Earlier this month at the Sundance Film Festival, the National Film Board of Canada premiered a new documentary-musical, My Prairie Home, which tells the story of Canadian transgender singer/songwriter Rae Spoon. The NFB's brief online stream of the film ran out earlier this week, but if you're looking for something to watch, there's more out there than Netflix. The NFB's website is a treasure trove of free documentaries and animated films.
And it's got a big toe in the pool of Canadian music. In Montreal this spring they’re putting together a tribute to the groundbreaking animator Norman McLaren, which will include new work by Kid Koala. The new projects carry on the NFB’s long tradition of music-inspired filmmaking; it stretches all the way back to the founding of the Film Board in the late 1930s.
Here are eight great NFB music documentaries you can stream for free right now:
Lonely Boy (1962)
He may be a casino staple now, but in the very early 1960s Canadian crooner Paul Anka was one of the biggest stars in the world. In Lonely Boy, the NFB follows him on tour in the United States. Everywhere he sings, he finds throngs of shrieking teenage girls, tears streaming down their faces. In large part, that was thanks to his talent: he was only about 20 years old, but he’d already written a long list of smash hits like “Diana” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” Cultivating his boyish good looks didn’t hurt either: he lost 35 pounds and had plastic surgery. Released a year before the outbreak of Beatlemania, it's a fascinating look at the very beginnings of modern pop star culture.
Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965)
In 1965, Leonard Cohen wasn’t famous for his music yet; his first album wouldn’t be released for another couple of years. But he was already one of Canada’s most acclaimed young poets when the National Film Board made him the subject of one of their greatest documentaries: Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen. It follows him through the streets of 1960s Montreal, giving you a look not just at the poet who was about to become one of Canada’s musical greats, but his greatest muse: the city he loves.
Bing Bang Boom (1969)
R. Murray Schafer has been one of Canada’s most famous and innovative composers for more than 50 years now. Influenced by the media theories of Marshall McLuhan, he’s taken a groundbreaking, John Cage-esque approach to music. The NFB has two films about Schafer available to stream online. In 1969’s, Bing Bang Boom, they follow him to a Grade 7 classroom in Scarborough, where he teaches children to engage with the sounds around them: making music with ordinary, every day items; listening closely to the soundscape of a busy street; pausing to notice the noises that fill every silence. Forty years later, in 2009’s Listen, he asks the audience to do the same.
Harmonium in California (1978)
The 1970s were a pivotal point in the history of Québec. Separatism was on the rise. The FLQ were launching terrorist attacks — they even considered kidnapping the head of the NFB. With a referendum on independence just around the corner, Premier René Lévesque was trying to win American support for the idea. So in 1978, he led a group of Québecois artists on a trip to California. Among them was one of the biggest bands in Canada: the francophone psychedelic folk rockers of Harmonium. The NFB tells the story of the trip, and the band’s attempt to win over American crowds with their French-language songs, in the half-hour film Harmonium in California.
Family Band (2008)
It’s no surprise that Canada’s National Film Board would eventually turn its attention to one of the most quintessentially Canadian rock groups. In 2008, they produced Family Band, a short film about The Tragically Hip directed by David Battistella. He spends seven-and-a-half minutes exploring the deep bonds that have developed between the musicians in the group over the course of the 25 years they’ve been touring and making records together.
Moon Man (2008)
If you didn't think there could be anything more quintessentially Canadian than the NFB making a film about The Tragically Hip, there’s this: the NFB making an animated short film based on a Stompin’ Tom Connors. That’s exactly what they did in 2008, with the release of Moon Man from animator and director Paul Morstad, which is set to Stompin’ Tom’s “Moon Man Newfie,” about a man from Newfoundland and the Northern Lights.
My Tribe Is My Life (2011)
One of the NFB’s most interesting recent projects is a series of eight short films called My Tribe Is My Life. Each one explores the world of a young Québecois music fan and the ways the Internet has helped them to find a place within their subculture. A techno DJ discusses raves on messages boards. A reggae concert promoter organizes shows on Facebook. A rural Goth uses online forums to connect with other teenagers who share her tastes. (You can find all eight films on the NFB’s interactive My Tribe Is My Life website.)
The NFB has a long history of cutting edge animation, stretching all the way back to Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films in the 1940s. And Moon Man isn’t the only 21st century project to carry on that tradition. One of their most recent efforts is Patrick Doan’s 2012 short film Constellation. It starts with a voice-over from the Montreal pianist Janina Fialkowska. But it’s when her music kicks in that things really get going. While she plays a classical piece by Chopin, the animation swirls. Human forms and faces twist and merge with a digital landscape.