Best Music Documentaries EVER!
Published on 06 January 2022
We all love music. We all love films. Right? How about music biopics, though? Movies about musicians and bands where actors play our musical heroes are often hit-and-miss, with as many cringey faux-songwriting scenes and bluntly shoehorned backstories as there are scenes of triumphant music making. Try as hard as we could, we’d rather just stick on Queen’s actual Live Aid performance than go through that Bohemian Rhapsody movie again. Val Kilmer made a perfect Jim Morrison but that didn’t save Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie from being awful, did it? Hendrix and Bowie fared even less well, when their respective estates disallowed any use of the artist’s music in those movies, dooming them to a pointless existence.
However, what about music documentaries? Films that use footage of the actual artists and talk to either them or people who were directly involved with them? Now that is a whole ‘nother subject! Music, those who make it and the circumstances around how it all comes together is an endlessly fascinating subject, particularly when it’s straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. When the original artists, producers and locations are involved, music documentaries can be some of the greatest films to watch.
We’ve put together a list of our top ten, and given preference to the actual content of the film over the music itself. In other words, you don’t have to be a Metallica fan to find Some Kind of Monster an engaging watch. Here is our ten!
The Doors - When You’re Strange
Paper over painful memories of the infantile and basic 1991 Doors movie with this stunning documentary, which understands both subject and audience better. Just when you think you’ve seen every piece of footage that survives of this most enigmatic of bands, up pops this film from 2009 to disagree! Threaded throughout this awesome documentary of LA’s finest spooky 60s rockers is remastered footage of film student Jim Morrison’s movie HWY: An American Pastoral. This previously unseen, private footage really brings the legendary rock shaman to life more than ever before, to the extent that we actually had to double check the credits to make sure it wasn’t a modern day lookalike!
It goes without saying that The Doors were a unique and quite great musical proposition, and this Tom Dicillo-directed documentary allows more focus on the otherworldly music and less on the infamous drunken antics of their iconic frontman. As a result, this Johnny Depp-narrated film goes further into the mystery whilst simultaneously leaving it intact, and never reduces the content to that of salacious tabloid fodder. Nicely done!
The Beatles - Get Back
Whether it seems a strange choice to get Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson in to helm this enormous Beatles documentary series or not, he’s certainly proven himself the right man for the job. Like the Doors doc we just saw, Get Back delves into the mystery of this most legendary of bands, without exploding the myth too much. Certainly, it’s gratifying to see them wrestle with egos, personalities and decisions just like any other band, and whilst there could in fact be a little bit too much footage for the casual music fan, dedicated Fab Four acolytes will be floating in the Sky with Diamonds throughout every cherished moment of Get Back. ‘Comprehensive’ is the word we’d use.
Buena Vista Social Club
Made as a follow up to the phenomenally successful album of the same name, Buena Vista Social Club sees Ry Cooder and his son travel around in rad retro cars and motorcycles as they cross Havana to round up the ageing-yet-awesome musicians from the groundbreaking album a year previous. The album itself resurrected old Cuban Son music, the likes of which was in danger of dying out, never to be heard again. The resulting record is still the world’s best-selling World Music album.
This documentary is like the album’s visual partner. We get insights into each member, we see them playing in a myriad of remarkable locales both humble (a run-down ballet school) and ornate (NYC’s Carnegie Hall), and we get to sit and bask in the joy these effervescent characters give out as they live their musical lives in picturesque Cuba. Is Compay Segundo the coolest man who ever lived? Easily.
Metallica - Some Kind of Monster
It takes guts to be this honest with an official release. Metallica, arguably the world’s biggest metal band, show themselves to be quite insecure, petty, precious people in this warts ‘n’ all documentary. Recorded around the sessions for the divisive St Anger album, Some Kind of Monster is one of those films that is both refreshingly admirable and simultaneously off-putting.
Watch as Lars drinks champagne with his film star wife whilst agonising over how many millions he stands to make from the sale of some prized Basquiat paintings!
Grin as Kirk Hammett gets ignored over and over again before submitting better lyrics to a song than James, who then goes into one of a great many huffs!
Stare in astonishment as the band hire a therapist - complete with ‘are you wearing that for a dare?’ sweaters - who draws up character profiles for each member and stamps his feet when he gets fired!
Breathe through your teeth as Lars’ crooked old man casually tells him to erase the band’s last song, visibly crushing his multimillionaire rock star son in the process!
Gasp in amazement as Lars (the camera seems to like Lars) climbs across the kitchen table to complain more directly in Hetfield’s face about how much he’s annoyed at minor things!
If you are a big Metallica fan, it may take a while for you to get over this film, but in retrospect, it was a very brave move to release such a wince-inducing documentary, and kudos to them all for accepting their less-than-stellar selves on screen. It seems that those titans of metal are just normal, dysfunctional guys like the rest of us after all! With better riffs.
20 Feet from Stardom
Sometimes, the best stories lie not with the main attraction, but with those right next to the main attraction. How often have you watched a big glitzy show and remarked later that the backing vocalists had more skill and pizazz than the ‘legend’ they were backing?
If this rings true to you, 20 Feet from Stardom will be a very affirmative watch for you.
The Academy Award-winning doc follows a group of stunningly talented backing singers as they contribute to huge hit songs and tours, sometimes acknowledged and often not. It’s a slice of the ‘real’ music industry that shouldn’t be eye-opening for anyone these days, but somehow still is. Quietly triumphant and full of dignity, it’s a salute to the legions of unsung talents that deserve more recognition.
On the subject of unsung heroes, Hired Gun is another doc that bypasses the name in lights and goes for the sidemen. Chatting to session players from both the recording and touring ends of the business, Hired Gun paints a complex and sometimes sad picture of the reality of the job. Two particular situations stick in mind. One is Billy Joel’s talented long-time backing band, summarily fired due to high-up industry machinations and left bitter, confused and rejected, but still more than ready to pick up sticks again for their old boss as soon as His Greatness clicks his fingers. Then there’s industrial band Filter’s money-grabbing expectations that oblige hired band members to show up at paid-for meet and greets without receiving a penny for their time and efforts. Meet the whole band! Only one of them gets all the money! Grim.
The Great Hip Hop Hoax
What would you do if you tried your best to make it but the industry just flat-out ignored you? It’s a familiar problem to many, but not many people would respond quite like Dundee rap duo Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd (not the Hobbit), who turned lemon briefly into tasty lemonade by pretending to be Americans. Sick of being labelled ‘rapping Proclaimers’, the duo affected yankee accents, created a backstory that had them hailing from California, and managed to land themselves a hefty record deal from Sony! Nice work!
We’re not sure what this all says about Hip Hop and culture in general, but full marks to this intrepid pair for their sheer front. It didn’t last long, but the glory remains.
Searching For Sugar Man
This famous documentary tells a somewhat unfamiliar tale. It’s the story of a forgotten musical pioneer, Sixto Rodriguez, who was ignored in his home country (the US) but became a genuine cultural phenomenon in South Africa, completely unknown to him. The doc’s title comes from two uber fans - Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Strydom - who hunt and strive to find any evidence of Rodriguez’s life, since rumours of his death years ago were all they’d come across.
There’s a great detective story vibe to this, as well as a tale of real-life struggles that many musicians will find familiar. It’s an excellently put together film, and one that filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul actually had to finish shooting on his iPhone due to budget constraints! The effort and perseverance paid off: it’s an excellent story, well told.
Hard rock is a lifestyle, and once you’re in, you’re in. The chaps from Anvil are obviously lifers, and when fame and success didn’t happen for them, they refused to drop it all and give up. Fitting tours around day jobs, Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner continued to fight the good fight in the face of overwhelming indifference.
This documentary film follows the pair’s trials and tribulations as they keep trying to get one step ahead in a world that doesn’t care. It’s tough going but inspiring to watch, and will definitely relight the true fire of rock in your soul, especially when their fortunes begin to change for the better. For those who keep rocking, we salute you!
Kevin Macdonald’s biographical documentary of the reggae legend features a great deal of rare archival footage in addition to the usual talking heads and narration. The film traces Bob’s upbringing, early life and career, and of course includes details of the dramatic assassination attempt in Jamaica. There’s a great soundtrack, as you’d expect, and plenty of insight from his family and friends about his conversion to the rastafari religion, his problems with racism and acceptance, and a lot more. Marley paints the legendary figure as a unique and inspiring man, but a man nonetheless.
Music is the Star
What did you think of our picks there? There were tons more we wanted to add, from the famous Woodstock documentary, to Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home Bob Dylan biopic, the Oasis Supersonic doc and the Radiohead Meeting People is Easy film.
We decided, in the end, that The Last Waltz was a concert film and not a documentary (the brief interview bits did not convince us otherwise) and, even though This is Spinal Tap is probably 99% accurate to most early 80s metal bands, it’s still technically fiction. Just.
So there you have some of our favourite music documentaries. The fact that there are too many good ones to fit on this list is a good sign, we think! If there is a great one that we’ve missed, help us and everyone else by recommending it!
Thanks for reading