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Guest Columnist: Made by artists: Films about artists

Joan Baez

Tired of so much violence and dysfunction in Hollywood movies? Try watching documentaries about real people.

Twenty years ago, novelist and playwright friend Wesley Brown told me that he always watches movies about artists. What a remarkable way to learn, I thought. When Netflix emerged, I began to hunt for documentaries of musicians and writers whose work I, as listener or reader, loved.

For instance, we recently watched the 2009 documentary "Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound," directed by Mary Wharton. It's full of vintage footage and recent interviews with the singer-songwriter. When I was in high school and college, I loved Baez' albums. A Californian, she sang old American and English folk songs in an ethereal soprano voice with a lovely tremor. She finger-picked her own guitar accompaniments. She sang anti-Vietnam war songs, hooking up with Bob Dylan and his poetry and playing at the Newport Folk Festival. She became a lifelong human rights activist, marching with Martin Luther King, comforting bombing victims in Cambodia, and strumming and singing in the streets of Sarajevo during the worst of the genocide there. She is still performing on the road, sometimes with her grown son.

Among jazz documentaries, I found Charlotte Zwerin's "Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser" the most awe-inspiring. A college boyfriend introduced me to jazz in the late 1960s. Though over the years, I'd seen Miles Davis and Chet Baker each playing their trumpets live in small club settings, I'd never seen Monk, heard his working voice or watched his explosive, experimental piano work. Through commentators, the film explains why his rhythms were so path-breaking and his compositions so mind-blowing. It also shows how he worked with his musician partners.

Among the saddest, "What Happened Miss Simone?," directed by Liz Garbus, begins with footage of Nina as a child, already an accomplished classical pianist. Thwarted by racist admissions practices in conservatories, Simone began sneaking out of her parents Philadelphia home to play at Jersey Shore casino clubs. She learned that she could sing — in an unmatchable low and smoky voice.

Becoming an internationally sought-after jazz vocalist, she suffered under an abusive husband/manager. A civil rights activist, she lost her faith in America after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination and emigrated to Liberia and then to Paris. Two days before she died at age 80, the Curtis Institute of Music, which had denied her admission as a youth, awarded her an honorary degree.

The most upbeat one we've watched to date? Without question, "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise," directed by Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn-Whack.

Angelou began as a performer, singing and dancing in clubs. She moved on to poetry and memoir — her work always uplifting. I remember driving back from an Adirondacks ski trip with my son and his schoolmate, both age 13, and our 16-year-old exchange student from East Germany. We were listening, in her own voice, to Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," her memoir of growing up.

As we pulled into our home driveway, Angelou was recounting how an uncle had molested her as a schoolgirl. It was riveting. I turned off the car key. Not one of the boys moved to opened a door until well after her account was over.

The Angelou documentary is joyful. Almost every sentence she breathes is powerful, her words reverberating in our heads for days afterward.

Artist documentaries are a lot of work. Especially when the subject is dead or long gone. Artists aren't normally filmed by newsmakers, the way politicians or sports giants are. The Monk film was possible because someone in the 1980s found a large stash of archived footage of his rehearsals and performances. In some of these and other artist documentaries, a grown daughter or son or partner shares insights about the artist, and colleagues comment.

If I had a modest research grant and the gift of time, I'd try to reach the documentary makers — artists themselves.

For now, I'll have to settle for imagining why each devoted months, even years, of their lives to bringing us these enduring portraits.

P.S. Some are available on YouTube.