Music Documentaries Strike Chord for Showtime

After Eagles, Eric Clapton films, next up is one about new wave arriving in New York’s suburbs

Why This Matters

Showtime is finding success, and limited competition, with music-related documentaries.

While Showtime has established itself as a destination for music-focused documentaries, it’s looking to ramp up its power-chord projects in 2018. Past music films on the premium network’s air have included 2013’s History of the Eagles and Spike Lee’s 2016 Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Showtime is keen to air more, including the March 30 premiere of New Wave: Dare to be Different, a documentary about a Long Island, N.Y., radio station, WLIR, that brought the likes of alternative bands U2, Talking Heads and Depeche Mode to listeners in the early 1980s.

“In a perfect world, I’d love to have one every month,” Kent Sevener, Showtime executive VP of content acquisition & business & legal affairs, said.

Showtime ought to near its goal in 2018. The movies are a mix of mostly acquired and occasionally homegrown ventures. Earlier this month, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars debuted on the channel, representing a rare Showtime original production in terms of a musical film, offering a close-up of the English guitar virtuoso. “Told through his own words, it reflects on his traumatic childhood, his difficult struggle with drugs and alcohol, the loss of his son and how he always found his inner strength and healing in music,” Showtime said.

On Feb. 16, Showtime premiered Word is Bond, a documentary by Sacha Jenkins that examines the transformative power of lyrics in the world of hip-hop music. “It’s about some of the best artists in hip-hop,” Sevener said, “as opposed to just being about the beats.”

More music documentaries are in the works. Showtime acquired New Wave: Dare to be Different after its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival last year. The film promises battles with the FCC, record labels, major stations and “all the conventional rules.”

Sevener also mentions a movie featuring Jeff Lynne and his band Electric Light Orchestra, highlighting ELO’s performances at London’s Wembley Stadium last summer. Another project is in the works about Stone Temple Pilots, the grunge band whose troubled but charismatic singer, Scott Weiland, was found dead of an accidental overdose late in 2015. “Not a lot has been done about the band,” said Sevener, who promises “a compelling story.”

The newer films follow a long list of previously run music-themed movies. Lee’s Michael Jackson film, which premiered on Showtime in Feb. 2016, was the biggest documentary in network history, according to Sevener. Like History of the Eagles, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sevener has ample content in the quest to hit his monthly goal. Tim & Faith: Soul2Soul premiered on Showtime in November, and offered country stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on tour in 2017. George Michael: Freedom debuted on Showtime in October and offered a close-up of the controversial singer’s life. Black Sabbath: The End of the End also premiered in October, and chronicled the final tour for Ozzy Osbourne and the band he became famous with, as they played their home base of Birmingham, England, last year.

Prince to Whitney to Gaga

Showtime debuted the Prince concert film Sign O’ the Times Sept. 16, and Whitney Houston-centered Whitney: “Can I Be Me” on Aug. 25.

Music documentaries are a segment of the programming portfolio that does not feature a ton of competition. Netflix is perhaps the other platform most active in terms of such offerings. It debuted the hip-hop documentary film Rapture, about rap’s impact on culture, March 30. The streaming giant also debuted Gaga: Five Foot Two, a documentary about pop singer and pianist Lady Gaga, in September.

The music movies may be a logical fit for Showtime, which is part of CBS Corp. CBS recently aired the 60th anniversary Grammy Awards.

Amanda Lotz, professor of communication studies and screen arts and cultures at the University of Michigan, said subscription channels are all about having “an identifiable brand” that viewers know what to expect from, so they’ll pay for the unique offerings therein. “The music docs may tap an audience that finds there is no other source of such programming,” Lotz said. “Showtime wins if they offer enough to maintain those viewers, even though others may subscribe simply to access the drama series and others to access theatrical films.”

Sevener mentioned Showtime’s focus on curating the highest quality programming, whether it is original series such as Billions and Shameless, boxing, Hollywood films or the music movies.

“We try to curate the best music documentaries and films,” he said. “Subscribers respond to the music offerings.”