Great 2021 Music Documentaries We Missed : Pop Culture Happy Hour Today we're recommending some of the great music documentaries we missed in 2021: The Velvet Underground, Framing Britney Spears, Controlling Britney Spears, and Tina.

Great 2021 Music Documentaries We Missed

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2021 was a banner year for music documentaries, from Questlove's "Summer Of Soul" to the eight-hour Beatles documentary "Get Back." But those aren't the only music documentaries worth celebrating. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are recommending some of the great 2021 music documentaries we missed on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: Joining me today is NPR Music's Ann Powers. Welcome back, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Also joining us is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: What up? What up? What up?

THOMPSON: So when you go through the archives of this show, we did an episode on "Summer Of Soul" last summer, and the three of us got together to talk about "Get Back" just last month. But we also missed a bunch of other terrific documentaries about music - so many, in fact, that we thought we'd toss out a few more recommendations in this episode. Now, we could talk about all of them, but we cannot possibly get to them all. Ann, I'm going to start with you. Hit me with a great music documentary from this past year.

POWERS: Maybe the best movie period that I saw last year was the documentary by Todd Haynes, one of my favorite filmmakers, called "The Velvet Underground" about that completely groundbreaking New York band, the band that invented punk rock, some might say. OK. Set the scene. So this movie came out in October. I saw this in the theater. It was the first movie I saw in the theater and the last...

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

POWERS: ...Since the pandemic started. And I wept for joy because this is not your standard music documentary. This is a documentary made by an auteur that visually captures and embodies what its subject does musically. So Todd Haynes trying to figure out, you know, what happened when Lou Reed met John Cale and brought Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker into this band in the middle of a moment in New York City, avant garde art and film and music that also was all about Andy Warhol and the Factory and crazy theater projects - just, like, you know, so much happening in New York. How did this happen?

He uses all of this amazing footage from Andy Warhol's factory, from avant garde films at the time, from the art scene on a split screen while he's interviewing the still-living members of the Velvets and other people from the scene. And you get that feeling, that overload that, at least, I always get when I listen to the Velvets' music. So this film does the No. 1 thing that journalism is supposed to do - right? - that all writing does.

THOMPSON: Right. Right.

POWERS: It shows, not tells.

THOMPSON: Yeah. How do you evoke music...


THOMPSON: ...Without just playing the music? - because he didn't necessarily have, like, a ton of footage of the Velvet Underground performing, right?

POWERS: Right. Right.

THOMPSON: So he had all these recordings, but they're primarily audio.


THOMPSON: And how do you make it more than just a bunch of talking heads? So many documentaries period but certainly music documentaries where you have people talking about, wow, this band was great; they took the stage, and my mind was blown; I was like, time stopped when this band played - and like you said, Ann, it's, like, a lot of telling instead of showing. And it is remarkable how effectively this movie evokes music. It's really rare that you can't look away from a documentary. But I couldn't look away from this movie.

POWERS: Absolutely, if nothing else, just for the faces - right? - because one thing Haynes uses is Andy Warhol's screen tests. And those are just, you know, shots of people's faces. Just to see the young Lou Reed, the young John Cale, and then hear that music that they made while gazing into their eyes is very moving.

I have to single out one other thing about this documentary. The one criticism I heard the most was that it covered the early years of the band beautifully and their relationship to New York experimental film and street culture, bohemian culture. But it doesn't really look at the side of the Velvets that was about Lou Reed engaging with R&B, engaging with Black music, engaging with Black culture. And, you know, hits like "Rock And Roll," for example, are steeped in that music. And I think that's a valid criticism.

THOMPSON: I agree with you completely. And I unfortunately did not get to see it in the theater. It's streaming on Apple TV. I think we can agree this is a great one. Eric Deggans, give us your pick.

DEGGANS: OK. So my pick was the two docs that the New York Times Presents created for FX, "Framing Britney Spears" and "Controlling Britney Spears." And for me, particularly as a TV critic and media critic, one of the big judges that I have for quality of a documentary is the impact that it has...


DEGGANS: ...Because there's so many great documentaries out there that will tell you about things. But those documentaries that go beyond telling you things that you didn't know to have an impact in the world, to change things, I think, are really amazing. And so these docs basically got us all to reconsider how we treated Britney Spears when she was at her height as a pop star and then began having difficulties which seemed to be rooted in mental illness and mental struggles - right? - forcing us to reconsider how we talked about her sexuality, how we talked about her public meltdowns, how we talked about her marriage, how we talked about her parenting.

Then it went on to outline and tackle this conservancy that she was under, this conservatorship, and whether or not it was fair. And what exactly was the actual details of it? And once all of that sort of was laid before the public, the pressure to justify this conservatorship and tell the public why this is necessary, why a woman who's so functional that she could have a residency in Las Vegas, why she needed this - it all sort of fell apart.

And she was freed from it. She was allowed to hire her own lawyer and then eventually win her freedom from the conservancy. And we'll see how that plays out - but not only getting us to reconsider someone that we thought we knew for decades but to force us to reconsider how she's being treated in the modern day along with just a lot of really interesting footage and a lot of really interesting moments from her life.

POWERS: You and I, Eric, share some concerns about the ethics of this kind of documentary, even though at the same time, I think it's a very exciting development in music journalism and in arts journalism. But these are documentarians inserting themselves in the story in a way. So I just wonder what you think about that.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, every documentary has a mission statement, right? And if that mission statement is to push us to reevaluate an artist and push us to reconsider, you know, aspects of their lives, I don't know. To me, that makes sense. You know, as long as the person who's making the documentary is upfront about their intentions and is an honest broker - you know, they're not ignoring important evidence to make their points; they're not lying about things; they're not distorting things - that doesn't bother me so much as artist-approved documentaries that are happening where the artist is an executive producer. Like, I've talked to some directors who've done some of these, and they swear that the subject doesn't necessarily have direct approval over final cut. Knowing that you want access to that artist's music, you want that artists to promote the film when it comes out - it creates a lot of pressure...


DEGGANS: ...To do something that they'll like. In this case, they have a thesis, and they're trying to prove it. And as long as they prove it honestly, I don't have as much of a problem with that, especially when a lot of these docs - and we think about "Surviving R. Kelly," the docuseries that aired on Lifetime. We think about "Allen V. Farrow." We think about "Finding Neverland" (ph). These docs are about people who were previously sort of marginalized or ignored or treated badly trying to recapture the narrative. You know, Samantha Stark, the director of the Britney Spears docs, told me that one of her motivations was that she always felt, as a Britney Spears fan, that the pop culture universe wasn't fair to her...


DEGGANS: ...And had unfairly maligned her and shrugged off her difficulties, in part because of sexism. And so she wanted to go back to that material and force us to reconsider how we had treated her. And she did a great job. Both of the Britney Spears documentaries appeared on FX, the cable channel, and they're available on FX on Hulu.


POWERS: And I suggest watching them - binging them, as I did, because it's sort of like the "Gotterdammerung" of Britney Spears documentaries. You have to watch them together.


DEGGANS: That is an amazing reference. I love that.



THOMPSON: Well, the movie I wanted to talk about is "Tina." That's the Tina Turner documentary that's streaming on HBO Max. You know, we talk about these official documentaries. She wasn't an executive producer on the film, but her husband is. Still, I think it's a fantastic documentary.

It's a telling of Tina Turner's life that weaves in interviews with Tina Turner in the present day but also brings in some key interviews from throughout her life - one for a People magazine profile where she originally kind of went public with details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband - then-husband Ike Turner, also the book that she wrote with Kurt Loder, "I, Tina," which has some very compelling statements in it. This is a fairly standard talking head documentary, right? It weaves in some performance footage, but it's a lot of, you know, people sitting in stark rooms, talking about - you know, kind of telling their story and weaving that together to form a movie that has music woven in.

What, to me, is so interesting about this movie is that it really gets at one of the inherent contradictions that Tina Turner had to deal with throughout her career, where her way of dealing with the trauma that she had experienced was to speak frankly about it so that she would never have to speak frankly about it again. But because she was speaking frankly about it, that was very, very powerful for people. And that helped make her a very public symbol of the ways that people can deal with trauma and potentially triumph over it. And so she wound up having to relive that story.

And when she talks about giving that People Magazine interview and she keeps sort of saying, I'm telling this story so that I can put it behind me, and then she has that massive success with the album "Private Dancer" and songs like "What's Love Got To Do With It," where she became the true stadium-filling rock star she was born to be, finally got to experience that and then wrote this book with Kurt Loder - and, again, it was like, well, I'm going to tell my story. I'm going to put it all in this book, and then I'm never going to talk about it again. This movie has this montage of interviewers asking her in 20 different ways from 20 different angles, basically, please talk about how you were abused by Ike Turner.

POWERS: Right.

THOMPSON: And she didn't want to talk about it. And it's fascinating that her story is so wound up in the story of that abuse and then the story of breaking out and leaving Ike Turner and going out on her own. Now, finally, she's made it clear she is retired. The musical that helped kind of bring about this victory lap that she's been experiencing and this documentary are her kind of farewell tour, her victory lap. She has, like, retired to her villa with her wonderful husband and is, like, going to live out her days clearly not talking about this anymore.

And it's a really interesting examination of how you can be held captive by your own story in a way. And you can be one of the world's biggest rock stars, as Tina Turner has been, and still be defined by your worst possible moments that weren't your damn fault. It's a very powerful story.

DEGGANS: Everything that you say, Stephen, is true and is reflected in the doc. But I worry that we're removing some of the agency from Tina herself. If she really wanted to, I feel like she could have said, here's the book. Here's the People Magazine interview. I'm not talking about this anymore. I'm an artist now.

POWERS: That's so well-said, Eric. Stephen, what you're talking about is paradoxical. And I think it does obscure how absolutely pioneering Tina Turner was in rock 'n' roll. Like, this is the woman who taught Mick Jagger every move he knows, to invoke...


POWERS: ...The other major cliche we know about Tina Turner. And that is...

DEGGANS: Well, her and James Brown.

POWERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right on. Right on. You got it. You got it. But point being, it does obscure her musical contributions. But on the other hand, it is a way of having control over the narrative, even as much as it loops her back in.

The other thing I'll say is that if you think about the span of years in between "What's Love Got To Do With It" the movie, "Private Dancer" the album, which - even though the songs were not about the abuse, they definitely would work, you know, as a sort of metanarrative of the abuse. The span of time between that and this documentary - during that time, our awareness of PTSD, of trauma, of - these terms have come to dominate our understanding of both of abuse and of psychology. So I think this documentary is an interesting window into how we understand trauma in general and is valuable...


POWERS: ...For that.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's a great point. Clearly, we could keep going all day, but we want to know what you think about the movies we talked about today and some of the ones we didn't talk about today. Tell us about your favorite music documentaries from 2021. Find us at and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Eric and Ann, thanks so much for being here.

POWERS: Always a pleasure.

DEGGANS: I could talk about this all day, man - all day, obviously.


THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow.

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