Musicians are natural-born documentary subjects: They say outrageous things, they look fabulous doing it, and they might just let you license their music for free (if they like you). Anyone who rises to rock star level fame is either a tortured soul or a creative genius — or, sometimes, both. The challenge in making a music documentary is to rise above mere hagiography and tell a story most fans have never heard before, which can be tricky when you’re dealing with people as obsessively beloved as Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse.
In some cases, the best stories are discovered behind the scenes: the forgotten backup singers, the recluse who discovers his fame decades later, the brother living in the shadows of the rock star. Whether famous or unknown, there is nothing quite as daring as getting on a stage and singing your guts out — and no creative skill as revered as writing a song that moves people.
Here are the 25 best music documentaries of the 21st century.
25. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015)
Biographical documentaries rarely rise above hagiography, and it can be difficult to breathe new life into a beloved figure. The legendary Nina Simone wore her soul on her sleeve in her music, but the details of her darkness were rather murky to the average listener. In their revealing documentary, Liz Garbus and Hal Tulchin trace the way Simone’s natural born talent, impassioned activism, and fiery temper coalesced into the complicated figure we know and love today. Way ahead of her time, the ravages of fame proved too shallow for the truth-telling chanteuse, and she retreated to the safety of obscurity. Interviews with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, reveal a tortured soul who never turned off the show. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a rare and invaluable look at one of our greatest American musicians. —Jude Dry
24. “Scratch” (2001)
“Scratch” tells story behind the origins of the turntable as musical instrument, decades before Baz Luhrmann’s thwarted attempt to dramatize the rise of disco and hip hop in “The Get Down.” From the South Bronx in the ’70s to the techno scene as it was in 2001, the film features key players in the early days of turntablism, many of them just teenagers when they first discovered the hypnotic musical possibilities of scratching a record. As one DJ recalls, the first vinyl he scratched was his mother’s Joan Baez record. “Surfwise” director Doug Pray does his due diligence, providing an overview of DJ-ing techniques, philosophies, and styles, delivering an dynamic piece suitable for experts and laypeople alike. —JD
23. “Finding Fela” (2014)
This ambitious music project was dreamed up by theater producer Stephen Hendel, and resulting from his obsession with the passion of the Nigerian musical powerhouse Fela Kuti, who generated 70 albums over decades. Born in 1938, jailed 200 times, and at his peak of popularity in the 70’s and 80’s, Kuti finally died of AIDS in 1997. Over the years Hendel acquired many Kuti rights; he commandeered the hit Tony-winning Broadway musical “Fela,” which is one focus of the Alex Gibney movie. If the play told the story of the musician, the film is about the process of understanding the man. Gibney and editor Lindy Jankura faced over 1200 hours of excavated footage that they had to assemble over two years into a complex narrative. Music is front and center, along with the complex Nigerian government politics that Fela navigated as a global superstar. —Anne Thompson
22. “Sonita” (2015)
Of all the films on this list, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s 2016 Sundance winner is the one that most wrestles with the function and power of the documentary form. What starts out as a portrait of a prodigy desperately working to survive becomes an ethical and artistic crisis. When Sonita Alizadeh, an outspoken online activist, finds herself in danger of being forced into the same system of oppression she rails against in her music, Ghaemmaghami is tasked with the choice of preserving the filmmaker/subject divide or helping Sonita seek political asylum elsewhere. Sonita herself is a fierce performer, one who even in the rapidly changing world of viral internet stardom brings something authentic to a story about women forced to hide behind facades given to them by others. —Steve Greene
21. “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” (2010)
One of the surprising things about this 2010 film is how well documented these mid-70s recording sessions were in terms of film footage. In putting this album together, Bruce Springsteen drove everybody nuts, grinding away for months and tossing away what were certain hits (including “Because the Night” which he gave to Patti Smith). In an album that was about what it meant to become a man, Springsteen was ever so carefully deciding what kind of artist he wanted to be, treating this album as the defining moment in his career. And a bonus for film fans: Springsteen’s concept of constructing songs in cinematic terms which will change how you hear the music. —Chris O’Falt