There had been some question about whether Taylor Swift’s Netflix special would actually appear. Last year it seemed that the ownership of her old songs by her previous record label would scupper it. But no, Ms Swift is not to be resisted, and lo, Miss Americana is available right now on Netflix, one of its two big music documentaries for the spring.
Many older men seem to have a visceral distaste for Ms Swift. If you share that distaste, then I’m sorry, it’s your loss, because she’s a fascinating figure (who has also made three truly terrific albums in Fearless, Red and 1989), and Miss Americana is well worth watching.
What makes her so fascinating is the way her life and work blend into one another: she’s been mind-bendingly famous since her mid-teens, and her principal songwriting subject for some years has been what people think of her. Her very life has often appeared to be a performance, and Miss Americana feeds into that. It’s an official film — there is nothing in it Swift does not want the world to see — but it’s revealing nevertheless. Her role in Miss Americana is as the young woman trying to transform herself, to secure self-determination (the heart of it is her decision to speak out publicly against a Trump-backed candidate in Tennessee in the 2018 midterms, to the horror of those around her). There’s a point at which she reflects on the great dilemma of being Taylor Swift: she is required to spend her whole life calibrating her behavior to the expectations of others, for fear of being viewed as less than perfect, only to then be accused of being calculating. You really wouldn’t want to be Taylor Swift.
I am plowing my way through music programming because my normal evening activity of watching bands has gone with the virus (this column would have been about gigs by Warmduscher and King Krule were it not for the End of the World). The other big new Netflix music documentary is ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, which was fine, but a little disappointing given it was made by the team responsible for my favorite ever rock documentary series, Metal Evolution (every episode is on YouTube; you can hate the music and still be compelled by the series). It’s not that they had nothing to say. Drummer Frank Beard’s admission that he spent his entire cheque from their folie de grandeur Worldwide Texas Tour on heroin is quite something, as is his evident distress, 35 years on, at the inefficiency of smoking heroin as opposed to injecting it (you need five times as much, apparently, to get the same high). It’s more that the makers didn’t find an interesting way to say it.
I suspect my disappointment came from overfamiliarity with the story. I’ve interviewed Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s guitarist, a few times (once, peculiarly, as part of a conversation with David Lynch about physics and engineering), and there was too little opportunity for his deep and unforced eccentricity to shine, and too much this-happened-then-that-happened. So if you plan to while away the hours of enforced lassitude by watching rockumentaries, my tip for maximum pleasure is to be counterintuitive: avoid the ones about musicians you are interested in.
So for full enjoyment, let me direct you to two from outside my normal range of musical interest. I Called Him Morgan (Netflix) is an excellent documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan (of The Sidewinder fame), which, for half of its length, is conventional: hot sideman plays with Dizzy Gillespie! Hot sideman goes solo! Oh, now he’s a heroin addict! And then it gets wildly unconventional after he meets Helen Moore. We hear Moore’s voice in a tape-recorded interview; we learn how she rescued Morgan from addiction, got his career back on its feet, and how he then became a complete arsehole all over again. And then she shot him dead. Those aren’t spoilers — his life story is no secret — but the telling of it is wonderful, sympathetic to both Morgan and Moore.
Rather less musically skilled are the titular subjects of Anti-Nowhere League: We Are The League (Amazon Prime). A more unpleasant bunch of people it’s hard to imagine coming across: four men from Tunbridge Wells who formed a terrible punk band not because they liked punk — certainly they had nothing in common with the art-school tendencies of its first wave — but because it was the only music they had the slightest chance of being able to play. The film is a succession of horrors, recounted with complete delight by the principals. I was transfixed.