28 Days, 28 Black Music Documentaries by Mark Montgomery French
Written by Mark Montgomery French who is the host of our upcoming event All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black
1. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017)
Androgynous rockstar-actress-fashionista Grace Jones is so iconic that she’s become an adjective used to describe other people, like the Dora Milaje from Black Panther. She’s also Jamaican, and this documentary captures 12 years of her life as an active member of a large and loving Jamaican family, while also being a provocatively singular and internationally famous artist for the last four decades. Her familial connection may be why the real Grace is remarkably down-to-earth, whether negotiating studio time, performing a concert while hula-hooping, or discussing weight training with the camera person while nude. As for the title,“Bloodlight” is Jones’s term for the red “we’re recording” light in Jamaican music studios and “Bami” is Jamaican cassava flatbread. Documentaries can be so educational!
2. Louis Armstrong: Satchmo (1989)
Much like Grandmaster Flash, jazz legend Louis Armstrong perfected an art form before anyone knew it was an art form. Starting in the ’20s, he instructed a generation of vocalists how to scat and sing, and taught a generation of trumpeters how to solo and swing. His smiling and mugging stage presence caught him some heat from civil rights activists in the early ’60s, but when his “Hello Dolly” ended The Beatles’s 14-week run at #1, how could he not smile at that?
3. Remastered: Who Killed Jam Master Jay? (2018)
Speaking of the Beatles, if Run-DMC were the Beatles of hip-hop, DJ Jam Master Jay was their Ringo Starr, a lovable beatmaker, hometown ambassador, and the heart of the band. Sadly, he was also its John Lennon, as he too was gunned down in New York City in his prime. It’s incredulous that his case has been open since 2002, and although his murder had witnesses, security cameras, and took place only two blocks from a police station, the indifferent investigation has come to a standstill. Through animated reenactments, official files, and in-depth interviews Who Killed Jam Master Jay? spearheads a new narrative to deduce motives and suspects.
4. Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary (2017)
Rock stars are celebrated for doing crazy things on stage, so it gets complicated when a rock star may actually be…well…crazy. Acrobatic and erratic punk singer HR was a whirlwind in his prime, but decades of unchecked mental illness have caused lawsuits, personality changes, and eroded the legacy of his band, the pioneering Bad Brains. But HR retains his positive mental attitude as he navigates a path toward creative clarity.
5. The Allen Toussaint Touch (2011)
Prodigious polymath Allen Toussaint is too modest to admit he’s a musical wizard, but early in this documentary, he casually mentions that the tone of a pole he knocks on, combined with the tone of a passing cab horn, equals a minor third. His story is not only about music, but of the music business itself. In the ’50s, his touch weaved the sonics of New Orleans into a smooth, yet funky stew of hits for R&B acts (Lee Dorsey, The Meters), some which became hits for rock artists in the ’60s (Rolling Stones, The Who), funk and country acts in the ’70s (LaBelle, Glen Campbell), alternative artists in the ’80s (Devo, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and sampled by hip-hop acts in the ’90s (Nas, A Tribe Called Quest), culminating in his resurgence as an artist in the ’00s.
6. Quincy (2018)
Quincy Jones works harder than you. Quincy Jones is working right now as you read this sentence. One doesn’t escape poverty, become Frank Sinatra’s arranger, bust the color line for film composers, create successful movies and television shows, and produce the biggest album of all time without putting in maximum effort. He even cheats death on camera, as death is not in his schedule.
7. Crate Diggers: J Dilla (2013)
Hip-hop producer J Dilla was a gigantically influential talent who shunned fame, making him both the least-known and the most-respected member of the Soulquarians music collective (which included Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Questlove). Dilla helmed hit records for Janet Jackson, The Roots, and A Tribe Called Quest, but his death at 32 years old prevented him from ascending into the mainstream (although he does have a French street named after him). In a bid to keep his name alive, his friends and family reminisce over him, as they share his record shopping excursions, innovative sonic ideas, and visit his vast record collection, while trying not to cry on camera.
8. Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet (2005)
If it’s 1979, and you find yourself fronting an unfeasibly large group of bewigged and be-masked musicians who perform your synth-led jams inspired by intergalactic travel and Black consciousness, you’re probably George Clinton of P-Funk. However, if you are doing all the above in 1969, you are Sun Ra of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and your alien sounds are simply you communicating with your home planet of Saturn. (Yes, he claimed to come from Saturn.) He led his band like a benevolent cult full of Afro-futurism, mathematical theories, and music brimming with imagination and cacophony.
9. Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (2016)
Backup musicians may get the love, but they almost never get the respect. Pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitarist Hubert Sumlin are considered “the sons of the Blues and the fathers of Rock’n’Roll.” They were sidemen to legendary Chicago bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but once those artists died, these three instrumentalists were discarded in spite of reverence by multiple generations of musicians. But authenticity is in vogue again, and these octogenarians aren’t going to miss their shot.
10. Unsung Hollywood: Eartha Kitt (2008)
“Santa Baby” singer and the most purrrrfect Catwoman ever, Eartha Kitt was an abandoned mixed-race girl in the deep South who transformed herself into a Broadway dancer, nightclub performer, Hollywood actress, and a strikingly sexy icon of Black female agency. She put her career on the line fighting against the Vietnam War Conflict and fighting for racial equality in Las Vegas clubs. Fun fact: she’s the first person in America to sing a hit song in Turkish!
11. The Black Roots of Salsa (2008)
With one million African slaves brought to Cuba over 300 years, it was only a matter of time before Cuban rhythms would evolve. Slaves who worked in the ports during the 1880s helped create the roots of rumba, utilizing a triple-pulse clave beat that came from sub-Saharan African bell patterns. During the 1910s, this musical form added guitar and morphed into the genre known as Son Cubano, from which Salsa is a descendent.
12. Brothers Hypnotic (2008)
Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble comprises the eight sons of famed jazz trumpeter and kalimba-lover Phil Cohran, and they kick serious brass. Their father, who once played with Sun Ra (you know, back up at #8) bestowed upon his kids a love of community and Black consciousness, which helps guide their career path. Along the way, they magnetically attract world-famous fans — like Prince, Mos Def, and Blur/Gorillaz head Damon Albarn — who all rushed to work with them.
13. De La Soul Is Not Dead (2016)
14. De La Soul — We’re Still Here (now)… a documentary about nobody (2016)
These pair of docs celebrate Amityville, Long Island’s favorite sons De La Soul, as they enter their 30th year of dropping dense and delightful rhymes. “Dead” replays their entire career, from flipping the script with zany samples to getting flipped by lawyers for uncleared samples, and changing from goofy kids with silly skits to serious men and sophisticates. “Nobody” centers on the release of their comeback album “and the Anonymous Nobody,” named for the 11,000 Kickstarter fans that pledged De La Soul a record-setting $600,000 to create said album.
15. Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year with Andre Williams (2008)
A first-rate talent with a third-rate career on his second wave of popularity, raunchy soul rascal Andre Williams sings through his resurrection while trying very hard to curb self-destruction. The “Shake A Tail Feather” composer is still snappily dressed at 70, and his resonant voice, bizarre lyrics and magnetic performances are still attractive to college kids worldwide. But half a century on the R&B periphery has left him broke and cantankerous with a questionable sense of self-care. Yet his authentic love of song craft is exciting to witness, and listening to old people discuss themselves in the third person is always enjoyable.
16. I Go Back Home: Jimmy Scott (2016)
With his behind-the-beat phrasing, big band songs, and ill health, cult jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott is out of time in every way possible. But he wants to make one last album, wheelchair-bound fragility be damned. Producer Ralf Kemper assembles an enviable coterie of music legends to support Scott, including saxophonist David Sanborn, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and singer/actor/close personal friend Joe Pesci. And hey, there’s Quincy Jones!
17. T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s (2011)
The Blues was Black America’s first alternative music — the rowdy bad seed compared to its genteel cousin Gospel. (“Why can’t you be more like Gospel, Blues? White people are watching!”) The traveling blues shows of the 1920s were the original Lollapalooza — a motley band of musical outlaws who criss-crossed America and sold massive amounts of records. Although Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and others were the club sandwich of oppression — queer, Black, and female — within these concerts they created spaces to be themselves: tough, sexy, and man-free.
18. Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case of the Three Sided Dream (2014)
Composer and musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk liked to play the nose flute, believed his dreams should guide his waking life, and thought insects had great rhythm. He also was a blind man who played three saxes at one time so he was initially misunderstood as a gimmicky circus act. But his shimmering tones, harmonic control, and eternal campaign for Jazz to be regarded as “Black Classical Music” forced a re-evaluation of his short-lived artistry.
19. Presenting Princess Shaw (2016)
Struggling YouTube singers post their content into the void, betting against the deflating crush of reality that their posts will elevate their career. Princess Shaw is one of these singers, a hardscrabble New Orleans healthcare worker who posts a cappella videos of her original compositions to minimal response. But she attracts the attention of Tel Aviv remix artist Kutiman, who routinely constructs song collages from YouTube fragments. This doc makes us complicit in keeping a secret from its own subject. A big secret.
20. Salif Keita: Destiny of a Noble Outcast (1989)
To be albino in sub-Saharan Africa is to live with the constant specter of death. Not only is the sun trying to terminate you, but you may also be hunted and killed for your body parts, which many believe will bring riches to its new owner. Afro-pop singer-songwriter Salif Keita was born a prince in the Mali royal family, but his albinism and desire to be a singer caused him to be cast out of his village. Without the merest sense of “how do you like me now,” Keita revisits the cities, clubs, and confidantes that helped him shift from homeless busker to world music superstar.
21. Tales From the Tour Bus: Morris Day (2018)
Hosted with deep affection by “Beavis & Butthead” creator Mike Judge, this animated retelling of singer Morris Day’s rise to fame is hysterical, primarily because it looks like an all-Black episode of “King of the Hill.” Prince creates funk group The Time to highlight Day’s ultra-cool personality (and partially to irritate Rick James), but it soon became Day’s pimped-out purple prison, as Prince unsurprisingly controlled everythang. But Day did have his moments of creative glory, such as spinning a scene from “The Flintstones” into The Time’s hit “The Bird.”
22. The Story of Lovers Rock (2011)
The romantic reggae riddims of UB40, Maxi Priest, and Aswad are representative of the sound known as “Lovers Rock.” Crafted in the early ’70s by first generation Carribean immigrants in the United Kingdom, the gentle music and its intimate dancing provided these young Black people temporary escape from institutional racism and parental confusion. Betwixt club scene re-enactments, Lovers Rock legends Dennis Bovell, John Kpiaye, and Janet Kay explain its histories and mysteries.
23. Young, Gifted & Classical: the Making of a Maestro (2016)
You may know cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist who performed at the 2018 marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But in 2016, he became instantly famous in England when he won the “BBC Young Musician of the Year” competition, becoming the first Black musician to win the award in its 38-year history. (You can see his winning performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto №1 here.) Although his six siblings are also elite classical musicians, less than 5% of British classical music professionals are Black or Minority Ethnic. Watch as he gracefully juggles being a role model, his sudden popularity, his path to becoming an international cello professional, and simply chilling as a 17-year-old high school student.
24. Rejoice and Shout (2011)
Gospel music was the unlikely by-product of slavery, in which the slaves’ field hollers blended with their introduction to a Eurocentric God. It’s call-and-response nature and the belief of heavenly salvation has followed the path of 20th-century music, although with a lot more fanciful hats. From subdued organ-led choir harmonies to fall-on-the-floor shouts over funk bands, Smokey Robinson, The Soul Stirrers, and The Blind Boys of Alabama share the notion that no matter how low you feel during the week, Gospel music will lift you up on Sunday.
25. Peter Tosh: Stepping Razor — Red X (2002)
Jamaican singer-songwriter Peter Tosh liked to speak his mind, all the time. His love of cannabis informed “Legalize It,” his love of human rights informed “Get Up, Stand Up,” and his love of friendship got him murdered by a “friend” during a botched robbery. Tosh is the unlikely narrator of this documentary, as it’s built upon four years of autobiographical tapes he recorded for another project. The ex-Wailer intensely free-associates on government oppression, police brutality, and record company shenanigans, while his community pays respect to his unwavering honor.
26. Ornette: Made in America (1985)
Saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman liked free jazz, thought playing slightly out-of-tune was cool, and chose to record with Yoko Ono, all choices that point to why Miles Davis thought something was wrong with him. But Coleman lived long enough for his radical ideas to be accepted, as you see him here receiving a “Key to the City” from his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, where the local symphony premieres his classical piece “Skies of America.” The music is defiant, obtuse, off-balance — a glorious threat made real.
27. In Groove We Trust: A Joe Bowie Experience (2014)
New York’s avant-garde jazz-punk-funk band Defunkt defines themselves as “a scream against ordinary,” and describes bandleader-trombonist Joe Bowie as “the Stephen Hawking of funk and rocking.” Their truly un-categorizable splats of sound was a major influence on the early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a major reason why they’ve never broken through to mainstream. (Well, that, and the occasional heroin addiction.) Amazingly, the core of Defunkt has remained constant since 1982, which Bowie attributes to the grounded-ness of his Buddhist rituals and the groove that connects us all.
28. Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall (2016)
Imagine being Michael Jackson in 1979. You’ve made 18 albums, but thanks to the Jackson 5 Saturday morning cartoon, your musical credibility is non-existent. You’re primed to compose songs as well as Motown’s finest, dance as well as Sammy Davis Jr, and sing as well as Stevie Wonder, but the only person who believes in you just scored The Wiz movie, and now he’s getting the side-eye. Even your label president is skeptical. If you went to him about recording a wall-based dance track, he’d probably say “I love Pink Floyd too!” This Spike Lee Joint assembles a jaw-dropping selection of rare live and studio footage — all pre-Thriller — that reveals what should have been obvious at the time: Michael Jackson had blossomed into an Olympic-level artist.
And hey, there’s Quincy Jones!