12 Britpop and Alt-Rock Documentaries to Stream Right Now
Having already offered up 13 documentaries focusing on punk, metal and grunge, here are another dozen, this time aimed at alt-rock, Britpop and indie. Some follow traditional rock documentary formulas -- rise and fall -- while others are as quirky as their eccentric subjects. At least three feature what would be, at the time, the band's final show. There are also scene reports, trashed hotel rooms, big suits, paper mache heads, and flat tires. Different as they are, all 12 feature magnetic personalities at their center. All of these are also, as of April 2020, currently available to watch for free on Tubi, or as part of one of the major streaming services (you can also rent most of them on demand).
Athens, GA: Inside/Out (Tubi)
In the early to mid '80s, college town Athens, GA -- a blue, arty dot in a conservative state -- became perhaps the biggest hotbed of new music in the USA. Filmed in 1986, Inside/Out captures a moment in time of alternative culture, taking a snapshot of Athens' music scene, featuring interviews and performances from most of the big groups at the time, including R.E.M., The B-52's, Pylon (who had broken up by the time this film was made), and Love Tractor, as well as rockabilly firecrackers Flat Duo Jets, Kilkenny Cats and punks Bar-B-Que Killers. One of the best things about the movie, though, is it's not just about the music; it spends time with Athens notables including folk artist Howard Finster (who did the cover art for R.E.M.'s Reckoning and Talking Heads' Little Creatures), poet John Searight, local celebrity ORT, and Walter Rittenberry who owned R.E.M. hangout Walter's BBQ. The film sells the appeal of the town more than anything, where bohemian cool and southern hospitality made beautiful music together.
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (Prime Video)
You may have seen the 2014 film Frank starring Michael Fassbender, but the true story of the man behind the mask is much more interesting. Chris Sievey always wanted to be in the spotlight, having made wildly creative films, cartoons and videos with no budget, and was in a number of bands with not much success... till he created a paper mache head and Frank Sidebottom was born. A truly one of a kind creation, Frank did parodies of both popular songs and indie hits, all reworked to be about Frank's life in Timperley, England. (Many of them also featured his sidekick, Little Frank.) Unfortunately, Frank also took over Chris' life -- family, friends, health be damned. Being Frank shows all sides of Sievy, the funny, the sweet, the unbelievable, and the sad (Seivy died of cancer in 2010). Chris spent much of his life in front of a camera (whether underneath Frank's head or not), so Being Frank director Steve Sullivan had access to an amazing amount of footage making for a very rich documentary that succeeds in being nearly as unforgettable as Frank himself.
Filmed over the course of seven years, Ondi Timoner‘s 2004 documentary DIG! follows the careers of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, who began as partners in crime but ended up bitter rivals. Full of quotable exchanges, onstage meltdowns and fistfights, every kind of rock n’ roll excess imaginable, real life Spinal Tap moments, broken sitars, and great music, too, DIG! is a modern classic that is compelling even if you’ve never heard one note of either band. Both Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor and BJM's Anton Newcombe now contend DiG! is an inaccurate portrait of both, but that doesn't stop this from being an enthralling film from start to finish.
Duran Duran: There's Something You Should Know (Showtime)
Armed with teen idol good looks, flashy videos made in exotic locales and glammy new wave pop songs that are better than critics gave them credit for at the time, Duran Duran were a genuine worldwide sensation in the early '80s and arguably the biggest British band to hit America since the Beatles. There's Something You Should Know charts the rise and fall and rise of the group in an economical, breezy 59 minutes that may skirt over the dark stuff but is nonetheless entertaining. Like the Spandau Ballet documentary, the early years are the most interesting part; once you get past Rio, the rock cliches really kick in and you may not care about the 2015 album they made with Mark Ronson that takes up a chunk of the short running time. But they all seem to still get along and their camaraderie is infectious (though original and currently ex member Andy Taylor is notably absent here).
New Order: Decades (Showtime)
New Order played a very special show at the 2017 Manchester International Festival where they “deconstructed, rethought and rebuilt” songs from their catalogue, playing alongside a 12-piece synthesizer ensemble from the Royal Northern College of Music with a very cool stage set designed by conceptual artist Liam Gillick. For those shows, their set featured a lot of songs that New Order hadn’t played in years, or even decades -- including "Decades" which was by Joy Division, the group New Order was birthed from. As a warm-up for those Manchester shows, New Order played shows in Vienna which were filmed for this concert film/documentary that shows the creation process between New Order, the 12 young musicians, and Gillick. Decades also spends time with band members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert -- as well as the group's graphic designer Peter Saville -- as they pour through their 40-year career in order to make something new.
Pavement: Slow Century (YouTube)
Lance Bangs' documentary Slow Century tracks the history of '90s indie rock heroes Pavement from their formation in 1989 to their final live show in London a decade later. It hits on Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich's pre-Pavement UVA band Ectoslavia, the group's early days with headstand-loving wildman drummer Gary Young, their mid-'90s Buzz Bin success, touring as part of the disastrous Lollapalooza '95, working with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on their final album, and that final show. Like the band themselves, Slow Century is a little shaggy -- seriously, why is Thurston Moore in this movie? -- but it also doesn't frame Pavement as weirdo geniuses, just regular people...one of whom had an extreme obsession with horse racing.
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (Prime Video)
Pulp capped off their 2012 reunion tour with a triumphant hometown show at Sheffield's Motorpoint Arena. Director Florian Habicht documents that performance but also Sheffield itself, but spends as much time with fans and local residents as it does Jarvis Cocker and the rest of the band, painting a vivid portrait of the city that shaped the band. It is not a film charting Pulp’s beginnings through their breakup in 2002. “That’s what YouTube and Wikipedia is for,” says Habicht. It’s a sweet, charming movie that you don’t have to have even heard “Common People” to enjoy. Plus: if you've ever wanted to see Jarvis change a tire, this is your movie.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (Hulu, Prime Video, Tubi)
After releasing their third album, James Murphy decided to break up LCD Soundsystem and play one final show with the ethos of "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever." It was their biggest show of their existence by a mile -- at Madison Square Garden -- with an all-white (suggested) dress code and guest appearances by members of Arcade Fire and Reggie Watts. The genuinely ecstatic concert footage is juxtaposed with footage of Murphy the next day, making coffee and walking his dog, as well as an interview with Chuck Klosterman from the week before. In both circumstances, Murphy wonders if he didn't make a huge mistake. Even though the film has since been somewhat undercut by LCD getting back together six years later, Shut Up and Play the Hits is a fantastic concert film and a thoughtful portrait of an artist trying to end things on his own terms. At the time.
Soul Boys of the Western World (Hulu)
A documentary about the rise and fall of '80s new romantic stars Spandau Ballet -- makers of melodramatic slow dance classic "True" -- might not seem like something you want to see, but George Hencken's is an engaging look and a band loaded with strong personalities. It's an even more fascinating look at early-'80s Britain when post-punk musicians decided they'd have a go at pop stardom. The part of the film that focuses on the Blitz Kids scene that birthed the New Romantic movement (which also gave us Visage, Culture Club, The Associates and more) is especially vibrant and there's a surprising amount of footage from that time period that makes you wish you could've been there (or go back). The film becomes less interesting as it then follows a traditional rock doc trajectory -- complete with the big reunion show -- but Soul Boys of the Western World still holds your attention through that encore of "True."
Stop Making Sense (Prime Video, Criterion Channel, Tubi)
One of the greatest concert films ever made, Stop Making Sense is both a Talking Heads film and a Jonathan Demme film. The director, who passed away in 2017, brings his empathetic, unobtrusive style and fondness for close-ups to the unique 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour where the show begins with just David Byrne and a boombox but adds musicians slowly over the course of the set, becoming a Very Big Production with Byrne in a Very Big Suit. Stop Making Sense is extremely rewatchable so if you haven't seen it in a while (or have never seen it), whatever else you were thinking of watching is probably not going to be as good as this.
Supersonic: Oasis (Netflix)
For a few years in the '90s, Oasis were the biggest band in Britain, though Noel and Liam Gallagher would probably say the world. That might also be the only thing they agree on, and Supersonic doesn't shy away from the sibling rivalry that fueled this Manchester band. (Also fueling them: booze and cocaine.) The profane rows between the Gallaghers are the definite highlights of the documentary that tracks the band from their formation through headlining Knebworth in 1996. The film stops there, before the drugs became a problem, the songs got too long, and the Noel/Liam infighting totally overshadowed the tunes. That's okay, though, as there's enough sex, drugs and rock n' roll to fill its two-hour running time.
Upside Down: The Creation Records Story (Prime Video)
If you need more drugs, rock and roll, thick accents and Gallagher brothers antics, Upside Down is the story of Oasis' label, Creation Records. Founded by true rock n' roll true believer Alan McGee, Creation began as the indiest of indie labels till they released Jesus & Mary Chain's feedback-ridden debut single (whose title is the same as this documentary) and almost instantly became a very hip label. Then with Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, Creation really started to sell records which then led to Oasis and serious money...and problems. (Also on Creation in the '90s: The Boo Radleys, Slowdive, Ride, Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, Sugar, and more.) Upside Down is also a tale of rock n' roll excess, where drug use and My Bloody Valentine's never-ending recording sessions threaten to bankrupt the label. Most of the major players involved are interviewed for this, though you may want to turn the subtitles on given the sheer amount of impenetrable Scottish accents as there are in this every entertaining film.