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This year saw the release of two powerful documentaries exposing the lives of two of the most recognized artists of the past couple decades. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck took a look into '90s rock icon Kurt Cobain, his powerful influence on music to come, and intimate never-before-seen footage of a man who would become a legend. On the other side we saw the documentary Amy, taking us into the life Amy Winehouse, another star lost too young with a sad yet honest portrayal about her passionate relationship with her music. Both special documentations in their own right, and necessary for fans and viewers to get deeper looks into the faces behind the music.
And that’s what makes music documentaries so special. We may recognize a song, or a verse, but diving deeper into what went on behind the music -- who these voices are as people -- often gives further perspective on the music we listen to. There have been a number of music documentaries over the years, exploring everything from the mental state of a musician to the the struggles being on the road and the relationships between band members. But what usually makes certain music documentaries stand out even further are the passionate portrayals of their subjects, and a story that needed to be heard. Here we’ve compiled our choices for the 10 best music documentaries, and though many more could have made this list, we did our best to include areas from all different tastes of music. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below:
10. The Devil and Daniel JohnstonThe Devil and Daniel Johnston chronicles the life of Daniel Johnston, a lo-fi, pop musician diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Johnston worked out of his basement and started his career creating tapes that he would hand out to people he met in the late 80s (and still records today). His story is one of the more interesting out there, as his fame led to a following who termed him as an absolute genius. But the cult musician suffered severe mental illness, along with an obsession with the devil.
The 2005 documentary tells the entire story, from Johnston’s childhood up to the present day filming, and it is a story that both dives deep into the artist’s mental illness and the trials newfound fame put him through. It stays in range of a being a respectful portrayal of the musician, but introduces a powerful back story to the artist behind the music, and where his work is derived from. The documentary was four years in the making, and at Sundance, the film won the 2005 Documentary Directing Award. With the film’s success, it prompted even further interest in Johnston and his music, which he continues to perform.
9. The Punk SingerThe Punk Singer is probably one of the lesser-known documentaries to make this list, but its look into the life of Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, is not only inspiring, but incredibly educational. Filmmaker Sini Anderson dove into Hanna’s life -- from her early stages of spoken word all the way to her current struggles with Lyme Disease. It not only did justice to demonstrating how important Hanna’s role was in the feminist community, inspiring powerful women to take center stage, but it also told the story of an artist forced to leave her true calling in a devastating health battle.
At times, the documentary sits Hanna high on a pedestal, but not without reason. Her journey in the punk rock feminist community would pave the way for so many to follow, and not only does the film expose her moving story, but it also opens up an entirely new side of her that's never before seen or known to her fans. The documentary focuses entirely on the female perspective, with only a little input from her husband (purposely done at the request of Hanna). And by featuring both live music as well as footage during the riot grrrl movement, it is able to reconfirm Hanna’s valuable messages about women’s rights.
8. Stop Making SenseJonathan Demme’s first feature-length documentary, Stop Making Sense is one of the best examples of a successful concert film to date. The 1984 documentary takes an inside look at influential new-wave 80s rock band Talking Heads over three nights during their 1983 tour for the album Speaking in Tongues. What made this film so special was how different it is from most rock concert films, achieved by the the close connection created with David Byrne.
Instead of editing in too many shots of the audience, the focus was almost entirely on the band on stage, with instances of them even breaking the fourth wall and pointing directly at the camera. It is a concert film that gives you the opportunity to make your own opinion about the band by placing you right there with them. The editing style of the film, filled with lengthy, drawn out shots and little distraction, perfectly paired with the band’s energy. And for Byrne, who is known as much as a visual artist as a musician, it gave the opportunity to focus on the performance and lyrics, which are so important to the Talking Heads' style.
7. Searching For Sugar ManThe Academy Award-winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man not only had the critical acclaim to back its success, but it also had an impressive box office turnout. The film’s detailed narrative told the story of a struggling folk musician who unknowingly inspired a growing fan base in South America. Malik Bendjelloul film tells the story of two dedicated South African fans desperately searching for American musician Sixto Rodriguez and what had become of him. Through their search, we are exposed to the story of Rodriguez.
What made this documentary stick out was the style of the narrative. The investigative quality took viewers on the same journey as Rodriguez’ dedicated fans. In the United States, Rodriguez’ music never took off, even after two celebrated producers believed he had the potential to change the industry. But when a bootleg version made it to apartheid South Africa, his music and lyrics became that of legend. Unaware of this success on the other end of the globe, Rodriguez led a simple, humbled life, only to later find out he was considered a phenomenon. What makes this documentary so powerful is that it exposes how different music can touch people, and also puts Rodriguez in the limelight he had always deserved.
6. Anvil! The Story of AnvilUnlike Searching For Sugar Man, Anvil! The Story of Anvil tells the story of a Canadian heavy metal band who would never find their dream success. Sacha Gervasi's 2009 documentary accounts a story of hard work and perseverance, and a desire to make music no matter how much money it makes. The lens in which we are introduced to Anvil is through the perspective of a director who used to be a former Anvil roadie, but still gives viewers unknown to them an opportunity to connect.
The story of Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner is one of human emotion, hardship and passion. To see two people who were pushed to breaking point time and time again over a span of 30 years, continue to persevere, solely because they enjoy being on stage will bring you to tears. But on the other side of the spectrum, these two men are incredibly comical and entertaining. The film is undoubtedly dramatic, but at the same time the band members feel incredibly real and relatable. Whether or not you're a fan of heavy metal, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a music documentary meant for anyone who dreams big.
5. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called QuestMusic documentaries are an opportunity to take fans behind the scenes, diving deeper into the story behind a band’s life and music. But with Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, it went even deeper, exposing the inner workings and developing tensions throughout A Tribe Called Quest’s career. Michael Rapaport’s 2011 documentary was an important look into what led one of the most significant musical groups of recent history to their shocking break-up. Rapaport’s investigative quality, wanting to find out what went wrong and putting in serious time and energy to do so, is what made this film so successful, both commercially and critically.
Some of the greatest bands in history all resulted in break-ups, and Rapaport’s film dives deep into the rising tensions and dynamics that cause such struggles. Though it focuses more on the group’s relationships rather than a focus on their music, it still weaves in their importance as a stand-out hip-hop group. Their influence spans decades, and Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest gave the explanation every hip hop fan needed in a completely compelling way.
4. 20 Feet From StardomThe documentary 20 Feet from Stardom told a story of a group of musicians who many overlook -- backup singers. The 2013 film follows a number of backup singers and stars and what it means to have a voice that is equally powerful, but not put in the center spotlight. What this Academy Award-winning documentary did so well was that it told a deeply profound story, while paying tribute to the hard work of the individuals who may never hold the name recognition that they so deserve.
Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet from Stardom is both heartbreaking and inspiring, but most important, it introduces you to a world within the music industry that shapes so much of what we hear, and from that point forward, it pushes your appreciation onto these voices, every time you hear them in a song. The documentary also features fantastic interviews from huge stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Mick Jagger to Stevie Wonder. But while their names stick out on paper, it is the backup singers who take spotlight in this thoughtful piece, and rightfully so.
3. The Last WaltzMartin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz not only documented one of greatest farewell concerts of all time, but it also was seamlessly able to do so while still exposing the inner workings of a band and the nature of living life on the road. The Band’s farewell concert appearance has gone down in history, including special guests from Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Ringo Starr to Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. It not only captures the heart of the music in that generation, but also the friendships and camaraderie of all these different artists.
What the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz does in filming both interviews and pairing them with the live show is demonstrate what it meant for The Band to come to a last gig after 18 years on the road. There are raw moments in both the live performances, some of the best in rock and roll, and moments during The Band’s interviews where we get inside glimpses into what their time together meant. And though some of it was scripted and storyboarded, it feels as if the audience is a mere fly on the wall to all this natural reaction. An overall satisfying documentation of rock music history.
2. Gimme ShelterThe 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter followed the last weeks of The Rolling Stones' 1969 tour which ended at the disastrous Altamont Free Concert. The documentary is a different style than often seen in the genre. Directors Albert and David Maysles were both big figures of the counterculture era, which used a style of documentary that revolves around recording events as they naturally unfold with little reconstruction, voiceover or interview. And with the events of Altamont as the lead up, it was the perfect style to document such a story.
No one had any idea the violence that would go down at the Altamont concert, widely recognized as one of the most disastrous shows of all time. The film does not hold back in showing some of the terrifying events of the show, which makes Gimme Shelter all that more powerful. It cuts deep, exposing the band’s style of performance alongside a chaotic venue. And though Altamont is definitely the highlight of the film, there are also plenty of instances exploring the band’s music and life on the road. Some will argue the classic stylings of a documentary are necessary. But the insider perspective it grants you, without any explanation or further reasoning, especially within the severity of the events is what sits this documentary high on the list.
1. Don't Look BackThere have been a number of Bob Dylan documentaries through the years, and though Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home comes a close second, D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back takes the top, and ranks as our number one music documentary. The film takes an intimate look into Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour introducing a young, confident Bob Dylan on his journey to success. It goes down in history as the most influential film of its genre, followed by numerous tributes and references by later bands. What makes the film stand out is the full portrait it gives viewers of Bob Dylan from his interactions with reporters to just the tiresome nature of touring and its effects. It gives glimpses of the artist in all of his elements from being on stage to hanging out with his friends.
It’s also worth nothing that Dont Look Back holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with critics praising its genuine portrayal of the 60s particularly through the style of filmmaking which leaves out any voiceover or forcing of a narrative. Its an absolute classic portraying a folk hero in every aspect of his life. It pretty much invented the rock documentary genre, and gave every one that followed an impossible feat to compare. Though some of the picture may not be as clear as we would hope, Dylan’s music and lyrics are completely clear. And the focus on his transition, slowly shifting from acoustic to electric, is one of the musician’s most telling parts of his career. D.A. Pennebake’s Dont Look Back is not only a successful music documentary, but a magnificent portrayal of the power of documentary itself.