Over the course of modern music history, Black artists like the late Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, Nas, and others have revolutionized their respective genres and have become household names in the process. Even though we all know their greatest hits and can’t get them out of our heads, sometimes we don’t know the stories of the musicians and singers, and how those early lives shaped them into the icons of the music industry they would become.
In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating these iconic voices with a quick yet comprehensive rundown of some of the best music documentaries you can watch right now with a Netflix subscription, either version of a HBO Max membership, and other streaming services. There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get started.
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown (Prime Video)
There is no denying James Brown’s place in the history of American music (as well as American history) thanks to the radical changes he brought to soul and rock and roll throughout the second half of the 20th century. In his 2014 documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney explores the life, career, and legacy of the “Godfather of Soul” with loads of archival footage from both on and off the stage, as well as interviews with his contemporaries and those who were impacted by his music.
Clocking in at just under two hours in length, this all encompassing documentary touches on practically every aspect of the late soul singer’s life, the good and the bad, and the ups and downs. If you are a longtime fan of James Brown or are just now getting into his music, this is a documentary you can’t miss.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell (Netflix)
There are few, if any, hip hop artists who could stand toe-to-toe with Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., during his lifetime. After coming onto the scene with his landmark 1994 debut album “Ready to Die,” the rapper also known as “Biggie Smalls” became one of the biggest names in the music industry, dropping unforgettable tracks like “Juicy,” “Big Poppa,” and “Gimme the Loot,” to name only a few.
This incredible rise to fame, as well as his tragic death just weeks before the release of his sophomore effort, “Life After Death,” is explored in great detail in the 2021 Netflix documentary, Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the late rapper and interviews with those who knew and loved him the most, this must-watch documentary is an emotional and powerful love letter to one of the biggest victims of the East Coast/West Coast feud prevalent in the ‘90s rap world.
Miss Sharon Jones! (Plex)
Though not nearly as well known as the likes of other soul singers like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, or Nina Simone, Sharon Jones was right up there with them in terms of talent. Both as a solo artist and with her group, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the late singer found a great deal of success in the later part of her life and even after she died from cancer at the age of 60 in November 2016.
The 2015 documentary, Miss Sharon Jones!, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, focuses on the final stages of Jones’ life and career, and shows the tireless and fearless singer undergo chemotherapy while still keeping up with touring obligations, never once losing her spirit (or allowing the cancer to get the better of her). A true testament to the human spirit, this powerful and empowering documentary could serve as a great introduction to one of the best soul singers of the past 25 years.
Summer Of Soul (Hulu)
Questlove’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), documents the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week celebration of Black history and culture that featured outstanding performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone, and dozens of others.
The lion’s share of the footage seen here, in one of the best movies on Hulu, sat in a box for 50 years before being re-discovered and turned into a beautiful examination of the pivotal moment in American pop culture that was largely unknown until now. This exploration of Black culture by one of today’s most powerful voices (Questlove) is monumental, to say the least.
Stream Summer of Soul on Hulu.
Rent/Buy Summer of Soul on Amazon.
Hitsville: The Making Of Motown (Showtime)
It is hard to think of a label or entity in American music history that had as much of an impact on American pop culture as Motown Records, which launched the careers of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Jackson 5, and countless others.
The formative years of Berry Gordy Jr.’s label are explored in Hitsville: The Making of Motown, a 2019 documentary that also shows how those early days at that iconic house in Detroit forever changed the landscape of American soul and the very fabric of our country, during the Civil Rights movement.
Stream Hitsville: The Making Of Motown on Showtime.
The Apollo (HBO Max)
One of the most iconic landmarks, not only of Black culture, but American pop culture, is the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, which helped make the likes of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Will Smith, and others into household names throughout the venue’s storied history.
This legacy (as well as the future of the cultural landmark) is explored in great detail in the 2019 HBO documentary, The Apollo, which combines archival footage and interviews to paint the full picture of the theater. It’s triumphant, optimistic, and respectful of The Apollo’s past and hopeful for its future.
Stream The Apollo on HBO Max.
Rent/Buy The Apollo on Amazon.
Amazing Grace (Hulu)
In January 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded the Grammy Award-winning live album, Amazing Grace, which was originally supposed to be released alongside a concert film that was shot at the same time. That footage, however, wouldn’t see the light of day until after Franklin’s 2018 death.
The product, Amazing Grace, is a moving, 87-minute breathtaking display of the raw power and emotion that made Aretha Franklin one of the most successful and influential singers of all time. There are tons of great documentaries and concert films featuring the late artist, but few hold a candle to this powerful film.
Stream Amazing Grace on Hulu.
Rent/Buy Amazing Grace on Amazon.
Devil At The Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story (Netflix)
Often considered one of the pioneers of the blues, specifically the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson has long been one of the most important yet mysterious figures in American music history. Despite having only two sets of recordings and a few grainy pictures, Johnson’s small library of music has influenced just about everyone who has picked up a guitar since the late 1930s.
The Netflix documentary, Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story, dives into his life, legacy, his mysterious death, and the folk tale about him getting his unmatched musical abilities after an encounter with the devil himself in rural Mississippi. Fan of the blues or interesting stories? Look no further.
Stream Devil At The Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story on Netflix.
Charley Pride: I’m Just Me (Kanopy)
Trailblazing the country singer-songwriter Charley Pride, who passed away in December 2020, spent most of his life breaking down walls and opening doors for other Black artists in the world of country music with hits like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin,” “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” and “I’m Just Me,” the latter of which is also the name of the 2019 PBS documentary, Charley Pride: I’m Just Me.
If you have ever wanted to see how influential Charley Pride was both in and out of country music, this short documentary is the way to go. With plenty of information for the casual fan and some great moments for Pride’s long-time followers, you’ll leave with even more respect for the influential figure.
Stream Charley Pride: I’m Just Me on Kanopy.
Rent/Buy Charley Pride: I’m Just Me on Amazon.
Tina (HBO Max)
The story of how Tina Turner went from a young girl working the fields in rural Tennessee to one of the most successful and recognizable pop culture icons of all time is impressive to say the very least. And a large part of that story is included in the 2021 HBO documentary, Tina, which doesn’t hold back one bit.
Through interviews with the likes of Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, and multiple others, this nearly two-hour documentary paints a portrait of a talented, determined, and strong woman who fought like hell to make a place for herself, and is an inspiration to generations of young girls with a dream.
Stream Tina on HBO Max.
Rent/Buy Tina on Amazon.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic (Plex)
There’s a strong case to be made for 1994 being one of the best years in the history of hip hop. The Notorious B.I.G., OutKast, Gang Starr, and Common all released landmark albums that forever changed the rap game. But at the top of the list is Nas’ debut record “Illmatic,” which is from top-to-bottom one of the greatest of all time.
The 2014 documentary Nas: Time is Illmatic not only dives into the themes, production, and legacy of the groundbreaking album, but also the artist himself and the real-life stories that were turned into songs like “NY State of Mind,” “Life’s a Bitch,” and “The World is Yours.” Fascinating and enlightening, you won’t want to miss this one.
Stream Nas: Time Is Illmatic on Plex.
Buy Nas: Time Is Illmatic on Amazon.
A Band Called Death (Prime Video)
A lot of people like to credit Bad Brains as one of the first major Black punk bands. And, even though the hardcore outfit that was “Banned in DC” and made a name for themselves at CBGB's were pioneers in their own right, even they were influenced by the ’70s rock band Death, who broke up just as punk rock was becoming a worldwide sensation in 1977.
The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death sheds light on the oft forgotten punk pioneers who only became a hit in the decades following their split and follows the surviving members as they get back together in 2009. This personal and enlightening film is a must for fans of punk who want to learn more about one of the best forgotten bands.
Stream A Band Called Death on Prime Video (with Fandor Channel).
Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool (Netflix)
And then there’s the 2019 documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which does an incredible job of unpacking the improbable and mythical story of the jazz pioneer. This highly personal, behind-the-scenes look at one of the most complicated men in the history of 20th-Century music doesn’t really hold back in its depiction of Davis, which makes it all the better.
With loads of never-before-scene footage, this eye-opening documentary paints a portrait of the musician that is further fleshed out with interviews with his contemporaries as well as those he influenced, making for one wild ride.
Stream Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool on Netflix.
Rent/Buy Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool on Amazon.
This is just barely scratching the surface of all the great music documentaries to watch in honor of Black History Month (and beyond for that matter), so don’t just stop your search with this list. If you want to know about all the new documentaries (and feature films) coming out this year, check out CinemaBlend’s 2023 new movies schedule.
Your Daily Blend of Entertainment News
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.