In its worst incarnation, the music documentary is a hagiographic cash-in, pandering to hot artists with supposedly all-access footage that’s in reality carefully managed and contains little in the way of insight into their subjects. At its best, it’s an artform, one in which Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme have made revelatory films about some of the greatest musicians that ever existed, in which top non-fiction filmmakers have uncovered compelling stories and undersung artists, and where filmmakers have tackled genres and musicians and exposed them to wider audiences.
In its early beginnings, The Playlist was a site particularly focused on the points where movies and music crossed over, and as such, we’ve always had a particular interest in the music documentary. The 21st century has been kind to us so far, with a number of killer non-fiction themes about bands, styles or artists that can stand with anything the form’s ever produced.
So, after picking out the best horror and animations since the year 2000 in recent weeks and months, we’ve selected the twenty-five best music documentaries of the 21st century so far. Take a look at the list below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
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25. “Twenty Feet From Stardom” (2013)
A joyous and moving corrective to decades spent ceding the spotlight to “artists” who often boasted less raw talent, Morgan Neville‘s irresistible Oscar-winning documentary traces the lives and influence of several of the world’s greatest ever backing singers. Investigating not just how important their contributions were to some of the most famous songs ever made (the moment Mick Jagger hears Merry Clayton perform the stunning backing vocal to “Gimme Shelter,” shorn of his his own vocal and is visibly gobsmacked is an absolute treasure), but also why their often meteoric rise in the industry was abruptly curtailed as they reached the backup singer version of a glass ceiling, this is an inspiring and uplifting doc, not just for music lovers or for those tuning in to hear Jagger, Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder et al, but for anyone who’s ever had more ambition, talent and peer admiration in their chosen field than luck or fame.
24. “Shut Up And Play The Hits” (2012)
Only a fool would make a prediction like this, but it feels like music historians will look back on LCD Soundsystem as something of a defining band of the ’00s: led by super-producer James Murphy, the band united both aging Gen-Xers and millenials in dance, dropping three flawless albums before dissolving. “Shut Up And Play The Hits” (from Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, who were also behind the pretty good Blur doc “No Distance Left To Run”) documents LCD’s last stand, an epic, instantly legendary final show at Madison Square Garden. It’s gorgeously and viscerally shot in a way that few concert movies pull off, but the film manages to be for more than just fans by examining Murphy’s decision to go out on top and the uncertainty and comedown immediately following the greatest high of his career.
23. “Heima” (2006)
Not perhaps the most experimental or dramatic of the documentaries on this list, Sigur Ros‘ “Heima” might well be the most beautiful. Part concert doc, part travelogue and part meditation on homesickness and the changing relationship with the country of one’s birth over time, the film is undoubtedly mostly geared toward fans of the ethereal, elvish strains of the band’s music. But it’s also a humanizing portrait of Jonsi et al, who while often coming across as overly self-serious are here revealed to be warm, self-deprecating and kinda nerdy, and which is set against the backdrop of historical archive footage and some truly spectacular cinematography of Iceland’s stark landscapes. Finally, it builds to a lovely climax as the band plays a series of free gigs in their home country, and it becomes clear that the palpable love and gratitude they have for Iceland and its people is warmly, joyfully reciprocated.
22. “Nas: Time Is Illmatic” (2014)
We can’t think of all that many great films focused on a single record (Spike Lee’s “Bad 25” was good if a little disposable), but last year’s “Time Is Illmatic” managed to break the streak. In part, it’s because this doc focused on arguably the greatest hip-hop record of all time, Nas’ staggering debut “Illmatic”, with filmmakers Erik Parker and One9 taking advantage of incredible access to the rapper, his family and collaborators. But the film also uses the twentieth anniversary of the album to delve both into Nas and his background (his relationship with jazz trumpeter father Olu Dara is crucial), as well as the social and political issues that he tackled on his breakthrough record, which surrounded him as he grew up and which, as it’s clear as he returns to his old neighborhood, persist. It’s not the most formally inventive film on this list, but it’s as deep a dive as you could hope for on a truly seminal artist’s finest hour.
21. “Be Here To Love Me” (2004)
At its best, the music documentary doesn’t just celebrate and explore great artists, but is capable of reintroducing and rediscovering those who never got the credit they deserved in their time. “Be Here To Love Me” is one of the best examples as such. Margaret Brown’s excellent film focuses on Townes Van Zandt, a contemporary of and songwriter for the likes of Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, who lived a tumultuous rock-and-roll life that took in long-running alcohol abuse, early insulin-shock treatments, three marriages and an early death, all the while gaining a reputation as, as Kris Kristofferson puts it, “a songwriter’s songwriter” whose own recordings were known to mainly country music aesthetes until relatively recently. Released seven years after his death and eschewing talking heads in favor of predominately archive footage, Brown paints a complete and definitive portrait.
20. “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011)
As befits a titan of cinema, Scorsese has made several music documentaries regarding The Rolling Stones, The Band, Bob Dylan, but perhaps nowhere do his own preoccupations with faith and spirituality mesh so well with his subject’s as with his sprawling documentary on George Harrison. Split into two parts and running at a total of 3 1/2 hours, ‘Material World’ is almost two films, dealing with the pre- and during-Beatles and post-Beatles phases of Harrison’s life. But the second half relies on the context set up in the first, and the manner in which Scorsese creates a fully rounded portrait of Harrison (using clever non-linear storytelling), that somewhat belies the facile “quiet Beatle” tag, and then prises open the role of faith in art, makes this not just a fitting tribute to an overshadowed talent but a surprisingly personal document.
19. “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)
The aim of bringing attention to neglected artists has birthed several great films, including “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “Be Here to Love Me” from this list alone. “Searching for Sugar Man” initially comes across in a similar vein, as a pair of South African fans decide to find out what really happened to ’70s folk/pop singer Rodriguez, who while hugely popular in South Africa had never broken through in his native Detroit and was rumored to have killed himself on stage. But following this quixotic quest, the film takes a surprising turn and becomes much more than just an excuse to discover an overlooked musical legacy. In a desperately sad postscript, the film’s Swedish writer/director, Malik Benjelloul would himself commit suicide in 2014 at just 36, marking the bittersweet uplift of this Oscar-winning film as his swansong.
18. “The Filth & The Fury” (2000)
Having been an acquaintance of many of its figures back in the day, filmmaker Julien Temple (father of Juno) has come to be seen as one of the major chroniclers of punk, via “The Future Is Unwritten” and “Oil City Confidential” which are concerned with Joe Strummer and Dr. Feelgood. But he’s best associated with The Sex Pistols, and with a couple of decades distance and without Malcolm McLaren exerting a perhaps undue influence on his earlier “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle,” “The Filth & The Fury” became Temple’s defining statement on the scene and band. Pulling from an inspired assembly of archive footage (even keeping present-day interviews with surviving band members in shadow to keep their ’70s-era images first and foremost), this doc contextualises and celebrates the Pistols in a thrilling, funny, immediate and surprising way, finding a new way to tell a now-familiar story. It’s as definitive a film about the band or punk in general as you could ask for.
17. “Scratch” (2001)
Focusing not so much on a particular artists as on newly recognized musical instrument and an aborning artform, “Scratch,” directed by Doug Pray and produced by the Hughes Brothers, is one of the defining hip-hop documentaries, focusing on the humble turntable and which shone the spotlight on DJs. Featuring turntablist luminaries like Afrika Bambaataa, Mix Master Mike, Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow, the film might not be hugely revelatory to those who grew up on hip-hop but it’s essential to newcomers who are skeptical that DJs are doing more than putting on a record (admittedly, there were probably more of those fourteen years ago), and delves with breath and depth into not just DJ subculture but into the origins and impact of hip-hop as a whole. It’s warm, smart, formally inventive, looks gorgeous (it’s shot on film, remarkably) and is full to the brim with great music.
16. “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten” (2007)
The answer to every “who’s the greatest?” question in music history is quite simple. Who’s better, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? The Clash. Tupac or Biggie? The Clash. Mozart or Salieri? The Clash. Sadly, the band’s frontman Joe Strummer passed in 2002, but documentarian Julien Temple paid tribute to his old friend with his 2007 film “The Future is Unwritten.” Mixing talking heads like Bono and Johnny Depp with an extraordinary collection of archive footage featuring early performances from the musician at London squat parties, the project was mostly filmed at campfire parties thrown to honor Strummer, made up of friends, bandmates and ex-lovers. You come away with an even greater appreciation of Strummer and his work, but the film is never a hagiography; Temple doesn’t shy away from Strummer’s darker side.
15. “A Band Called Death” (2012)
An unfairly overlooked film about an unfairly overlooked band, “A Band Called Death” was overshadowed somewhat by the more genial “Searching For Sugar Man,” but contains a story that’s just as amazing. Mark Convino and Jeff Howlett’s doc tells the story of Death, a band made up of the three Hackney brothers formed in Detroit in the early 1970s that kicked against the dominant Motown sound with a rock’n’roll feel that prefigured punk. Unable to get much in the way of airplay and record-store interest, partly due to being an African-American rock band and partly because of a refusal to change their name, Death went mostly unknown before being rediscovered by vinyl collectors decades later. Convino and Howlett tell the story with flair, confidence and a punk-rock energy, effortlessly demonstrating not just the band and their influence but also the stories of the three men involved. A must-see little gem.
14. “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2014)
A tapestry of never-seen-before home movies, performance footage, animations, behind-the-scenes videos and interviews with friends and family and accompanied by an access-all-areas soundtrack that melds classic Nirvana recordings with orchestral/choral arrangements of their back catalogue, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” is the rare musician bio-doc that gives an impression of the man without diminishing his legacy. Director Brett Morgan reclaims a Cobain that had been neglected in favor of the splashier details of his death and mythos, seen via his kindred-spirit interactions with Courtney Love and his fond times with daughter Frances (who serves as the film’s producer). But he also embraces the paradox of Cobain’s discomfort with the trappings of fame and the deep fragility that was both a wellspring of creative genius (though by no means the only one), and a source of great grief and torment. Walking just the right line between expose and hagiography, ‘Montage of Heck’ feels like the definitive word on a defining artist.
13. “Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster” (2004)
It turns out that the world’s biggest heavy metal band isn’t so tough. The definitive Metallica documentary from Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost”) probably wasn’t what fans were hoping for, but the film, one of the better warts-and-all docs, is doubly interesting for chronicling the internal-band strife and issues around their eighth and most widely reviled record “St. Anger.” The doc features many things you wouldn’t think you’d see in a Metallica film, among them Dave Mustaine from Megadeth shedding tears when discussing his ousting from the band 20 years prior, and the revelation that drummer Lars Ulrich‘s father is some kind of spiritual guide/ thumbs-up, thumbs-down musical consultant for the band. It’s a raw and unsparing look at a group that, even if you’ve never heard a Metallica record in your life or do not want to, is more than worth the watch.
12. “The Possibilities Are Endless” (2014)
Almost the most recent film on this list —so recent, in fact, that it hasn’t yet received a U.S release— “The Possibilities Are Endless,” from filmmakers Edward Lovelace and James Hall, is an outstanding look at the moving story of Orange Juice frontman/“A Girl Like You” solo artist Edwyn Collins, who suffered a crippling stroke in 2005 and has gradually fought his way back with the help of his wife Grace Maxwell. But this isn’t your average documentary: it’s closer to a tone poem and a meditation on the human brain and its wonders, effectively capturing not just Collins and his music, but also his memories and the effect of his cerebral haemorrhage, making you feel that you’ve been alongside Collins as he reclaimed his ability to speak and sing. It’s a beautiful, beautifully made film, at once abstract and unbearably moving, and a fitting tribute to an extraordinary story
11. “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown” (2002)
Motown; the record label so great that it became the byword for an entire genre. But the label was not so good at giving credit where it was due —The Funk Brothers, the house-band who played on the majority of Motown’s records in the 1960s, weren’t credited by founder Berry Gordy until 1970. Paul Justman’s excellent film attempts to address this injustice by reuniting the surviving Funk Brothers, and proves that they were so much more than session musicians —they were the beating heart at the center of some of the greatest records of the 20th century, playing on more number one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined. The doc’s version of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” adding each instrument one-by-one, is, quite frankly astounding. Less successful are the clips from a reunion concert in Detroit in 2000, due to the low caliber of the modern artists teamed with the Funk Brothers (Ben Harper? really?) but it’s a rare misstep for an otherwise terrific film.
10. “The Punk Singer” (2013)
Never heard of Bikini Kill? Only aware of the punk-gone-mainstream likes of Nirvana, Sonic Youth et al? A little daunted by the more underground aspects of the early ’90s music scene and its nexus with feminist politics? Never fear: in just 80 lean minutes blasting by in a hardcore rush, “The Punk Singer” acquaints you with frontwoman and original Riot Grrl Kathleen Hanna, telling you almost everything you need to know about that scene and far more. In fact, the film really comes into its own detailing Hanna’s development after the Bikini Kill years, as her musical horizons broaden and her life experience accrues, yet she never loses her confrontationality, creating a portrait of artistic, political and personal drive and curiosity that is compelling, truthful, blisteringly entertaining, and all too rare for being personified in a woman. And one with a howling banshee rebel yell of a voice.
9. “20,000 Days On Earth” (2014)
In his music, Nick Cave often manages the trick of sounding dark, self-serious and discordant, only for the sweetest melodies and the most universal themes about love lost and found to emerge. And this docu/fiction hybrid from Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth does something similar —it begins as a reflexive, self-absorbed meta-doodle that strays close to pretension in how singlemindedly it focuses on Cave’s preoccupations with aging and fame and memory, but gradually reveals currents of warmth, self-deprecating humor and enormous generosity of spirit. More than the self-aggrandizement exercise it seems at first blush, ‘20,000 Days’ shows Cave wandering the Gothic mansion that is his life, and then throws open its doors, culminating in a chimingly satisfying ending that proves that his purpose in so minutely examining his own creative process was to inspire that same joy in creation in others.
8. “The Devil And Daniel Johnston” (2006)
This exploration into the rise and fall of singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston is a harrowing, fascinating look into the psyche of an individual whose debilitating mental illness is also inextricably tied to his prolific output of music and art. His stripped-down, heartbreaking pop genius garnered him a cult following and famous fans (Kurt Cobain often sported Johnston’s tee, for instance), but his erratic behavior and mental illness prevented him from ever gaining mainstream status, and the musician now lives at home with his parents, still producing fantastical drawings and beautiful songs. Director Jeff Feurezeig weaves together home movies and audio recordings from Johnston’s life with interviews and artifacts from his family and musicians and artists close to him, creating a vivid, humanizing portrait of one man’s struggle to balance his own sanity and life with the creative and destructive demons that do battle in his mind.
7. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2005)
An unlikely alliance of “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” filmmaker Michel Gondry and eccentric comedy mastermind Dave Chappelle joining forces for arguably hip-hop’s most joyous concert movie, ‘Block Party’ revolves around the comic (just before he disappeared from the limelight) throwing a free street gig behind a Brooklyn community center with appearances from Mos Def, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, a pre-megafame Kanye West, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, the reunited Fugees and a college-marching band from Ohio. Chappelle’s as engaging a host as you could ever ask for, and though Gondry isn’t the most obvious choice for something like this, the doc fits beautifully with his interest in films about communities (see “Be Kind Rewind,” “The We And The I”) and spends as much time with the audience as with the superstar performers (though the songs are invariably electrifying). Loose and enormously enjoyable, the film completely captures the block party spirit.
6. “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” (2008)
A portrait of an artist following an unusual muse throughout a five decade career, “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” gives us the typical career-spanning details: young American singer joins pop group, moves to London, grows out his hair, enjoys hit after hit, plays to hysterical mobs of hormonal teenage girls. Singer has mental breakdown, leaves group, only to emerge as an artist with a string of increasingly brilliant and strange solo albums before falling into cultish obscurity. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Radiohead and Jarvis Cocker were all evidently taking notes. The film tells the story with clarity and real insight, but the real kicker is getting a look inside the reclusive artist’s process. Director Stephen Kijak follows Walker into the studio as he records 2006’s “The Drift,” a horrific operatic masterpiece highlighted by pig carcass percussion and above all an incomparable baritone voice.
5. “DiG!” (2004)
Taking a novel approach to the well-worn territory of the band documentary by following two bands whose philosophies were diametrically opposed despite shared DNA, Ondi Timoner‘s “DiG!” juxtaposes the idea of a strong work ethic with the seductive myth of effortless but erratic creative genius. Both new wave-ish rockers The Dandy Warhols and neo-psychedelic garage-folkers The Brian Jonestown Massacre seemed on the verge of a greatness that retrospectively never really came, but if the years since “DiG!” have shown that neither spawned a particularly durable musical legacy, they also prove what an ephemeral thing it is that both are chasing. A de facto “Greatest Hits” for both bands —one run by a narcissistic yet charismatic pretty boy (Courtney Taylor-Taylor), the other by a raving, self-destructive genius/asshole (Anton Newcombe)— the film is a witty, sometimes savage portrait of the thin line between friendship and all-out artistic rivalry.
4. “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil” (2009)
The “real-life ‘Spinal Tap’!” tagline that tended to accompany Sacha Gervasi‘s deeply affectionate portrait of under-appreciated and underachieving Canadian heavy metal icons Anvil is apt enough, but only tells half the story of the film, which achieves a kind of hard-won, melancholic wisdom that Nigel Tufnel et al never managed. A band that managed to miss the boat on the late ’80s thrash scene that their bone-crunching sound helped spawn (Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, etc. all give effusive testimonials), this insider’s eye portrait (Gervasi was a teenage Anvil roadie) will make you pump devil horns, cringe with embarrassment and laugh and weep in celebration. But the uplift comes not so much from crunching power chords or headbanging riffs, but from the theme that gradually emerges about the nobility of perseverance in the face of opposition or indifference, and the triumphal power of brotherhood —which ultimately becomes as rousing a chorus as any stadium anthem.
3. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” (2002)
Whether you regard the Wilco album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” as the dawn of a new period for an internationally recognized band or the dramatic swan song for the truest incarnation of that band, documentarian and photographer Sam Jones was on hand to capture the often excruciating, often beautiful birthing pains of an undeniably important musical document. Shot in black and white and in a quieter style than many music documentaries affect, Jones’ unobtrusive approach somehow makes the drama of the album’s gestation sing out even more. And what drama! With their recording company baulking at the album’s uncommerciality, key members Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett falling out, Tweedy’s recurrent migraines and a pressure-cooker atmosphere that sums up the terror of being at a make-or-break moment for commercial success but also for artistic fulfilment, ‘Break Your Heart’ is a compelling portrait of a craven and fickle music industry and of a band in tumult.
2. “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest” (2011)
One of the most unsparing yet deeply felt films on this list, Michael Rapaport‘s portrait of seminal hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest, its joyous rise and subsequent death-by-a-thousand-cuts implosion is maybe the literal definition of “that which nourishes you also kills you.” Minutely tracing the evolution of the band’s sound, which is jazzier and more playful than the angrier vibe of contemporaries like NWA and Public Enemy, and then mercilessly deep-diving on just how the friendships that bound the founding members together started to fray, the doc shows just how much their contrasting personalities contributed to the layered, evergreen freshness of their approach, and also how they ultimately caused the band’s acrimonious dissolution. From early greatness to later disappointing albums and on to a disastrous reunion, Rapaport nonetheless ends his energetic film on a redemptive note, so this totally absorbing portrait of kinship and estrangement, collaboration and compromise also suggests that where there’s (beats, rhymes &) life, there’s hope.
1. “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” (2005)
Todd Haynes‘ “I’m Not There” creatively explained to civilians (i.e. non-Dylan-heads) how elusive and chameleon-esque Bob Dylan is as a person and artist, and while Dylan has done many interviews since the early 1960s, Martin Scorsese coaxing the legend to not only participate in a documentary about himself but to openly reflect on his past is a major achievement that musicologists the world round are still grateful for. An intriguing and illuminating look into the period of Dylan’s arrival in New York in January 1961 all the way through to his “retirement” from touring following his famous motorcycle accident in July 1966, ‘No Direction’ will engross even the most skeptical. Ultimately, as much as Mr. Zimmerman reveals (and of course contradicts from past interviews), the documentary fittingly peels back layers while declining to solve the alluring enigma that is one of the 20th century’s great artists.
Honorable Mentions: Narrowly missing a top 25 placement were a couple of docs on seminal punk bands in “End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones” and “MC5: A True Testimonial,” while the Beastie Boys‘ “crowdsourced” concert doc “Awesome, I Fucking Shot That” is a fun, lively concept that has since had a little of its ad hoc, shaky amateur cam inventiveness dulled by the prevalence these days of cameraphone footage of everything. “Mistaken For Strangers” is a mischievous and meta portrait of The National that is as much family portrait as music doc, while “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” is essential for the Canadian prog-rockers’ fans and kind of blast even for their detractors. Shane Meadows “Stone Roses: Made of Stone” suffers a little from the director’s unabashed hero worship of the subjects, but it’s still a pretty infectious sentiment; “Muscle Shoals” is a must-see for those with even a passing interest in rock ‘n’ roll history; and “Young @ Heart” is definitely one of the most uplifting and all-out joyful of this frequently heart-swelling genre. There are many more of course, and if in contrast to that last film’s moral of music fostering togetherness, you wish to rip our selection apart, hit a high C in the comments below.
—written by Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttleton, Kevin Jagermauth, Rodrigo Perez and Katie Walsh