Shawn Mendes’ ‘In Wonder’, And The Slow, Sad Demise Of The Honest Music Documentary
New documentaries about Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift are part of the regrettable downfall of honest storytelling.
In 1972, The Rolling Stones returned to America for the first time in three years, with acclaimed photographer Robert Frank in tow.
Frank, who had risen to international fame with his series The Americans, was there to make a documentary on the band. But not just any documentary. Keen to push the naturalistic style that he had become known for, Frank brought with him a small army of cameras, leaving them scattered backstage in opportune places for any passers-by to pick up and use whenever the whim took them.
And took them it did. Over the course of the tour, Frank amassed an astonishing amount of very private footage — Mick Jagger snorting cocaine; groupies shooting up heroin; the band seeming disaffected and drug-addled. It was as grim and as debauched as rockstar life had ever looked.
But when it came time for Frank to release the resulting film, titled Cocksucker Blues, the band panicked. The uninhibited attitude that had followed them on the road disappeared, and they decided that the documentary was an embarrassment. And so they attempted to suppress it, tying it up in legal battles that greatly limited Frank’s ability to screen the film.
The photographer had wanted to make a warts-and-all, honest look at the pitfalls of success. So too, it had seemed, had the Stones. But when it came to the crunch, the band were confronted with more warts than they would have liked.
In the decades since the Cocksucker Blues debacle, such a tension has sat nestled at the heart of most music documentaries. Big bands and performers position documentaries as an opportunity for fans to discover a new side of an oversaturated artist. But that’s not the same as being honest. Most popstars can’t let go of their image enough to really show themselves as they are, and documentaries are increasingly becoming high-gloss, oversaturated press kits.
There is no musician on earth who would even consider letting an artist like Frank tell the story of their life anymore, let alone allowing themselves be filmed imbibing anything stronger than a root beer. And with that decline in ambition, so too comes with the decline in the relevance of the music documentary. After all, in a culture constantly selling our desires back to us, what sets apart a documentary from just more spin?
Where’s The Conflict?
That’s not to say that the form has gone completely down the toilet, and it’s worth noting that there are still the odd few risk-takers. The most surprising autobiographer: Katy Perry. Part of Me, released in 2012, is honest about the breakdown of her marriage to Russell Brand, filled with scenes of striking emotional intensity. In one particularly notable scene, Perry admits that she had to choose between a life partner and success as an artist.
“Yeah,” the off-camera director says. “But you still miss [Brand].”
“Yeah,” Perry replies, her face arranged in a picture-perfect smile. And then the cracks show, genuinely. She flutters a hand up to her face. And she cries.
That hardship is all part of the film’s compact messaging, of course — it’s a movie about a singer-songwriter finding herself, as treacly and twee as anything dreamt up by Steven Spielberg. But at least Perry is willing to detail the hurdles that she had to overcome with clear eyes. Most musicians don’t even want to do that.
Films like Miss Americana, which purported to sketch Taylor Swift’s most turbulent years as an artist, want only the most fairy tale-esque hardships: that documentary never gets as grim as when Swift discovers that she didn’t get nominated for a Grammy, an experience few viewers will be able to relate to, let alone find as devastating as the documentary clearly wants it to be.
And then there’s In Wonder, the recent documentary about Shawn Mendes, released on Netflix over the weekend, which is utterly conflict free. Mendes’ biggest struggles are with fame as a loosely defined, vague concept, and the pressures he must face have been sanded down to their most digestible and inspiring dimensions.
That’s not just dishonest about what it’s like to be a popstar. It’s not the kind of content that makes for good storytelling.
Mendes never grapples with purpose, for instance — he is always one-minded in his goals. He knows what he wants, and how he wants to get it. The issue is his all-too human vocal chords, and the easily demonised intensity of The Press.
That’s not just dishonest about what it’s like to be a popstar. It’s not the kind of content that makes for good storytelling. For all her self-mythologising, Perry has always understood that to be human, you have to be upfront about your struggles — triumphs only feel well-earned when we understand the horror that has to be endured before the happy ending.
By contrast, too many popstars today want their stories to be progressions from highs disguised as lows to even more highs; glamorous photo spreads, rather than the diary entries these films are pitched as to their expecting audiences.
Music Documentaries Have Become PR Exercises
None of that is to suggest that music documentaries need to be pity parties, or misrerabilist exercises in proving how tough popstars have it. Perry found authenticity through crying on camera, but you can generate that same direct truth-telling through less dramatic means.
For instance, Never Say Never, the 2011 documentary about Justin Bieber, is largely free from conflict, and its humanising elements come from the weird, ramshackle community that formed around the young musician, not from screaming matches.
Sure, somewhat typically for the genre, the documentary features a “losing one’s voice” sub-plot. But such a threat is never treated as anything more than it is — a minor distraction — and for the most part, the movie is disarmingly sweet. Brief sequences in which Bieber and his team pray behind the scenes set the tone. These are honest depictions of faith that manage to move whether you are a believer or not — in either God or Justin Bieber.
A good music documentary doesn’t have to be a long trek through tragedy. It merely has to involve a popstar handing over the reins of their life story to someone else. What makes the Bieber prayer scenes so impactful is not that they are ugly, or embarrassing. It’s that they are filmed with an alien eye. It’s another artist assembling a portrait of Bieber, rather than a PR team controlling each and every scene.
But no artist wants to give that control over to a filmmaker anymore. The most daring choice a modern pop group ever made in selecting a director to tell their story is One Direction’s hiring of Morgan “Supersize Me” Spurlock, and that film, This Is Us, is just one long, glossy advertisement.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that most of the best music documentaries have been made about performers who have passed away. Think Montage of Heck, an illuminating profile of Kurt Cobain that includes the sad, honest footage of the Nirvana singer almost passing out while holding his infant daughter, or Everybody’s Everything, a moving film about the departed Lil Peep and the circle of enablers around him that he lost the ability to control.
These are fully-formed narratives, filled with ups and downs, that have more weight than most documentaries precisely because the brand of the artists’ does not need to be controlled in the same way as it would be were they alive.
But why should brands matter so much? Or, more specifically, why should brands matter so much to popstars? After all, the ruling share of indie wunderkinds are happy to have themselves depicted in unflattering or complicated lights. Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary about The National that includes that band’s lead singer Matt Berninger throwing multiple tantrums, is defiantly ugly, as is I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a feature-length film about Wilco that eventually descends into a series of brutal arguments.
Imagine the world in which 5 Seconds of Summer got followed around on tour by Werner Herzog, or Taylor Swift got prodded by Louis Theroux. Such match-ups would make for far more interesting cinema. But they’d also undoubtedly make for bad PR. And musicians these days care a lot more about the latter than the former.
It’s Time To Reclaim The Documentary
In part, that new fear of relinquishing creative control has been spawned by the rise in popularity of social media. More than ever, musicians control their own narratives, not the press — they can use their Twitter profiles to have the unfettered communication with their fans that they used to get from magazine profiles, and without letting pesky journalists get involved.
And when they do speak on the record, it’s increasingly to other artists: celebrity on celebrity puff pieces have become the norm. Gritty profiles, like Gay Telese’s infamous ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ have gone the way of the dodo.
After all, there’s simply no need to take the risk of getting another voice implicated in your public brand, let alone a voice that might want to show the sides of yourself that you have tried so hard to suppress. More and more, we have handed over total control to our celebrities. Why would they ever hand any of that back, least alone for the sake of “art”?
Then there is the advent of streaming services. Music documentaries have become the cornerstone of Netflix’s business model, precisely because the entertainment platform expends almost no costs in distributing films to their membership base. Gone are the days when you would have to roll out a music documentary to cinemas across the country, accompanied with an expensive and complicated marketing project. Nowadays, you hit a button, a documentary about Blackpink hits the service, and stans on Twitter do the rest for you. There’s no risk and all reward.
Streaming giants will only change their ways when they have been given reason to.
As a result, music documentaries no longer have to work as films. Parents don’t have to be dragged by their kids out of the house to see these documentaries, and so don’t have to be sold with the promise of a good time at the cinema. There’s no need for narrative, or to try for crossover success. Just give fans more of what they want, and the minimal cost of a documentary has essentially paid for itself.
There’s only one way a successful financial model like that gets challenged — audiences need to reject these puff pieces; to demand for more. Streaming giants and popstars will only change their ways when they have been given reason to, after all, and there is no stronger incentive for a multi-national corporation that the threat of a lost dollar.
Boycotting PR exercises that are merely clicks away will be hard, of course, particularly for dedicated fans. But the rewards will be great. It’s not imaginable to think that soon, we will be able to reclaim the music documentary, turning them from car adverts into what they once were: art.
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