The ultimate IRL band portraits on film

To mark the release of a new Pulp documentary, we chart the best music films

Pulp the Film
Pulp the film

The story of Britpop legends Pulp has been captured in a new documentary by Florian Habicht. The spirit of the northern English city of Sheffield is as much the focus of Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets as the band members themselves, who when interviewed still exude the same kind of self-deprecating wit and geek chic that underpins their fame. Street chats with locals on the day of their homecoming tour reveal the deep affection the group has earned in a city not too easily impressed, in which "they're alright" is the top compliment one can hope for. To mark the release of the warm, wryly humorous tribute film in the UK this week, we're treating you to an exclusive clip from the film along with our picks of the best band portraits in cinema.

20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (2014)

Every band needs its charismatic frontman, right? Nick Cave is all that and more, and this stunningly innovative doc from directors Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth reaches impressive depths in its portrayal of the larger-than-life wildman, even placing the star in conversation with a real Freudian analyst about his early memories and the transformation he experiences when on stage. His band the Bad Seeds feature prominently - footage of album Push the Sky Away taking form in the studio is powerful, as is an anecdote told over lunch by Warren Ellis about the diva antics and towering presence of jazz icon Nina Simone. Out in the UK on 19 September.

LED ZEPPELIN: THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976)

And the rock stars' quintessential rock star manual? This concert doc by directors Peter Clifton and Joe Massot on Led Zeppelin is a candidate. As Nick Cave said in a Berlin Q&A after his own film: "Even though it's embarrassing on some level to watch that documentary it comes from a period where rock stars were not only viewed as gods but they viewed themselves as gods. This sadly is not the case any more." Sad or not, Led Zep's diabolical rep for treatment of groupies, the band that defined excess and ego tapped those traits for a film peppered with their fantasies (starting with band manager Peter Grant, kitted out as a dapper '30s gangster, pulling up at a house and opening fire with a machine gun).

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)

The ultimate anecdote for rock-star posturing is Rob Reiner's satirical mockumentary about one of England's loudest metal bands - the fictional Spinal Tap - as it embarks on an ill-fated American comeback tour to promote their new album "Smell the Glove". Its litany of disasters include one with an 18-inch high Stonehenge stage prop. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Ozzy Osbourne all reported that, just like Spinal Tap, they'd been lost before in confusing arena backstage hallways. Saying something about how on-the-money it was in its take-down, many punters believed the band to be genuine.

 

DIG! (2004)

Also not taking the music industry seriously - unlike her subjects - is director Omni Timoner. Her riotously entertaining, Sundance-winning doc follows two neo-psych bands on the tip of fame who fall out as their careers diverge. She hones in on the respective frontmen of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Courtney Taylor-Taylor and the more talented but unstable and less professionally canny Anton Newcombe. While critics were enraptured by the film, the band members themselves were unimpressed by its sardonic portrayal of fickleness, hubris and selling out (the BJM scoffed at it on its site as “at best a series of punch-ups and mishaps taken out of context”).

COCKSUCKER BLUES (1972)

The Rolling Stones were so unhappy with photographer Robert Frank's depiction of them that, even though they'd initially commissioned the film themselves, 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. Frank uses a relentless aesthetic of sordid hotel-room banality in capturing their legendary hedonism. He made cameras available for anyone in the entourage to pick up and use as he accompanied the band on the road on their '72 American tour. 

THE FILTH AND THE FURY (2000) 

Julien Temple tried with his second documentary about The Sex Pistols to redress his 1980 The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, which was skewed in support of manager Malcolm McClaren's claim to have cynically masterminded the quintessential punk band's creation like a puppet-master. Through interviews with band members and archival footage of Britain's socially depressed '70s state, The Filth and the Fury portrays the monarch-baiting Sex Pistols and their chaotically short career as a genuine manifestation of working-class discontent.

 

 THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

Focusing on a larger-than-life frontwoman is this electrifying portrait by director Sini Anderson of radical feminist force of nature Kathleen Hanna, who with her band Bikini Kill were central in spearheading the riot grrrl movement and commandeering a place for women in punk. It also charts her work with later band Le Tigre, her close friendship with and influence on Kurt Cobain (she famously coined the name "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), and her battle with Lyme disease through archival footage and interviews with both her and a cast of other musicians including her husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.

 

JOY DIVISION (2007)

While Anton Corbijn’s austere, monochrome Control captured the life and last days of Joy Division’s conflicted frontman Ian Curtis, this excellent documentary takes a wider focus. Directed by Grant Gee – whose Patience (After Sebald) also traced psychology through geography – it shows how the industrial underpinnings of Manchester with its decaying grandeur, urban alienation and dead-end squalor inspired the group, and touches on the roots of Curtis’s lyrics in novelists Dostoevsky, Kafka and Ballard. The demise of Curtis is still reflected on, with interviews with the band’s surviving members and his former lover, Belgian journalist Annik Honore.

 

END OF THE CENTURY - THE STORY OF THE RAMONES (2003)

This stellar documentary, made by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields over the course of a decade, captures the rise and impact of leather-jacketed bubblegum punk legends The Ramones, from their origins in the '70s New York tenement slums dodging bottles on stage to their vicious in-band feuds, including Johnny's infamous "stealing" of Joey's girlfriend, and interviews with many seminal figures - including bassist Dee Dee and frontman Joey before they died, and the last interview Joe Strummer of The Clash ever gave - in which he says of punk that The Ramones "started the whole thing".

 

DREAMGIRLS (2006)

Bill Condon's glam and glossy musical drama charts the career of a Michigan girl group called The Dreams – a thinly fictionalised version of Motown act The Supremes. Beyonce channels Diana Ross as lead singer of the group, while Jennifer Hudson draws on Supremes member Florence Ballard as well as Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Not quite an antidote to the testosterone coursing through many band stories, it shows the sway of the machinations of moguls determined to craft bands into the most marketable products – even if it means replacing the odd member here or there.

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