Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Documentaries of Martin Scorsese

Yesterday, we looked back at the feature films of Martin Scorsese, and I remarked that his documentaries deserved their own post – so that’s what I’m doing now. He has made 13 documentaries, but despite my best efforts, I have never been able to see either Street Scenes (1970), his first documentary, nor Made in Milan (1990) his short documentary about fashion designer Armani. I have seen the other 11 however, and like his feature work, I can’t say that any of them are bad – but they are not all great.

11. The Blues: Feels Like Going Home (2003)
Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a big fan of the blues, but to me, this was is the weakest documentary Scorsese has made. He produced this long documentary series for TV, and recruited some great directors to participate – Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, etc – but directed the first episode himself. It looks at the origins of blues music, and features some of the oldest recordings the genre has ever produced, talks to old masters, current musicians inspired by these old blues, and eventually travels to Africa to see where it all started. It is a fascinating little film, and for Blues fans a must. But for me, even though I liked it, I didn’t love it.

10. Italianamerican (1974)
This is essentially a 49 minute conversation that Scorsese has with his parents, Charlie and Catherine. For Scorsese fans, it is a must, as it gives us a personal glimpse into Scorsese and his upbringing, how it shaped him, and by extension, how it shaped his films. It helps that his parents, especially his mother, are excellent storytellers, who hold you in their grip from beginning to end. They story they tell, of being the children of poor Italian immigrants, is nothing you haven’t heard before, so if you’re not a Scorsese fan, this is probably of little interest. But for Scorsese devotees, it is fascinating.

9. Shine a Light (2008)
It must be said that Shine a Light is as good of a concert documentary about the Rolling Stones as was possible to make in 2008. The problem is that Scorsese is probably about 40 years too late to make a truly great one. The Stones just aren’t the same band they were in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the danger that made the Maysles Brothers’ great Stones doc Gimme Shelter is missing (to be fair, they did have a murder by the Hell’s Angels to work with). So Shine a Light becomes an exercise in nostalgia – and as that, it is wonderful. I loved hearing the old songs, especially when I saw the film in IMAX. Like all of Scorsese’s films, it is intricate set up, and he hires some of the best cinematographers in the world. And the Stones, it must be said, bring it. I don’t really have a problem with Shine a Light – it just isn’t as good as it would have been had it been made in 1968.

8. American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978)
If you’ve seen Taxi Driver, you most likely remember Steven Prince. He plays the gun dealer who lies out his wares for Bickle to see, and lovingly describes each one. This small role leaves a big mark on the film, and obviously this man left a mark on Martin Scorsese who in this film interviews Prince for an hour about his life. Prince is a natural born storyteller, and he tells his story marked by violence and drug use directly to the camera, and keeps us enraptured throughout. When his stories end, Scorsese holds on him for a few beats after, and shows us the scared kid underneath all that bravado. American Boy is not very well known to the general public, but if you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s Waking Life or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, you’ll recognize a few of the stories originating here. You can only see this one on Youtube, but it’s worth it.

7. A Letter to Elia (2010)
Scorsese, along with former film critic Kent Jones, made this hour long tribute to director Elia Kazan last year to be included in the Elia Kazan Collection DVD box set. I’m sure some will complain that Scorsese skips many of Kazan’s films (including some of his best like A Streetcar Named Desire or A Face in the Crowd, both of which barely get mentioned) or that Scorsese barely mentions the controversial decision Kazan made to testify in front of HUAC. But neither of those things are really what this doc is about. This is a thank you note from one filmmaker to another, explaining what it is about his films that inspired Scorsese so much. Most of the running time is devoted to On the Waterfront and East of Eden (with more than a little Wild River and America, America thrown in). The result is a film that helps you see Kazan’s films in another light – and also helps to explain Scorsese’s own work. It is a fascinating tribute from one master to another.

6. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
Scorsese just released this nearly four hour documentary about George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle, and it is a fascinating portrait of a man who he must have related to. Both were born to working class parents and raised Catholic, and both have struggled to bring their actions in line with their faith – although Harrison takes his faith to another place than Scorsese does. The first half of the doc is better than the second half – it almost plays like an alternate history of the Beatles, since it has George, and not John and Paul, at its heart. The second half, about his life after the Beatles isn’t quite as good. It’s a little scattershot, but interesting nonetheless. If you’re a Beatles fan, you this is a must see. Same goes if you’re a Scorsese fan.

5. A Personal Journey Through American Movies with Martin Scorsese (1995)
You could ask for no better guide to American movies than Martin Scorsese, who is among the most passionate filmgoers in the world. There hardly seems to be a film he cannot talk intelligently about. This magnum, 3 hour, 45 minute documentary covers American films from the silent days right up until the late 1960s (where Scorsese stops, saying that since he started making movies then, it would be hard for him to comment on his own work and that of his contemporaries objectively). If you think this is going to be a dry history lessons, once again talking about the genius of Ford and Hawks and Welles and Kazan, etc, you’re wrong. The masters get their due, but Scorsese is just as passionate about many directors whose films are not routinely listed among canon titles. I’ve seen tons of old movies, and still filled up a page with suggestions while watching this film. I would suggest this documentary to anyone interested in film – no matter if you’re just getting started, or are a seasoned film buff.

4. My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Scorsese must have liked making A Personal Journey Through American Movies, because 4 years later, he made My Voyage to Italy, about Italian films. More narrowly focused than the previous film, this one concentrates on five directors – Roberto Rosselini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonnini and Federico Fellini, who Scorsese admired at different times in his life for different reasons. Still hugely long (four hours), the film concentrates on a few films from each filmmaker, making you see those films in the way Scorsese does. If I prefer this to A Personal Journey, it’s because of that depth, but both of these films should be seen by anyone who loves movies.

3. Public Speaking (2010)
Public Speaking aired on HBO last year, but you barely heard a peep about it. Not even Roger Ebert reviewed the film – and he reviews everything Scorsese does. And that’s a real shame, because it is a wonderful doc. Like the documentary about his parents or about Steven Prince, this documentary is essentially a conversation. This time, Scorsese sits across from Fran Lebowitz, who became a famous writer in the 1970s for her essays that were met with great critical acclaim. She sat down to write the “Great American Novel” and produced nothing. In all the decades since, she has produced criticism of others work, but for her own work, has been met with writer’s block. The documentary is hugely entertaining, because Lebowitz is a great speaker, a great storyteller, acid tongued, witty and sometimes hilarious. She holds herself above just about everyone else. And yet, it is tinged with sadness because she was never able to be what she wanted to be – the great American writer. If you haven’t seen this film, and I doubt many have, see it. Now.

2. The Last Waltz (1978)
There is a sadness to The Last Waltz that makes it different from most concert movies. If Shine a Light was about the joy of performing, even after 40 years, that The Last Waltz is about the endless drudgery of fame and being in a band. After 16 years on the road, The Band cannot stand to stay out there any longer. This is their final concert, shot by Scorsese on Thanksgiving 1976. The movie, of course, contains some of the best rock music of all time by The Band, and their guest stars. And Scorsese, much like always, insisted on trying to storyboard everything, even though there are hiccups no one could expect. The result is one of the greatest concert documentaries of all time. It’s that sadness that makes the film better, deeper than most films of its kind.

1. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
No Direction Home is one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time – and certainly the best one ever made about Bob Dylan, who despite an in depth interview for this film, and its massive four hour running time, remains a complete enigma. The film documents Dylan’s early life, but mainly concentrates on his early career – and the furor that erupted when he went from folk to rock music.  Scorsese’s film keeps the mystery of Dylan intact, mainly because Dylan keeps himself apart from everything. You get the sense that no one really knows him. No Direction Home is also a wonderful document of its time and place – a short sequence about the JFK assassination set to Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall is absolutely devastating. Scorsese spent a long time in the editing room for this film, but it was well worth it. The best documentary he has ever made, and one of the best I have ever seen.


  1. Thanks for this list--it's a great reference that I found, not surprisingly, by searching for "Scorcese documentaries" in Google. I was in Spotify, wanting to see if it has the soundtrack to "The Last Waltz" but couldn't remember the title, in spite of it's being one of my top albums, rock-n-roll movies, documentaries, and movies-in-general. I'll be adding your site to my Google "Cinema" bookmark list!

  2. PS to 2/8/13 8:34 AM Comment:
    Along with "Last Waltz," I've just recently watched "Living in the Material World," watched "No Direction Home" once and have watched "Personal Journey" multiple times--including showing it whole (in several sessions) or in excerpts to bunches of other film lovers. My first viewing was a marathon showing of the whole thing one night at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum. With a 7 or 7:30 PM start, the audience was greatly diminished to a diehard cinephile remnant by the time the last break ended, and we launched into Part III!