By Cameron Lee
2021 has become a banner year for music documentaries. From Edger Wright’s love letter “The Sparks Brothers” to Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” not to mention the upcoming “Velvet Underground” by Todd Haynes and Peter Jackson’s recently extended “Let It Be” documentary series. So, in honor of this, I have put together a list of ten powerful music documentaries that will hopefully give context to some of the best artists of then and now.
”Stop Making Sense” (1984)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Quite possibly the greatest concert film ever made, Jonathan Demme’s often copied but never surpassed documentary of the Talking Heads during their Stop Making Sense tour is a snapshot of the influential band at the peak of their powers with jaw-dropping footage, great cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth, and fantastic audio. With memorable set pieces like David Byrne’s opening solo of Psycho Killer with a tape deck, the lamp dance during This Must Be the Place, and Byrne’s famous big suit, you can see every person on that stage sweating profusely and playing their heart out, delivering definitive versions of many Talking Heads classics. And while David Byrne teamed up last year with Spike Lee to make the amazing “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” “Stop Making Sense” is still the pinnacle of what a concert film should be.
“Don’t Look Back” (1967)
Directed by D. A. Pennebaker
“Don’t Look Back” is the granddaddy of music documentaries that follow singers. Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England offers a groundbreaking up-close and unfiltered look into where Dylan was during this time, his thoughts, the people close to him, including Joan Baez, and what was happening in the culture. Filmed in black and white on 16mm with handheld cameras, “Don’t Look Back” inspired so much of what most people consider to be the template for every music documentary profiling an artist. It hasn’t lost any of its power more than 50 years after its release and is part of the reason why Dylan in the ’60s is held up as a musical god.
“20 Feet From Stardom” (2013)
Directed by Morgan Neville
The 2014 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, this tribute to background singers is a thoughtful examination of the profession as a whole while also giving the spotlight to some of the most notable background singers. After years of not being in the spotlight, they are given time to share their stories and many hardships. An inspirational story mixed with interviews featuring Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Mick Jagger, this documentary stressed the importance of these women in music. Each of the singers profiled showcases their awe-inspiring talent in studio sessions that put even the best singers to shame. It’s an eye-opening documentary that will immediately make you appreciate background singing.
”George Harrison: Living In The Material World” (2011)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
A two-part documentary on the life of George Harrison, Martin Scorsese gave us an extended deep dive into every aspect of the former Beatles member’s long and varied career. To his childhood, his time in the Beatles, relationships, solo career, and faith in Hinduism, it features never before heard recordings, images, and personal footage along with interviews with his closest friends, family, and collaborators. It’s an honest and revealing account of a complicated man. At times, the private footage makes it almost feel too personal, like something we shouldn’t be seeing. But that’s part of its power, and its long length gives us time to understand Harrison at every major point in his life. The film gives you everything you would like to know about George Harrison and leaves no stone unturned, thus making us want there to be similar documentaries about the other members of The Beatles. There doesn’t have to be another film about George Harrison ever again. That’s how effective this documentary is—yet another feather in Martin Scorsese’s hat.
“History Of The Eagles” (2013)
Directed by Alison Ellwood
A personal favorite of mine that got me into The Eagles, a two-and-a-half-hour history lesson of the group that sold millions, broke up, then had a super successful reunion in the ’90s. As the name suggests, it’s pretty much a retelling of the band’s history with interviews from the members along with photos, new footage, and recordings. This documentary does not break any new ground, yet it’s super re-watchable; I’ve watched this film a bunch of times, and it never drags even with its long length. The interviews are honest, and it goes into as much depth as possible into every part of what made the band special—a great documentary for newcomers and old fans alike.
Directed by Asif Kapadia
The 2015 winner for Best Documentary is a tragic and heartbreaking look into the life of Amy Winehouse. Asif Kapadia constructs “Amy” using personal video footage recorded by her closest friends, family, and collaborators throughout her short life mixed with just audio interviews playing over the footage and her songs being shown with on-screen lyrics. What I said before in the personal nature of the “Living in the Material World” footage is this film times 1000. This footage is so raw and revealing that, at times, I just wanted to look away just by how uncomfortable it made me. Kapadia makes the case that a combination of bad parents, undiagnosed medical conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and the media caused her untimely death at the age of 27. And after watching it, he makes his case incredibly well, with devastating impact. It’s a searing indictment of the media and all the pain it can cause and just makes you think that we as a collective society killed this promising incredible performer, and that feels like getting punched in the face. The film is like watching her personal videotape of her life, and once it ends, so too tragically does her life.
“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999)
Directed by Wim Wenders
In a lighter change of pace from absolute devastation, Wim Wenders joyful “Buena Vista Social Club” sees Ry Cooder assemble a group of some of the most outstanding Cuban musicians in their twilight years to record a best-selling album and shows us their performance at Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam. Wenders uses an intelligent structure, introducing each band member in lengthy segments where they get to talk about their life, skills as a musician, and Cuban culture in general. It’s an eye-opening look into Cuban music, and Wenders does a terrific job giving enough time for each member to really stand out and tell their own story. The film made such an impression that it was recently added to the National Film Registry. If that doesn’t sell you, then I don’t know what will.
Directed by Beyoncé & Ed Burke
I’m not really a Beyoncé fan. Now before you take out your pitchforks and form an angry mob, just know that I have the utmost respect for her talent, her sheer perfection as a performer, and her work ethic. The concert documentary of her groundbreaking Coachella headliner performance from 2018 is a wonder to watch unfold. The behind the scenes segments shot in black and white with a dream-like haze and voiceover by Beyoncé does a great job showing her and her team’s intense hard work. The performance speaks for itself, but it makes terrific use of handheld angles from the crowd and brilliant editing to have us feel like we’re all experiencing this monumental performance together. “Homecoming” makes sure this socially significant performance will be seen for generations to come. Even non-fans like myself have a newfound appreciation for Queen B.
“Monterey Pop” (1968)
Directed by D. A. Pennebaker
There are many concert films from the ’60s to choose from. For this list, I’m including another D. A. Pennebaker film. “Monterey Pop” is a classic concert film, with plenty of interviews with young hippies, some legendary performances like Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar, and Janis Joplin screaming her heart out in a breakthrough set. It’s a brisk hour and a half and a remarkable record of the period. The performances are so good that I would have loved to have seen more of these acts’ sets before they had to move onto another one. However, it’s a quick watch and a must-see for any classic rock fan.
“Madonna: Truth Or Dare” (1991)
Directed by Alex Keshishian
It became the highest-grossing documentary until it was surpassed by “Bowling For Columbine.” Madonna’s influential “Truth Or Dare” has left a giant impact on the world of pop culture, from being one of the first films to showcase gay men just being themselves free from any judgment to the black and white behind-the-scenes segments that every artist has copied since its release. Sure, Madonna comes off like a total ignorant brat, something she’s admitted to over the years, and some of the scenes are wince-inducing, like her infamous trip to her mother’s grave. Still, its influence on reality TV and music documentaries, in general, is immense. There are plenty of articles and pieces on its impact on gay acceptance and drag culture, but aside from that, her performances, which are all in color, are unique and show Madonna at her peak as an entertainer. It has something for everyone and has earned its reputation as a seminal music documentary.
There are so many films that could have made this list, but this is just one person’s opinion. What are your favorite music documentaries? Have you seen “The Sparks Brothers” or “Summer of Soul” yet? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cameron and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Cameron85913678