25 Must-See Music Documentaries

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Our favorite of this week’s several fine indie releases is Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s investigative profile of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer/songwriter who should have been a giant star in the early 1970s and instead faded into obscurity (and then became a cult sensation in New Zealand, Australia, and apartheid-era South Africa). Bendjelloul’s warm, kind film is both a showcase for terrific music and a compelling human interest story; it deserves a place alongside the best music documentaries, and since it reminded us of them, we thought we’d compile a list of our favorite music docs. It’s a list that’s constantly in flux, so we’ve included some alternates (as well as where you can see them); we’d love to hear yours as well. Check it out after the jump.

Woodstock

Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 portrait of the iconic 1969 music festival is a gloriously living, breathing film, a pulsating document of one of the most remarkable moments in all of pop culture. It may well be the greatest concert film ever made — and one of the greatest documentaries as well. Even if it isn’t, has there ever been a doc that is so much pure fun to watch? Much of that fun is in the assembly; the film was edited, from 120 miles of raw footage (they shot most of the weekend, and sometimes had over a dozen cameras going), by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. They cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning, and the exhilarating split-screen editing may have become a cliché in the years past, but it is so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you. But it’s not just a concert film; their documentary footage gives the viewer a genuine sense of the time and the place, of what it must have been like to be there at that remarkable moment.

SEE IT: On Blu-ray, in its 40th anniversary edition, and go ahead and watch the full director’s cut (all three-and-three-quarter hours of it). ALSO SEE: Monterey Pop, D. A. Pennebaker’s earlier capturing of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which isn’t quite the rock-doc epic that Woodstock is (it runs a scant 79 minutes), but features some terrific performances and fascinating behind-the-scenes footage; Criterion’s expanded edition features several additional performances and full sets by Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix.

Gimme Shelter

The notorious flip side of Woodstock’s peace, love, and grooviness came less than six months later, with the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont. The Maysles Brothers and their crew were shooting the last weeks of the Stones’ 1969 tour, and cameraman Baird Bryant caught Hunter’s stabbing on film; that footage (obviously) becomes the key moment in Gimme Shelter, which weights questions of community and responsibility without ever asking them explicitly. The Maysles’ non-linear construction and spooky mood are masterful, and the music is gritty, raw, and terrific.

SEE IT: Criterion, again, via their outstanding Blu-ray special edition. ALSO SEE: “Gimme Shelter” is apparently Martin Scorsese’s favorite Stones song — he’s used it in Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, but it’s weirdly absent from Shine A Light, the concert documentary he directed for them in 2008. No matter; it’s an exciting concert doc, beautifully photographed by a who’s-who of modern masters of cinematography (Robert Richardson was director of photography; Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, Emmanuel Lubezki, Declan Quinn, Al Maysles, and John Toll were among the camera operators).

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Handed the prime gig of giving Zimmy the bio-doc treatment, Scorsese not only does a two-part, four-hour job of it, but only goes up to 1967 or so, around the time of Dylan’s motorcycle accident. Yet, remarkably, No Direction Home feels neither thin nor incomplete; Dylan reinvented himself so many times that by the time he (and Scorsese) arrive at the conclusion of his tempestuous 1966 British tour, it feels as though we’ve watched a full metamorphosis (even if we’re fully aware that there are many more to come). Some prefer Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, but this is a more complete picture of early Dylan, with several fine clips from that film (as well as Murray Lerner’s Festival and the ill-fated, seldom-seen Pennebaker/Dylan collaboration Eat the Document).

SEE IT: Streaming on Netflix. ALSO SEE: The aforementioned Don’t Look Back and Festival (also streaming on Netflix); as well as Scorsese’s very good, similarly styled George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

The Last Waltz

Scorsese again, this time documenting the Band’s Thanksgiving 1978 “farewell concert,” an all-star extravaganza featuring such guests as Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Paul Butterfield. As with Shine A Light, he assembled a team of crack cinematographers, including Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman, and Laszlo Kovacks; Scorsese conducted the interviews that are intercut with the songs (and the director became lifelong friends with Robbie Robertson during the production of the film). Those interviews have a laid-back candor that’s still somewhat shocking, but the performances — captured with epic grandeur by Scorsese and his team — are what make The Last Waltz such a powerful celebration of this band and their sound.

SEE IT: On Blu-ray (for only $11!), and be sure to follow the instructions of the opening title: “This film should be played loud!” ALSO SEE: The Concert for Bangladesh, documenting the George Harrison-organized benefit concert, with performances by Harrison, Dylan, Clapton, Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and Ravi Shankar.

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

When Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky got Metallica to let them use their music in the duo’s Paradise Lost films, a relationship began which culminated in the group asking the filmmakers to shoot a chronicle of the making of a new Metallica album — their first since the departure of bass player Jason Newstead. Relations between the remaining members have grown so strained that a therapist is brought in for group sessions, which are considered as important to the creative process as the recording sessions; before those issues can be squared away, Hetfield goes into rehab. When he returns, he insists on sticking to his rehabilitation plan of only working four hours a day. The not unreasonable question: “Can you make a rock album from noon to four?” Uncomfortably candid and brutally unforgiving, Some Kind of Monster captures the band at a unique moment, one that finds them growing up, and asking not only if they’re still relevant to music, but to each other.

SEE IT: Only on DVD. ALSO SEE: Some Kind of Monster often recalls Let It Be, the warts-and-all portrait of the crumbling of the Beatles, but Sir Paul (who comes off looking less than perfect in it) has made it rather hard to get a hold of that one legally. (And while we’re on the top of bootleg-only titles — can we get The Decline of Western Civilization Trilogy out sometime soon?) And any summary of “music feud” docs must include Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s look at the love/hate relationship between the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor and the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe.

The Night James Brown Saved Boston

Riots were raging across the United States after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, and on the night after Dr. King’s murder, James Brown was scheduled to play at the Boston Garden. David Leaf’s documentary (originally made for VH1) explains how complex last minute political maneuvering led to the show airing on the local PBS affiliate in an attempt to keep people in their homes and off the streets; it’s a fascinating story, augmented by electrifying clips from that night’s broadcast.

SEE IT: You can rent it on Netflix, but your best bet is to spring for the three-DVD set I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s , which includes not only the documentary, but also the full Live at the Boston Garden performance and an Apollo concert film from the same year. ALSO SEE: Though too heavy on the prep and too light on the music, Soul Power is a compelling account of the concert that was intended to supplement the famed Foreman-Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire; Brown’s numbers are the film’s unquestionable highlight. And you must watch our other favorite of VH1’s “Rock Docs,” the explosive time capsule NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, which has yet to receive a proper DVD release but can be viewed on Vimeo here.

Dave Chapelle’s Block Party

On September 18, 2004, a month or so after signing a $50 million contract with Comedy Central to continue the run of his sketch comedy show (a contract he ultimately walked away from), Dave Chappelle decided to do something unexpected: he put together — and invited fans to — “the concert I’ve always wanted to see” on a block in Brooklyn. He kept the location secret until the last minute, hired the Roots as the “house band” for the day, and put together a package of some of the most interesting hip-hop and R&B acts around: Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, and, in a surprise reunion, the Fugees. Michel Gondry’s marvelous 2006 film documents the show (from in front of and behind the stage), and captures the energy, electricity, and infectious spirit of the event. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a joyous cinematic experience, bursting at the seams with remarkable music, big laughs, and a sheer love of creativity — whether it is musical, comic, or cinematic. Most of the time, we’re hoping too much to see one great film, but here you get three: a great concert film, a great comedy, and a great documentary. What a bargain.

SEE IT: Only on DVD — but a steal at four bucks. ALSO SEE: Chappelle is a lovely snapshot of the neo-Soul sound of the early-to-mid 2000s; we also loved Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, Michael Rappaport’s terrific documentary about not only Tribe, but the “Native Tongues” movement of the early 1990s.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

It’s easy enough to make a compelling rock doc about legends like Dylan or the Stones — but how about the also-rans and never-weres? This acclaimed 2008 film focuses on Anvil, a band that was co-headlining with Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and Scorpions back in ’84, but never quite made it happen; decades later, still clinging to their dreams of stardom, they embark on a disastrous European tour. Sacha Gervasi’s film is sad and funny, but also a legitimately affectionate tribute to these aging men, and the delusions they’re still holding on to.

SEE IT: Streaming on Netflix. ALSO SEE: Last Days Here, Demian Fenton’s up-close and harrowing portrait of heavy metal almost-star Bobby Liebling, a wildly self-destructive addict who is giving it one last shot (with the help of a hardcore fan who becomes his friend, confidante, and handler).

Buena Vista Social Club

Wim Wenders (Pina, Wings of Desire) follows his friend, musician Ry Cooder, as he assembles an all-star band of Cuban musicians to record an album, then brings the group to the United States (many of them for the first time) to perform. Deftly intermingling interviews, documentary footage, and nearly 20 songs, Social Club became a smash both on celluloid and on wax, and its easy to see why: the music is joyful, infectious, and beautiful, while their story is utterly transfixing.

SEE IT: Streaming for two bucks on Amazon. ALSO SEE: Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a celebration of the oft-heard but never-recognized Motown house band, the Funk Brothers.

It Might Get Loud

In January of 2008, according to the Davis Guggenheim’s wickedly enjoyable documentary, “three musicians came together to discuss the electric guitar.” Those three were Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White (who confesses, on the way, that he plans “to trick these guys into teaching me all of their tricks”). That meeting forms a through-line and jump-off point for the film (with detours to the three guitarists’ individual biographies and current working methods); we observe the trio playing, listening, and talking shop. It’s fun to watch them play together, but dig the look on White and Edge’s faces as they watch Page play the signature riff from “Whole Lotta Love.” In that scene, and in the finest moments of Guggenheim’s documentary, we are reminded that true musicianship is not just about playing music, but hearing it and understanding it and, above all, adoring it; it is only then that, as White says, you can become a member of “that family of storytellers.” It Might Get Loud is a love letter to that family, and from it.

SEE IT: Buy the Blu-ray (currently a steal at $7) and crank it. ALSO SEE: Guggenheim reunited with the Edge to make From the Sky Down, a close look at how U2 bounced back from the critical and commercial disappointment of Rattle and Hum with the 1991 Achtung Baby album. Yes, we realize it’s not cool to like U2 anymore (even though your film editor still does), but anyone with even a passing interest in the creative process will find the section explaining how they found the chord progression of “Mysterious Ways” fascinating.

Those are our favorite music docs — what are yours?