The music/culture documentary is a cornerstone of the form; these three films fall firmly into that tradition and its formulas, but are worth checking out nonetheless.
Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo
D’Angelo’s 2015 Second Coming Tour was a big, scary deal – because, after making two of the best R&B records of the 1990s, he had all but disappeared for a decade and a half, save for the occasional report of substance abuse or near-death experience. Director Carine Bijlsma’s camera sits in on rehearsals, talks out his fears, and is right there next to him as he stalls and panics in the wings, capturing the intimate, private moments as they happen, and seeking out explanations from those who know him best. “What feeds your soul, after you leave it all out there on the stage?” he asks, and it’s a question he’s spent a lifetime trying to answer. Devil’s Pie joins him on that journey, and even comes to some tentative conclusions.
Director Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) covers quite a lot of ground in this look at the past, present, and future of the legendary Harlem cultural space, and he sometimes has trouble finding the through-line that connects it all. But viewed as an act of oral history – capturing the legends and folklore of that venerable venue, and supplementing them with incredible archival footage – it’s invaluable, a celebration of African-American culture, history, and perseverance.
Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Director Barack Goodman (Oklahoma City) is very good at telling history that’s more than just history, and his latest documentary – just in time for the event’s 50th anniversary – is a look back at the 1969 Woodstock Art & Music Festival. But it’s not just about the fest. He takes the time to fully set the scene: the music, the politics, the drugs, and most of all, the anti-establishment air that fueled that seminal event. “We were looking for answers,” an attendee explains. “We were looking for people who felt the same way that we did.” And at its best, Woodstock gets at how that idea of community manifested itself for those three days. Goodman doesn’t quite stick the landing – he pastes together some platitudes and then it’s over – but the interviews are enlightening, the archival footage is marvelous, and the music, of course, is priceless.