Clockwise from top left: Summer of Soul, Gimme Shelter, The Beatles: Get Back, Amazing Grace, Moonage Daydream, Wattstax. Photograph: Observer Design
For our festival-averse film critic, movies about concerts and musicians are essential viewing – and he believes we are living through a golden age for the form
Reviewing Summer of Soul in the Observer New Review last year, I suggested that it might be “the best concert film ever made”. Since then, I’ve rewatched the movie umpteen times and come to the conclusion that it’s actually my favourite pop music documentary of all time. That should tell you two things about my obviously very personal list of great pop docs: first, that concert movies and rock docs are both part of the same generic continuum, interwoven and often inseparable; second, that although many of the most celebrated examples of the genre hail from the 60s and 70s, I believe we are living through a golden age of pop music docs.
A cursory glance at my list will reveal that several of my highest ranking entries are from the recent past. Yet in the case of films such as Summer of Soul, Amazing Grace and The Beatles: Get Back, they are also archival works that revisit material originally generated for previous film and TV projects many decades ago. Just as Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back embraced the medium of long-form television to counterbalance the fraught air of the 1970 cinema release Let It Be, so Amazing Grace used modern technology to rescue previously unsalvageable footage of Aretha Franklin that Sydney Pollack shot for an abandoned feature in the early 70s. As for Summer of Soul, it’s a perfect combination of cultural archaeology and forward-looking celebration.