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idiots in armchairs – mise en scene in music documentaries


I enjoy watching music documentaries. At MIFF this year I’ve just seen Muscle Shoals, about the studio in Alabama where a lot of great US music was recorded in the 1960s. The doco is notable for the number of interviewees who worked and recorded there – unlike many in the genre that can’t get the major stars to participate and which rely instead on second rate contributors – this features all the main participants.

It also features the dominant set design for the interviews – the participants sitting in armchairs in empty rooms or warehouses or other visually interesting architectural spaces. Here’s Mick Jagger in a still from Muscle Shoals. One main exception to this framing is Bono, who is shot close up, head and shoulders only, perhaps to hide the middle aged spread.


This reminded me of another amusing music doco moment featuring Bono. In the Joe Strummer doco directed by Julian Temple, the interviewees are shot in groups sitting around bonfires because Temple wanted to avoid the ‘idiots in armchairs‘ scenario. But Bono is alone at his own bonfire because, as Temple joked, Bono thinks he’s god (and thus needs exclusive camera angles).

Another music doco that plays with this meme is Live forever, which is about the Britpop movement in the 1990s in the UK. It simultaneously references and satirises the meme. From the top down: Noel Gallagher in an antique filled mansion; Liam Gallagher in a pub; Jarvis Cocker in a shabby council flat or motel; and Damon Albarn in another shabby pub.





Thanks to The hand of Count Petofi for the above screenshots.


  1. And was Muscle Shoals any good? It’s a music doco overload at MIFF this year.

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