Music·Opinion

Who gets to tell the story in music documentaries now?

This subgenre of film is thriving, but the battle over authorship threatens this golden era.

This subgenre of film is thriving, but the battle over authorship threatens this golden era

There has been a boom in music documentaries in recent years, including films focusing on Justin Bieber, Alanis Morissette and Dionne Warwick. (Justin Bieber/YouTube, courtesy of TIFF; Graphic by CBC)

In the opening moments of Jagged, a documentary that screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, director Alison Klayman admits that there's "still so much that I didn't know about" her film's subject, Alanis Morissette. 

Klayman, who stated in a Q&A with TIFF's Joana Vicente that she was "too young to have gone to any of the concerts" when Morissette's breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill first dropped in 1995, approached her film through a retrospective lens — something she had not done before with the subjects of her other features (Ai Weiwei, Steve Bannon). The goal, it appeared, was to build context around the exciting anomaly that was Morissette's dominance in pop culture in the late '90s, despite the rampant sexism that worked against women in music at the time. Morissette's specific experiences, Klayman hoped, would reflect bigger, more universal themes that her fans could relate to. And for the most part, the film succeeds by letting industry professionals, musicians and Morissette herself describe their own experiences, painting a vivid picture of what it was like to be a woman musician in that era. 

Unfortunately, Morissette didn't agree. In a statement explaining her absence from Jagged's TIFF premiere, the Canadian pop star blasted Klayman and the film for its "salacious agenda," adding that, "This was not the story I agreed to tell." 

It remains unclear what Morissette meant when saying the film "includes implications and facts that are simply not true." Some suspect it was the detail that circulated in the news about Morissette being a victim of "statutory rape" in a section of the film that discusses the lack of consenting power she had as a 15-year-old in a music industry surrounded by older, predatory men. 

In response to Morissette's statement, Klayman vaguely told the press, "It's a really hard thing to see a movie made about yourself and I think she's incredibly brave and her reaction when she saw it was that it was a really— she could feel all the work, all the nuance that went into it."  

Jagged is just one example of what some are now calling "the golden age of music documentaries," an era that has seen this subgenre of film explode with a variety of subjects both old and new. When focusing on older acts, documentaries often offer a look back, just as Jagged does with an album that is now considered an agent of nostalgia at 26 years old. Those types of films find their subject or director eager to reshape or mould the narrative in a way that they couldn't back then, whether it was due to societal barriers, toxic celebrity culture (as a slew of documentaries on pop star Britney Spears attempts to untangle), or lack of attention given to them (The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar Wright's foray into documentary filmmaking, dives into the underrated influence of American rock duo Sparks).

The look back is not a new documentary format, but instead a golden template for many to work off — successfully or not. When it works, it tells a story that transcends its subject and the music. Often it's a reflection of a time in history: the external circumstances that influenced the melodies just as much as the internal experiences and inspirations of an artist. Another film that screened at this year's TIFF, Dionne Warwick: Don't Make me Over, does a formidable job of painting viewers a portrait of the iconic pop/soul singer with a backdrop of America's racist, anti-Black culture from the '60s and on, and how that impacted Warwick's life and career. A TIFF film that aimed to tell a similar story, Oscar Peterson: Black + White, failed in comparison to tell its story without it coming off as a Wikipedia entry of accomplishments. (Sometimes, the time constraint of a documentary works against a filmmaker who is tasked with fitting in the decades-long career of an established artist.)  

But in recent years, we've also seen a rise in documentaries about modern-day pop stars, and a shift into following the lives of their subjects in almost real time. Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish and Demi Lovato have all released films or online series — some of them being the subject of multiple projects, like Bieber and Lovato — as a way to offer their fans an inside glimpse into their private lives. But it's here that documentaries tip-toe on a slippery slope that leads to celebrity culture today. 

While we're more aware of the dangers of celebrity culture in decades past, today's societal structure can also impact documentary-making negatively. With Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and social media at large giving musicians direct access to their audiences, media access to subjects has shrivelled. Many people have written about this growing imbalance, with stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift being able to control the circumstances of their coverage, from selecting interviewers to submitting their own writing in lieu of interviews altogether. Other times, access is completely cut off in the case of someone like Drake, who has sworn to never do a magazine interview again

So how is this translating to more music documentaries? 

Taking a closer look at a film's credits is key. Shawn Mendes' 2020 Netflix documentary, Shawn Mendes: In Wonder, is executive produced by Mendes. Mendes' peer, Justin Bieber, is similarly involved behind the scenes in his various documentaries, such as his YouTube series, Justin Bieber: Seasons. Even if an artist isn't literally a producer, some research will reveal label executives, managers or family members involved in the creative process. 

In both the aforementioned examples, documentaries begin to morph into a different beast: a Frankenstein monster of behind-the-scenes insight and categorical promotion. Both Mendes and Bieber's projects act as elongated press kits selling us on their new albums, featuring candid but highly manicured scenes that always feel like an arrow pointing you toward a pre-save page for Wonder or Changes. In the worst cases, watching a documentary can feel like it shares the same function as watching your favourite star's Instagram story posts now. A documentary needs to serve a bigger purpose, but not all of them are authentic. 

With the internet empowering more artists, who has control over a documentary provides an interesting tug-of-war in authorship: who gets to tell their story, and how much control are artists and directors willing to give up for the sake of the subject, and for the sake of documentary storytelling.

Morissette's public disapproval of Jagged exposes this growing tension. Sure, she agreed to speak on-camera, but she ultimately didn't get to make decisions on the final cut. When she saw the finished product, she took to the public to express her frustration. But ultimately, without knowing the exact details of what Morissette found to be untrue, Jagged is a good film that tells a compelling story from Klayman's point of view. Would a Morissette-produced project do a better job at telling the singer's story? Perhaps, but if the authorship continues to fall closer toward the musician, then what happens to the art of documentary making? 

Alfred Hitchcock once said, "In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." But what happens when the artist tries to play God? 

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