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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

There's something fishy in the world of the rock doc

Music documentaries are like Agatha Christie mysteries. Once you've finished one you just want to pop the next one right in. Nowadays the interesting ones are all made by freelances and they get made because the person behind the camera spins the distributor a line. The distributor, who knows no better, then tries to spin the same line to the public.

The most commercially successful example of this is Searching For Sugar Man, which I'm staggered to see won an Oscar. I turned it off after half an hour. The people behind the camera seemed to be asking me to believe that this man Rodriguez had made his records in 1970-71 and then vanished so utterly that he didn't know that his music was helping bring down apartheid in South Africa and the most hard core of his fans didn't know the first thing about him. If you don't buy that, and I don't, then you don't buy the film, which proposes the usual bogus screen "journey" to find him.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is about the man who wrote the music for "Bugsy Malone" and hits for the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand. Here the director spends the first ten minutes trying to get us to believe that he began the project under the impression that Williams was dead. Even before the internet he would have to have been singularly stupid to think this was the case.  Then he makes contact with Williams and follows him on the road as he continues to play his hits, albeit under slightly reduced circumstances, and to counsel fellow addicts. I liked Williams, not least because he had the honesty to say that there were things in his personal life that he was so ashamed of that he wasn't prepared to talk about them on camera. What I don't understand, and what this film doesn't lift a finger to explain, is how come a man who's written some of the most played songs in radio history isn't comfortably off.

"The Ballad Of Rambling Jack" is made by Rambling Jack Elliott's daughter, allegedly in an effort to get to know him, and also to have him account for his shortcomings as a father. The journey here isn't quite as bogus. She tries without success to corner him. There's an odd coldness about Jack, as if he's only alive when he's on stage, with obvious implications for the people who have to deal with him in real life. Dave Van Ronk, who's died since the film was made, says that Jack should have settled down and been a family man but then we wouldn't have had Rambling Jack Elliott. This is fine for us, as he points out, but possibly not so good for his daughter.