Musicians are great subjects for documentaries. After all, they're performers, which means they know how to behave in front of a camera. The music world is one that's always fascinated movie-goers. Whether it's behind-the-scenes drama or gripping onstage performances, there are plenty of ways to tell a musician's story, even if it involves controversy. Not all music documentaries tell those stories well, however. Sometimes, producers are content to just go through the motions and think their subject matter is interesting enough to make a good movie with minimal effort. The best music documentaries find out the truth about the musicians at their core and explore the reasons for their success. Here are the best music documentaries that will excite you so much you'll definitely want to be a rockstar.
With 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville decided to shift the focus of the documentary to the people who usually don't get recognized for their work. The film followed some of the most acclaimed backup singers of all time and explored what it was like to live an entire life in the music industry when no one knew your name.
The movie shows the unique rewards and challenges of supporting other artists and does what all good documentaries should do — shines a light on the group of people who make much of the music we love possible.
Amy Winehouse unfortunately had a life fit for a documentary, which was emphasized following the young singer's untimely death. The film discusses the singer's struggles with self-harm and addiction but is also a tribute to her remarkable talent. It never for a second questions Amy's abilities, which only further highlights the tragedy of her early death.
The film incorporates previously unseen archival footage of the singer, as well as interviews with a handful of people who knew Amy either professionally or personally. It's rare that a music documentary truly works to understand its subject, which is exactly what Amy does.
Everyone has at least heard of Woodstock, but this documentary served as a definitive history of the iconic music festival. The film ran over three hours when it was first released in theaters, and it ran even longer when the director's cut eventually came out.
In both versions, though, we only get a taste of what made the festival so special. The footage is almost entirely of performances, including those from legendary artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It's a monumental film about a monumental event, and it's thoroughly entertaining as a historical and musical documentary, even if efforts for a second event weren't successful.
Searching for Sugarman forgoes the typical concert documentary format and instead becomes somewhat of an investigation. The movie follows two fans of American musician Sixto Rodriguez who work to determine whether his rumored cause of death was, in fact, truth.
The movie tells a fascinating story that most of its audience was unfamiliar with prior to its release. It also gives us a chance to hear Sixto's music, which was never popular in the U.S., but became incredibly well known in South Africa. It wraps music into a mystery in a tidy, smart package and uses all of its elements in perfect combination to tell the story well.
Madonna has been a pop icon for decades, but Truth or Dare gave audiences a new understanding of who exactly the singer really is. The film explores her controversial Blond Ambition tour, which launched in 1990 in Japan and eventually made its way to North America.
The documentary delves into what made Madonna such an important figure and also delves into her relationship with Warren Beatty, who she was dating at the time. Truth or Dare is more revealing than your average rock documentary and teaches the viewer more about who Madonna is as a performer.
Whether heavy metal is your thing or not, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is worth a watch. The film tells the story of Anvil, a heavy metal band that never achieved the same level of success as many of its peers, even though the group has been hugely influential.
The movie is about what it's like to be successful enough to play concerts, but not successful enough to pay a mortgage on a reasonably priced house. It explores a group of dreamers who were this close to getting their big break, but it was always unattainable. A heartbreaking and vital watch for music fans.
For those who got to experience Beyoncé's legendary performances at Coachella in 2018, the concert seemed like a miracle. Little did we know that she was filming a documentary at the time which incorporated footage from both nights of the festival, the work that went into pulling the show off.
Homecoming is a testament to Beyoncé's unique powers as an artist. It's also a look at just how hard she worked to pull off a performance that was that impressive. The concert footage is truly stunning, and Beyoncé may make it seem like it's effortless — but that's only because she works harder than everyone else.
In his spare time, legendary director Martin Scorsese has always had an interest in making music documentaries. In The Last Waltz, the director documents the final concert of The Band, which featured more than a dozen special guests, including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan.
The movie is a testament to The Band's reputation as live performers and to their influence on the music scene between the 1960s and '70s. It's one of the most legendary concert documentaries of all time.
20th Century Fox
The Rolling Stones are among the most legendary rock bands of all time, and their concert at Altamont Speedway is one of the most infamous concerts ever performed. That infamy stems from the unrest between Hell's Angels, who were providing security for the show, and the crowd. As concert wore on, fights broke out, and Mick Jagger was even punched in the face by an unruly fan.
By the time The Stones performed, things had gotten out of control. A fan who rushed the stage with a gun was stabbed six times by Hell's Angels, and the entire ordeal was captured on camera by the documentary crew.
Amazing Grace had a fascinating journey from its recording in 1972 to its eventual release in 2018 following Aretha Franklin's death a few years earlier. It follows Franklin's journey in recording her live concert album of the same name and is a stunning testament to her power as a vocalist.
The film features a number of other iconic artists and gives a great insight at precisely what made her such an icon. It's a perfect documentary for those who are already convinced of her greatness and those who are yet to be wowed by her amazing abilities.
Sometimes, concert documentaries aren't that great. A lot of the time, they're fairly standard, and they don't always manage to capture the feeling of what it was like to see an artist live in the flesh. However, Stop Making Sense did exactly that. The movie managed to communicate a lot of the strangeness involved in seeing The Talking Heads live, with significant help from Jonathan Demme.
It's one of the best concert movies ever made, in part because it gets at the immediacy of seeing the band perform live. If you want to learn how to film a concert, there's no better template to start with.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster gives an intimate look at the legendary band. In the documentary, the heavy metal group is forced to re-examine themselves after their bassist quits the group and their lead singer enters rehab for alcohol abuse. From there, the group brings in a coach to help the band relate to one another, but they ultimately discover that he has less than pure motivations for his actions.
It's a fascinating look at a group of people who usually keep themselves at a distance from the public eye. Metallica can seem like one of those groups that's almost superhuman, but this doc keeps them grounded.
Whether you love Bob Dylan or hate him, it's hard to deny that he's a totally unique cultural figure. In Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, we get an intense look at the folk icon courtesy of Martin Scorsese. The movie follows Bob on his Rolling Thunder Revue, a concert tour he was part of in the 1970s.
What makes the movie different from the other music documentaries on this list is the way it plays with the idea of truth. There are large parts of Rolling Thunder Revue that are wholly fabricated. Part of the joy of watching it is puzzling over the narrative we hear and the ways it compares with reality.
Jonathan Demme strikes again with Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, a concert documentary from the pop star. In recent years, Justin Timberlake has lost his way a little bit as a pop icon and for some, his songs have lost a lot of what once made them great.
This music documentary manages to recapture a lot of what made Justin a defining figure in pop music. He knows how to put on a show and he seems genuinely charming throughout the performance. At their best, concert documentaries make you want to see the star live, and that's exactly what this one does.
Starz Digital Media
Miss Sharon Jones! turned a fascinating singer into a thoroughly compelling documentary subject. The movie follows Sharon Jones as she worked to keep her band together while battling pancreatic cancer. It's a great combination of the personal and the professional and it shows many revealing moments from the singer.
The movie also does a great job illuminating what makes Sharon such a special performer. Her persona on stage is a remarkable thing to behold, and her talent translates well even when you're not in the room with her. As she howls and hollers, she proves herself worthy of a full-length documentary.
Nina Simone was a rare example of a remarkable musical talent and a profoundly important activist. She's the perfect subject for a documentary, and What Happened, Miss Simone? does not fail her. The movie uses a combination of previously unreleased archival footage and interviews with Nina's children and friends to make the viewer feel like they really knew her.
It's a great look at what the iconic singer felt and believed, and it's a monument to her towering influence on music and activism today. The movie's smart about how Nina worked within systems designed to oppress her and is a tribute to her musical abilities, which were far from insignificant.
Although A Band Called Death is about a band that recorded music decades ago, the film was released recently. That's because Death, the band at the heart of the film, has seen a rise in their popularity in recent years. The band was composed of three brothers and the film explores their attempts at success in the 1970s.
It's a great story of exactly what it takes to be in a band and the sacrifices one has to make. Is it worth success if you can't be true to your own vision, or even your name? A Band Called Death explores that question in fascinating and exciting ways.
The life of Kurt Cobain is an inherently great subject for a documentary, but what makes Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck special is the way it uses Cobain's own art to tell his story. The movie incorporates his artwork, music, and sound collages to tell the story of his life both as a child and teenager before he became a member of Nirvana.
The movie is incredibly frank about Kurt's drug addictions and also about how much he struggled with being in the public eye. Montage of Heck chooses to show his entire life, which only makes its devastating end all the more tragic when it comes.
Sony Pictures Classic
It Might Get Loud is a documentary for true-blue music nerds. The film explores the relationships between three legendary guitarists and their instruments. In doing so, it offers some insight into the art of guitar playing and how the instrument can be used and abused by its wielders.
By looking at Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, the documentary gives us a sense of how each of the musicians relates to the guitar. It's a smart movie with plenty of information and is also an acknowledgment of the instrument that has shaped so much of what rock music sounds like today.
You may have not heard of Daniel Johnston, but there are plenty of major artists who have. In this documentary, we get a look at the musician's struggle with bipolar disorder and the way it manifests itself in Daniel's obsession with the devil.
The movie takes a look at a musician whose mental illness holds him back in his career. It uses home movies and old audio recordings to give viewers a sense of what it was like to live Daniel's life. It's not as dark as it may seem based on the title and is very sympathetic to the figure at its center.