How Direct Cinema Captures Musical Genius
By Ben Spaeth
Photo: Vox – Source
Direct cinema as a medium originated in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The style sought to portray events as they really happened. Giving the audience a time capsule-like feeling where they are transported back to the event being depicted. To do this, filmmakers usually try to have little input on the actions of the subject. The cameraman merely becomes a fly on the wall observing the subject. Famously, this style has been used in multiple musical documentaries like Gimme Shelter and Don’t Look Back. Both of which provided intimate looks of the artists at the center. Recently, the direct cinema musical documentary has seen a resurgence thanks to the unearthing of some of the most intimate footage of musical icons of both the 20th and 21st century.
The Beatles: Get Back showcases previously unseen film of the Beatles writing and recording their final studio album. All while breaking up at the same time. The viewing experience is as though you are watching history unfolding before your very eyes. Perhaps one of the most amazing moments of the documentary was when Paul strums on his guitar and hums to himself until he gets a chord progression for what would become “Get Back”. It is as though you are watching a stroke of genius be pulled out of someone’s mind. All while hearing the earliest renditions of a classic Beatles song. What’s even more interesting to see is the look on people’s faces when they hear some of the most famous songs ever for the first time. For instance there is this moment in the film where Paul plays “The Long and Winding Road” for the first time and someone recommends to him that he adds an obstacle in the road. To which he replies “ No, I think there’s enough obstacles without putting them in the song.”
The Beatles: Get Back isn’t the only recent example of a direct cinema style musical documentary. Netflix has just released a new documentary on the rise of Kanye West called Jeen-Yuhs. Kanye has become a bit of a controversial figure, especially as of recently, but Jeen-Yuhs takes us back to a time before all the celebrity drama. A time when Kanye was just a rapper/producer from Chicago trying to make it big. While The Beatles: Get Back is the story of the breakup and fall of the Beatles, Jeen-Yuhs is the story of the ascent of Kanye West.
Most of the first episode is co-director Coodie Simmons following Kanye around as he ascends to the top of the Chicago rap game through his producing abilities. From there, Kanye moved to New York to try and get a record deal. What followed was one of the most amazing parts of the first part of the series. Kanye goes into Def Jam Records while trying to secure a record deal and proceeds to play “All Falls Down” to any executive assistant that will listen. The first part of the series portrays Kanye in a vulnerable yet confident way. Vulnerable in the sense that he is so young and hasn’t made it yet. He still has to take out his retainers just to rap. However, his confidence in his musical abilities is present, Kanye knows that one day he’ll be a star, but his demeanor is not the cockiness that we all expect from him.
Perhaps once the cameras are on for long enough, these natural born performers stop caring about how they’re being perceived on camera and just start being themselves. And in those moments we can actually get a glimpse into who these icons really are. We finally get some understanding of the musicians that score our lives. It feels as though you’re finally getting a chance to know them on some form of a personal level. I expect that these archival footage direct cinema style films will continue to rise in popularity over the coming years. They provide a raw perspective on their subject that is like no other. With most musician documentaries, it is a highly staged endeavor. The struggles the musician deals with are real, but ultimately the piece is being used as a form of PR. With artists having the final say on what does and doesn’t go in the film. With both of these recent documentaries, that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, both The Beatles and Kanye West didn’t want this archival footage to see the light of day. The Beatles scrapped their documentary because of the sensitive nature of the footage surrounding their breakup. Kanye didn’t want his documentary out there because he wasn’t given access to the editing room.
Hopefully we’ll see more direct cinema music documentaries soon. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how much archival footage is out there, but that doesn’t inhibit anyone from creating their own out of non-archival footage. Just think about how huge a Taylor Swift documentary would be if you saw her write an album right before your eyes. There is certainly a future for this type of film, especially considering how powerful the nature of the footage is.