When it comes to blurring the line between fact-based documentary and entertaining pop-culture artifact, no one does it better than D.A. Pennebaker. In the list that follows, it should come as no surprise that two of Pennebaker's evocative mixes of music, musician and ambience are included. For many, including this writer/fan, his edgy, verite-style portrait of Bob Dylan remains the classic rockumentary. Here then are my personal top five docs that rock:
1. "Don't Look Back" (1965) captures Dylan on the cusp of his transformation from folk vagabond to rock icon. With disarming ease, Pennebaker's camera style seems an extension of Dylan's own rough-hewn image. The hand-held camera work mirrors the singer/songwriter's shifting moods as he performs, chills with his entourage (including then-lover Joan Baez) and spars with other musicians, fans and the press. Despite its '60s hip urgency, Pennebaker's film like the artist's music transcends time.
2. "The Last Waltz" (1978) is Martin Scorsese's capsule history of The Band. Along with footage of the group's alleged final performance, the famed director shoots the musicians and their various guests and sycophants with the same energy and enthusiasm witnessed in Scorsese's later films. As interviewer, he proves more than adept, especially when probing the sleepy-sexy Robbie Robertson. But the documentary's real hook is the stage show, featuring a dizzying rotation of rock legends (Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, to name but a few) playing with The Band before a wildly appreciative audience.
3. For many, "Gimme Shelter" (1970) ranks as the greatest rock documentary ever burned onto film. Not unlike Dallas' Zapruder, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerlin had no idea what they would catch on film that fateful day near the end of The Rolling Stones' 1969 American tour at the Altamont Speedway. Long before the first chords were strummed, the lenses caught the ominous undercurrents of violence. Back in the editing room, the trio used the symbolism of Altamont to shape their film, with each song becoming a lament or prophecy of the bloody clash that transformed the rock 'n' roll dream into disillusionment.
4. "Down From the Mountain" (2000) offers an exuberant and exhilarating look at the music and musicians highlighted on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' twist on "The Odyssey," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Label executives and soundtrack producers so loved the music of the Coen film they brought it to life as a benefit concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Joel and Ethan Coen loved it so much they hired famed documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to record the show for posterity. It makes no difference if you're a fan of bluegrass or new-grass, the concert (featuring Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and the Cox family) is as haunting as the movie's multiple Grammy-winning soundtrack.
5. At its best, "Grateful Dawg" (2001) celebrates the easy friendship and inspired musicianship of Grateful Dead head Jerry Garcia and mandolinist David Grisman. The unusual alchemy the two men shared is an infectious, rootsy, jazz-infused music they took to calling "Grateful Dawg." Not without major flaws, most particularly the ham-fisted insertion of talking heads over, under and on top of performances, "Grateful Dawg" offers fans of both men a rare glimpse behind the curtain. Understandably more revealing of Grisman's character it was produced by his daughter "Grateful Dawg" still has plenty to thrill Garcia's legion of fans. S