Music Documentaries at the 61st Cork Film Festival

Music documentary programmer Si Edwards gives us an overview of the music docs at this year’s Festival.

The wonderful thing about both film and music is that they both lend themselves perfectly to the world of the obsessives among us. Of course, both can be appreciated and enjoyed as light entertainment, but for those of us who like to dig deeper, film and music both contain endless depths. They can lead us through the gamut of emotions, whether through popular releases, or small independents. To paraphrase the great James Newell Osterberg, Jr., they have the ability to “swallow all misery whole”.

But what happens when one of these worlds look inwards into the other? Can film effectively show us what it means to be a musician, a DJ, a club runner, an originator? Can a documentary give us an insight into the life and soul of a supremely talented artist, without destroying any mythology built up around them? Yes it can, but as with anything else to do with filmmaking, it’s hard. Of all the music documentaries that exist, only a handful of them can be deemed truly great, and these few manage to find an ideal balancing point between the artist and the art, the musician and the music.

During the opening weekend of the 61st Cork Film Festival, we will get an opportunity to hear the aforementioned Mr Osterberg (better known to us as the great Iggy Pop) tell us the story of his early years as leader of proto-punk powerhouses The Stooges in Jim Jarmusch’s monumental GIMME DANGER, their chemical-fuelled juggernaut ride through the late 60’s and early 70’s underground, leaving all remnants of “flower power” flattened in their wake. Yet what of some of our other unsung heroes? Those that created something so unique and yet slipped under the radar of popular culture? Here we present to you just a few of these beautiful souls:


Syl Johnson is the possessor of a raw and soulful voice. Indeed, there is so much emotion contained in that raw and soulful voice that I’m certain it could easily make people’s clothes just fall off. Then why haven’t you heard of him? You might want to take a look at a certain Mr Al Green, who signed to Hi Records around the same time that Johnson did, and promptly skyrocketed to fame with his smoother sound. Nonetheless, even if you haven’t heard of Syl, you’ve definitely heard him, or at least you’ve heard him saying “Uh!”, as the intro to his single ‘Different Strokes’ is up there with the most sampled records in hip hop. Don’t believe me? I have director Robert Hatch-Miller’s hugely entertaining documentary as proof.

Robert and producer Puloma Basu will also be on hand to answer any questions during a Q&A following the film. This is an International Premiere.


We are now taking a journey to the completely opposite end of the ‘raw’ spectrum. Whilst Syl Johnson could make your clothes fall off, Borbetomagus would more than likely take your skin too. Nowhere else in the world of music will you find such pure force created by just two saxophones and a guitar. Many would have thought that a documentary telling the story of such a gargantuan, uncompromising improvised noise trio as Borbetomagus would have been impossible, and yet Jef Mertens has managed to do just that, and just as the band themselves have done throughout their 37-year career, he has done so without compromise. Several fans of the band, such as writer Byron Coley and Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, are on hand to provide their own appreciation of Borbetomagus and their unique music, however the film is all about the sound of this extreme, unashamedly original band, and that is exactly how it should be. The live footage contained herein is truly astonishing, and takes absolutely zero prisoners!

Cork-based artist Vicky Langan, herself no stranger to raw and intense performances in both sound and art, will be introducing the film and it’s director Jef Mertens to Cork for the first time for this Irish Premiere.


The 1960’s saw the evolution of the folk guitar travel from strummed accompaniment to fingerpicked virtuosity. On both sides of the Atlantic, guitarists such as Davy Graham, John Fahey and Bert Jansch became synonymous with folk guitar at its most accomplished. Equally as talented, and arguably even more original, was Robbie Basho, yet his achievements went largely unsung. Whilst his contemporaries such as John Fahey channeled a new form of country blues, Basho was adapting what he had first heard from the records of Ravi Shankar, and although very few listened to his records when they were released, it is clear now that he was very far ahead of his time. Unfortunately, Robbie Basho suffered a strange and untimely death at the age of 45, at which point none of his records were in print, and so he never lived to see his popularity and influence grow. However it’s impossible to hear contemporary artists like 12-string wunderkind James Blackshaw, or Ben Chasny’s cosmic raga-folk as Six Organs Of Admittance, without acknowledging Basho and his new age vision.

Liam Barker’s documentary brings together such luminaries as Pete Townsend and Country Joe McDonald, amongst others, to share the story of this beautiful, troubled soul.


Bringing great music to the masses is a great thing, and bringing other people’s music to the masses deserves to be celebrated just as much as if it were your own. Such is the case of Death By Audio, a DIY music and arts venue in Brooklyn that opened its doors in 2007, and quickly became the best  underground venue in New York. Co-founders Matt Conboy (who directed this film) and Oliver Ackerman (himself the frontman for psychedelic space rockers A Place To Bury Strangers) pulled in some of the finest in cutting-edge underground music, such as Future islands, Pissed Jeans, Thee Oh Sees, JEFF the Brotherhood, Deerhoof, Lightning Bolt… I could go on and would be nowhere near closer to showing just how cool this venue was. Then one day, they were forced to close by one of their former champions, and became another victim of the increasingly one-sided “corporate-against-culture” war. In the true spirit of Death By Audio, they refused to go down without giving as much back to their loyal public as possible, and the last month of the club saw the return of many of the great acts who had frequented the stage in previous years. For us true music lovers, it is impossible not to be swept up in the emotion of the events that took place during this last month, and I’m not ashamed to say that I shed several tears towards the end of this film, but both of sadness and joy.


If it wasn’t for Tony Conrad, there would be no Velvet Underground, and he wasn’t even in the band! Conrad found the book from which the band took their name lying in the street, but even beyond the name, his influence can be heard all over the Velvet’s first album. Tony was one of the founding members of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a group of musicians who explored minimalism in the extreme, often with long drones achieved by Conrad’s violin and John Cale’s viola, together with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s voices. Yet whilst Cale went on to add his drones to the Velvets, and Young was deemed the Godfather of minimal composition, Tony Conrad’s name seemed strangely absent. Indeed, up until the mid-90’s, the only place you could hear Conrad in action was on 1973’s ‘Outside The Dream Syndicate’, a veritable thudding behemoth of drone music, performed with the no less astonishing German experimenters Faust. Tony had also made quite a reputation for himself as a filmmaker, again exploring minimalism, repetition and structure, and succeeded in making several of his audience quite ill at the first screening of his film ‘The Flicker’, due to its strobing, repetitive black and white frames.

From the mid-90’s, Tony’s influence on minimalism and drone music started to gain momentum, thanks to the efforts of the record label Table of the Elements, and he began performing music again, to great acclaim and with many great collaborators. Sadly, the world lost Tony in April of this year to prostate cancer, yet Tyler Hubby’s film celebrates his life and achievements, and cements his place as one of the true originators of our time.


The one thing that can be said for all of the people mentioned above is that they are all passionate about music. This also applies to Bi Kidude, and probably moreso, due to the length of time she had spent on this earth. Not many people can claim to be a celebrated performing singer when they are in their 100’s, and yet Bi Kidude was one of East Africa’s most celebrated performers. Filmmaker Andy Jones had previously made a film celebrating Kidude’s life, titled ‘As Old As My Tongue’, forming a great friendship with the singer, but unfortunately they lost touch for several years. Then, in 2012, Andy’s friends contacted him to let him know that Bi Kidude had gone missing, and so he set out once again to find her.

Through interviews with friends and colleagues of Bi Kidude, and following a televised interview with a previously unknown relative of the singer, Andy pieces together the truth behind Bi Kidude’s disappearance, and helps to reintroduce her with her greatest love, music. We can only hope that, if we are all fortunate enough to reach the grand age of 102, we will still have the same passion for music as Bi Kidude. A truly inspirational woman.