Jam Band Documentary Reviews
- By Hannah Epstein
- Published on May 10, 2012
For so many music fans simply attending concerts, listening to albums and reading Headstash is not enough to quench our voracious thirst for the music we love. Luckily, online media outlets like iTunes and Netflix have heard our call, recently adding more jam band documentaries and live concerts to their collections.
iTunes offers rentals and purchases of rockumentaries spanning many genres of music, including “Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music,” “Umphrey’s McGee: Live” and “The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience.”
Check out our reviews of three jam band-centric documentaries below.
“The End of the Road” – Directed by Brent Meeske (2001)
In the spring and summer of 1995, The Grateful Dead toured the U.S. in what would be their final outing with Jerry Garcia. This film centers on the lot culture and features the usual cast of characters from hippie drummers to nitrous dealers and tie-dye laden babies to aging Deadheads.
For those to whom the words “Shakedown Street” mean nothing, this film is an insightful portrayal of the culture that Garcia and his optimism created all over the country. The diversity of fans – both young and old, itinerant and settled – is illuminated through the personalities we meet throughout the band’s tour.
As one fan so beautifully puts it, “Going to a Grateful Dead concert, seeing all the people . . . there’s a spectrum of everything from old people to young people, poor people to rich people. There’s no one stereotype of a Deadhead. When you watch the music and watch the audience, it’s just a very close, cohesive connection between the audience and the band and the vehicles and the music. It’s a way of life through the lyrics.”
We later learn this fan is a vice president at a breast implant company. He blends so seamlessly in to the crowd outside the show, and yet his professional life is vastly different from what one might associate with a Deadhead.
This is what is so beautiful about the jam band culture. No matter who you are in the real world, at a Dead show, everyone is a part of a family of believers. The film does not shy away from the darker side of this scene either, portraying arrests outside of a show in Las Vegas, the rampant use of nitrous and many drug addiction problems.
However, the prevailing sentiment is that this is a world on the brink of finality and the film expertly preserves a culture that, although often replicated, might never authentically exist again.
“Moog” – Directed by Hans Fjellestad (2004)
Just as electronic music has permeated even the most rock-oriented jam band music, the synthesizer has become a defining sound of the genre. This film chronicles the creation and usage of Robert Moog’s original Moog and mini-Moog synthesizers from their infancy to their usage in many genres of popular music.
He describes the genesis of the idea as, “Something between discovering and witnessing,” and the film maintains this ethereal quality when describing the impact the Moog has on musicians, engineers and listeners alike.
Moog is clearly somewhat of an engineering genius and a spiritual inventor. The filmmakers take time to delve into his quirky and idiosyncratic personality. The old footage of the original synths is quite extraordinary and inspires a feeling akin to what we feel when looking at vintage computers.
When it was created, the Moog was extremely expensive and scary to those who preferred organic music, which is ironic considering the high percentage of music that is made solely on computers today.
While I imagine the film would be insightful and entertaining for synth players and those interested in music technology, it became tedious and slow for those less technically inclined.
Towards the end, we see some musicians using the Moog including Stereolab, but the film would have benefited from an exploration of the ways Moog changed the musical landscape and how contemporary musicians use his invention in diverse ways.
I look forward to the documentary that combines all of the technical aspects of this film with footage from the recent Moog festivals in Asheville, North Carolina.
“Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart” – Directed by Sascha Paladino (2008)
After having watched two documentaries that explore issues tangential to the actual joy that music can provide, I delighted in watching this film, which chronicles Bela Fleck’s journey to Africa to explore the roots of the banjo.
Fleck is so natural with the African musicians. It is clear that they all delight in playing with one another and that Fleck’s interest in African music is genuine and not a marketing ploy. He plays with singers, guitarists and many others with ease and joy.
At the beginning of the film, Fleck explains that he wants to show people the cultures from which the banjo originated, but Fleck never overtly explains the history of the banjo. Instead, he shows us the aesthetic connection between the banjo and so many diverse African instruments.
Fleck is clearly a virtuoso banjoist, but the film is truly not about his technical skills, but about his genuine desire to connect with the people who inspired the creation of his instrument. In addition to exploring the significance of music in native cultures throughout Africa, Fleck plays with and records some of the finest musicians on the continent.
Their collaborations are the crux – and highlights – of the film. This is one movie you are definitely going to want the soundtrack for. For those who love Bela Fleck’s music or are even remotely curious about African tunes, this film is a must-see.
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