Bill Simmons, co-creator of ESPN’s documentary strand 30 for 30, is turning his attention to music documentaries for his latest project.
Music Box is a 30 for 30-style strand for HBO that encompasses a number of movies about bands and artists. It kicks off tonight with Woodstock 99: Peace, Love & Rage, a film about the chaotic festival.
The film, directed by Love, Antosha helmer Garret Price, looks at what went wrong with the 1999 event that took place 30 years on from the classic hippie fest, including the destruction of the festival’s airbase site and the deaths and sexual assaults that occurred during the weekend. It also looks at the angst of a generation encapsulated by bands such as Limp Bizkit, with its hit “Break Stuff,” and Red Hot Chili Peppers, who played a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” as the site burned.
Featuring interviews with artists such as The Roots, Korn, Moby, Jewel and The Offspring who played that weekend, as well as culture critics such as Wesley Morris, Maureen Callahan and Steven Hyden and organizers Michael Lang and John Scher, it’s an incendiary watch.
It will be joined in the strand by five other films: Alison Klayman’s Alanis Morissette doc Jagged, Penny Lane’s Listening To Kenny G, John Maggio’s Robert Stigwood film Mr. Saturday Night and films about DMX and Juice WRLD from Christopher Frierson and Tommy Oliver respectively.
All of the films are produced by Ringer Films, the production division of Simmons’ Spotify-owned culture site and podcast firm.
Simmons tells Deadline how the project came about, the differences between making films about musicians and athletes, his top three movies about bands and being part of a booming culture of music documentaries.
DEADLINE: How did Music Box come about?
BILL SIMMONS: It took awhile. We basically started at the beginning of 2018. With 30 for 30, which I saw go from an email that I sent to my bosses to blowout into over 100 [docs], a couple of things worked. We established a brand that people knew what it was and then because we were using the different filmmakers and voices and being careful about not going too far back and being contemporary and modern, it just hit. People liked it so when we did the next one, they just assumed they were going to like it. Trying to think how this would work for a music series, I saw the music world a lot like sports was in 2007.
I had a couple of music films that were the models of what we wanted to do but the main thing was [most] music docs were these beginning, middle and end stories, I call them cradle to the grave, where it’s about the artist’s entire career. What worked for us for 30 for 30 was honing in on specific moments and windows. The model for 30 for 30 was The Fab Five doc, about a college basketball team that was only together for three years and it’s about that three years. That was probably the one they replayed the most. The question for me was how can this work for music and we tried to figure that out.
The model for me was the Eagles doc [The History of The Eagles]. I love that doc and I wrote a huge piece about it when I was running Grantland because I thought it was the best music doc I’d ever seen. Part one is an hour and 45 minutes and it accomplishes so much and that convinced me there’s a way to try and do this with music. Ironically, I was friends with [Universal Music Publishing exec] Marc Cimino, who is one of the exec producers on this film and he had always told me people were coming in and pitching 30 for 30 ideas. Marc said, ‘Why don’t you just do it’. I had a whole document of ideas. It started from there.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting what you say about the specific focus of those original 30 for 30s. It’s hard to tell Bob Dylan’s whole story in two hours.
SIMMONS: A lot of times with music documentaries, the default is it’s about their whole career. One of the ideas early on was about the Jagged Little Pill album that became a massive hit, it wasn’t an idea about [Alanis’] whole career. What were those 18 months like? You can do the Alanis six-part whole career thing but in this case, I just think it’s a great story, a kid from Canada who is blowing up.
DEADLINE: What was the development process like? Did you have these ideas or did you take pitches from directors?
SIMMONS: It was a combo. We had a big list, ironically the first two things I used as a model that me and my team wanted to do, ended up not being two of the six and that’s how it goes with music. I’m not going to say who they were because I’m still hopeful that maybe we can do them. That’s just how it goes with this shit. You’re dealing with the manager, the artist can get cold feet, the rights can be an issue, you never know. We had a combo of ideas we wanted to do, ideas that we pitched directors and then sometimes just meeting filmmakers. For instance, we really liked this documentary Hail Satan that Penny Lane did, we saw it in the theater, and had this idea for her. She liked it but she said she had this other idea and it was about Kenny G. She wrote us this awesome pitch so we said let’s do that. She’s passionate and if the filmmaker is super passionate about an idea, you can sense it and you usually want to do that idea. John Maggio was a director that we really wanted to work with and we pitched him the Saturday Night Fever idea and he loved it and ended up building the whole doc around Robert Stigwood. The only film we bought was an early cut of the DMX film. We just thought it had so much potential we wanted to be involved.
DEADLINE: Polygram and Universal Music Publishing are involved in the series; do you need to have a record label and a publishing company involved these days to get these films made?
SIMMONS: I don’t think that’s true. I know sports and that whole world and can navigate it. I think music is a whole different animal, there are relationships and credibility things. I knew how good Marc [Cimino] was and Jody [Gerson], who I think is one of the best people in the music industry, I think that’s pretty accepted at this point, having them involved and their expertise was great. I don’t think we’d have been able to do it on our own, there’s so much I didn’t know, relationships we didn’t have and to have them, they also really understand the creative integrity thing and are committed to it. They didn’t want us to do an infomercial about a Universal artist, they really wanted to come up with the best possible product we could. They were invaluable and can’t imagine having done it without them.
DEADLINE: There is a growing trend for docs produced by the artists themselves, which are essentially promo pieces.
SIMMONS: That happens in sports too. I always call them documercials. I’m personally not interested in those. You can tell when you’re watching. In terms of the infomercials, you have to be pretty careful with that stuff, you can do it and there’s money in it but I feel those have a certain ceiling. I don’t blame the artists for doing that.
It started to happen with 30 for 30. I was really passionate about this Orlando Magic documentary I wanted to do about Shaq and Penny and I wrote this whole pitch and a lot of people were hesitant because it was a small market team who lost their biggest stars. We did it [as This Magic Moment] and Shaq and Penny [Hardaway] ended up being exec producers. At the time, I was on my way out of ESPN, I wasn’t as involved in the actual process of it. There was a different feel to it that I thought was uncomfortable because we never really got into what happened with their relationship. Then you look at having navigated The Last Dance with [Michael] Jordan as an EP and he had final say on a lot of stuff but that was great so sometimes you can pull it off. You have to trust that they care about the integrity, which I think he did, which was why it was so great.
DEADLINE: I’m surprised there wasn’t a film about yacht rock in here.
SIMMONS: Don’t think I didn’t think about it. We were trying to find a balance with the six of them. I think a lot of documentaries are made for people my age and older because those are the people making them. I was really cognizant that we wanted to make this a series that my son would want to watch. I watched the Alanis film with my daughter and she listened to Alanis’ music for three weeks after.
DEADLINE: Similarly, no Pearl Jam, presumably that’s because Cameron Crowe had this all locked up.
SIMMONS: That’s a good example. That’s why this stuff is hard. Pearl Jam 20 is really good, so why would you go down that road again. It’s OK if you wait long enough, maybe 15 years and take another swing.
Part of the model with this is that it keeps going and going and one of the things that I hope will happen is that the quality of the series will make some people come up with some ideas and maybe there’s a few artists out there that never wanted to do a documentary but this is the kind of style they’d like to do. But a lot of ideas are going off the table, every day you look up and there’s another music documentary.
The one that will never happen is Fleetwood Mac and that’s the number one music documentary that anyone could ever make and it will never happen until Stevie and Lindsey are dead because they hate each other. That would be my number one pick. There’s certainly more left in music than sports so we’ll see. I’d love to keep the series going, but it’d only be if the quality could be at the same level.
DEADLINE: Given your love of The History of the Eagles, I’m surprised you didn’t get Alison Ellwood involved. You must have a hit list of directors you’d like to work with.
SIMMONS: We did a film with Alison about the first great women’s basketball team [Women of Troy] so that was fun to work with her on. One of the things that has happened is that the documentary market has exploded, there’s way more money in it, and even though we have more directors than we did for 30 for 30, which was the children of [Hoop Dreams director] Steve James basically, there’s way more projects. Back in 2007 when we were looking for directors, we could barely get 30 and then by 2012/13 it was easy to get to 30 and now if you’re that in 2021, the equipment is better, the people are better trained, the people are younger, it’s a whole generation of people weaned on the stuff from 2007 on. I think it’s going to be a boom. Plus, you’re seeing the streamers and some of these cable stations pay real money for these things and that’s going to put better and better filmmakers in to so it’s only going up.
DEADLINE: These films will air on HBO and HBO Max so you’ll get a sense from both linear and streaming.
SIMMONS: I can’t wait to see how this plays out. It’s on a Friday night on HBO and on HBO Max that same day. What was interesting about 30 for 30, ESPN didn’t promote it, a lot of people didn’t know it was coming out. I have an email that I still have, asking them to spread the word, which is crazy because they spent $15M on this series and we’re doing word of mouth. But the thing that happened with 30 for 30 was the rewatchability. That’s something that we never thought would happen, that somebody would want to watch the Wayne Gretzy doc for a third time, because [ESPN] would just run these when they had a game canceled and would still get ratings. I’d be interested to see how this goes in the streaming era. Audiences are really trained to watch documentaries in the same way that they watch a movie or a limited series like The White Lotus, it all blends together as long as it’s good.
DEADLINE: You have the benefit of the HBO stamp of approval with these films, right?
SIMMONS: I love working with HBO. I saw it first hand with the Andre The Giant doc, which did exceptionally well for them. It felt like it had extra credibility because it was on HBO. There’s a bunch of great places that do good work and I think HBO has this legacy of quality where you just trust them in a different way. That’s why I got so mad with them when it seemed like they were fucking with it a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Casey Bloys has been incredible and they’re not going to ruin it but we were all a bit worried.
We did so many docs at ESPN but there’s always commercials, so they always felt like they were three minutes too fat or four minutes too short because you always had to time it. It’s really stupid but I’m really anal about telling the story in the best possible way without fat and just trying to nail it and one of the fun things about HBO is you never want to pad it, but you have the ability if it’s one hour 40 minutes, that’s cool.
DEADLINE: Woodstock 99 is around one hour, 50 minutes. Are they all around that length?
SIMMONS: Mr. Saturday Night is under 90 minutes. That one, I was just in awe of John Maggio on that one because Stigwood is dead and it’s all archival. We did this [ESPN] documentary about the day of the O.J car chase in sports, [Montage of Heck director] Brett Morgen did it, he was one of the best people we got for that first series. It’s all archive and he cut together this incredible film, which is the same thing John was able to do.
DEADLINE: Who’s harder to corral — athletes or musicians?
SIMMONS: Musicians. They have the greatest life on the planet and they’re used to calling the shots for everything they do. They’ve flown close to the sun with what they do and it’s hard for them sometimes to go back and talk about it and sometimes they don’t want to take the risk. At the same time, there are some awesome stories out there. The bummer is when there’s a good story and someone does a bad job on it. It’s like a dog peeing on a tree, they’ve peed on the tree, the tree is done at that point. In general, this has been a boom and we’re psyched to be a part of it.
DEADLINE: What are your top three music documentaries?
SIMMONS: The History of The Eagles part one is number one. I consider When We Were Kings a music documentary even though it’s about Ali, the way it uses music in the scene of that fight and the performances, to me it’s as much a music doc as a sports doc, so that’s always in the conversation, U2, there’s a really good doc [From The Sky Down] from Davis Guggenheim about when they almost broke up and rented a mansion in Europe and figured it out. The BBC did a Fleetwood Mac one [Don’t Stop], which I loved, even though I feel there’s a more blown out version of it. I really liked The Bee Gees one [The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart]. I thought it was really affecting. What’s your favorite?
DEADLINE: I love Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Some Kind of Monster with Metallica and the therapist. Heavy Metal Parking Lot is an incredible underground film about kids tailgating a Judas Priest concert. You have the classics like Dont Look Back and Gimme Shelter, but for me, it’s Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s film about the battle between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warholds. That’s my number one.
SIMMONS: I also really like part three of The Defiant Ones. We were developing OJ: Made In America when I was at ESPN and the biggest reason we were trying to develop it was we really wanted to do a multi-parter because we’d run out of ideas for the series. We knew the multi-part thing was a wrinkle that we hadn’t seen and now you have OJ, The Defiant Ones and The Last Dance. To keep people’s attention for five to seven hours is one of the hardest things you can do. You need really good IP. One of the things that I think we’re going to see over the next couple of years, is some bad versions of it. We’re going to see some swollen IP.
DEADLINE: I thought the Grateful Dead doc Long Strange Trip was a good example of a multi-part music doc, six parts over four hours.
SIMMONS: I liked that. That’s an example, but you can’t tell The Grateful Dead story in four hours, you need to do a piece of it. Amy, I thought Asif Kapadia did an amazing job on that. A doc my wife really liked was [May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers] that Judd Apatow did. I don’t like that band nearly as much as she does, and she flew to Colorado to see three straight shows of theirs because of that documentary. I think that’s the power music documentaries have compared to the sports doc.