Seen Your Video is our new monthly column at Paste highlighting recent films, released on DVD or through streaming services, that put the spotlight on music and the people that make it. For our inaugural edition, we talk with bluegrass master Sam Bush, the subject of a documentary that was added to Amazon this month, and look at documentaries about shock rockers The Mentors and the late Amy Winehouse, concert films featuring The Rolling Stones and Yes and Loudon Wainwright III’s one-man show that was filmed for a recently released Netflix special.
Revival: The Sam Bush Story
Unless you’re a serious scholar of bluegrass and Americana, you might not be familiar with Sam Bush. Within those musical worlds, the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter is a legend, having built up a peerless reputation through his band The New Grass Revival, his storming live performances and his work backing up artists like Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss. As soft-spoken as he is, Bush might seem like a strange choice to center a documentary around but the 2015 film that Wayne Franklin and Kris Wheeler made about him offers up plenty of evidence for both the impact that he has had on the country music world and the sheer greatness of his rare instrumental talent.
With Revival: The Sam Bush Story arriving on Amazon Prime for the first time this month, we thought we’d kick off this inaugural edition of Seen Your Video with a quick chat with Bush about the experience of making a movie of his life and his vaunted career as a mandolin and fiddle player.
I know this documentary was made a few years ago, but what do you remember about the experience of making this? Was it comfortable for you to be put in the spotlight like that?
Sam Bush: It’s odd. It’s like looking at versions of yourself when you had one chin. It’s something you get used to. When they approached my wife and I about this, we liked the story they had to tell about a friend of ours from Florida, Duke Bardwell. They made a film about him because he played bass with Elvis Presley when he was young. And we just liked the way they told his story. We didn’t know that being invited to the premiere of that film that the the filmmakers Chris and Wayne had an agenda. They wanted me to see it so that I could want them to make one about me. I felt like I could trust them with my story.
What about watching all of these famous friends of yours like Ricky Skaggs and Chris Thile singing your praises in the film?
It’s the first time I’d ever heard them say that! If you look at the storyline of one of my influences of wanting to play the mandolin, it was seeing this kid a couple of years younger than me named Ricky Skaggs. I said, “I want to do that.” So you know the fact that Ricky would want to talk about me, it means a lot. And then one of the people that inspires me now when I hear him play like Chris…I may have influenced him but I’m now I can learn back from him.
I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways I had from this film is that even after all these years of playing professionally and at such a high level, that you still view yourself as a student of your instrument. You’re still looking to learn things.
Yes! I’m going to go to Florida soon and work on writing some new material but one of things I’m going to take with me is a DVD collection of the guitarist John McLaughlin called This Is The Way I Do It because I’m always trying to learn new things and trying to improve, vocally and instrumentally. There’s always room for improvement, right?
Coldplay: A Head Full Of Dreams
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime
If there’s any positive to be found from the world’s young people capturing their every last moment on video or smartphone footage is that future documentaries about famous people will have a wealth of material to choose from. That’s one of the biggest attractions to this otherwise back-patting documentary that tracks the precipitous rise of British rock band Coldplay. In between the artfully shot footage of the quartet performing around the world during their last big tour, the film takes viewers through every last step of their journey, from their days smoking cigarettes and jamming in a college dorm room to their first ever gigs to the sessions for each of their studio albums. The evolution of Chris Martin from gangly goofball to the still-happy but more media savvy man he is today, complete with stops to include his tabloid-fodder marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow, is there for all to see.
There is a feeling, though, that this is history being retold by the victors. Small mentions of addictions and bassist Guy Berryman’s concerns about his drinking are quickly brushed past. And while they talk about the tensions that can sometimes flare up amongst the four men, we don’t get any sight of that in this film. It humanizes Coldplay, but only just so. On the other hand, there’s no longer any doubt about the care that the band puts into every last detail of their operation. It’s a well-oiled machine that has been producing some fantastic pop records for the better part of two decades. Nothing is left to chance and the artistic achievements they have reached as a result are proof.
Coldplay talks within this film as if they’re using it to draw a line in the sand, marking the end of this era of the band. What does that mean for Coldplay’s future? My guess is that they hit the studio soon to make their “back to basics” album or they wait it out until 2020 when they can cash in on a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of Parachutes. Whatever they choose, it’s clear that the band is tying a bow on their collective history with Head Full of Dreams and their next steps will be crucial to their continued success or slow melt into legacy act.
Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge Uncut
Available: DVD, Blu-ray
Due to some fun wrinkles in copyright law, a great number of legacy acts have been digging into their archives and releasing rare material so as to maintain the rights to said recordings and videos. That’s likely part of the reason that the Rolling Stones are offering up this live performance from 1994 for mass consumption. Captured in Miami for a TV broadcast during the band’s Voodoo Lounge tour, While it has all the visual flair of a ‘90s PPV special, there’s no denying that the Stones were still one of the most fearsome live acts on the planet at that time. That is on full display on this new DVD/Blu-ray release as the band rips through a bevy of hits, a good number of deep cuts and even some new tunes for good measure. For added thrills, they feature a trio of special guests, including Sheryl Crow who lends her bluesy pipes to a version of the Let It Bleed classic “Live With Me” and a particularly hopped up Bo Diddley who joins the band in a meaty take on “Who Do You Love?” The disc is augmented by some footage taken from the same tour, recorded at Giants Stadium featuring songs they had to cut out of the setlist for the Florida gig.
Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin
Loudon Wainwright III has made a career out of using his art to explore, without much sentiment, the weird and wonderful history of his family. That includes his fraught yet ultimately loving relationships with his kids, his ex-wives, and, most stirringly, his father, a celebrated columnist for LIFE Magazine. It’s that last connection that makes up the core of Surviving Twin, the newly released Netflix special directed by Spinal Tap member Christopher Guest. A document of a one-man show that Wainwright III first performed in 2013, it features the singer-songwriter celebrating, mourning and seeking to forgive his father for the pain that he caused the younger Wainwright in his life. And to try and ask the same of his own son Rufus. It’s built around songs from throughout Wainwright III’s career as well as readings from his father’s LIFE columns, words that are so carefully and tenderly written, a stark contrast to the man who wrote them. As much as I enjoyed this special, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone who wasn’t a fan of Loudon Wainwright III’s music might feel about if they somehow stumbled upon it in their Netflix scroll. The one-man show is an entirely self-indulgent affair even if it does offer up some universal truths about how the actions and words of a man can so affect his children. But it is ultimately all about Loudon. It may send the newbie scurrying to Spotify to dig into his volumes of recorded music or it may send them quickly packing to another selection on the streaming service. That’s art for you.
Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime
Released last year for streaming on Amazon Prime, this lengthy documentary about the history of the Grateful Dead took fans and curiosity seekers much further behind the curtain of the legendary jam band than any film has dared to do. And the access that the filmmakers had allowed them to bring out some startlingly preserved live footage and enlightening present day interviews with the surviving members of the group. The physical version of the film, particularly the three-DVD/two Blu-ray edition, features some catnip for the Dead’s legion of fans, including a never-before-seen six song set filmed at the band’s first overseas gig at England’s Hollywood Festival.
Amy Winehouse: Back To Black – The Real Story Behind The Modern Classic
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, digital
The tragic, troubled life of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse has already been the subject of a much-lauded documentary and is about to be tackled in biopic form, so kudos to the folks behind this short subject as they home in on the creation of her second, and sadly final, album Back To Black. The granular detail the filmmakers get into, via interviews with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, is pure catnip for music obsessives, and they do a great job weaving in a touch of smartphone and camcorder footage taken by Winehouse and her people as she was on her way to winning Grammy awards and universal acclaim. Because they stop short of getting too far into the dark days that resulted in her untimely death in 2011, the film preserves Winehouse when she was at her best. Adding to that feeling is the inclusion of a never-before-seen live set, filmed in 2008 which finds her at her loosest and most engaging as she plays to an audience of friends, family and industry types. She had nothing to prove at that point and simply had fun with her own songs and a small selection of cover tunes. It’s a delight.
Glastonbury Fayre: 1971 The True Spirit of Glastonbury
Available: DVD, Blu-ray
Long before the Glastonbury Festival turned into the behemoth it is today, it was a Woodstock-like affair held in a muddy field with some serious magickal vibes at the heart of the weekend-long event. At the second year of the festival, filmmakers Nic Roeg and Peter Neal were on hand to capture the proceedings for a documentary released in 1972. The rarely-seen film is a mirror image of the strange and wonderful event that was part Woodstock, part Wicker Man. As fun as it is to see gaggles of hairy Brits frolicking in the mud and communing with farm animals, the music is the real draw here. The film boasts a particularly freaked out performance by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at his proto-metal best, a rollicking performance by Fairport Convention and Traffic, who turn “Gimme Some Lovin’” into a soul-funk shakedown. The only thing that would make it better would be some footage of a young David Bowie who apparently played a set as the sun rose at this festival.
Initially released to the world in 1975, Yessongs is a glimpse into the world of prog rock legends Yes at their creative peak. The footage was captured during the London stop of their 1972 tour promoting Close To The Edge and features some of the group’s most expansive and technical compositions like the multi-part “And You and I” and encore track “Yours Is No Disgrace.” This new release of the film boasts a “restored high definition digital transfer” made from the original 16mm negatives, but I would be hard pressed to say it’s a huge improvement on the versions I’ve seen uploaded to YouTube. The grit and graininess of the footage is easy to ignore thanks to the sonic upgrade that the music was given. The original mono mix is wonderful enough but the 5.1 remix puts you at the center of the maelstrom that Yes could create with ease in their ‘70s heyday. It should be noted that this Blu-ray edition is a carbon copy of the U.K. release of the film, which came out in 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Edge. That puts the documentary made as a bonus feature to the disc feel outdated—and a little melancholy with the appearance of the since-deceased Chris Squire—but there’s enough insight and details brought out in the interviews with the members of the band to make it worth checking out.
The US Festival: 1982 – The US Generation
Available: DVD, Blu-ray
If you’re pop this into your DVD player in hopes of seeing a wealth of live footage from the first US Festival, the big-ticket music event funded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, you’re digging in the wrong place. There are snippets of sets by The Ramones, Fleetwood Mac and Santana sprinkled throughout but otherwise this is all talking heads discussing the ins and outs of putting on a festival and toeing the party line about how awesome it all was. With its clear spots meant for commercial breaks, it plays more like one of those programs that gets tucked into the late night hours of a network station, or like a film meant to woo potential investors to help pay for future installments of the fest.
Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story
This 2017 documentary is something like a photo negative of the Coldplay film featured elsewhere in this column. It may not have an overwhelming amount of footage about Radio Birdman, the proto-punk band from Australia that has inspired dozens of acts including their fellow countrymen The Birthday Party and grunge kingpins Mudhoney, but the members of the group and their hangers on are unflinching in their honesty about what made them great and what eventually tore the band apart. The film, made by Jonathan Sequeira, is pretty rough around the edges all told, but Radio Birdman deserve nothing less. Theirs was a gritty tumble through the music industry in Australia and beyond, the fruits of which they’ve only been able to enjoy after their heyday when modern bands started singing their praises and Sub Pop released a posthumous compilation of their work. It’s a deep dumpster dive into their past and present that will leave you feeling thrilled and a little dirty.
What It Takes: film en douze tableaux
Available: DVD, digital
Another result of our accelerated age is the strange desire among critics and tastemakers of the world to canonize an artist long before they’ve even had a chance to really build a fanbase and to, for lack of a better term, earn such accolades. Director Goren Bechard has done just that with this documentary which looks at the still-young career of artist Sarah Shook and her band the Disarmers. He has chosen a fine subject for the film, as Shook’s music and life stand apart from even the most progressive folks in the country music scene. But the documentary reads like an obsessive fan letter, inartfully constructed and worshipful. It pays lip service to her somewhat challenging past and her present day struggles, but it is much more interested in anointing Shook as a goddess among the rest of us mere mortals. When he keeps the focus on the music, as with a great sequence where he cuts between writing sessions, recording sessions and a live performance of a song, he gives Shook and her art their due. His attempts to contextualize and editorialize his subject’s life is where things get really messy and feels like it does her a strange disservice.
The Mentors: Kings Of Sleaze Rockumentary
Available: DVD, Amazon Prime
Looking for a little sleaze in your life? Look no further than this documentary about The Mentors, one of the most controversial band to ever walk this planet. Led by a drummer and vocalist known as Il Duce (a gent best known for floating the conspiracy theory that Kurt Cobain was murdered), the metal/punk band trafficked in outrageous lyrics (sample song titles: “Golden Shower,” “Couch Test Casting”), an even more outrageous stage act and plenty of off-stage shenanigans, usually involving drugs and alcohol. Director April Jones does yeoman’s work dealing with the many unsavory folks that were in the band’s orbit as well as giving space for Il Duce’s family to give their thoughts about the rather awful stuff that he got into. It’s the kind of story that can only be told in a matter-of-fact way, without judgement. Jones came to neither bury Il Duce nor praise him. You accept he and his band’s music as is or you run off and start the PMRC like their nemesis Tipper Gore did.