So far, 2015 has seen documentaries about dead music icons come out left, right and centre. These range from high budget flicks, such as Amy and Montage of Heck, to the smaller scale—Soaked In Bleach, another Cobain-based documentary, and Heaven Adores You about Elliot Smith. This type of music documentary seems to have struck a chord with fans and regular cinema goers alike. What does this say about the public’s relationship between these musicians and the glamour that sudden death gives to their career?
At a glance, it’s easy to be cynical and view these films as being viewed through rose-tinted glasses. We put dead celebrities on ridiculous pedestals all of the time, to the extent that they begin to feel unreal, even warped. This can split people in to two camps of response; either mindlessly treat them as the idol that they’re portrayed to be, or become completely jaded about it. However, once you dig beneath the surface, you realise that this superficial polish really is just that. They’re real people with emotions, faults, goals and regrets. They’re people falling apart.
It’s also important to realise that the quality of a documentary doesn’t necessarily correlate to the size of the star being covered. Some of the best documentaries are about relatively unknown people. For example, Seaching For The Sugarman is based on little known folk singer Rodriguez, and it’s beautiful and profound. Sure, having a documentary about a big name may make money (Amy is now the biggest grossing documentary in the UK), but this does not guarantee critical success. Good documentaries should draw in the audience on the themes of the subject’s lives rather than the name of the subject. This is what both Amy and Cobain: Montage of Heck achieve really well.
Amy is just as much about drug dependence, the price of being famous and extreme media intrusion as it is about Amy Winehouse. Towards the beginning of the film, much of the footage is that shot by Winehouse at the beginning of her career, but the last shot of her, showing her body being put into a private ambulance, was filmed by an unknown person. The move from personal to very impersonal footage of Winehouse is an intentional metaphor for Winehouse’s own alienation from the world, as well as the way in which much of the press failed to treat her like a person. As a result, Amy at times feels very much like a film made in reaction to the Leveson Inquiry—a visceral call to arms against the worst aspects of journalism.
Montage of Heck shares many similar themes. At its heart, it documents of the downfall of someone constantly battling their inner demons. The film’s exploration into Cobain’s suicidal tendencies as a teenager clearly demonstrates that the odds of survival were stacked against him, way before fame, heroin and Courtney Love came along. The use of his family and friends as talking heads only goes to show how raw his death still is to them 20 years on. Cobain’s story isn’t glamourous, it’s a tragedy.
The only way to view these people’s lives as glamourous is at a glance. Once you dig a little deeper, you realize that these are people unravelling and ultimately dying at tragically young ages. To put it simply, there is no polish.