Music documentaries are some the most formulaic films. They are also some of the most enjoyable movies. Whether you’re looking for a basic live performance or a narrative about glory, failure and redemption, it’s in this guide.
A Hard Days Night and Purple Rain are not music documentaries. They’re great films starring real artists playing versions of themselves. Not docs so they’re not on this list.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a video album, an amazing piece of art, but not a doc so it’s not on this list.
We do bend the rules a few times (Is 20,000 Days on Earth a doc? Is it possible to have a documentary featuring Nick Cave that’s honest? Does it matter?) and get to maybe the most important music ‘doc’ in our special section at the end.
Enjoy the guide. Grow your Netflix queue.
Dont Look Back (1967)
Of course a documentary about Bob Dylan in the 1960s would be a paradigm-shifting, form-defining work of brilliance. While Dont Look Back is perhaps best known for creating the modern music video, thanks to the iconic clip of Dylan hanging out in an alley while holding up a bunch of lyric-filled cue cards while “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays, it’s also full of revealing vignettes that showcase the borderline obnoxious offstage antics that the brilliant contrarian got into while touring England. Needling interviewers who didn’t do their homework, getting stoned with fellow musicians, hanging out with his then-girlfriend Joan Baez, it’s a one-of-a-kind look at a one-of-a-kind dude. -Matt Byrne
If you like Dont Look Back, you might also like No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Baby Boomers love Woodstock. Free love, mud pits, Jimi Hendrix shredding the National Anthem, it had it all. The 1970 film Woodstock played a huge role in the near-instant canonization of the event, an overstuffed concert film with performances from 60s legends like Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Santana, and Sha-Na-Na that unexpectedly did huge numbers at the box office. Sure it’s overlong and exhausting to watch in one sitting, but isn’t that what it was all about? Throw on some rose-colored glasses and kick back with the 4-hour Directors Cut for maximum Boomerdom. -Matt Byrne
If you like Woodstock, you might also like Gimme Shelter
The Song Remains the Same (1976)
Originally billed as a concert film documenting three Led Zeppelin concerts at Madison Square Garden during the summer of 1973, The Song Remains the Same is nothing short of an absurdist drama featuring an absurdist band in an absurdist city. How else can you describe footage featuring frontman Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham wearing the same exact clothes over three nights while bassist John Paul Jones and guitarist Jimmy Page wear different outfits? How else can you describe a scene where Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s manager, is driven in a police car, with no handcuffs on, to be questioned about a theft that took place earlier at the Drake Hotel?
The Song Remains the Same also captures the grittiness of 1970s New York City known more for the “Son of Sam” serial killer, power outages, and burning slums than anything demanding a visit. The first time I saw this movie, I walked away thinking two things: (1) Led Zeppelin in the 1970s were bigger than God, and (2) Robert Plant’s pants were WAY too tight. I imagine you’ll feel the same when you see the absurd glory of Led Zeppelin shot in 35mm film. -Ruben Gzirian
If you like The Song Remains the Same, you might also like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
The Decline of Western Civilization, Parts 1 and 2 (1981 and 1988)
Los Angeles was the setting for two interesting, diametrically opposed music scenes in the seventies and eighties. Directed by the legendary Penelope Spheeris, Decline parts 1 and 2 focus on the LA punk and hair metal scenes, respectively. She includes a mix of concert footage along with a more intimate look at the community found in these music scenes. While Spheeris is more standoffish and curious in part 1, part 2 is a more searing of vapid excess that helped define that community. Why was there a feud between punks and metalheads in the 80s and 90s? This film shows just how much was at stake. -Alan Zilberman
If you like The Decline of Western Civilization, Parts 1 and 2 and you’re interested in gutter punk, you might also like The Decline of Western Civilization Part 3
Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon (1982)
How does the son of a Nigerian bureaucrat become the leader of his own self-declared independent musical republic? Fela Kuti is a name many of us know, but we often forget the unbelievable circumstances that characterized his unusual life as one of Africa’s greatest musicians. With his chorus of over thirty wives and loyal band all living on his compound outside Lagos, Fela is part James Brown, part Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. His strong anti-colonial message puts him at odds with his government, and the group is under constant threat of arrest and violent repression for Fela’s radical politics. Still, he fights on with hips shaking and fist raised for the future of the African continent. -Johnny Fantastic
If you like Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon, you might also like Finding Fela
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Pretty much everybody who cares about music has already seen Stop Making Sense several times. This Talking Heads concert film is probably the best rock doc, at least from a pure performance perspective. A bunch of legendary musicians doing thrilling versions of some of the most forward-thinking music of its time, all with a purity of vision and overarching POV that has never been replicated. I’m gonna go watch Stop Making Sense right now, it’s been a few weeks. -Matt Byrne
If you like the Jonathan Demme directed Stop Making Sense, you might also like Jonathan Demme directed Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)
This movie is one of the best documents of anyone from the bebop era playing music. The presentation might feel a little like PBS, but it’s a crucial piece of putting together the timeline of Black music in America. -Joe McAdam
If you like Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, you might like Jazz on a Summer’s Day
Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (1993)
You probably best know Todd Phillips as the guy who made Old School and The Hangover movies, but his most memorable work, for me, is a documentary he produced while still in film school, Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. An in-depth look at the endlessly shocking and revolting on-and-off-stage antics of trash rock icon GG Allin, whose reputation as a provocateur far outweighed any acclaim he received as a musician. Onstage, Allin would regularly strip naked, poop all over the stage, and get into fights with audience members (a mixture of morbidly curious “fans” and horrified onlookers). The film takes a look behind the scenes as Allin and his backing band (similarly debauched dudes like his brother Merle Allin and longtime drummer Donald “Dino Sex” Sachs) tear through filthy looking New York City parties and the handful of divey rock venues that hadn’t already blacklisted him. It’s a fascinating look at an enigmatic figure, who died shortly before the film’s release in 1993. -Matt Byrne
If you like Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, you might also like The Filth and the Fury
Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
If you’ve ever wondered what life is like on a world tour, Meeting People Is Easy might be one of the best ways to kick yourself out of the daydream. Radiohead have a reputation that is kind of unfair; they didn’t ask to be crowned the saviors of rock music. They happened to make a record that a lot of people connected to, just as lead singer Thom Yorke began to disconnect. If you watch this film, you’ll understand why the OK Computer tour almost broke them. The whole album is about being out of control, and it was written before the tour had even started. Fans will find this film of particular interest because of the unreleased versions of songs and b-sides that play throughout. Thankfully the band has lightened up considerably in the over twenty years since. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Meeting People Is Easy, you might also like The Fearless Freaks
The Shield Around the K: The Story of K Records (2000)
Mixing copious amounts of interviews with some of the most revered underground musicians of the 1980s (as well as a ton of less popular but still influential figures) with quirky live footage of bands like The Halo Benders and Beat Happening, The Shield Around the K: The Story of K Records is a love letter to a remarkable record label. K Records helped shape the fledgling DIY music scene, blazing trails for gentle weirdos who felt drawn to the spirit of punk and hardcore music, but wanted to do something a bit gentler. -Matt Byrne
If you like The Shield Around the K: The Story of K Records, you might also like The Punk Singer
I badly wanted this documentary, about the evolution of DJ’ing and turntablism as an arm of hip-hop, to hold up. It mostly doesn’t. Footage of familiar faces like Rob Swift, DJ Qbert, and Mixmaster Mike at turntable “jam sessions” and battles remains a highlight. Their creativity and dexterity applied to the freakish, niche skill of scratching remain as impressive as ever. But the filler is mainly banal and repetitive exposition about (1) how GrandMixer D.ST’s scratching on “Rockit” changed everyone’s life; (2) how turntablism is different and difficult; and (3) our place in the universe (it turns out turntablists are really into outer space and alien metaphors). It all evokes a very specific, pre-9/11 nostalgia of more, um, analog (?) times. Like me, you may find yourself abandoning “Scratch” altogether in favor of endless hours of DMC and other footage on YouTube, where you can see how 12-year old DJ Rena won the world championship of scratching in 2017—partly by using a sample of Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” which, like “Scratch,” existed several years before he was born. -Tony Beasley
If you like Scratch, you might also like Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)
Who knows what filmmaker Sam Jones thought he would be getting into when he decided to document the recording of Wilco’s fourth LP. Perhaps he was hoping to catch a band making another creative leap. After all, Wilco was on a tear at the end of the century, producing Being There, the Mermaid Avenue records and Summer Teeth in the span of just five years. Worse bets have been placed.
But production commenced ominously when drummer Ken Coomer was fired (and replaced by Glen Kotche) on the first day. Then, gradually, the relationship between frontman Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett unraveled in front of the cameras – and, in part, fueled by their presence. All the while, Tweedy can be seen suffering debilitating migraines (and likely the early stages of prescription drug addiction). Then, Jim O’Rourke – a mercurial figure somewhat backgrounded in the film – gave the record a radical mix. Then, Wilco was dropped from Reprise (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) and signed by Nonesuch Records (also a subsidiary of Warner Brothers), who released the record. Oh and that record happened to be (arguably) Wilco’s most iconic record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
So, Jones got what he was probably expecting. He just got a lot more, too.
In other words, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart doesn’t lack for drama, even if Wilco is a band many would come to associate with Volkswagens and amphitheaters and dad rock. The label fallout is what most remember, but it’s the dissolution of Tweedy and Bennett’s once-fruitful relationship that sticks with me. It can be brutal to watch – made worse in retrospect by Bennett’s overdose almost a decade later – but it’s impossible to turn away from. -Phil Runco
If you like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, you might also like Billy Bragg & Wilco: Man in the Sand
The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch (2002)
Future composer Harry Partch was well into his conservatory training in the 1920s when he realized everything he was being taught was wrong. Not only wrong, but dangerous: a threat to everything that made music worth listening to. From that moment on, Partch made it his personal mission to pervert, ridicule, and destroy western classical music through his own controversial compositions. Employing harsh sounds and melodies that follow his own invented system of tuning, Partch brings his elaborate compositions to life with instruments made of tree trunks and giant bowls from atom bomb experiments. His journey takes him from rising star to destitute hobo to wandering sage. With his white hair, wispy beard, and enlightened posture, some see Harry as God in the flesh, while others say he’s a mad man. -Johnny Fantastic
If you like The Outsider: The Story of Harry Partch, you might also like Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film about Levon Helm
Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a celebration. Motown is one of the best record companies ever to make music, and its studio band The Funk Brothers are the ones who made it all happen. Released in 2002, the film features a number of performances in the present day by then-living band members and people influenced by Motown, including Joan Osborne, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Chaka Khan and Ben Harper. It’s great for both fans of classic Motown tunes and an excellent point of entry for people interested in the history of music industry in the 60s. You can’t talk about any genre in the 60s without mentioning session musicians, so why not start with the greats? -Vesper Arnett
If you like Standing in the Shadows of Motown, you might also like The Wrecking Crew
Being The Osmonds (2003)
Do you remember during the 2016 election, there was some weird thing Jeb Bush was trying to make happen? He was trying to be known for having small carved wooden turtles in his pocket that he would give to kids. I’m not kidding. He’d talk to kids and hand them small carved turtles and say “slow and steady wins the race” and there’s tape of it too. Anyway, this BBC produced documentary about The Osmonds feels like an hour long version of Jeb Bush handing a child a little turtle. Just a virgin-y Venn diagram of Mormonism and show business. It’s on YouTube, you have no excuse to not watch this except you’re busy or you don’t care. -Joe McAdam
If you like Being The Osmonds, you might also like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Be Here to Love Me (2004)
Townes Van Zandt was and still is one of the most influential singer-songwriters in contemporary music. In songwriting circles the reverence with which Van Zandt’s work is discussed is comparable to that of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Director Margaret Brown’s bio-doc takes an affectionate but candid look at Van Zandt’s impact as an artist as well as the demons that plagued his career and personal relationships. Through home movies, televised performances and interviews with Van Zandt’s immediate family and the likes of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark and numerous others Brown poignantly attempts to reveal the highs and lows and in-betweens of one of American music’s most enigmatic personalities. -Jason Cauley
If you like Be Here to Love Me, you might also like You’re Gonna Miss Me
Most rock and roll documentaries focus on just one band. Directed by Ondi Timoner, Dig! has the good fortune to focus on two bands who influenced and ultimately hated one another: The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. In the late nineties and early aughts, both bands wrote psych-rock that was out of fashion, but earned them both modest commercial/critical acclaim. Aside from the drama and bad behavior you expect from rock stars, the film is an intriguing treatise on longevity. What matters more: being reliable, or a being a musical genius? The film does not come to any answers, but you can listen to both their discographies and decide for yourself. -Alan Zilberman
If you like Dig!, you might also like Hype!
Jay-Z: Fade to Black (2004)
The ascendance of hip hop has redefined popular music, bringing with it questionable by-products (Post Malone), while also creating a swath of young artists pushing the boundaries of sound and presentation. When the question of how or why or when this ascent started, look no further than Fade to Black.
Fade to Black interweaves itself between Jay-Z’s “final” performance at Madison Square Garden on November 23, 2003, and the production of his “last” album, The Black Album. Looking back on it now, I don’t really remember if anyone actually believed Jay-Z would retire, but the very notion of it added weight to Fade to Black. By capturing the audacity of the performance and the delicate fury of what it took to create The Black Album, Fade to Black looks behind the curtain of a moment in hip hop as foreign now as the man who pushed its evolution.-Ruben Gzirian
If you like Jay-Z: Fade to Black, you might also like On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay-Z
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Essential viewing, if for no other reason than for the band therapy session. Sure it’s a great document of an important metal band during their very boring musical decline, but really this documentary is all about Lars Ulrich being a complete wiener. This movie could be called Some Kind of Wiener and it would be fine. Lars Ulrich literally complains because no one throws him a surprise Hans Christian Andersen-themed birthday party. Music docs don’t always have to be about the music. -Joe McAdam
If you like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, you might also like Metallica: This Monster Lives
ABBA: Behind the Blonde (2005)
Did you know that ABBA singer Agnetha Faltskog had a stalker? You probably knew that; she was huge star after all. Ah, but I’ll bet you didn’t know she MARRIED him? Behind the Blonde follows the shocking true story of Sweden’s dancing queen and her decades long liaison with a deranged super fan. -Johnny Fantastic
If you like ABBA: Behind the Blonde, you might also like Whitney: Can I Be Me?
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
There’s only one Daniel Johnston, a unique and incredibly charming musician whose prolific and idiosyncratic musical style and struggles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia helped develop a cult following among alternative musicians in the 80s and 90s. The Devil and Daniel Johnston takes an empathetic and sensitive look at Johnston’s tumultuous life and unexpected status as an underground icon, giving insight into his discography full of extremely lo-fi recordings and sweetly naive story-songs. The gravity of Johnston’s mental health issues and the often-problematic “outsider artist” label make this one a heavy but rewarding watch. -Matt Byrne
If you like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, you might also like Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives
Drive Well, Sleep Carefully – On the Road with Death Cab for Cutie (2005)
Death Cab For Cutie are a very good band who I’ve cared about for more than half my life at this point. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully – On the Road with Death Cab for Cutie is like comfort food to me, a pleasant collection of well-performed versions of some of the best Death Cab jams, shot on 16mm film. Unsurprisingly, this one is short on the sort of drama, voyeuristic thrills, and depravity that many of the most memorable rock docs are known for, because Death Cab for Cutie is a band full of nice young men who don’t want to cause any trouble. -Matt Byrne
If you like Drive Well, Sleep Carefully – On the Road with Death Cab for Cutie, you might also like Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek
We Jam Econo (2005)
The Minutemen were just one of those bands, man. They were one of those bands that had a philosophy, an identity, a whole thing. Like when scientists find a remote island and there’s all these animals that have evolved separately from stuff like horses and cows and regular animals and these animals have skinny ten inch fingers and pouches and night vision eyes. They didn’t even know they were weird. Shit, I can’t even talk about them without sounding like Mike Watt. Anyway, I watch this movie every time I need to feel OK about not making money doing “art.” -Joe McAdam
If you like We Jam Econo, you might also like Salad Days
It was the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Indie rock was experiencing something of a renaissance, thanks to things like blogs and The OC. The wildly influential music festival Coachella was less of the sweaty influencer-packed clusterfuck it’s become known as today, or at least it seemed that way to me, a starry eyed 17-year-old who had just recently bought some Belle & Sebastian CDs and started wearing cardigans. Coachella (the documentary) was a thrilling look at the big world of weirdo rock and electronic music that was just out of reach, featuring live sets from an eclectic selection of acts like Iggy & The Stooges, Björk, Kool Keith, The Flaming Lips, and a bunch more. Looking back now, it’s a great time capsule of what alternative music looked like before the Internet fully blew everything up. -Matt Byrne
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)
Any good music documentary has to capture a moment; a moment in the life of a band, a moment in a period of music, or a moment of cultural significance. In 2006, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party captured something transcending all three. The documentary, shot during the summer and early fall of 2004 but released stateside in March 2006, follows Chappelle as he organizes a block party in the Clint Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Over the course of 103 minutes, the documentary effortlessly captures the genius of Dave Chappelle, both as a comedian and as an orator of black culture.
For me, the importance of this documentary extends far beyond the live performances, though they include AMAZING time capsules of 2004-era Kanye West, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, and Erykah Badu to name a few. The real value of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is that it captures a man living the final moments of a career that was about to change forever. By the time the documentary was released, Dave Chappelle’s seminal Chappelle’s Show had ended following a tumultuous 2005 that saw the comedian walk away from $50 million to continue production. While no one can deny Chappelle is a living legend, no one can also deny that those events changed him. This documentary captures a Dave Chappelle many of us miss to this day. -Ruben Gzirian
If you like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, you might also like The Last Waltz
LoudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies (2006)
Ever the innovators, Pixies were among the first bands from the legendary late 80s/early 90s US Indie Rock boom to reunite following a legendarily bad breakup. LoudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies is a surprisingly intimate look at the newly reunited Pixies, whose 2004 reunion tour was extremely well-received but, as the documentary reveals, not especially great for the folks in the band. Raising all sorts of questions about aging and our constant need to mythologize normal human beings, I came to see the gang play “Debaser” and left thinking about What It All Means. -Matt Byrne
If you like LoudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies, you might also like Until the Light Takes Us
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006)
Imagine the most milquetoast, schmaltzy singer you can. Let’s say, Michael Bublé. Now imagine if Michael Bublé released an eleven minute long dread-filled dirge full of screeching violins, donkeys squeals, and meat punching. Yes, I said meat punching. Scott Walker (not the governor) started his career much like Justin Bieber as a beloved teen idol. Now in his seventies, his newest music is making Nine Inch Nails sound like the Chuck-E-Cheese band. 30 Century Man is a fascinating look at a either a genius at the height of his powers or a man on the verge of artistic insanity. -Johnny Fantastic
If you like Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, you might also like Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Though tempting to call Anvil a real-life Spinal Tap, they aren’t nearly as good, and by the end of the film (spoiler alert), they are only sort of big in Japan. A better comparison is to the wonderful “American Movie,” a documentary about a fledgling but persistent filmmaker in Milwaukee. Anvil is as optimistic, if not moreso, than “American Movie’s” wannabe George Romero, even if their art doesn’t live up to said optimism. Despite never showing an Anvil song from start to finish, the film does just enough to keep you rooting for Anvil … against all better judgment. -Tony Beasley
If you like Anvil! The Story of Anvil, you might also like Lemmy
It Might Get Loud (2008)
Jack White. Jimmy Page. The Edge. Three crazy-famous guitarists whose styles developed in differing circumstances come together for a mind-meld of riffs, stories, and volume turned up to eleven. They discuss the heritage of rock and roll as well as their road to stardom through the magic and madness of the electric guitar. Even if you don’t like the style of any one of the three musicians, it’s worth your while to see how they play off each other, and the parallels of influence across nationalities and genres. -Vesper Arnett
If you like It Might Get Loud, you might also like Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Directed by Michael Rapaport, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest follows one of the greatest music groups as it continued to disintegrate leading up to a reunion show in 2008. I think it’s safe to say that some previous knowledge of Tribe is needed to truly enjoy the depth Rapaport tries to explore; if you fall in that category then this is a must. I still remember the feeling of wonder when in one particular scene Q-Tip cooly explains how he found and extracted some of the most iconic samples in the group’s catalog.
The release of Tribe’s We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service in 2016 shortly after the untimely death of Malik Taylor (i.e. Phife Dawg) showed Tribe still had a voice on a crowded stage. Rapaport’s revealing film documents the wear on that voice. -Ruben Gzirian
If you like Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, you might also like This Is the Life
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth (2011)
The Foo Fighters are a fun band. It’s definitely got something to do with the name. Local fave Dave Grohl has released or appeared in numerous documentaries in recent years on his own bands. This one is about the recording of the Foo Fighters record Wasting Light, and the reunion of Pat Smear, Krist Novoselic, and Grohl on a record for the first time since Nirvana. The reason why this one is on here is simple. The Foo Fighters are a fun rock band. It’s pretty clear that Grohl really likes documentaries and this one is pretty comprehensive. He and Questlove might get along. I don’t think they’ve been in one together yet, but they should consider it. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, you might also like Pearl Jam Twenty
You remember Once, right? It was a gentle musical/drama about buskers in Dublin who discover they have palpable musical chemistry. Well, that movie was such a huge hit that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová formed a folk-rock duo called The Swell Season that toured the world. They also had a romantic relationship, and the film The Swell Season follows them as they had a long, painful break-up. It is an intensely intimate film, without the trappings of a typical rock doc. The musical performances and cinematography are ultimately more memorable than the drama that unfolds. That may speak to the film’s shortcomings, but also to what made Hasnard/Irglová so irresistible. -Alan Zilberman
If you like The Swell Season, you might also like The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights
T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s (2011)
In today’s era of gay civil rights, it’s easy to think of queer lifestyles as having not existed before the 1980s. The reality is queer scenes have regularly blossomed throughout history and T’ain’t Nobody’s Business takes us to the heart of one of America’s golden ages for queerness. The 1920’s saw the emergence of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and many other queer black divas who enjoyed massive popularity around the country, even in the segregated south, where they were often relegated to hunkering down in garbage motels after bringing the house down at whites only night clubs. Bold and beautiful, these exceptional women fade from collective memory, but reemerge in this brilliant telling as the eternal figures they truly are. -Johnny Fantastic
If you like T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, you might also like Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues
A Band Called Death (2012)
Fast paced, fascinating and full of gems, A Band Called Death is a crash course in a history that was forgotten. It re-writes the timeline of punk completely, convincingly arguing that Death (which was active from 1971-1977) was one of the worlds first punk bands. Made up of three Detroit brothers, Death had little success during the 70’s, party because of their aggressive sound and partly because record labels and radio shows didn’t like their name, which they refused to change. After recording a couple of EPs and having little success, the brothers broke up and explored other musical avenues. A Band Called Death dives deep into their musical history, but also tells a story packed with family secrets, love and general wholesomeness. -Kaylee Dugan
If you like A Band Called Death, you might also like Gimme Danger
Searching for Sugar Man is basically a superhero origin story. Bouncing between superbly shot Detroit and Cape Town, the film chronicles how the roguish Sixto Rodriguez is chewed up and spit out by the famously not-necessarily-merit-based record label system in the 1970’s before finding belated success via bootleg CD’s in South Africa. Being from Michigan and partly of Mexican descent myself, it’s hard not to be biased and personally invested in the arc of Detroit’s newfound native son. Others have correctly pointed out the filmmaker’s omissions of Rodriguez’s rising, pre-documentary popularity on the Internet, but it’s fine – this makes for a better story, a more hardened hero, and gives us a rare payoff and happy ending: Rodriguez regularly tours to this day, and his songs have tens of millions of plays on Spotify. -Tony Beasley
If you like Searching for Sugar Man, you might also like [email protected]
Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)
I seriously cannot believe it’s been 6-7 YEARS since I first watched this documentary in theaters, but here we are. You maybe be going, “Oh my god, you watched it in theaters???” to which I reply, “Not just in theaters, but in 3D.” The only other people present during the screening, which I went to with my friend Alex (at his suggestion, for the record), were two girls and one sad-looking man. And I had the lowest of low expectations. Sure, I was as big a fan of Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection as the guiltiest of guilty pleasurers, but watching a documentary crew follow Katy Perry around for a year on her California Dreams Tour felt like a pretty lame move, even for me. But I have to say, I ate my negative attitude almost immediately. It was fucking great. And I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve watched it A LOT of times since then. The film gives a lot of interesting insight into her career; if you recall, her ascension was maddeningly stalled by Columbia Records until HERO Angelica Cob-Baehler (who very unfortunately lost a battle with cancer last year) stole Katy’s files and got her over to Capitol. We also see the darker moments that come with being a superstar. (I swear to god, if you don’t shed a tear during the portion that covers her unraveling marriage, then you can get the hell outta my life, you monster!) So if you’ve ever been even remotely on the fence re: putting this one on your watch list, then I think you should just go ahead and say START, TODD. Of course, don’t @ me if you think it sucks. Just know that you are wrong and YOU ARE NOT PART OF ME. -Megan Burns
If you like Katy Perry: Part of Me, you might also like Justin Bieber’s Believe
“Did we not just pull off a high school play at Madison Square Garden?” Those are the first words you hear LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy say in Shut Up and Play the Hits. The 2012 documentary covers the time leading up to and following their legendary final show at Madison Square Garden. The movie splits time between concert footage, admittedly pretentious interviews with Chuck Klosterman, and little scenes from James Murphy’s life. It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist grappling with legacy and closure and ordinary everyday loneliness. The concert footage is stunning. Whenever they cut to the crowd, it’s clear they’re having a religious experience. I’ll always love this documentary because it was (embarrassingly) my entry point for what became one of my favorite bands. The band ended up reuniting in 2017, and if you want to hear more about their return, I highly recommend listening to James Murphy’s appearance on the Best Show with Tom Scharpling. It’s Us V Them baby! -Tommy McNamara
If you like Shut Up and Play the Hits, you might also like Under Blackpool Lights
History of the Eagles (2013)
People shit on the Eagles without batting an eye these days . You should watch this documentary so you bat an eye first and then shit on the Eagles. -Joe McAdam
If you like History of the Eagles, you might also like Long Strange Trip
Muscle Shoals is the story of Rick Hall and his FAME Records that, in a tiny town in Alabama, spawned some of the greatest music of the 60’s and 70’s. The film tells Hall’s tale of overcoming poverty and tragedy to launch the studio and create such a distinctive sound that he was able to draw many of the most popular black and white artists to the still very racially hostile South to record some of their most highly-regarded work. What really makes this documentary come to life are the reflections and stories told by the long list of artists who recorded there. Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Etta James, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Cliff and many others recount their experiences in interviews mixed with vintage footage and photos of their time in the studio. It’s an immensely watchable love letter to an important chapter in American music. -Jason Cauley
If you like Muscle Shoals, you might also like Mayor of the Sunset Strip
Sound City (2013)
Dave Grohl’s directorial debut is the studio called Sound City, its drum room, and a mixing console. For a first feature, it’s actually pretty good. After purchasing the console from the shuttered studio, Grohl decided he wanted to record a record with it. He brought in a number of people: Paul McCartney, Pat Smear, Krist Novoselic, Josh Homme, Stevie Nicks, Corey Taylor, and many more. A lot of documentaries are behind-the-scenes, but this one is just as much about the location as a character in the music as it is about the musicians using it. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Sound City, you might also like Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways
If you love 60s music there are many documentaries worth seeing about the people in the studios who didn’t become Diana Ross or Gladys Knight. 20 Feet From Stardom highlights both how strong a professional singer is as a soloist and how everyone backing them is equally capable of stepping to the mic. The ones that didn’t “make it” often endured personal frustrations and in some cases, faded into obscurity. But no more! The film’s Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature directs the spotlight to this oft under-appreciated and vital part of the music business. -Vesper Arnett
If you like 20 Feet From Stardom, you might also like Elvis: That’s the Way It Is
Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014)
Pulp is my favorite band of all time. I saw this movie during a one-night-only run it had at the freshy opened Angelika, behind Union Market almost five years ago, and I posted about it on my freshly-started Instagram account, before oversharing on Instagram was even really a thing. I loved it. The premise/format is funny, smart, sardonic and well, game changing, as some of their finest songs. It is also 150% PULP, the art school band to end all art school bands. As the movie starts, 25 years after sauntered onto the world music scene, all lanky, and cool and beyond catchy, the band return to Sheffield for a reunion concert, and the result is a documentary that is as much about the city that gave birth to their sound, as it is about the sound itself. Beyond music, the casual topics of interview conversation among the “common people” of Sheffield include fame, love, mortality – & yes, car maintenance and supermarkets. They don’t make bands or music docs like this anymore. -Svetlana Legetic
If you like Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, you might also like Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
20,000 Days on Earth (2014)
Documentary doesn’t have to be direct. The 20,000th day of the musician Nick Cave’s life is carved into a narrative exploration of memory, reconstructed through his personal archives, stories with collaborators, and the members of his band, The Bad Seeds. The movie isn’t a traditional documentary, it’s a scripted series of events that make up “a day in the life” of Nick Cave, though it’s unlikely he would go to the U.K., France, and Australia in a single day. 20,000 Days on Earth is about life, myth, and being by the sea. If you’ve ever seen him live, his description of his performance as psychodrama rings especially true as he gleefully describes the thrill of isolating an audience member and terrifying them. It’s an unusual film and certainly not for everyone, but neither is the man. -Vesper Arnett
If you like the not really a documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, you might also like the definitely not a documentary Head
Amy might be my favourite music documentary. I saw it opening night and cried through most of it; I also have a copy on Blu-Ray that I watch at least once a year. For context – Amy Winehouse and Anthony Bourdain are the only two celebrity deaths I’ve mourned.
Director Asif Kapadia does a masterful job of using home videos, news stories, and interviews with a wide variety of people from the soul singer’s life to paint a compelling story of a talent taken from us too soon – and of the perils of addiction. -Jose Lopez-Sanchez
If you like Amy, you might also like Janis
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)
I watched this in theaters on my 29th birthday, and I have to say, it felt pretty weird to take an in-depth look at someone I’d already outlived by two years. And while I certainly expected the film to make me feel sad (even sadder than I already did, of course) about the loss of such a great talent at such a young age, it made me feel sad in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. And maybe that’s just because I didn’t know enough about her life prior to watching Little Girl Blue, but you start to see (or at least this is what I took from it) that she was actually pretty desperate for love and acceptance underneath it all. I mean, sure, you can argue that that’s just kind of the human experience, but I’d always thought of her as this fearless, gives no fucks kind of woman (I guess in large part due to her flamboyance and the fierceness of her voice). In reality, she still got down about the guys in her band going home with girls every night when she was going home alone, and she even went to her high school reunion, because I guess she still felt like she had something to prove. Seeing those sorts of insecurities brought Janis back down to earth for me, which, in a way compounded the tragedy of it all. Is it all sad? No way! You still get the party and the spitfire you’d expect, plus the soundtrack is INCREDIBLE. But do be prepared to reach for the tissues every so often. Additional notes – Cat Power does a great job as narrator, Amy Berg (the director) includes a fantastic mix of friends, family, fans and collaborators to paint a thorough picture of a life lost, and, full disclosure, sometimes I watch the end credits if I need a good, cathartic cry. Definitely would recommend if you want to get to know Janis Joplin in a deeper way. -Megan Burns
If you like Janis: Little Girl Blue, you might also like Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
Now for something a little bit different. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) was invited to India to film the recording of the album Junun, composed by Shye Ben Tzur and performed by Rajasthan Express, featuring Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and producer Nigel Godrich. The music is sung in several languages; Tzur is Israeli, and the diverse Indian subcontinent provides inspiration for songs in languages some band members do not speak.
It’s a brisk film, at under an hour in length. It’s not quite fly-on-the-wall, but it comes close, and is almost a like a concert filmed in someone’s living room. It’s not surprising that Anderson would make a music documentary; he’s made several music videos, one of his biggest inspirations is Jonathan Demme and has collaborated with the adventurous Greenwood on several film scores. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Junun, you might also like Buena Vista Social Club
In the time since I’ve seen Montage of Heck, I’ve filled in the blanks. I read Come As You Are and I laughed through Soaked In Bleach (which is maybe one of the worst documentaries I’ve ever seen). I have a fuller picture of Kurt Cobain and the story of Nirvana, a picture that pokes some holes into the sullen and chaotic Montage. Its inaccuracies have been reported exhaustively, yet it’s a documentary I continuously recommend to friends and family because (and I understand if I lose you here) it doesn’t really matter to me what’s true and what’s not. Montage of Heck is the perfect encapsulation of a mood. It’s one of the saddest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and even if Cobain’s life wasn’t that dour, it’s a movie that feels fully like a Nirvana song. It carries the same kind of magic.
Montage of Heck was the first thing I watched after my worst breakup (fingers crossed). After I moved out of my exes house and back in with my parents, I spent most days crying and doing nothing. I went to work. I came home. I did nothing. I couldn’t listen to any music, because everything made me cry. Once I was in my car (at the Greenbelt metro parking lot, good times) and I accidentally played a Belle & Sebastion song, which made me sob for at least five straight minutes before I could drive home. At some point, my mom convinced me to leave my bedroom to watch Montage of Heck. We split the doc up, watching it over two or three nights. It sounds silly to say (and even sillier to write), but it was the best balm for my pain. Sometimes you need to wallow, get dramatic and feel every inch of your heartbreak. After watching the movie, Nirvana was the only band I could listen to without crying. I remember stopping by my exes house to pick up a few things and laughing as I blasted “Drain You” on the drive home. Maybe it’s not a good doc because it’s not accurate. Maybe Kurt is pulling a fast one on us from beyond the grave. Regardless, his pain (real and/or exacerbated) helped me get through my pain. It made me feel less alone and less defeated, but more than that, it made me feel like I would be okay one day. And I am. -Kaylee Dugan
If you like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, you might also like Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nina Simone was a singular artist, one who was uncompromising and inspired millions. The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? treats her with the respect she’s earned. Still, the film explains why she could be an alienating figure, and why so much of her later life was spent in exile. Most importantly, it reminds us why she will never be replicated. -Alan Zilberman
If you like What Happened, Miss Simone?, you might also like Sing Your Song
Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
It’s another documentary by Asif Kapadia (what can I say? He’s a master of the art form), and this time the subject are the UK’s happiest siblings: Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. Supersonic is a fun, booze-soaked and coke-fueled romp, and thankfully, they don’t play “Wonderwall” more than necessary (once). Instead, the focus is more on the big personalities and explosive dynamics between the Gallagher brothers, and their vertiginous rise to the top of the pops. -Jose Lopez-Sanchez
If you like Oasis: Supersonic, you might also like The Beatles: Eight Days a Week
The Art of Organized Noize (2016)
OutKast’s place in the pantheon of rap greats was secured a long time ago, even if kids today don’t know André 3000 or Big Boi beyond their guest verses. The iconic duo bubbled up from Atlanta’s Spaghetti Junction over 20 years ago, and never looked back – and a great deal of their early success was built on the back of funky, idiosyncratic beats produced by Rico Wade & Organized Noize.
Working out of The Dungeon, a studio built in Wade’s mother’s basement, Organized Noize were responsible for creating the music for some of the biggest songs of the 1990s/2000s: TLC’s “Waterfalls”, OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean”, and Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy”. The Art of Organized Noize shows that despite their fall from grace, the production trio – consisting of the aforementioned Wade plus Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray – the undeniable spirit of innovation remains. Another fun fact: Rico Wade’s younger cousin used to hang around the studio before starting his own musical career. He’s now known to you and me as Future. -Jose Lopez-Sanchez
If you like The Art of Organized Noize, you might also like Time Is Illmatic
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Lady Gaga is everywhere right now, and if you want more Netflix has your back. Her life’s work so far is less the focus than the almost career-ending hip injury she sustained several years ago. While she recovered she had the opportunity of a lifetime to sing with her hero, Tony Bennett, and write an album of personal significance. Gaga: Five Foot Two is an underrated Netflix originals, in that it is instrumental in both deconstructing the theatrics of Gaga and exposing the human Stefani Germanotta to a wider audience. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Gaga: Five Foot Two, you might also like Madonna: Truth or Dare
MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (2018)
“Paper Planes” took the world by storm when it came out over a decade ago, and Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam aka M.I.A.’s global mash-up aesthetic made her a star. The daughter of one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers, M.I.A. is one of the few major artists bringing attention to the deaths of thousands of people in her home country of Sri Lanka. Whether you know her story or not, you’ve probably heard “Swagga Like Us,” which samples “Paper Planes,” or heard about the numerous controversies she has been embroiled in since her breakout record. Whether or not you like her, after watching this film, you cannot deny her dedication to highlighting the genocide in Sri Lanka.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A. is made up of a mix of videos and photographs she made growing up and footage put together for this film. The footage M.I.A. had in her personal archive is fantastic; as a child she aspired to become a documentary filmmaker herself, so she had plenty of work prepared. Though the film is telling her story, through the good and bad, it always circles back to her original vision of bringing a microphone to the problems of “third world” countries, even if she becomes more of an outcast for doing it. -Vesper Arnett
If you like Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., you might also like Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
If this movie had nothing to do with music and was just about the life of someone that was able to expand his reach across the globe by sheer force of will it would be an interesting watch. The fact that we get to hear about Michael Jackson’s music puts it on another level. It’s a great study on the psychology of someone like Quincy Jones. Someone who can’t settle. Someone who can’t stop working, for better or worse. The fact that he happened to be a genius musician and producer end up making for a more sympathetic study of that kind of person. -Joe McAdam
If you like Quincy, you might also like Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Not Music Docs But They Need to be Mentioned
Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus (2017, 2018)
My favorite music doc of late is actually a television series, Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus. It’s not a straight forward documentary, though. For one, it’s episodic, focusing on a single artist for an episode or two. Also, it’s very conversational- each episode starts with an animated (crudely rotoscoped) version of Judge sitting on a tour bus, talking about the artist, frequently cutting to the artist (if they’re alive and can be interviewed) or the artist’s manager/band mate/protege/minister of information just telling, well, tales. This is very much your wacky uncle telling you stories of the time he was a roadie, but with corroborating testimony. And unlike many music docs which feel the need to force cinematic rising and falling actions into the documentary to heighten tension or drive a sense of narrative, the stories told and the way they’re presented here give you hope for a happy ending even when you rationally know that’s not the case. Is George Jones dead? Yes. Did I know this before I watched the two-parter about his life? Yes. Did I still think he was going to make it? Right up until Judge, also the voice of Hank Hill, tells you about Jones’ death. To that point: Judge is absolutely the perfect person to make this series. No one else has that combination of commercial viability and artistic credibility to make something so laconic yet fascinating. Besides which, if you watch nothing else, watch it to hear Hank Hill pronounce “Dr. Funkenstein.” -Jeb Gavin
A Mighty Wind and This Is Spinal Tap (2003 and 1984)
Everyone is suddenly all up Schitt’s Creek but please remember that Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara also performed as a duo in the folk mockumentary A Mighty Wind. It is everything. It’s a send-up of the folk genre and the Grand Ole Opry, with the premise of a memorial concert for a fictional producer. We already know that the ensemble of this film are absolutely incredible actors, but their singing is just as good. Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest wrote the film, and the cast wrote most of the songs themselves. It’s also the most sincere Christopher Guest mockumentary.
If you’re not really into folk music, and could get into something with noted libra Fran Drescher, you can catch Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in the most famous mockumentary: This Is Spinal Tap. The heavy metal band Spinal Tap can barely keep a drummer alive let alone find the right door to get on stage. This one is required watching for any film or music lover, and if you’re a comedy fan, you’ve probably already seen it. I’ll just remind you that they legitimately went on tour more than once as Spinal Tap, as did the entire main cast of A Mighty Wind as their respective groups. The two films are a great double feature. Oh, and Spinal Tap are reuniting this year to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the film. -Vesper Arnett