Media @ McGill

Michael Baker

Submitted by hive on

Rockumentary: Style, Performance, and Sound in a Documentary Genre 

Rockumentary: Style, Performance, and Sound in a Documentary Genre is the comprehensive study of an audio-visual genre concerned with the nonfictional representation of rock music and related idioms.  My project identifies the emergence of rockumentary in an era marked by shifting trends and innovations in both cinema and popular music.  Sparked by the explosive rise in popularity of rock music, rockumentary follows a trajectory tracing the broader history of documentary practice, at times serving to reshape that history and at others providing the clearest examples of documentary's limits and potentials.  It both captures and contributes to histories of documentary film and popular music generally, and rock music and rock culture specifically.  Moreover, rockumentary serves as an early and ongoing example of the negotiation of the presence of stars and staged spectacles in the context of nonfiction film and video.  This dissertation argues that rockumentary is the site where the anxieties about sound and the documentary image-an unease which runs throughout the history of cinema and has specific implications within the context of nonfiction film-are particularly acute, and the various conceptual and sociological issues surrounding film as a mediation of live experience versus a wholly constructed entity are crystallized most concretely.  It presents rockumentary as an audio-visual genre with both artistic relevance and commercial appeal, and poses questions about the role pleasure plays in differentiating the corpus from other nonfiction film and video genres.

Chapters 1 and 2 consist of literature review and criticism.  I introduce theories of genre within film studies and popular music studies and examine the dynamic nature of genre categories.  I move on to separate discussions of documentary and rock music, and the particular problems they pose within film studies and popular music studies.  I map and critique the distinction between genres, modes of organization in cinema, and modes of representation in documentary as a means of establishing a foundation for the discussion of rockumentary as an audiovisual genre, and develop a parallel critique of the often competing notions of authenticity as they relate to musical genres and performance.  Genre is adopted within this dissertation as both a conceptual and critical tool with which the historical, stylistic, and cultural features of the corpus are brought into focus for reflection.  Chapters 1 and 2 conclude with a re-introduction of the definition of rockumentary I propose in this introductory chapter; finally, I construct a typology of currents and trends within rockumentary which constitute the category and serve as the basis for my textual analysis.

Chapter 3 offers a pre-history of the rockumentary genre by briefly examining visual representations of musical performance in early cinema, classic Hollywood and international documentary practice.  I focus on three key contributions to the eventual development of the rockumentary genre for three distinct reasons: the Warner Bros.' Vitaphone Varieties of the 1930s for their successful demonstration of synchronized sound technology and the central role they play in the innovation and commercialization of synchronized sound within the North American industry; the Soundies of the 1940s for their innovative strategies of visually representing popular musical performance in nonfictional shorts; and the feature-length film Jazz on a Summer's Day (Bert Stern, USA, 1959) for its role in establishing a form for the organization of nonfiction footage of musical performances (specifically multi-artist events) in a feature-length format.  Jazz on a Summer's Day is also significant for its illustration of two representational strategies I describe throughout my project as journalistic and impressionistic.  These three contributions address the necessary pre-conditions for rockumentary, namely synchronized sound film and the re-organization of the popular music industry around recorded objects.  These early examples illustrate the tendency for visual representations of musical performance to adapt existing formal conventions of narrative film style to nonfiction film.

Chapters 4 and 5 tell the story of rockumentary through the detailed textual analysis of key films, reception studies of those films, and documentary research.  I apply the generic model developed in chapters one and two to offer a comprehensive history of the  first two waves of the genre from its foundation in short subjects and television productions of the early-1960s to its feature-length theatrical form epitomized by a classical phase lasting from the late-1960s to mid-1970s.  At the centre of this history are questions pertaining to formal style and aesthetics, the role of film and sound technologies in the evolution of the genre, and the intersection of film, music and popular culture manifest in rockumentary.  I conclude with a brief consideration of the genre's 'turn' to television and home video in the 1980s and 1990s and the role played by independent productions and digital filmmaking in the genre's ongoing renaissance which was sparked by the release (and acclaim) of several rockumentaries in the 2000s.  I explore the complexity of nonfictional representations of popular musical performance, examine the synergistic relationship between the film and music industries, and review existing theories of performance in nonfiction film with the aim of re-fashioning these models for the purpose of examining films featuring musical performers as their subject.

Chapter 6 expands upon the discussion of sound-image relationships in nonfiction film and rockumentary developed throughout the dissertation by focusing specifically on the soundtrack of the rockumentary genre.  The unique role played by sound recording and reproduction technology in the production and exhibition of concert films serves to challenge prevailing cultural beliefs-linked to both documentary's status as evidence and the authorizing role sight plays in the live performance of music-that "seeing is believing".  Many of the issues in this section grow out of the questions of performance and representation developed in the preceding chapters.  How do rockumentary films succeed or fail in visualizing musical practice and what are the "problems" of visual representations of rock?  Conversely, how do rockumentary films-especially musical sequences and concert films-attend to the cultural status of recorded music?  Do they reveal the true complexity of the sound-image relationships presented in the various currents of the genre and echo earlier debates concerning cinema's inherently realist or formalist nature?  The central vein of inquiry I pursue is straightforward: what distinguishes nonfiction film in which the dynamic use of pro-filmic sound and multiple layers of performance are motivated and rationalized by the subject matter?

The conclusion examines the current state of the rockumentary genre and explores the complimentary, though occasionally competing, spaces of festival exhibition, theatrical release, home video, and digital distribution.  I summarize the key theoretical and analytical models adopted and developed within the dissertation and I identify avenues for further research which emphasize the place of new media (including interactive digital media) in contemporary rockumentary and its offspring.  Appended to the text is a filmography of more than one hundred titles consulted during my research, including those examined in detail within the dissertation via case study.