Often called the greatest rock film ever made, “Gimme Shelter” offers a close look into The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US Tour. As the tour wound down and many complained about the high prices of the shows, the band concluded with a free concert at Altamont Speedway, which quickly turned to tragedy. The documentary has been legendary ever since its 1970 release. As IndieWire once said, “A cult classic, ‘Gimme Shelter’ is more than a concert film. It’s a multi-layered palimpsest upon which social, artistic, historical and cultural ideas are scribed.”
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Hailed as one of the greatest concert films of all time, “The Last Waltz” documents the last performance by Canadian-American rock group The Band. The group was joined by a pantheon of special guests in their last appearance, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond. The event was filmed by Martin Scorsese, who created the documentary of the same name.
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The Big Suit. If for nothing else, “Stop Making Sense” has become iconic thanks to David Byrne’s absurdly large business suit, which increases in size as the concert progresses. If the costuming alone isn’t enough to convince of its notability, the 1984 performance film was the first to use entirely digital audio techniques, for which The Talking Heads raised the $1.2 million budget themselves. As for the performance itself, Byrne is joined onstage by each band member with each successive song, and the performance equipment is wheeled out and set up throughout the concert. From “Burning Down the House,” to “Genius of Love” to “Girlfriend is Better,” from which the documentary takes its title, The Talking Heads have no shortage of hits to showcase in this classic rock movie.
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“If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.” The unattributed quote that opens “Shut Up and Play the Hits” sets the tone for the film, which follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy over the course of the band’s last gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after the performance. The documentary premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest.
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“I think music is the highest art form. Films can never compete with that. Film is good the first time you see it and maybe you’ll see it again. A good piece of music, you can hear it 100 times or more. It gets inside your life,” the late director Malik Bendjelloul told IndieWire of his documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.” The film details the then-mysterious backstory and whereabouts of Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez. The film, which features much of Rodriguez’s music, won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
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Dave Grohl’s directorial debut, about the history of Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, is the ultimate ode to audio engineering. From discussions of microphones to digital recording to the benefits of using good old tapes, Grohl’s nerdy side shines through as he tells the story of the “grubby little studio in the Valley that produced so many legendary albums.” Sound City played home to an endless list of music icons, including Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Tom Petty and, of course, Nirvana. The film first screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and though awards recognition was not to be, “Sound City” is a colorful and cheerful tribute to a vital piece of rock and roll history.
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“Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing,” Lisa Fischer says in “20 Feet From Stardom,” a 2013 documentary about the lives of background singers. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who have sung behind stars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Wonder, and Sting. Receiving nearly universally positive reviews, “20 Feet from Stardom” won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary and a Grammy for Best Music Film in 2015.
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Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary acts as both an introduction for new fans of Nina Simone and, for those already acquainted with her work, a deeper glimpse into the success and suffering of the legendary artist. The film, which opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, features Simone’s own words as well as interviews with family and friends. Avoiding the traditional documentary formula, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” addresses Simone’s career and personal life with poise and purpose.
Stream “What Happened, Miss Simone?” on Netflix.
“The person that we all knew isn’t really even Amy. That becomes the story; that becomes the revelation. Everything you know is kind of wrong, or a skewed version,” director Asif Kapadia told IndieWire of his Oscar-winning documentary. The celebrated look at the life of late British singer Amy Winehouse reveals the trauma behind the talent, documenting her battles with drugs, alcohol, industry pressures and family issues. Whether or not her tragic early death was inevitable, “Amy” emphasizes the role that media perception played in her public struggles.
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Made when Courtney Love approached director Brett Morgen in 2007, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is the first documentary about the Nirvana frontman to be made with the cooperation of his family. The film, which chronicles the life and eventual downfall of Cobain, includes unheard songs, footage from performances, home videos, artwork, journals and animation. The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to overwhelmingly positive reviews, including one from IndieWire’s Katie Walsh, who wrote, “One question that the film obliquely poses is about the nature of his suffering and it’s relation to his art. It seems clear from ‘Montage of Heck’ that Cobain was a genius, whether he was suffering or not.”
Stream “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” on HBOGO and Amazon.