactive" filmmaking, aimed at recording events as they unfold spontaneously. Exhilarating and truly chilling by turns, it captures the death knell of the hippie era: the out-of-control 1969 Altamont Free Concert. Amid the demented expressions of crowd-goers on bad trips, we see the mood grow increasingly dark before a fatal stabbing by wasted Hell's Angels (enlisted as security) while the Rolling Stones are onstage.
Last Days (2005)
A prime target for conspiracy conjecture, dead Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain has his last days imagined by director Gus Van Sant in a style of hypnotic, melancholic minimalism. Spending most of his final moments in isolation avoiding the various people who are seeking him out for favours, introspective musician Blake (Michael Pitt) is finally found dead by a worker in a greenhouse. Whether this can be classed as a documentary is questionable - but in its creative liberties it shows how the private lives of stars are often deemed fair public game.
Rock My Religion (1984)
Dan Graham's black-and-white 80s video documentary links and contrasts historic American religious rituals from groups such as the Native Americans, Puritans and Shakers with the emergence of rock music as a means for communal transcendental experience through dance. The opening interlaces the story of Ann Lee, a Shaker who believed she was Christ's second coming, with the words of rock innovator Patti Smith.
Cocksucker Blues (1972)
Photographer Robert Frank uses a relentless aesthetic of sordid hotel-room banality in capturing the legendary hedonism of the world's definitive rock'n'roll band. He made cameras available for anyone in the entourage to pick up and use as he accompanied the Stones on the road on their '72 American tour. Though the band commissioned it, they did their best to block the end result, fearing its no-holds-barred depiction might prevent their re-entry into the States, and unimpressed it had no veil of glamour to aid their image.
Beware of Mr Baker (2012)
This is Jay Bulger's portrait of Ginger Baker, the seminal, flaming-maned drummer of 60s super-group Cream, who began in London's jazz clubs, pioneered rock drumming and decamped to Nigeria to work with Fela Kuti, while cradling a long-term heroin habit. The film opens with Baker smacking Bulger across the face with his metal walking stick, prepping us for a warts-and-all portrait about a man as cantankerous personally as he was gifted professionally, and revealing the often-precarious relationship between eager journalistic chroniclers and their subjects.
Lawrence of Belgravia (2011)
Paul Kelly shot this intimate portrait over eight years of Lawrence - an oddball Birmingham musician who despite sparks of brilliance with his indie bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart never in three decades managed to sell many records or become a household name. Amid the mundane realities of his everyday life he's still obsessed with fame ("If I could only meet Kate Moss," he laments). He's delusional - or hopeful, depending on which way you look at it - acclaim will come to him, saying he wouldn't mind being the first pensioner pop star.
The Punk Syndrome (2012)
This very human Finnish festival hit by directors Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi is an appealingly casual but revealing portrait of punk-rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikka's Name Day), which was formed in 2009 by four guys with learning disabilities and now has a cult following. Their loud indictments of the surrounding realities of poverty and politics fit heartily in the tradition of punk. The film's most amusing sequence is a curse-filled track about a pedicurist, born of one member's day-to-day frustrations, which are able to find an outlet in this music of the dispossessed.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1983 over three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theater, this triumph of sharp effortlessness is the concert movie of all concert movies, and was the first to use digital audio techniques. It begins with David Byrne on a bare stage, who is cumulatively joined by the other Talking Heads and their gear. With the audience barely in the visual frame but integral to the energy, the film is a concentrated record of choreographed live performance and its magic under the sway of rare genius as a perfect synthesis of elements.