Screen Wash: Are Music Docs Becoming Little More Than A PR Tool?

On the release of soft soap film Peter Doherty: Stranger In My Own Skin, Daniel Dylan Wray asks if music documentaries made in conjunction with their subjects can ever be anything other than a PR exercise, or "doc washing"

Peter Doherty is in full red military regalia and saluting. Union Jacks are draped everywhere, burning candles flicker out of the end of empty port bottles, the stub of a cigarette hangs out of his mouth as smoke encircles and engulfs him. He then sits at a desk scribbling away into notebooks, pausing only to dip his pen into a pot of ink. Next, he’s venturing outside into the crisp dark night under the stars. A silver harmonica twinkles under the light of the moon buried in some lush green grass. He bends down, picks it up and blows it, as firefly-like embers magically dance out of his every toot and gently float into the black of night.

This is a dream sequence scene from the new documentary Peter Doherty: Stranger In My Own Skin. It’s a narrative technique employed to give us a flash insight of the romantic notion – or perhaps delusion – that exists inside Doherty’s head when thinking of himself as an opium-soaked poet and songwriter. That is, before we’re plunged into the bleak realities of his actual world: a filthy house in Marlborough with cats roaming, a dead bird on the floor, and with blood splattered on the walls alongside scrawled poetry. The vibe is more sordid crack den than captain’s quarters.

While this may be a valiant attempt at myth-busting when it comes to the creative role heroin has had on The Libertines man’s life and music, it feels largely at odds with a film that participates more in narrative sidestepping than bare bones brutal honesty. Yes, we see Doherty down and out: taking drugs, nodding off, looking terrible, getting in trouble with the law, and squandering opportunities. And the reason we’re able to see all this up close and personal is because it was all shot by Doherty’s wife Katia deVidas, the director of the documentary.

However, while deVida, who started shooting in 2006, has set out to portray drug addiction in all its ugly reality and totality – and does a good job of this – it’s still all done within a rigid framework that doesn’t extend beyond framing Doherty as the lead in his own redemption arc narrative. As a result, the film becomes much more notable for what’s absent than for what we see, which for the most part is endless scenes of Doherty in grotty rooms and trashed flats where he strums guitars constantly, scribbles lyrics and poems on crumpled papers, and paints, smokes, sings and takes heroin.

While it’s deVida’s film, she hands plenty of it over to Doherty in terms of narrative steering. Doherty himself, and his quasi-poetic musings, bookend the film. From the opening seconds of the documentary, he is laying out the narrative via voiceover, speaking about his childhood issues with his dad and asking "how to describe a life when it never stops slipping like sand between your fingers?"

While in the film’s final moments, we are told by Doherty: "I’ve been through an incredible journey of consciousness, unconsciousness, subconsciousness, psychedelic psychotropic consciousness and chemical and intellectual curiosity" as we follow him in slo-mo waving a giant French flag along a beach, clinging to a bottle of rum in the other, before he takes to the stage to a roaring audience and hurls the flag into it. It’s the kind of thing John Lewis may knock up if their Christmas ad is ever themed around kicking skag.

It’s all hugely solipsistic stuff. There’s little meaningful reflection and no zoomed-out external perspective. No input from bandmates, friends or family. You wouldn’t even know he was a father to two children (now three) in the film, as they are never once mentioned, let alone featured. Despite the dark moments it depicts in Doherty’s life, the film is still incredibly selective and often prone to character depictions that lean towards a deeply romantic portrayal.

This results in deeply jarring viewing experience when it follows on so closely from the recent Channel 4 documentary Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son?, about the 2006 death of Mark Blanco. This follows the plight of Blanco’s bereaved mother to unlock truths about a suspicious death that has been fumbled terribly by police.

Not only do we not get any answers relating to this from Stranger In My Own Skin but we don’t get any questions either. As a subject it just simply doesn’t exist in the film. There’s nothing about Doherty being in the same room with Blanco minutes before he plunged to his death from a balcony, nothing about Doherty being filmed running past the body in the street, nothing about his bodyguard confessing to the murder and then going back on his statement, nothing about the Doherty-penned song ‘The Lost Art Of Murder’ in the wake of the incident. It is an inconvenient event that gets in the way of a story that is blinded by tunnel vision and an overly sympathetic bias.

And of course, why wouldn’t it be? Who is going to make a film about their husband and dig into all the worst and most controversial parts of their life? However, all of the unanswered questions regarding the death of a man that happened deep in Doherty’s world – that spawned its own entire documentary – being deemed a subject not even worthy of mention is not just about differing perspectives or creative approaches, it is doc washing. It’s using the documentary format as a means of executing subtle PR work, to present an image of a man under the guise of a warts-and-all film, all the while carefully controlling exactly what is revealed.

Much credit to Shaun Curran of The I, for actually addressing this issue in a recent interview to be met with an irate Doherty snapping, "Well, it won’t go away if you fucking bring it up in an interview" before composing himself and wondering if, nearly 20 years on from the incident, he should offer to help. Apparently, a forthcoming Louis Theroux interview will also ask some of these absent questions.

However, this isn’t about dunking on Doherty. It’s about the way documentaries are being made. Regardless of who makes them – partners, friends, journalists or filmmakers – documentary is an inherently subjective form. The second you put together two frames of footage and edit them in a certain way, you begin to tell a story. All documentaries choose what they leave out and put in. They all have a narrative. That of itself is not an issue, but who gets to tell, create, shape or determine that narrative has never felt more vital in such films right now.

The input that subjects themselves have – or their team, management, or record label – is becoming significant. Disney have just paid a reported $30million for an upcoming Elton John doc that will be co-directed by his husband David Furnish. Similarly, the Netflix documentary on Quincy Jones was co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones. The 2022 doc Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me was co-produced by Interscope, her record label. The documentary into the Fyre Festival disaster turned out to be co-produced by the festival’s marketing agency, bringing the film into question with one article in The New Republic asking "Fyre Festival Was a Huge Scam. Is Netflix’s Fyre Documentary a Scam, Too?"

While the director of the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, Lana Wilson, says there was no record label interference when making her film on the singer (who was shown a cut before release) it still resulted in what many critics felt was a little too close to an extension of the marketing department. "Brand management dressed up as insight" said The Guardian, while Variety wrote that it was "a controlled and sanded-off confection of pop-diva image management."

Even Brett Morgan’s largely critically acclaimed Moonage Daydream, an enjoyably kaleidoscopic and loudly entertaining voyage into the world of Bowie, is estate-approved and, as a result, lacks anything resembling any real critical edge. The result, said The New Statesman, "is a hagiography that diminishes rather than enhances our understanding of the man and his art."

This isn’t to say that a doc being estate or family endorsed, being made by someone close to the subject, or even being bankrolled by them, is inevitably a disaster or even a problem. Toby Amies’ In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50 was commissioned and funded by the band themselves, but is a funny, revealing, insightful and probing documentary because of the choices Amies made with the film. Donna Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, co-directed this year’s Love To Love You, Donna Summer and that wholly benefits from the connection by being able to plunge into familial grief, trauma and the darker parts of the singer’s life which she grew up under the shadow of. Proximity to a subject doesn’t have to result in a lack of robustness or integrity.

Similarly, it’s clear that Nick Cave has a relationship with his friend, the director Andrew Dominik (Cave commissioned, and his production company Bad Seed Ltd produced, the 2022 doc This Much I Know To Be True) that results in Domink being able to get a level of access and trust that perhaps nobody else could. No more so is this apparent in the heart wrenching portrayal of Cave and his family locked in grief in the deeply moving One More Time With Feeling. And, to be fair to Cave, while he has become somewhat of a master of controlling his own narrative in recent years, he has signed off on the great new documentary Mutiny In Heaven about The Birthday Party – currently on a limited cinema run in the UK – a film that captures Cave’s feral and depraved years; one that is world’s away from his Christian conservative image he is current peddling.

While there’s still plenty of interesting music docs being made independently and without interference – 2023 alone has seen docs on everything from drone lords Earth, Even Hell Has Its Heroes, to the free party rave scene via Free Party: A Folk History – things do appear to be moving further in one direction. In a 2021 article for The Independent, the controller for pop at the BBC Lorna Clarke, addressed that it was becoming harder to negotiate terms with artists for documentaries. "We’re in constant dialogue with artists’ management about how we can tell their talent’s stories", she said. "A big change we’ve seen in recent years is that the artist is more in control as they’re becoming executive producers of their own content. The challenge is trying to be as close to artists’ stories while remaining an independent editorial story."

As it stands, hundreds of professionals in the documentary world have signed an open letter from the Documentary Film Council, requesting a shift in attitudes to commissioning and funding that impact on the ability to tell interesting cultural stories independently. Part of it reads:

"Despite repeated efforts to expose the ‘golden age of documentary’ as the corporate age of true crime and ‘celebrity’ docs, the success of the commercial end of the spectrum, though welcome in many respects, has fostered the widespread misconception that the entire documentary ecosystem is booming. It is not.

"Films at the independent end of the spectrum – creative, observational, character-led films, films that originate outside of a commissioner’s brief or which explore difficult-but-vital political or cultural questions – are increasingly hard to get made. Production funding for independent docs is chronically low and support for development, let alone distribution and exhibition, is practically non-existent."

Now feels like a more important time than ever to ask what it is we actually want from documentaries. Big hitter docs on everyone from David Beckham to Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have all come under fire recently for essentially being marketing and PR tools. Getting intimate ‘access’ to a big name in return for a softball, or creatively compromised, approach can often feel akin to a Heat magazine wedding shoot – operating under an unspoken trade-off that if a subject offers access on their own terms then it shuts down the possibility of it being documented on somebody else’s.

While docs on mega celebs or globally successful artists may seem worlds apart from the smaller end of music documentaries, it all has a knock-on effect. If major studios, big name directors and producers are having to make concessions in order to acquire access – or get the clout that comes with obtaining the intellectual property – then that creates a trickle-down culture. What negotiating power does it leave a smaller director or producer when it comes to pitching a film that requires access to tell a story with depth, nuance, difficulty or even controversy? Let alone get one commissioned on a subject that doesn’t come with instant recognition or bankability.

Allowing scrubbed up and polished films that sand off jagged edges, lack depth of storytelling, avoid inconvenient truths, and sidestep scrutiny and accountability, are not films that audiences deserve. And, more worryingly, they result in even fewer of the ones we do being made.

Stranger In My Own Skin is in cinemas from Thursday. Toby Amies’ King Crimson At 50 documentary is available to watch online from 1 December

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