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Where the action is

Sex, drugs and, oh, yeah, the music. The lure of rock's reality is a draw even big-name filmmakers can't resist.

March 30, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Rockumentaries are hardly the first -- or perhaps even third -- association that leaps to mind when you think of Martin Scorsese.

Still, in a recent interview, the director explained why he chose to follow up the critical and commercial success of 2006's Oscar-winning "The Departed" with "Shine a Light" -- the "ultimate Rolling Stones concert film" about the "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band," according to PR hype.

"I never saw any reason why not," Scorsese said. "So that question never came to mind."

Scorsese is part of a small group of acclaimed narrative feature directors who have chosen to tackle rock documentaries despite possessing a filmic skill set more suited to big-budget studio fare than showcasing fiery guitar solos and lighters-aloft audience rapture.

Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs" director Jonathan Demme's filmography includes two rockumentaries: "Stop Making Sense," the Talking Heads' seminal 1984 concert movie (which was responsible for making lead singer David Byrne's exaggeratedly oversized suit one of the "Me" decade's most identifiable cultural touchstones) and "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," which documents the premiere of songs from the rocker's "Prairie Wind" album and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.

Demme explained the thrill he gets from filming live music in an interview with The Times two years ago: "There's something very pure about it, you don't have to do another take to make it realer."

At first glance, Peter Bogdanovich -- the Oscar-nominated writer-director responsible for the 1971 coming-of-age drama "The Last Picture Show," widely considered one of the defining films of its era -- might seem like a weird choice to direct a "Behind the Music"-style retrospective documentary about a rock icon.

But "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream," Bogdanovich's four-hour documentary, establishes his true-blue rockumentarian bona fides. To get the necessary coverage, the director (most recognizable these days as an actor courtesy of his recurring role as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi's meddlesome psychotherapist on "The Sopranos") spent most of 2006 on the road with the Florida rock stars and interviewing other musicians.

It helps to think of these celebrated moviemakers as following a reverse of the career arc traveled by directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, indie auteurs who earned their stripes making music videos for the likes of Bjork, Daft Punk and -- in Gondry's case -- the Rolling Stones.

For Demme, Scorsese and Bogdanovich, the siren song of concert filmmaking certainly is not about the box-office returns. "Heart of Gold" took in less than $2 million in its theatrical run; "Stop Making Sense" has done just $5.1 million in theaters since its release 24 years ago. And Scorsese's earlier rock doc -- 1978's "The Last Waltz," which chronicles the "farewell" performance of Canadian American quintet the Band -- pulled in just $322,000 in ticket sales. ("Runnin' Down a Dream" was shown on the Sundance Channel in October and never made it to the multiplex.)

Nonetheless, as evidenced by Scorsese's recent creative output, rockumentary filmmaking can be a tough habit to break. On the heels of "Shine a Light" and the director's "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (2005), which traces the folk-rock icon's effect on pop music and culture, Scorsese has begun working on two new music documentaries, one focusing on reggae legend Bob Marley and the other about Beatles singer-guitarist George Harrison.

"The nature of the music is something that has inspired me constantly over the years," Scorsese said at a recent press conference for his Stones film at the Berlin Film Festival. "Whenever I saw the show, I'd get excited -- I want to get a camera up there."

Shine a light indeed.


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