By Courtney E. Smith
Independence Day celebrates, among other things, the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, a document our Founding Fathers wrote as a reaction to their not at all amicable decision to part ways with the British government and create a sovereign nation out of 13 colonies. The best known line in the thing is the second sentence, which reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
All this is to say, that if your pursuit of happiness over your three day weekend happens to include couch surfing and on-demand video watching, which is certainly one of your unalienable rights as an American, we’ve scouted out five distinctly American and wholly unusual music documentaries you might enjoy watching.
Chely Wright: Wish Me Away (Netflix)
Country star Chely Wright had a No. 1 hit single in 1999 and built her career on being the pretty girl on Maxim-esque lists who could really sing. So when she came out publicly on Oprah Winfrey in 2010, it was one of the few genuine bombshells to come from the Nashville music industry in quite some time. This documentary chronicles Wright’s struggles leading up to and after coming out in the world of country music, where religion and values are still make-or-break rubrics for the fans and stepping out of the land of “normal” can be a career killer.
Broadway Idiot with Billie Joe Armstrong (Hulu)
Green Day are one of the biggest rock bands in the world and one of the great American success stories. Their decision to make a concept album with American Idiot was ambitious, but turning it into a Broadway play was something else entirely. The doc takes you inside the staging and development of the play. It goes from the high-stakes moment of creating a new arrangement around their songs to actually sucking singer Billie Joe Armstrong in so fully that he executes a GRAMMY performance with the full Broadway cast and then appears in the show himself. Bonus points for noting that one of the three Broadway leads is Jim from The Newsroom, aka actor John Gallagher Jr.
Charles Bradley: Soul of America (Netflix)
Nothing says “living The American Dream” like a good ol’ fashioned success story. That’s what you get with Charles Bradley. The soul and R&B singer was in his 60s when he released his first record in 2001 and it ended up on Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 Albums of the Year list. This doc follows him through the hard times, from homeless teenager to James Brown impersonator. He got his big break when the head of Daptone Records spotted his act one night and now he’s critically acclaimed and Jay Z samples him. Good soul never dies, it just multiplies.
An Affair of the Heart (Netflix)
If we were to tell you this is a documentary about ’80s icon Rick Springfield’s very special relationship with his fans, shot in the 2000s and released in 2012, would you do a spit-take? Well it is, but it turns out the story is a little deeper than “suburban moms are still crazy about former soap star.” There are those fanatics, but this film found some more unusual fans who make this an engaging look at the Rick Springfield subculture, which is a very real thing. The crux of it, though, comes via a moment with original MTV VJ Mark Goodman, who tells the camera that Springfield realized he wasn’t a very nice guy to his fans the first time around and wanted to not be that self-centered guy when he tried music a second time around. In the end it is apparent that the incredibly devoted fans he’s found have had a profound impact on Rick Springfield.
Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (GooglePlay/YouTube)
Never heard of Anita O’Day? You really should. She was a hep chick who ran with Mel Tormé and the west coast “cool” jazz clique in the ’40s and ’50s. She’s got a mouth to rival any member of the Rat Pack, a sharp sense of humor and was one of the biggest female rebels on the scene. Even if vocal jazz isn’t your bag, baby, she’s the kind of broad whose stories you want to hear. O’Day’s life is a real slice of alternative Americana, from the days when being a non-conformist really meant something.