With The Avalanches rumoured to drop a documentary this year along with a new album – here we look at the best music docs released since they left us at the turn of the millennium
It’s been 16 years since The Avalanches came, sampled and conquered with Since I Left You, an album supposedly stitched from 3,500 sources, each slowly revealing themselves over multiple listens. For instance, “Electricity” can be spun hundreds of times before a 10-second snippet of “Da Funk” is recognisable.
Now, it’s been confirmed – The Avalanches are back with a new single “Frankie Sinatra”, a new album called Wildflower and maybe a new documentary – Ariel Pink tweeted at the band, “Thanks for not asking me if I would like to be in your movie, guys.”
Amidst such hype, a new album could underwhelm, but the documentary will instantly satisfy due to the burning questions not even Reddit detectives can uncover. What does the new stuff sound like? What does it mean to be crazy in the coconut? Will the film just be footage of Excel spreadsheets and follow-up emails to unresponsive copyright lawyers? In the meantime, here are the best music documentaries, year by year, to have come out since The Avalanches left us.
2000: THE FILTH AND THE FURY (Julien Temple)
The Sex Pistols only released one album, which is where comparisons with The Avalanches end. Never mind the intervening years; Temple explores the punk brats’ speedy rise and fall, a self-destructive rush of anarchism that produced more arresting footage than music. To preserve their 1977 image, the band’s talking heads are strictly silhouettes, which suggests some pride that vanished before John Lydon’s 2008 butter adverts.
2001: SCRATCH (Doug Pray)
“I’d scratch the question and he’d give me an answer,” says Mix Master Mike on his non-verbal hangouts with DJ QBert. When the latter ponders how aliens handle decks, you wish his communication stuck strictly to turntables, but the fun doc illustrates scratching as a technical craft that’s surprisingly visual and not elitist. There’s a glimpse of DJ Shadow’s favourite record store – more specifically, its cavernous basement – and everything’s connected through funky scratching.
2002: I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART (Sam Jones)
Strange as it seems, dad-rockers Wilco were once sonically experimental rebels butting heads with Warner. The making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was fraught with infighting, including the sacking of Jay Bennett, all captured beautifully on black-and-white 16mm. When Jeff Tweedy and Jay squabble over an instrumental interlude (Jeff gets it wrong, btw), the camera follows Jeff into the bathroom for what’s up there with cinema’s greatest vomit scenes.
2003: BEEF (Peter Spirer)
East Coast vs West Coast. Everyone vs Everyone. As the doc predates social media, all the big hitters – including Jay-Z – are keen to do talking heads. With archive footage and input from those involved, the segment on NWA’s civil war is better (and two hours shorter than) Straight Outta Compton. Everyone’s after the final word, although here it comes from Tupac’s mother who says, “I miss my son.”
2004: DIG! (Ondi Timoner)
Playing as a psychedelic pop version of Beef, Timoner’s road trip with The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols descends into a battle of the bands when the Dandys (let’s face it) sell out. No one comes out well, but the highlights are endless, mostly involving Anton Newcombe, especially when the Jonestown’s narcissistic frontman sabotages a gig attended by A&R by assaulting his rhythm section. One for the rock ‘n’ roll doc hall of fame.
2005: THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (Jeff Feuerzeig)
Daniel Johnston’s sad artistry is a promise with a catch: does the art keep him alive, or do his adoring fans encourage the manic episodes? The singer/songwriter’s ups and many downs are documented here, including an obsessive fear of Satan – hence the track “Devil Town” – and brushes of fame via Kurt Cobain’s t-shirt. By the end, he lives with his parents, revealing the less romantic side of his strums.
2006: DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (Michel Gondry)
Comedy geeks, rap aficionados and curious locals are treated to a free street concert by Dave Chappelle, whose guests include pre-fame Kanye, Mos Def, and the reunited Fugees. Chappelle’s natural gift for raising the crowd’s energy works for the film, as does the Wayne’s World 2 resolution whereby the day is saved by a generous elderly couple who admit disliking hip-hop (but reserve judgement on Chappelle’s Show).
2007: SCOTT WALKER: 30 CENTURY MAN (Stephen Kijak)
A man punches a slab of beef. It’s not a vegetarian protest, but a percussive glimpse into Scott Walker’s avant-garde tendencies, seen here as a reaction to his 60s pop career. Those paying tribute include Bowie, Eno and three-fifths of Radiohead, and though they’re fans, no one dares imitate his sound because no one can. At least, not without a trip to the butcher.
2008: ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (Sacha Gervasi)
This is not Spinal Tap, apparently. Anvil’s heavy metal fantasies went awry in the 80s, but the band keep on rocking, even at unenthusiastic wedding receptions and empty bars. The film asks a tough question: when should you stop chasing your dreams? But the guys won’t get a haircut, let alone hang up the plectrum, and their comeback is as sweet as the shredding.
2009: THE CARTER (Adam Bhala Lough)
Lil Wayne’s knack for improvising lyrics makes him an ideal subject; when the camera’s in his face, he delivers. Underneath the mood swings and cough syrup addiction we see a creative spirit (or at least an egomaniac who’s fun to watch get pissed at journalists). The director uploaded his preferred version on Vimeo, but sadly there’s no footage of Weezy recording his guest verse on Weezer’s “Can’t Stop Partying”.
2010: UPSIDE DOWN: THE CREATION RECORDS STORY (Danny O’Connor)
Skip the Oasis bits to bask in the chaotic, druggy history of a label whose roster, curated by Alan McGee, included Super Furry Animals, Slowdive and Primal Scream. Plus Kevin Shields recalls accidentally inventing the My Bloody Valentine tremolo effect when trying to bend a guitar string like the Pixies. Liam Gallagher doesn’t do a talking head – which is fine, actually.
2011: BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST (Michael Rapaport)
In the shadow of Phife Dawg’s tragic passing, this doc is tough viewing with large portions centring on the MC’s worsening diabetes (he’s seen onstage leaning on Jarobi’s shoulder for support) amidst Q-Tip’s unsympathetic perfectionism. But their ongoing feud (there are crying sessions) was a by-product of two artists whose contrasting personalities rhymed with the other. As Tribe’s manager puts it: “If Q-Tip was on Pluto, Fife would bring him back to the moon.”
2012: SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS (Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace)
LCD Soundsystem formed, retired (aka lied) and reformed during The Avalanches’ absence. But the strangely morbid film recalls the alleged final gig and the screaming crowd who believed it. The Madison Square Garden footage is astounding, backed by James Murphy’s inability to articulate his arbitrary decision. Pause “Yeah (Crass Version)” at the right moment to see Aziz Ansari crowdsurfing in a suit.
2013: PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER (Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin)
“Mother of God, Drive Putin Away”, the punk prayer in question, landed Pussy Riot in court, but the unfair sentencing – and eventual doc – sent a chilling message to the world. Taking a stand against Putin, the band are punk heroes, and though they’re anti-capitalist, balaclava sales went up among supporters. Thanks to the doc, Nadezhda is seen holding paper behind bars that reads: “I don’t want to be in prison for my beliefs, but I have to.”
2014: THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL (Jason Miller)
Of Montreal have always been to some extent a solo project for Kevin Barnes, a megalomaniac songwriting genius who translates relationship struggles into vicious pop. But during filming, Barnes ruthlessly sacked his long-term band members just for new energy. It’s an expert guide on sabotaging friendships to fuel creativity (well, everything has a price), and a reminder of the time Barnes entered the stage on a real live horse.
2015: JUNUN (Paul Thomas Anderson)
PTA flies to India with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Nigel Godrich to record an album with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur. Ultimately, the music – an intricate blend of cultures and rhythms – is the star, and Jonny exudes more enthusiasm than in Meeting People is Easy. Shot in an ancient fort, the visitors remain respectful – there’s no Qawwaku cover of “Creep”, for instance.
2016: SINCE THEY LEFT US: WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE AVALANCHES?
Will it actually happen?