Last Updated: October 15th
As much as music is about the songs, it’s also about narrative, and the people who make it. An album is only as good as how badly people want to listen to it, and it takes interesting stories to create that connection with an audience. Since the origins of modern music, there has been a myriad of interesting plots (and subplots) about heroes, villains, underappreciated visionaries, signature events, and other elements that have come together to make the music industry the exciting and ever-moving beast it is today. As this has been happening, filmmakers have been documenting it, so below, check out some of the best music documentaries that, if you haven’t seen, you should watch, and if you have seen them, dust them off and give them another look.
Amy Winehouse was both a triumphant and tragic figure: Even though she only had two albums to her name, Winehouse’s career yielded international hits like “Rehab” and established her as one of the most engaging singers on the planet. Despite her success, she was also a vessel of potential, having passed away at just 27 after years of dealing with substance abuse. Amy, the definitive documentary about her life and journey, gets are more than that, though: It paints a comprehensive and compelling portrait of an artist who was as full of life as she was of struggle.
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2009)
Toronto metal band Anvil is probably a group you haven’t heard of, unless you’re familiar with this documentary about them. It might seem to be a Spinal Tap-like mockumentary — after playing a show to an embarrassingly small crowd, the band’s Robb Reiner looks to the camera and says, “I can sum it up for you in three words: We have shit management” — but it’s all real. The group had fleeting success in the ’80s, even managing to influence and/or perform with the likes of Megadeth, Metallica, Bon Jovi, and others, but it didn’t last. Despite the huge drought the band fell into during the ’90s, they refused to stop, so while there are plenty of comedic moments, it’s also at times heartwarming to see how determined this group of struggling musicians is.
A Band Called Death (2013)
The punk spirit is defined by its rebellion against the established and expected, so what’s more punk than being the first punk band, subverting the norm in a way that hadn’t even been established yet? ’70s Detroit group Death was believed to be one of the first groups in the genre, which meant they were underappreciated in their time but revered after it, as visionaries often are. A Band Called Death effective paints a portrait of this band of black brothers, going against the prevalent Motown grain of the time and place they were in in order to forge their own path, one that didn’t yet exist. Now that’s punk.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Around the time this documentary came out, A Tribe Called Quest was actually disputing with director Michael Rappaport, with Q-Tip going as far as to tweet that he was “not in support” of the movie. That could mean either the film wasn’t done all that well, or it was a warts-and-all production that wasn’t meant solely to honor the subject, but to paint as accurate and complete a portrait of them as possible. A Tribe Called Quest was and remains important and successful, but they didn’t always get along with each other and had their struggles, and it’s this absolute vision of the group that Rappaport faithfully portrays as he goes with them on their 2008 reunion tour.
Beware Of Mr. Baker (2012)
You should never meet your idols, they say, and it seems that’s never been truer than in the case of Ginger Baker, because he’s a bad dude: Even in just the Beware Of Mr. Baker trailer, you see him attacking director Jay Bulger with a cane and cutting the bridge of his nose. As a drummer and co-founder of Cream, Baker became known as one of the world’s best and a real innovator, and part of his enduring legacy is his hostile and often combative personality. It doesn’t seem like Baker is somebody who would participate in a documentary about himself — as the aforementioned confrontation suggests — but he did, which results in a gripping film about one of the most talented and aggressive figures in rock history.
The Black Godfather (2019)
The Black Godfather presents the life and work of Clarence Avant, a music impresario who played every role from band manager to record label executive to behind-the-scenes fixer. Avant mentored music industry executives, produced special events for politicians, and has been one of the most towering, yet unheralded figures in the music business for decades. The Black Godfather aims to give him his much-deserved roses.
The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005)
Part of what makes music interesting — aside from the songwriting, the instrumental proficiency, and everything else that you actually hear when a song is playing — is the people. Daniel Johnston, who is considered by many to be an “outsider” musician, is one of the most interesting figures in recorded history, even if his music can be hard to stomach for many… or because of that fact. Contending with schizophrenia and manic depression, Johnston managed to earn a cult following for himself in Austin, Texas with his lo-fi, childlike tapes and concerts, although he didn’t thrive as well in the context of a record label. Johnston is a character that screenwriters wish they could concoct, which makes an exploration into the man’s inner psyche a compelling affair.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour was short, featuring just 24 shows between November 7 and December 6, but it’s often regarded as a historically significant extravaganza. That said, it ended on one of the worst possible notes: Altamont Free Concert. The film chronicles this brief window of time, which was as fascinating as it was tragic: The concert featured Santana; The Flying Burrito Brothers; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Hell’s Angels working security, four deaths, and extensive property damage.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands as one of Wilco’s most adventurous albums, and yet, it was perhaps the one they had the hardest time releasing. Their label, Reprise Records, refused to put it out, so Wilco bought the album’s rights, left the label, and uploaded the album online and released it themselves, later releasing it on Nonesuch Records. Even for non-music fans, it’s a fascinating story with a lot of moving parts that contribute to the larger narrative: Record label drama, Jeff Tweedy’s increasingly severe migraines, and the departure of then-Wilco member Jay Bennett due to creative differences.
It Might Get Loud (2008)
There are plenty of documentaries and other resources out there that have talked about guitar gods and how to play the instrument well, but It Might Get Loud really gets at how the guitar’s diversity makes it special. It does this by highlighting the methods and styles of U2’s The Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page, three men who have used the instrument in very different ways. Despite their varying backgrounds and ideologies about the six-string, or perhaps because of it, it’s enlightening to hear these three greats talk about the different elements of their craft, making this film one of the most effective love letters to the most important instrument of the past hundred years.
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015)
Cobain’s story is perhaps the most famously tragic in music of the ’90s: Nirvana became more monumentally successful than Cobain could handle, which was just one of many struggles that the generational talent faced. He also dealt with chronic health problems, heroin addiction, and depression, all of which were presumably contributing factors to his suicide. Cobain was as troubled as he was fascinating, and this documentary, which chronicles his 27 years on earth, is as engaging and entertaining a look at Cobain has ever been compiled. The film itself is special, but the documentary is even sweeter due to the soundtrack, which features previously unreleased Cobain recordings.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
Even at 77 years old today, Bob Dylan continues to be a monumental figure that fans of all ages are fascinated by, because his music was both so groundbreaking and so timeless. Perhaps his most enrapturing era, though, was the early 1960s, at the start of his career and also the “end,” when Dylan announced his retirement following a motorcycle accident. No Direction Home draws from hours of interviews with Dylan himself and people close to him, all of which are edited into an expansive three-and-a-half-hour movie (directed by Martin Scorsese) about one of pop culture’s most engaging creatives.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World (2017)
Native Americans don’t seem to be mentioned often when it comes to figures who were historically significant in the advancement of rock music, but they’ve contributed more than most realize. Link Wray, whose “Rumble” (the film’s namesake song) has influenced guitarists for generations, is a Shawnee Native American. Jimi Hendrix, whose merits don’t need explaining, has Native American ancestry as well. The film highlights these and other important people to show that Native Americans have impacted modern North American music in a surprisingly broad and profound way. They’ve long been overlooked, but Rumble does its part to make sure they get their due.
More than many other genres, hip-hop has been defined by the technology that was available at the time, and at its dawning, turntables were en vogue. That’s part of the focus of Scratch, the esteemed 2001 documentary that looks at hip-hop DJs, the mechanics of their craft, and what it all means. Turntablism and traditional hip-hop culture are part of a world that might not be familiar to contemporary hip-hop fans, but where the film excels is in making these nuanced ideas feel accessible and alluring. It all comes from the mouths of experts as well: Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, Madlib, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, and other luminaries were interviewed for the documentary.
Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
Sixto Rodriguez, better known mononymously by his last name, is an American musician from Detroit, who ultimately proved to have a short, non-noteworthy career in the ’70s. That’s only what you might think if you live outside of South Africa, though, because there, he was humongous. While his South African fans presumed he was dead, Rodriguez lived an ordinary life as a factory worker until a pair of fans attempted to find him. That journey is the subject of this documentary that’s as much about a missing icon as it is about fandom, and it makes for a fascinating film that proves some truths, even those that seem unknowable, are just waiting to be found.
Something From Nothing (2012)
There are many different approaches to rap, whether you’re talking about vocal styles, subject matter, or instrumental choices, all of this going to show that rap is truly an art. That’s something that Ice-T wanted to capture in his 2012 documentary Something From Nothing, and while he would certainly be enough of an authority to at least give a lecture on the form, just hearing from him would likely result in a non-definitive look at the genre. That’s why the film features interviews with multiple rappers talking about how they approach their craft, from people like Kanye West, Afrika Bambaataa, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and other icons who have left their mark in their own ways. While getting a complete picture of what a genre is about with one documentary is virtually impossible, Something From Nothing is one of the most successful attempts yet.
Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
Metallica has been kicking ass for nearly 40 years now, and while even remaining a band for that long is a feat, that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing. Some Kind Of Monster covers the band during the St. Anger era, a time of much turmoil for the group: Bassist Jason Newsted left the group in 2001, James Hetfield went to rehab for his alcohol abuse, and the band sought out group therapy to deal with interpersonal issues. The movie is a fascinating look at one of the most successful and longest-running metal groups ever, and what it takes to achieve that status and remain standing well after most bands would have folded.
Sound City (2013)
Dave Grohl can pretty much do no wrong, as he shows in this film, his directorial debut. Nirvana recorded their album Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, and the place apparently stuck with him enough to compel the rock star to craft this tribute to the place. The movie details the history of the studio and brings together famous musicians who recorded there while it was active, between 1969 and 2011. The film also resulted in a soundtrack featuring songs recorded by the musicians in the movie, resulting in collaborations involving the likes of Grohl, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Stevie Nicks, and others.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
At most shows, there are a lot of people on stage, not all of whom are part of the main act. Among those are background singers, and when Morgan Neville and Gil Friesen wanted to learn more about these figures, 20 Feet From Stardom was born. The movie is a fascinating exploration into the lives of people we see so often and think so little about, whose contributions to music are as anonymous as they are essential. It’s a music story, but it’s also one about race, bias in the music industry, and about under-appreciated art. Being a background vocalist is a struggle between just being involved and wanting to be a name, and it’s this journey and other nuances that the film captures so well.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nina Simone was one of the most popular and inspirational figures of the 1960s, so much so that her popularity easily transcends the decade. At the same time, she was complicated, known as much for her outbursts (she once fired a gun at a record company executive) as she was for her activism (Simone was a strong voice during the civil rights movement). What Happened, Miss Simone? has no interest in presenting a blemish-free version of the artist: She was happy and sad and angry and nuanced, and all of that is part of what makes her so compelling a documentary subject and person.
If there is a definitive music movie, this is it, right? It captures, of course, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair (as it’s formally known) of 1969, one of the most iconic musical events of all time. It features artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin… basically all the defining acts of the era. The film itself is basically as important as the event it chronicles: The movie is one of few to have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It’s a time capsule of an era that was actually made during the time period it represents, giving it another layer of authenticity and transformative properties, which is part of the reason why it has aged so well and remains an important work.