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From Linda Ronstadt to ZZ Top, rock documentaries are exploding

"Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" directed

"Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice" directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, will open in theaters Sept. 6. Credit: Greenwich Entertainment

Now playing somewhere near you: David Crosby. Coming soon: ZZ Top and Linda Ronstadt. And don't be surprised if you see the Go-Go's added to the lineup.

No, they're not part of a strange new music festival. You can, however, see them on the big screen at your local theater. They're just some of the bands and artists benefiting from this year's explosion of rock documentaries.

For music lovers, especially of a certain age, this year is something of a rock renaissance. The boom began in May with "Echo in the Canyon," a flashback to the California soft-rock scene of the early 1970s. The floodgates really opened this summer — the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, not coincidentally — with the release of "Bill Wyman: The Quiet One," about the Rolling Stones bassist; "Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love," which delves into one of Leonard Cohen's most famous songs; and "David Crosby: Remember My Name," featuring candid self-assessments from the cantankerous folk-rocker. One of the most buzzed-about entries, "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice," a portrait of the adventurous singer who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2012, will be released in September.

"We're at the point where a lot of these artists are getting older," says Sam Dunn, director of "ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas," which began playing one-night engagements at theaters nationwide this month and will roughly follow the band's tour across the United States. "A lot of them are wanting to cement their legacies. Obviously, having their story told is one way to do that."

There's also a financial upside, of course. "Documentaries, especially for older bands, are a way to drive fans and casual viewers to their back catalog," Dunn says. "From a business perspective, these legacy docs have become really important."

When many of these acts were at their peak, in the 1960s and '70s, a rock doc usually meant a filmed concert. Think "Woodstock," Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning chronicle of the famous three-day music festival (recently rereleased to theaters), or "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's 1978 film of The Band's farewell show. Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same," released in 1976, pushed the genre's boundaries by interweaving concert footage with fantasy sequences — a precursor of sorts to the modern-day music video. Even into the 1980s, bands thought in terms of concert films; Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense," which captured Talking Heads live on stage, was a hit in 1984.

That notion began to lose its novelty with the advent of MTV, reality television and VH1's popular "Behind the Music" series in the late 1990s. The rock doc that really changed the genre, though, was 2004's "Some Kind of Monster," in which the members of Metallica unexpectedly dropped their guard and bared their dysfunctional souls to directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

"When you look at a documentary on a band, it's almost like group therapy," says Thomas Mangan, a producer of 2017's Grateful Dead documentary "Long Strange Trip" who also teaches production at New York University's film school. "The director is like a psychoanalyst or therapist, interpreting who this family is and how they were able to create such great art."

A famous name certainly helps sell a rock doc, but it has to be a certain kind of fame, says Richard Abramowitz, founder of Abramorama, which specializes in distributing music-themed movies. His idea of the perfect rock doc subject: "Who are the iconic artists that have underserved markets?" Abramowitz cites ZZ Top (whose film he is currently distributing) and the Velvet Underground (reportedly the subject of a documentary in progress by director Todd Haynes) as examples.

"I'm still waiting for the Bowie movie, the Prince movie," Abramowitz adds. "How many other artists are there of that level?"

Ronstadt may be another known-yet-unknown figure: A superstar whose life story — despite her 2013 autobiography, "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir" — is not overly familiar to the general public.

"She wrote the book, she had many fans, she was such a huge pop star over the last 40-50 years," says Jeffrey Friedman, who with Rob Epstein directed "The Sound of My Voice." "But I think a lot of her fans knew her and thought of her from the moment when they discovered her. And she sang so many different styles and genres, I felt even her fans would discover new sides of her." (Friedman says Ronstadt cooperated with the filmmakers on condition that she not be required to participate in filming due to her health.)

It isn't only boomer-era musicians who are getting the this-is-your-life treatment this year. Also reportedly on the way are docs about 1980s poster-girls the Go-Go's, the 1990s ska-punk band Sublime and the late Long Beach emo-rapper Lil Peep, among others.

"The amount of 30-ish or 40-ish people who tell me they've seen this or that doc — I think they're interested in these," says Ed Seaman, COO of the specialty distribution company Music Video Distributors. "There's also the 20-year factor: Everything comes back in vogue after 20 years. Maybe we'll see bands from the early 2000s having docs about them. Is there a good White Stripes documentary coming?" 

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