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The 25 Best Music Documentaries of the 21st Century, From ‘Amy’ to ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’

The best movies that prove there's more to being a rock star than sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll (but a little of all that matters, too).

Clockwise from top right: “Amy,” “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest”

20. “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s music fandom has informed much of his work, including directing Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, capturing concerts by The Band (“The Last Waltz”) and The Rolling Stones (“Shine a Light”), and co-creating HBO’s “Vinyl.” But the Oscar winning director’s most-extolled tribute to songwriting remains his 208-minute film on George Harrison, the most restrained Beatle. Co-produced by his widow, Olivia, and released on HBO ahead of the decade-anniversary of Harrison’s death, the film confirmed that much of Harrison’s identity laid outside his Fab Four membership. Featuring previously unseen footage and interviews, plus commentary from his former bandmates as well as contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, the film delves into Harrison’s philanthropy, Indian travels, amateur car racing and more. Scorsese spent five years compiling the footage while also crafting a little picture called “Shutter Island.” —Jenna Marotta

19. “The Filth and the Fury” (2000)

Prolific rock documentarian Julien Temple revisits the subject of his 1980 mockumentary “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle,” which chronicled the rise and fall of the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Provocative in ways the world had not yet seen, the Sex Pistols only recorded one studio album in their short two-year span as a band. “The Filth and the Fury” is the definitive record of the explosive group, and it’s just as funny, outrageous, and political as its most famous members, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Temple contextualizes archival concert footage from the late 70’s with up-to-date interviews with the surviving members. Guided by Rotten’s poetic observations, “The Filth and the Fury” offers a window into a firebrand band whose influence is still felt today, and why it could never have lasted. —JD

18. “A Band Called Death” (2012)

For the uninitiated, Death was a Detroit rock band of three preacher’s sons — David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney — who most fans think would have found early success if not for their reaper-approved moniker. For six years, beginning in 1971, the brothers performed with a name that repelled radio programmers and A&R execs, including Clive Davis (although he did still fund their recording sessions). Post-Death, they moved to Burlington, Vermont, where debut feature directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett found them. The Hackneys had tried again under new genres and names (The 4th Movement, Lambsbread), and finally they found validation when Death’s first album, “…For the Whole World to See,” was released by Drag City in 2009, an event documented in this Los Angeles Film Festival-premiering tale. Sadly, eldest brother David — who was most vigilant about keeping their original sobriquet — died of lung cancer in 2000, and thus did not live to see the finished album. Yet with help from a new guitarist, Death has now grown their discography to four collections. —JM

17. “Long Strange Trip” (2017)


Directed by Amir Bar-Lev and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, “Long Strange Trip” is a nearly four-hour crash course in all things Grateful Dead. Bar-Lev spoke with all living members of the group and got his hands on never-before-seen tour and studio footage to weave together the magnum opus of Grateful Dead movies. For Dead Heads, “Long Strange Trip” is the ultimate oral history of their favorite band, from their drug-riddled lows to their artistic highs, but the power of the documentary is just how appealing it is for people who’ve never even heard of Jerry Garcia and company. Watching “Long Strange Trip” is to discover how music acts as a universal tool for creative and political expression. Just be prepared to stream the band’s discography for weeks afterwards. —Zack Sharf

16. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2005)


Made a year before Dave Chappelle walked away from a $50 million deal with Comedy Central, this Michel Gondry-directed gem is a window into the corporate-free communal vibe his show could never provide. The ebullient gathering includes a range of hip hop’s finest, from The Roots to Erykah Badu, alongside relative newcomers Kanye West and John Legend. The gathering went down at the historic Broken Angel House in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, where the specter of gentrification hovered just outside the frame and the music became a great equalizer for the crowd. In retrospect, the movie anticipated the era of hope that epitomized the Obama age while showing the limitations of that worldview by cramming it into one crowded space. The good vibes only last so long before the outside world comes crashing in. Chappelle, who fled to Africa a few months after this shoot, figured that out before the rest of us. —Eric Kohn

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