Consider them education. Or entertainment. Music documentaries provide an opportunity to celebrate — or learn — about old music, the history of music or new music. Or just your favorite artist.
For the equivalent of a semesterlong course, Ken Burns offers two spectacular marathons — the 10-episode “Jazz” (2001) and the eight-part “Country Music” (2019). However, those deep dives are not easy to track down.
Here are some recommended music docs that can be found on YouTube, DVD/Blu-ray or streaming services like Netflix.
“Don’t Look Back” (1967) — No film captures the whirlwind of early pop stardom better than cinema verité pioneer D.A. Pennebaker’s chronicle of Bob Dylan’s 1965 electric tour of England. He’d split up with Joan Baez, switched from folk to rock and turned the Beatles onto pot. The must-see film also features Dylan flipping cue cards for what became the “music video” of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
“The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981) — Punk rockers were rarely seen on film until Penelope Spheeris’ landmark portrayal of the L.A. punk scene, featuring frantic performances by X, Black Flag and others. To add cinematic drama, she interviewed the musicians under one light bulb as they carped about suburban strip malls and their own urban squalor.
“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) — Rob Reiner’s monumental mockumentary may be fiction, but it captures the true essence — and excesses and inanities — of a big-time touring band. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer star as a popular British heavy-metal band whose drummers keep dying in bizarre ways.
“Gospel According to Al Green” (1984) — After dogged pursuit, Robert Mugge, who has made music docs on the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and Sonny Rollins, finally landed an interview with the soul star turned preacher and filmed the seventh anniversary of his church in Memphis. The complexities, love and happiness of Al Green are here in abundance.
“Truth or Dare” (1991) — If you think Madonna was the boldest, most brilliant superstar of the MTV Age, you will might find this to be a remarkably insightful backstage glimpse of a rock-concert tour.
“Meeting People Is Easy” (1998) — This film is a snapshot of that moment when a band, specifically Radiohead, explodes into superstardom. Declared Gen X’s answer to “Dark Side of the Moon,” “OK Computer” finds Radiohead on tour coping with living up to the critical acclaim and numbing questions of music journalists. In one scene, frontman Thom Yorke invites a concert crowd to sing “Creep” while he holds out his microphone and smirks. OK, Thom.
“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999) — Celebrated German director Wim Wenders follows the great American guitarist Ry Cooder to Cuba as he tracks down aging musicians there to record an album and then perform in Amsterdam and New York. Although choppy, the film elevated the music and the musicians into deserving global prominence.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (2002) — This loving tribute to the Funk Brothers, the 13 musicians who (often anonymously) played on hundreds of Motown records, finds them revisiting their old Detroit haunts and backing modern stars like Gerald Levert, Ben Harper and Joan Osborne in a concert of Motown music.
“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (2004) — After an underwhelming album and the departure of its longtime bassist, these metal heroes went through lots of expensive psychotherapy and aggravating gripe sessions about creative differences and addiction issues. Metallica never sounded so agitating.
“Shut Up and Sing” (2006) — Two-time Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple followed the Dixie Chicks for three years after their lead singer’s controversial comment about President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Backlash and threats in the conservative world of country music were swift and lasting. This film becomes a fascinating study of the relationship between celebrities, politicians and the media.
“The Wrecking Crew” (2008) — This tells the story of the anonymous Los Angeles studio musicians who played on “Good Vibrations,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and other 1960s hits. Hear from Wrecking Crew players — including guitarist Glen Campbell and pianist Leon Russell — and such stars as Cher and Herb Alpert. A must-see for liner-note readers.
“It Might Get Loud” (2009) — This is the best movie ever made about guitars — and one of the best rock docs, period. Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim explores guitars through the stories of heroes from three different eras — Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s the Edge and White Stripes’ Jack White. Turn it up to 11!
“Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” (2010) — Veteran heavy-metal documentarians Scot McFayden and Sam Dunn examine the polarizing prog-rock Toronto trio, with endorsements from Jack Black and Billy Corgan, but Rush frontman Geddy Lee admitting his 10-year fascination with synthesizers was misguided.
“Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) — Sixto Rodriguez was a late 1960s/early ‘70s singer-songwriter forgotten everywhere except South Africa, where he became something of a cult hero. Decades later, two obsessive fans tracked him down in Detroit and brought him to South Africa for a series of concerts that became the subject of this Oscar-winning doc.
“History of the Eagles” (2013) — This three-hour warts-and-all doc celebrates the highs, lows, reunion and, above all, contributions of Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Other band members disagreed, but the music and the concerts keep on selling.
“20 Feet from Stardom” (2013) — This Oscar-winning documentary shines a spotlight on backup singers, including Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill, proving that they have the voices to be front and center. Plenty of superstars, including Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, testify.
“Muscle Shoals” (2013) — It’s another behind-the-scenes doc about two recording studios in the tiny Alabama town of Muscle Shoals where such classics as “Brown Sugar,” “Free Bird” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” were recorded in the 1960s and ‘70s. Hear from Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Mick Jagger, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many other greats, including Aretha Franklin, in her last movie appearance.
“Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” (2014) — It’s hard to watch a once-great singer/guitarist struggle with dementia onstage and off during his farewell tour. The “Wichita Lineman” hitmaker’s musical skills were still there, but the lapses and vulnerability are telling and heartbreaking.
“Amy” (2015) — This doc is as powerful and memorable as the late Amy Winehouse’s kohl-eyed ‘00s soul music — only the film leaves you numb. With cellphone videos and TV footage, this well-rounded portrait details her life, art and issues with a compelling dramatic arc, even though we already know the ending.
“Beats, Rhymes & Life: Travels with A Tribe Called Quest” (2011) — In his debut as a director, actor Michael Rapaport explores the influential ‘90s jazzy, sophisticated hip-hop group — from their childhood roots to their bickering breakup. The film opts for drama over scrutiny, but Mary J. Blige, Common and the Beastie Boys all boast about Quest.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015) — It’s not the personal mementos of potent singer/activist Nina Simone or the interviews with her daughter and ex-husband that make director Liz Garbus’ profile so powerful. It’s the live performance footage that speaks volumes about an often misunderstood force.
“Gaga: Five Foot Two” (2017) — About to release her change-of-pace album “Joanne,” Lady Gaga fights heartbreak and loneliness, paranoia and fear, a painful nerve injury and a change in image and sound. The film — and perhaps Gaga’s career — peaks as she prepares and pulls off her Super Bowl halftime performance in 2017.
“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” (2019) — Director Stanley Nelson Jr. takes a curious approach to paint a complete picture of the legendarily complex jazz man, with concert clips, interviews with associates, friends and lovers — and Minneapolis-reared actor Carl Lumbly narrating with Davis’ distinctive rasp.
“David Crosby: Remember My Name” (2019) — Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a rock star. Crosby gushes without a filter about having a lot of sex, taking too many drugs, making harmony-filled rock ‘n’ roll and being a complete jerk to his lovers and bandmates in the Byrds and Crosby Stills Nash & Young.
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” (2019) — It’s another Dylan/Scorsese collaboration (their first was the long-winded 2005 PBS doc “No Direction Home”) about the bard’s 1975-76 rambling, circuslike tour featuring Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and a revolving cast of characters. Overlook some fake-news interviews with Sharon Stone and others and appreciate some of Dylan’s most magnetic onstage performances ever on film.
“ZZ Top: That Little Ol Band from Texas” (2019) — You don’t get behind the shades and beards of Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and beardless Frank Beard. But you do get a history of the band and their sound. You learn how publicist Howard Bloom pumped up their image with Texas-sized hype for a record-setting tour on a Texas-shaped stage and how ZZ Top reinvented themselves as MTV darlings with unplanned beards.
“Miss Americana” (2020) — As Emmy-winner Lana Wilson surveys Taylor Swift’s career, we watch the intensely self-aware superstar reveal her insecurities, creative process, love of cats, frustrations with fame and Kanye West, and obsession with being a “nice girl.” But as she reaches her late 20s, she liberates her sound, politics and image.
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