From documentary to mockumentary, the films about American folk music artists, bands, tours, concerts and history are as diverse as the topics they present. Whether it's the undeniable energy of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the intense behind-the-scenes footage in Be Here to Love Me, or the silly color worshippers in A Mighty Wind, folk music fans are far from under-serviced at any local DVD store.
Here are my top five folk music movies:
Christopher Guest's tongue-in-cheek mockumentary about the 1960s folk music revival is, quite possibly, the funniest movie ever made about the stereotypes surrounding the folk music world. From the weird hippy color worshipping duo (featuring the hysterical improv queen Jane Lynch) to the burnout sweetheart duo Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, respectively), A Mighty Wind is easily one of the great contemporary classics.
This documentary follows Bob Dylan's career through its first decade. Drawing from interviews lauded director Martin Scorsese had with Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk and others, the film showcases Dylan's music and the legends that surround it. From his early days of obsession with Woody Guthrie, to his groundbreaking rock-studded performance at Newport, No Direction Home is well worth the several hours it takes to watch. For devoted fans and those just curious about Dylan's allure, NDH is an excellent in-depth look into this artist and the culture he influenced, as well as the one that so influenced him.
Often single-handedly credited with making bluegrass music cool again (thanks in part to George Clooney's performance), O Brother Where Art Thou? told the Odyssey-style tale of three men escaping from a chain gang in Mississippi, 1937. Motivated by a stash of loot, they make their way along an ultimate road trip journey. The soundtrack was produced by highly respected singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, whose choice of bluegrass tunes helped resurrect the genre.
Among songwriters and music fans alike, Townes Van Zandt is one of the most universally respected artists in his craft. Unfortunately, during his abbreviated lifetime, his notoriety hardly reflected that. In this heartbreaking documentary, featuring telling interviews with Guy Clark and others, Van Zandt's life and work are recounted and paid tribute to. Using home video footage and recordings, Be Here to Love Me weaves the story of Van Zandt's rice and fall together nicely.
Caught over the course of two nights at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, Neil Young's Heart of Gold film is one of the best live-in-concert folk music movies of late. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film captures an intimate portrait of one of the most versatile folk-rockers of all time.