Exploring the Strange and Shoddy World of Unofficial Music Documentaries
Did Michael Jackson fake his own death and pursue a career in children's entertainment? Is Taylor Swift the new Princess Diana?
Have you ever really – and I mean really – stopped to think about whether or not Taylor Swift is the new Princess Diana? Have you, in your busy lives, found the time to ask yourself if Michael Jackson faked his own death and is now working incognito in children's entertainment? Do you sometimes wonder what Kira Reed, close friend of the porn star who appeared on the cover of one of Blink-182's albums, cites as her favorite Blink-182 song?
Well if you've pondered all of the above but never bothered to find the answers then welcome to the sometimes murky and often incredibly poorly designed world of the unofficial music documentary. A world where no music by the artists in question can be used; where no new interviews with said artists takes place and where the basic narrative - read by someone with all the enthusiasm of a supermarket customer service assistant asking for a product price check - often reads like an extended Wikipedia entry. In a world where almost everything a pop star or band does is documented in some way, be it on social media, Wikipedia or through fan-made YouTube clips, it's hard to work out why unofficial documentaries still exist, and yet there they are, clogging up Amazon's DVD section like documentary effluent.
In fact, speaking of musical effluent - just kidding! - Sam Smith's unwittingly got one coming out later this month, the trailer for which reveals that as a school boy he — perhaps foreshadowing that moment when he sacked off a meet and greet to do some Beyoncé karaoke - forged a note saying he was going to his grandfather's funeral when in fact he wanted to go and see Lady Gaga in concert.
One of the best/worst things about these unofficial documentaries is the fact that they don't rely on (or just can’t afford) the same old talking heads to offer up supporting evidence. So, don’t expect Paul Morley to show up and witter on endlessly about The North; there’s no 90s TV presenters talking about the rise of ladette culture, or third tier comedians taking sideways glances at what Britpop really meant.
But what do we really get from the official documentaries anyway? Yeah, it's all very well shelling out fifteen bucks for the official Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream DVD, but what do we actually learn from it? Sure, we discover that Queen Bey likes to sup white wine on a yacht with Jay Z and that she really was pregnant and didn't just have a pillow shoved up her dress, but it's hard to shake the feeling that we’re not getting the whole story.
Switch to the mindblowing and very much unofficial Beyoncé: Life On Stage and we FINALLY get to hear what Leah Lieb, former SAG stuntwoman and sometime catalogue model, thought about Destiny's Child during the whole sacking two members debacle (answer: she was turned off by Beyoncé's perceived lack of band loyalty).
In the enigmatically-titled Coldplay: The Unofficial Documentary we hear from music journalist Robert Woodcock who offers up the following dramatic insights into the band's unique charms: “Chris [Martin] has got a great voice that really stands out...He's got such a wide vocal range, he can hit the very high notes and the very low notes...Other singers haven't really got that range”. In the similarly monikered Limp Bizkit: The Unofficial Documentary (also made by One Media Music, who are very much the Warp Films of unofficial documentaries), we get to hear from Fred Durst's ex-girlfriend as well as a man called Nick who once got a tattoo with Durst. The band's face paint enthusiast and Fred Durst stooge Wes Borland is referred to as “Lead Geetar” player.
But special comment must be reserved for the Blink-182 documentary (which consistently gets the names of two of the members confused) dedicates a lengthy chunk of its fifty minute running time to Kira Reed, a woman with no direct connection to the band but who has a tendency to expose her breasts. There's a great bit where she starts playing her favorite Blink-182 song, only we can't hear it because the filmmakers haven't been given permission to use any of the music so it's a guessing game really. At one point she pulls down her skirt for no discernible reason.
While these are all available to purchase on DVD, should you want to cherish them or perhaps buy them as a present for someone you loath, some are made purely to be enjoyed on YouTube. Take Robyn Rihanna Fenty in Barbados, a searing insight into how growing up in Barbados may have inspired Rihanna to become a singer (it includes a lot of lingering shots of beautiful beaches). Its centerpiece is an interview with Rihanna's dad outside the shop he works in, during which the interviewer seems to be so overawed by it all that one of the few questions he asks is, “Do you hear people shouting for Rihanna?” Still, he does somehow get away with using Rihanna's “Te Amo” as the background music and seriously what a fucking tune that is.
Another YouTube auteur is self-proclaimed filmmaker Pearl Jr, whose Alive? Is Michael Jackson Really Dead represents one of the more intriguing titles in the long, long list of unofficial Jackson documentaries (History: King Of Pop is actually pretty interesting). As the title implies, Pearl believes Michael Jackson faked his own death and is still moonwalking among us, her theories delivered through a slightly disturbing perma-grin. Obviously – obviously! - Pearl has oodles of evidence, most backed up by journalistic powerhouses such as The National Enquirer. Her own suspicions, we learn, are piqued by questions like why Michael's brother Marlon wore an FBI cap the day after Michael died? Or why Janet wore white to the memorial service? There's also a convoluted theory about the number seven that's just too batshit to get into here. Keen to support the documentary with some extra video content Pearl also chats to a psychic, the conveniently named Psychic Jane, who claims to have never heard of Michael Jackson prior to his death but is now adamant he's working undercover in children's entertainment. Blimey.
The Netflix of unofficial documentaries seems to be Worldwide Entertainment TV, the production behemoths behind a wholly unofficial canon featuring Beyoncé: Life On Stage, Miley Cyrus: Reinvention, One Direction: Up Close & Personal and Taylor Swift: Her Life, Her Story. While the Cyrus and One Direction ones are mainly made up of old interviews cobbled together, Taylor Swift's features talking heads including – wait for it - Collette from 1999 rock band EdibleRed! (Me neither). And an amazing leap of faith that posits the idea that Taylor Swift is the new Princess Diana. “Like her predecessor, Princess Diana of Wales, she has an unquestionable charm,” muses the po-faced narrator. “Some will argue and say Taylor has not reached the stature of Princess Diana, simply because she hasn't lived as long”. Well, quite. But ask yourself this, did Princess Diana ever write a song as exquisite as “Style”? Didn't think so. Anyway, spoilsport Collette rubbishes the claim, which then leads the narrator to seamlessly move onto how Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes giving a blazing hot take on how he doesn't think Taylor's talented.
Which in a way is what makes the unofficial 'insights' so unique. There's no script to stick to; no PR machine to placate; no limit to who you can get to have a chat about Niall Horan or the guitarist from Limp Bizkit. If you've got an angle you want to explore, access to Google images (most of the Beyoncé one is lingering shots of old pictures that zoom in on her eyes like she's a murderer), and a very basic knowledge of how to use an edit suite, then you're golden. Fingers crossed Sam Smith: Dreams Come True will finally reveal whether he ever did find a McDonalds that time when he got twatted in Brazil, perhaps via a talking heads interview with Uri Geller.
You can follow Michael Cragg on Twitter.
To celebrate the release of our new documentary, Redemption of the Devil, about the life of Eagles of Death Metal's Jesse Hughes (which you can buy on iTunes here), we'll be running features all week about the glory of music documentaries.
- taylor swift
- Limp Bizkit
- Talking Heads
- Blink 182
- Sam Smith
- unofficial music documentaries
- straight to dvd
- Celebrating Redemption of the Devil