Somewhere between the painstakingly comprehensive Love to Love You: Donna Summer documentary released in May and the eagerly anticipated big-budget Bob Marley: One Love scheduled for January 2024, we have quite a variety of music films on the call sheet. Amid the recently ended writers strike and ongoing actors strike, music through film—whether in the form of documentaries or biopics shot before union members voted to walk off the job—has emerged as one way of sharing culture on IMAX screens, PC monitors, laptops, home flat panel displays, or handy cell phones. Here are some interesting music flicks for the fall:
LADIES FIRST: A STORY OF WOMEN IN HIP-HOP
“Black women are crushing it in hip-hop right now,” is the first sentence you hear in the four-part limited documentary celebrating the pioneering women of the genre, executive-produced by dream hampton. The celebrated filmmaker, producer, and writer was around during hip-hop’s golden era, even interviewing, befriending, and periodically calling out the late great Notorious B.I.G.
Her acumen in this appropriately timed and desperately needed factual film is right on par with the trials and tribulations that Queen Latifah, Da Brat, and numerous others share. The how-far-we-have-come Netflix documentary is currently available for the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Before you pop the champers, crack open some herstory.
Currently screening on Netflix.
JOAN BAEZ: I AM A NOISE
I grew up in a house that had Joan Baez records. In a sense, I had the civil rights and anti-war movement soundtrack in the stereo from the time I was in pull-ups. I knew exactly who that was walking hand in hand with James Baldwin, or behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And as I got older, I realized something: Joan Baez was a stone-cold fox. A baddie. No makeup, just vibe. Mang.
Now, I also grew up in a house that had numerous records by Robert A. Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. Dad was a Dylan head. When I found out years later Dylan broke Baez’s heart, it kind of broke my brain. You mean to tell me Dylan, who looks like, well, Dylan, broke up with the leading voice of the ’60s? Baez spent much of her formative youth living in the Bay Area, graduating from Palo Alto High School. She had one of our most recognizable voices next to homeboy Zimmerman, and spoke up and out for the discriminated.
She who looked better than Twiggy on her worst day fell for that fool?
Musical genius or not. I’m just saying. That guy?
It was a different time.
Baez’s new documentary I Am a Noise is being described as an intimate look back at the life and career that shaped this American maverick, who never stopped fighting for the underrepresented. Filmed in part during her farewell tour, it spotlights her activism in multiple arenas.
Now playing at Opera Plaza Cinema and Piedmont Theatre.
WAYNE SHORTER: ZERO GRAVITY
In the 25-year stretch from 1977-2002, saxophonist Wayne Shorter—described by The New York Times as “probably jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a contender for the greatest living improviser”—appeared on 10 Joni Mitchell albums and soloed on Steely Dan’s Aja, all the while upholding his incredible progressive jazz legacy group Weather Report, one of the most storied in the business.
The new three-part documentary film Zero Gravity traces the life and music of this late genius through many versions of jazz and beyond, parts of a career that stretched over 50 years. Already streaming on Amazon, SFJAZZ will have a special exclusive matinee showing of the film that will include a pre-screening, on-stage conversation with SFJAZZ executive artistic director Terence Blanchard and the film’s director Dorsay Alavi.
Zero Gravity is a vibe-y transmission, that mixes old footage with new interviews from Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Ron Carter, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Miller, Carlos Santana, and some other time-bending maestros. Shorter, who won the NEA Jazz Master award in 1998 and the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, passed at the age of 89 in March.
The doc brings his philosophies and music into the fold as one. Having Blanchard and Alavi exchange pertinent factoids and insights before the screening can only elevate this celebration of a hallowed life.
Stream the program on Amazon Prime.
A new feature-length documentary will delve into the true story of the infamous R&B duo. The documentary will feature exclusive interviews with the group’s members Fab Morvan and the late Rob Pilatus, as well as the real singers, record executives, and the producer behind the duo. Milli Vanilli became one of the most popular groups of the late ’80s and early ’90s, until it was discovered that the artists who appeared in public representing the group had been lip-synching the entire time. Pilatus died of an accidental alcohol and prescription drug overdose in 1998. Morvan, who has stated that he will finally be able to put the story to bed, has informed future film watchers to, “Get ready to take a walk in our steel-toe boots.”
The documentary will premiere on Tuesday, October 24 on Paramount+.