10 Must-See Music Documentaries
Oct 9, 2020
9 min read
When was the last time you stopped to appreciate how well music lends itself to storytelling?
In a manner unlike any other medium, music blurs the barriers between artists and consumers to create a continuously regenerating story with boundless perspectives.
The mythologized saga of an artist’s rise is customarily built on live gigs. When we buy records, show up to gigs, make absurd displays of ecstasy at said gigs or gallivant around music festivals, we chart our own course while influencing those of the people who compelled us to get out there in the first place. The intimate, symbiotic relationship between musician and consumer is unmatched by other art forms.
Of course, you can’t go to concerts during Covid. While the world itself hasn’t slowed, the speed at which we can all come together and weave new musical yarns has come to a crawl.
Stuck to our sofas though we may be, it’s still possible to celebrate the communal magic of music. Good documentaries remind us of what once was and shall be again. Film can’t beat the spontaneity of a local scene or live show, but it can nourish the fires once stoked in us by the promise of a good night out.
These 10 movies range from testimonies by talking heads (not the band, although Stop Making Sense is an undisputed classic) to painfully-rendered portraits of an artist’s inner life. This list of music docs is hardly comprehensive, but they’re all stories worth watching.
Is it all a little romantic and ridiculous? Sure. But then again, isn’t music?
A Band Called Death
Few stories are as strange as that of Death’s. Formed by brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney in 1970s Detroit, the trio channeled their shared musical upbringing and mysticism into fast, furious guitar riffs that arguably made them pioneers of what would become known as punk. The song “Politicians In My Eyes” shreds as fiercely and rings as true today as it did in 1974. Instead of being hallowed in the halls of hard rock royalty, Death languished in obscurity, partially due to late member David’s principled refusal to change the group’s name to something more commercial. Still, good music finds a way, and after gaining traction in circulation among collector’s circles and a fateful family discovery, Death has found an audience decades removed from its founding. Adding a new musical dimension to a city known largely for Motown, techno,and Death’s own forebears MC5 and The Stooges, A Band Called Death is ultimately a story about the weird, winding paths life takes, and the impossibility of knowing where it’ll all end up.
Director Asif Kapadia pulls zero punches in his 2015 examination of Amy Winehouse’s life and work. Blending candid home videos with confessional voiceovers, handwritten lyrics and requisite concert footage, Amy assembles an unflinching study of the late singer-songwriter. For as much as the movie indicts the various factors that led to the “Rehab” singer’s untimely passing — England’s depraved tabloid culture, the selfishness of her inner circle, and the profound expectations of stardom among them — it is above all else a testament to her talent and commitment to music. Winehouse’s catalogue has been largely overshadowed in recent years by her sordid personal story. Amy lets her voice speak for itself, doing a great deal to set the record straight.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Before the not-so final show on Kanye’s Yeezus tour, before Phife Dawg’s premature passing, before the triumphant farewell record, and before Hanif Abdurraqib’s loving treatise on the group, the legend of A Tribe Called Quest was seemingly solidified with Beats, Rhymes & Life (the 2011 documentary, not the 1996 album of the same name). Director and worst Justified villain-of-the-season Michael Rapaport may not have had the camera rolling on the legendary hip-hop ensemble’s final act, but his film remains a definitive document of the trek taken by Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on their journey to become one of the most innovative and influential rap groups of all time. The movie delicately balances Tribe’s creative triumphs, the sometimes-frictional relationship between its principal MCs, and commentary from hip-hop’s extended cast of characters (the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Questlove). Come for the rightful celebration of Phife’s “Buggin’ Out” verse, stick around for the love letter to an entire genre.
David Bowie: Five Years
The first installment in director Francis Whatley’s documentary trilogy on David Bowie lives up to its title by dissecting five of the Thin White Duke’s most pivotal revolutions around the sun. David Bowie: Five Years makes every minute of its hour-long running time count: The 2013 doc incorporates everything from the recording of seminal albums Young Americans and Low to interviews with Bowie’s myriad collaborators and moving tributes to his music’s enduring power. Like the man it seeks to encapsulate, Five Years’ leanness conceals its multitudes. Unfortunately, this one isn’t readily available through traditional commercial means, but it’s well worth searching for if only to hear King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s thoughts on his iconic guitar work on “Heroes”: "What is the difference between pop and rock and roll?” *long pause* “You might get fucked."
Nas: Time Is Illmatic
It ain’t hard to tell why Nas’ Illmatic is crowned a pinnacle of hip-hop: The 1994 record’s juxtaposition of jazz-indebted and immaculately-crafted beats against poetically-rendered scenes of inner city life all but pound listeners into the pavement of the rapper’s native Queensbridge. Whether taken on its own or viewed through its seismic impact on rap, it’s kind of a big deal. Where Nas: Time Is Illmatic succeeds is in recontextualizing the circumstances that aligned, for better or worse, to make such an album possible. Released in 2014 in observation of the records’ 20th anniversary, the film deploys archival footage alongside fresh interviews with Nas as well as his friends and family. The hard-hitting and sometimes heartbreaking rhymes of Illmatic didn’t emerge from a vacuum. By exploring Nas’ family history and the actively harmful, racist social policies of 20th century New York City, Time Is Illmatic adds a new layer of resonance to a stone-cold classic.
Part of the Weekend Never Dies
Abandoning the pretense of a removed authorial voice for a sec: Part of the Weekend Never Dies has a strong claim as my favorite movie ever. I can quote it verbatim, and inevitably wind up standing and thrashing around at the exact moment when Justice’s “Let There Be Light” gives way to the ‘90s rave mania of “Frequency” by Altern-8. The film tracks Belgian brothers Stephen and David Dewaele as they wreak sonic mayhem around the world as both the turntable-wielding pair of 2manydjs and the live band Soulwax. The “Radio Soulwax” tour documented in Part of the Weekend Never Dies saw the Dewaeles start each night as Soulwax only to cede the stage to multiple live acts and DJs before returning for the explosive, genre-combusting climax that is a 2manydjs set. It’s a movie about destroying your body for a profound love of music, and the passion is palpable. As Tiga (who steals the show as the film’s reliable comic relief) notes, not many DJs can follow up a set mixing Blur with “Ace of Spades” and Aretha Franklin. In his own words, the Dewaeles — or Soulwax, 2manydjs, whatever you want to call them — “made the job for all the boring guys harder.”
Shut Up and Play the Hits
It’s tempting to think of Part of the Weekend Never Dies and Shut Up and Play the Hits as companion pieces. They both star darlings of the late 2000s indie electronic scene, and emphasize the sort of epicurean spectacles only rowdy concert audiences are capable of. But where Soulwax’s feature is all chaos filtered through a single camera lens traversing the world, LCD Soundsystem’s entry in the music doc canon is a much more controlled affair, examining a single show and the day afterward from more camera angles than you thought possible. Ignoring the so-called controversy over whether or not James Murphy truly intended to retire LCD after the band’s April 2011 show at Madison Square Garden, Shut Up and Play the Hits holds up simply as a great concert film. It’s impossible not to feel a swell of emotion at every shot displaying a sea of people collectively losing their minds to live music. Like LCD, we will return someday.
The Summer of Rave, 1989
This 2006 BBC documentary captures the ecstasy — both literal and figurative — that fueled the birth of rave culture in the United Kingdom. The Summer of Rave, 1989 jaunts through the acid house explosion that upended the rigid social mores of Margaret Thatcher’s England and ran rampant through many an abandoned warehouse and pastoral field. All the “big choons” of the era — think “Fools Gold,” “French Kiss,” “Good Life,” and “The Sun Rising” — are present and accounted for, as are essential people and places like Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson and the Haçienda. This look back at the “Second Summer of Love” makes for a refreshing watch amid a year defined by dread.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone? celebrates the talents of its titular subject as much as it laments her tragedy. The movie paints Nina Simone as a woman both distinctly of and irreconcilably estranged from her time: After mapping out the classical training of her North Carolina childhood and early rise as a performer, the biopic gains a weighty sense of urgency with the “Mississippi Goddam” artist’s entrance into the civil rights movement. The picture painted by What Happened, Miss Simone? is one of a person animated by equal parts musical genius and self-destruction. Beyond the poignancy of Simone’s story, the film’s scenes of state-sanctioned violence against Black Americans fighting for their dignity serve as an upsetting reminder that the past is merely prologue.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
Arthur Russell enjoys the unique distinction of being your favorite artist’s favorite artist. The late musician has been sampled by Kanye West, honored with a tribute album featuring everyone from Blood Orange to Robyn, and helped inspire LCD Soundsystem’s most iconic song. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell is as strong an introduction as any: Covering everything from the cellist’s rural Iowa childhood to his outsized-yet-discreet role in the club and experimental scenes of 1970s New York City, the doc illustrates Russell’s gift for evoking dance floor-tailored hysteria as easily as he could intense melancholy. The section detailing the creation of “Go Bang! #5” — one of the greatest dance songs ever recorded and aforementioned influence on James Murphy — will have you feeling both. Although not appreciated in his time, Russell is arguably one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century, and Wild Combination is a clear augment to that claim.