Movies

After ‘Montage Of Heck,’ You Must Watch These Other Music Documentaries

On Monday, HBO will premiere the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Directed by Brett Morgen, the film tells the story of the impactful, but brief life of the Nirvana frontman. While music lovers and fans of good storytelling have interest running high on this project, Montage of Heck isn’t the first music documentary ever made. Hell, it’s not even the first documentary about Cobain.

For those of you looking for some more documentaries about the world of music after Montage of Heck, here’s what should be on your queue next.

(Note: Concert films aren’t included here. That’s a different kettle of fish. Sorry, Stop Making Sense fans. You’ll have your day in the sun.)

20 Feet From Stardom 

This 2013 film won Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, so it has pedigree. Some complained that it won because it was a “feel good” movie, as if that’s a bad thing. The film tells the story of several backup singers, many of whom you may not know by name, but know by voice. The primary focus is Darlene Love, who is awesome. There are a lot of great singers, and thus great music, in this movie.

Where to find it: On Netflix Instant Streaming.

A Band Called Death

As the tagline for the film goes, “Before there was punk, there was a band called Death.” The story of three black brothers who grew up in Detroit and made a protopunk record before falling into obscurity and then being rescued, this is a very engaging movie, even though — or perhaps because of the fact — nobody really knew the band until the movie came out. There’s a certain pall that’s cast upon “best band you’ve never heard of” documentaries, due to a strain of music fans who prize obscurity above all else. However, don’t let that keep you from watching A Band Called Death, especially if you have any interest in punk, or stories of musical redemption. Searching for Sugar Man is in a similar vein, if you are interested in further viewing.

Where to find it: Available on DVD, and on Amazon streaming, including free through Amazon Prime.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil 

This is Spinal Tap is not a documentary, but Anvil! The Story of Anvil is, and it’s probably as close to Spinal Tap as a real movie will ever get. Anvil was a big metal band in the ’80s, but the ’80s stopped, and Anvil had to go on. They spent years toiling in relative obscurity, which this movie chronicles and does not sugarcoat. It’s a testament to musical perseverance, and it could make you sympathetic the next time Loverboy or somebody like that rolls through your town.

Where to find it: Available on DVD and through Amazon Streaming.

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Michael Rapaport is more than just that guy from the worst season of Justified. He’s also the director of this film, which tells the story of most beloved, and best, of the Native Tongues hip-hop collective. What became of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and the rest? This movie helps to answer those questions, while showcasing the excellent rap A Tribe Called Quest was making in the ’90s. If you want a more eclectic, expansive look at the history of rap, Ice-T directed a movie of his own entitled Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.

Where to find it: Available on DVD, where it is actually cheaper than buying the Instant Video on Amazon.

Don’t Look Back 

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D.A. Pennebaker, along with the Maysles brothers, is one of the progenitors of cinema verite in this country, and he brought that sensibility to this documentary about Bob Dylan. Pennebaker serves as a fly on the wall as Dylan goes about being Dylan in the ’60s, which is to say he’s a jerk to basically everybody he meets, including but not limited to his then-girlfriend Joan Baez. If you want to watch Dylan be combative with various journalists, this is the movie for you. There have been other documentaries about Dylan, including No Direction Home, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, but Don’t Look Back captures Dylan at his peak and in the moment, giving it the edge on the rest.

Where to find it: Available on DVD.

Gimme Shelter

This 1970 film, directed by the aforementioned Maysles brothers, is partially a concert film, but it’s so much more. It also tells the story of an end of the era, as “the ’60s” as an ethos, many argue, ended at Altamont, an event this movie spends a great deal of time with. While the film is ostensibly about the final days of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, what most people remember it for is the moment when a member of Hell’s Angels, who were security for this show, stabbed a concertgoer to death. If you want a Rolling Stones documentary more about the music, consider, say, Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light. That dude likes to make music documentaries.

Where to find it: Available on DVD and through Amazon Streaming.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

Most music documentaries focus on, you know, musicians. What 1986’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot focuses on is the fans tailgating in a parking lot in Landover, Md. waiting for a Judas Priest show. Does that sound interesting? Maybe not on the surface, but it is considered one of the more cultishly adored documentaries ever. It even got a DVD release in 2006. Also, if Wikipedia is to be believed, this movie was a favorite on the Nirvana tour bus. That feels about right. It’s also spiritually in line with Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy Decline of Western Civilization.

Where to find it: As previously mentioned, available on DVD. Although, watching it on anything other than a worn out VHS is anathema to the spirit of the movie.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Cobain himself was a fan of Johnston, and you can find photos of him wearing the iconic Johnston “Hi, How Are You?” shirt, so people who are going to check out Montage of Heck may want to check this out, too. Johnston is a cult figure in the world of music, and his cult is partially fueled by the fact he is severely bipolar and, as such, has had a complicated, not infrequently sad life. The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll, about Wesley Willis, explores a similar topic.

Where to find it: Available for purchase on DVD or Amazon Instant Video.

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