When we ran our video Inventory about rock documentaries that made their subjects look like dicks, a few of you asked, “Where’s the text version?” To which we replied, “In our book, Inventory? What, you don’t have it? Buy it now! Buy an autographed copy! And why not buy My Year Of Flops while you’re at it?” But, because we’re nice, we decided to run it on the site anyway. And because we’re extra-nice, we decided to update and expand it to twice its original size. You’re welcome.
1. U2, Rattle And Hum (1988)
Even before they were rock superstars, the members of U2 flirted with megalomania, particularly Bono, who aspired to be both a larger-than-life rock star (with a spectacularly bushy, Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon-style mullet, no less) and a John Lennon-esque pop politician. With 1987’s The Joshua Tree, record sales finally matched the band’s hefty ambitions. Having finally been handed enough rope to hang themselves, the members of U2 made a movie charting their awkward transition from beloved cult band to backlash-ready stadium-rock ego factory. Rattle And Hum attempted to recast the Irish group as the next great American rock band, showing U2 covering Bob Dylan, jamming with B.B. King, and recording at Sun Studios. While the music in Rattle And Hum is often good, U2’s eagerness to place itself in the rock pantheon was at best premature, and at worst, unseemly, annoying, and pompous. Even U2 seemed to agree, and it radically reinvented itself on its next album, the brilliant Achtung Baby.
2. Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz (1978)
The Band emerged in the late ’60s as the embodiment of the era’s ideal of communal generosity. In The Band, everybody sang, made crucial creative contributions, and was both leader and follower. But by the middle of the ’70s, the “Me Decade” had taken its toll, and songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson began elbowing out the rest of the group. Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz is practically The Robbie Robertson Show; he appears in nearly every frame, and frequently talks over his bandmates in interview clips. (Richard Manuel, once described by Eric Clapton as “the true light of The Band,” is mostly M.I.A.) As good as The Last Waltz is in many ways, Scorsese seems bent on lionizing his good friend Robertson at the expense of his equally worthy partners, which wasn’t lost on critics like Dave Marsh, who quipped that Robertson is “one of the few people capable of making Bob Dylan seem humble.” Speaking of which…
3. Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back (1967)
In 1965, Bob Dylan was simultaneously one of the world’s most famous pop stars and one of its most sought-after political commentators. This meant the press simultaneously took him way too seriously and aggressively badgered him with condescending questions. In the fly-on-the-wall documentary Don’t Look Back, Dylan responds to a toxic mix of hero worship and clueless media inquisition with withering contempt for nearly everyone and everything. It’s hard to blame him, as the film’s never-ending run of press conferences and monotonous concert performances convey just how wearying stardom can be. But Dylan often just seems like a jerk for no good reason, coldly ignoring tour-mate Joan Baez—their romantic relationship entered its final stages around this time—and playing silly mind games with even the more thoughtful journalists. At one point, Dylan tells a Time writer to “print the truth,” which he says would be “a photo of a tramp vomiting in the sewer.” Deep.
4. Lars Ulrich, Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
Lars Ulrich was a target of media ridicule after becoming the public face of Metallica’s lawsuit against its own fans for Napster-aided music piracy. But Some Kind Of Monster, a memorable behind-the-scenes film about Metallica’s least-memorable album, St. Anger, suggests that Ulrich was hated just as much in his own band. James Hetfield, for one, appears on the verge of decking his pint-sized, art-collecting, bleached-blonde drummer every second they’re in the same room. He isn’t alone. Whether he’s talking in insipid therapy-speak (“Aggressive music can be made using only positive energy”) or generally acting like a self-pitying boob, there isn’t enough of Lars Ulrich to go around for all the viewers who would want a piece of him after watching Some Kind Of Monster.
5. Paul McCartney, Let It Be (1970)
How can you hate a guy who worked overtime to prevent The Beatles from breaking up? It’s a tall task, but Paul McCartney is up to the job in Let It Be, a document of the acrimonious sessions for the aborted Get Back album, which was also later released as Let It Be. McCartney was the only Beatle fully engaged in the band by 1969, and judging from Let It Be, he corralled the other members by being an overbearing bully. The film’s most famous scene features George Harrison finally breaking down under McCartney’s constant nagging, promising to play whatever Paul wants, or to not play at all. Small wonder McCartney played all the instruments himself on his first solo album.
6. Q-Tip, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Prickly A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip has the curious distinction of being both one of Beats, Rhymes & Life’s producers (as part of A Tribe Called Quest) and its primary villain. Actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport crafted a fascinating, uncomfortably intimate exploration of the Native Tongues keystone’s messy rise, fall, breakup, and intermittent commerce-fueled reunions. Q-Tip emerges as the perfectionist creative genius behind masterpieces like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, but also as an insensitive, egomaniacal control freak who ran roughshod over the delicate feelings of partner Phife Dawg, a meek, loveable diabetic whose Everyman humility contrasts sharply with his groupmate’s bohemian pretensions. Beats, Rhymes & Life’s optimistic conclusion only slightly undercuts the tension, bad feelings, and Q-Tip jackassery that precedes it.
7. Justice, A Cross The Universe
It isn’t altogether surprising that French electro-rock duo Gaspard Augé and Xavier De Rosnay come off as badly as they do in this 2008 tour film, which covers their visit to America in support of Justice’s debut album, Cross, which clicked with a substantial audience beyond the DJ-music community. They seem both repelled and consumed by American culture; one member of their touring group buys a gun simply because it’s possible. But whether they’re shopping for L.A. homes or faking their way through “live” performances (lots of lit-up equipment hides the fact that all the music comes straight off CD), or de Rosnay is offering a straight-faced rendition of “Under The Bridge” straight to an uncomfortable-looking Anthony Kiedis, A Cross The Universe is enough to make even a stout Francophile want to order some freedom fries.
8. Jefferson Airplane, Stamping Ground
Few ’60s rock performers can say their rhetoric stands up well today, but Jefferson Airplane’s pseudo-revolutionary rich, entitled hippie blather especially chafes. At least Hendrix saw spacemen; when Paul Kantner and Grace Slick speak to a local journalist during a 1970 rock festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands, during Stamping Ground—just one attempt, like the festival itself, at recreating the hallowed Woodstock vibe in Europe—it’s like eavesdropping on a junior-high pot session. Does American music have “more guts” that of other nations, the reporter asks. “How much great art comes from Switzerland?” Kantner retorts, remembering The Third Man. Stamping Ground itself is highly uneven—a lot of hippie-era nonentities like It’s A Beautiful Day and Family—but it’s worth seeing (on YouTube, in 11 embedding-disabled parts) for cool performances by Dr. John, Santana, and Pink Floyd.
9. Madonna, Truth Or Dare (1991)
Madonna has never based her career on her warm, charming personality, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally comes off as rude, immature, and attention-starved in the tour documentary Truth Or Dare. One famous scene involves Madonna mimicking sticking her finger down her throat in disgust after Kevin Costner comes backstage to greet her after a concert, calling her show “neat.” During a scene where she’s on a furious tirade about “some big fat man” in the front row depressing her by not having any fun, she angrily instructs her makeup person to work on her eyebrows instead of her lips, which are busy vocalizing her complaints. Her then-beau Warren Beatty gets the best line of the documentary, though. After Madonna declines to say something off-camera, Beatty quips “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?”
10. Liz Phair, Guyville Redux (2008)
No one was clinging to a saintly image of Liz Phair by the time she re-issued Exile In Guyville in 2008. Phair was well aware of public perception of her whole shtick, especially after 2003’s shit single “Why Can’t I?” So it should come as no surprise that when she set about self-making a documentary—Guyville Redux—to accompany said re-issue, she just went for broke. She’s Phair-zilla, to the max. She flirts with John Cusack, insists she’s on a level with The Rolling Stones, interviews Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato in front of a huge bong, and threatens to scratch someone’s eyes out. She waxes rhapsodic about her early-’90s dreams of leaving those Chicago losers behind and becoming someone everyone talked about. It’s a surprisingly honest documentary, in some respects, but the downside is that Phair’s particular brand of honesty is wrapped up in deep narcissism. As anyone who’s seen this documentary could attest, no one likes Liz Phair as much as she likes herself.
11. Radiohead, Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
It might not be entirely accurate to call the members of Radiohead dicks based on Grant Gee’s Meeting People Is Easy, a documentary about the band’s massive world tour behind OK Computer. But they certainly aren’t shown in the greatest light, since the doc focuses too intently on the drudgery of doing interview after interview, and being subjected to seriously stupid questions. (Including, it should be noted, “What’s the stupidest question you’ve ever been asked in an interview?”) But seriously, acting as though being in a massively successful band—which is a lot like winning the lottery—is a huge burden just makes you look ungrateful. If you don’t want to do interviews, Radiohead, just don’t do ’em. Go to Dave & Buster’s, and film that instead.
12. Everybody, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Rock historians usually trace the commercial decline of ’80s hair metal to the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991, but the seeds of the scene’s destruction were actually sown three years earlier with Penelope Spheeris’ invaluable time capsule The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Funny and depressing in equal doses, Decline features interviews with rock stars and wannabes working on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Everyone comes off badly, regardless of star status—whether it’s Paul Stanley of Kiss lying in bed with half a dozen women half his age, club owner (and future MTV VJ) Riki Rachtman talking about how girls who dress “sleazy” get in his bar easier, or, most infamously, W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes nearly drinking himself to death in his swimming pool while his mom looks on. Surprisingly, metal didn’t seem so cool after that.
13. Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Dig! (2004)
The engaging documentary Dig! pits a pair of rock friends against each other, painting one as a true artist who can't play by the rules, and the other as a ponce all too eager to sell out. They each come across bad in their own way, but Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor gets the worst of it. In contrast to his rival, Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Taylor-Taylor seems pompous beyond his band's ability. ("I sneeze and hits come out," he wrongfully brags.) Newcombe, on the other hand, just seems crazy, but at least he isn't desperate and reeking of sleaze, like his ex-friend.