Rock-documentary lovers lamenting the end of the latest Sound Unseen festival on Sunday can continue to get their high-volume nonfiction fixes via video on demand.
Among new music-oriented films on VOD is “Broadway Idiot,” the Green Day-meets-Great White Way doc that graced Sound Unseen’s monthly screening series at Trylon Microcinema in October. Entertainingly adhering to the tried-and-true formula of the backstage musical, director Doug Hamilton peels back the curtain on Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s visionary bid to give his band’s “American Idiot” album the “Tommy” treatment.
Where “Idiot” deftly captures the culture clash between punk and Broadway, along with Armstrong’s unlikely gift for fusing the two, another rock doc, “Muscle Shoals,” recalls the pure genius of entrepreneurial musicians working in their natural habitat of rural Alabama, as well as the spongelike quality of the many brilliant artists who came south to soak up the Muscle Shoals studios’ inimitable atmosphere.
Although it features colorful contemporary interviews with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and other Muscle Shoals hitmakers, the handsomely shot film focuses largely on the rather sad figure of Rick Hall, who opened his FAME Studios to great success in the late 1950s only to face serious crosstown competition from the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, launched a decade later by his former collaborators. If Hall’s story corresponds to a musical genre, it’s definitely the blues.
While “Muscle Shoals” and “Broadway Idiot” are well worth streaming, the strongest of the new crop of rock docs is “The Punk Singer” (available on VOD near the end of November and screening Dec. 11 at the Trylon), director Sini Anderson’s rousing, ultimately poignant ode to riot grrrl founder and former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. Thanks to Anderson, one needn’t comprehend the yowled lyrics to Hanna’s pioneering “Double Dare Ya” in order to appreciate the artist’s fierce contributions to both punk and feminism, particularly in the early ’90s.
Born in Portland, Ore., to somewhat abusive parents, banned from exhibiting her button-pushing photography at Evergreen State College, encouraged to start a band by the late feminist writer Kathy Acker and subsequently punched in the face at Lollapalooza by Courtney Love (a measure of her success, to be sure), Hanna is aptly described by the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, her husband, as a “full-on force.”
Vintage footage of Hanna onstage with Bikini Kill naturally rocks, but what’s most surprising and memorable about “The Punk Singer” is the vulnerability this fearless performer — who returned to the stage this fall with a new band, the Julie Ruin — dares to display when discussing her ongoing battle with late-stage Lyme disease.
Also new on VOD
Likewise dealing with legendary music, but in a form that’s as far from documentary as punk is from Muzak, “CBGB” means to salute the dingy New York club that catapulted the Ramones and Talking Heads, among many others, onto the international stage.
Unfortunately, the film — directed by Randall Miller of “The Sixth Man” and “Houseguest” fame — relies on the sort of sitcom-style clichés that no self-respecting punk fan could abide. Still, “CBGB” hardly lacks for the curiosity factor. If you can resist the urge to check out Rupert Grint as Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry and Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner as Patti Smith, you’re more hard-core than me.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.