Issues in Popular Culture: The Case of the Rockumentary
Dr. Anthony Kinik
Course Description: This course focuses on a single genre that has been a mainstay of documentary filmmaking for nearly 60 years now: the “Rockumentary.” The genre’s nickname is in many ways a misnomer, one based on the fact that “rock” rhymes better with “doc,” than, say, jazz, folk, soul, hip-hop, or any one of a number of other musical genres that have been the subject of the popular music documentary since its inception around 1960. To paraphrase John Grierson, the great filmmaker, producer, and theorist who was the greatest champion of the documentary in the twenty-year period between the late 1920s and the late 1940s (i.e., well before the advent of the rockumentary): Rockumentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand.
So “rockumentary” is the term that we’ll be using to refer to these films, but, in truth, we’ll be studying films that concern themselves with a wide variety of musical genres, from jazz, to folk, to soul, to rock, to punk, post-punk, heavy metal, hip-hop, and beyond. And the rockumentary has not only addressed and represented a great variety of musical styles—at its best, it has also been a highly creative and dynamic documentary genre. The rockumentary was closely associated with the ascendance of the observational approach in the 1950s and 1960s, and especially with the Direct Cinema movement in the United States, but it’s a genre which has also had strong associations with experimental filmmaking from time to time, and has frequently been on the cutting edge of documentary representation. In other words, this is a film course that is primarily concerned with documentary form—if you’re not interested in documentaries and how they’ve developed since 1960, this is NOT the course for you.
FILM 3P96 is a course that is organized primarily chronologically. It begins with the advent of the rockumentary genre in the period between 1958 and 1964, and it ends with two films made in the last decade. For the most part it follows the development of musical styles between 1958 and present, and focuses on films that were made contemporaneously with these developments, but on occasion we’ll look at films that cast a retrospective glance at earlier moments in the history of popular music. The bottom line, though, is that this is a film course that is also very much about music—if you’re not interested in popular music and how it has developed over time, this is NOT the course for you.
In addition to being a course about film and popular music, FILM 3P96 is also a cultural history, one that takes into account issues of socio-economics and politics, culture and counter-culture, race and subculture, celebrity and stardom, art and the creative impulse, gender and identity. The rockumentary has become ubiquitous since its early days, and we can now find rockumentaries and rockumentary-like projects on cable television, on streaming services like Netflix, on YouTube, and on web projects like Tiny Desk and Black Cab Sessions. Here in this class, however, we’re primarily concerned with films that have innovated and/or have made significant and lasting contributions to the rockumentary genre.
1. Intro & Early History
2. Classical 1: Dont Look Back
screening: Dont Look Back (1967), dir. Pennebaker
3. Classical 2: Monterey Pop & Woodstock
screening: Woodstock (1970), dir. Wadleigh
4. Classical 3: The End of an Era
screening: The Last Waltz (1978), dir. Scorsese
screening: D.O.A.: A Right of Passage (1981), dir. Kowalski
and/or The Filth and the Fury (2000), dir. Temple
6. Post-Punk/New Wave
screening: Stop Making Sense (1984), dir. Demme
screening: The Decline of the Western Civilization, Pt. 2: The Metal Years (1988), dir. Spheeris
screening: Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), dir. Keshishian
9. The “World Music” Phenomenon
screening: Buena Vista Social Club (1999), dir. Wenders
10. New Directions
screening: 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), dir. Forsyth & Pollard
suggested home viewing: Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé AND/OR Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story (2019), dir. Scorsese