Amazing Journey: Six Quick Ones, a documentary film about the classic rock band The Who, has been broadcast as a standalone film on the Sundance channel, and also is available as part of a larger set of DVDs entitled Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who.
I have some, but not a huge amount, of knowledge of The Who, and I enjoy their music and am a fan, but they aren’t near the top of my list of favorites. (They’re at the level below my wanting to own all their CDs and the level above my not bothering with any of their CDs, which is to say the “greatest hits box set” level.) So I was predisposed to be receptive to this documentary about the band, but it was hardly a no-brainer that I would like it.
In fact, it held my interest from start to finish and is one of the best documentaries of its kind I’ve seen in a long time.
(The “Six Quick Ones” refers to the film being split into six parts or chapters, but really it’s not like they’re self-contained, strictly separate sections. It’s pretty much all one coherent film.)
There are at least a couple of common approaches documentaries about a band can take. First there’s the concert film, or even if not strictly a concert film about one specific event, a film that consists almost entirely of performances by the band.
Then there’s the biographical film that tells the life stories of the band members, or even more broadly takes a “life and times” approach to put the band in historical context.
This documentary is unusual in that it has only small elements of either of those. Clips of The Who performing are used to illustrate points, but it’s by no means an hour and a half of watching The Who in concert. There is also a small amount of historical and biographical information, but quite small (virtually nothing about their childhoods, marriages, and personal stuff like that), and only where necessary to provide context for what the film’s really about.
And what the film’s really about is The Who’s music–the band members as musicians, writers, performers.
That turned out to be a really good approach to take, or maybe the filmmakers just did it really well, or both, because I was quite interested the whole way. It faded just a bit for me toward the end when they give more recent updates about what the surviving two band members are up to these days, but it never fully lost me.
What I appreciated most about the film is that it’s not purely a “fan” movie about “Oh The Who’s the greatest, let’s just listen to their music,” but is instead analytical about their music. Yet somehow they made it non-technical enough that a lay person like me could follow it and gain new insight from it.
While obviously I can’t say I wouldn’t have appreciated even more of what was said if I were more knowledgeable about music and such, I never felt frustrated trying to understand the points being made. They do a really good job of making the musical analysis accessible to a general audience.
For each of the four band members, the film examines what they do that makes them unusually good or just unusual–Townshend as a guitarist and song writer, Daltrey as a vocalist, Entwistle as a bass guitarist, and Moon as a drummer.
The two surviving band members (Townsend and Daltrey) are interviewed at length, and there are valuable interview contributions from former managers and others involved in The Who’s history, as well as contemporary musicians such as Eddie Vedder, the Edge, and Sting.
And like I say, it’s insightful and well-communicated, with plenty of intriguing anecdotes and observations. (For instance that Townshend was so committed to achieving the sound he could only achieve with the most forceful “windmilling” on the guitar, that he would continue even after dropping his pick and routinely bloody his fingers and lose fingernails during performances. Or that Entwistle could create such extraordinarily rich and varied sounds with the bass, that when it came time to replace him in the band, they had to add multiple people playing different instruments to even come close to filling the hole he left.)
As a result of this film, I have a better knowledge of The Who as individual musicians and as a band, and a greater appreciation of them. The film succeeded in making me more of a fan.