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From The Who to Bob Dylan: The 10 best music documentaries ever

At a time when we’re all in need of a little entertainment sometimes sticking on an album just doesn’t capture your attention as it once should have. Nowadays, we need some visual stimulation too. Luckily, below, we’ve gathered up ten of our favourite music documentaries to help ease you through another lockdown.

Music documentaries are not merely about the music but about the people producing the music, their lives and stories. They give us a glimpse into the lives of the celebrities behind the camera, or, in many cases, shed light on the lives of the people who never achieved the fame but whose music did. In a time, when we are all practically stuck at home, watching these music documentaries may be a good way to ease our minds.

There’s an art to making a classic music documentary. Whether it is following a concert film or simply trying to answer a question, to create a truly robust documentary one must accurately balance the fantastical and the realistic. After all, while these aren’t Marvel or DC films, they’re still dealing with heroes and they needed to be treated carefully.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis once said: “Documentaries shouldn’t just reflect the world: they should try and explain why reality is like it is.” This is crux of why we can be so swept up by music documentaries. They offer us a glimpse of the reality behind some of our most cherished figures in pop culture. While, as an audience, we never want the curtain removed, these films do provide the peek that we’re all craving.

Find below, our ten favourite music documentaries.

10 best music documentaries

10. The Kids Are Alright – The Who (1979)

The Kids Are Alright is a documentary onBritish invasion band The Who. Apart from the promotional footage and television appearances, the film also features fan-shot videos of the band – on their tour, in the studio and in their lives.

It also includes their historic performances at the Woodstock festival and very organically compiles all of it together to present a candid and engaging portrayal of the band’s career at, arguably, its peak.

Director Jeff Stein also includes some of the archival performances as well as amusing snippets from the band’s interviews to make the documentary even more dynamic. This is one of the pioneering rock music documentaries out there and sets a rather distinctive path for the future ones to follow.

9. The Last Waltz – The Band (1978)

Talk about going out with a bang! Canadian-American rock group The Band bid farewell to their fans with a lavish concert titled The Last Waltz at San Francisco‘s famed venue, Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976. Luckily, one of cinema’s greatest was there to capture it.

The documentary of the same name features this concert, which also had standout performances from artist such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and many more.

Director, the world-renowned man behind Taxi Driver and Goodfellas Martin Scorsese included some of The Band’s interviews as well, thereby tracing the group’s history and making the documentary an ensemble of the group’s musical career.

8. Don’t Look Back – Bob Dylan (1965)

This film covers Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England, a landmark moment not only for Dylan but the audience wo witnessed him too.

Directed by D. A. Pennebaker, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Don’t Look Back features many of Dylan’s crew, as well as Joan Baez, Donovan and Alan Price. all of which adds up to a truly engrossing spectacle. Released in 1965, this documentary is also a kind of a journey towards self-revelation that Dylan embarks on — often posing him as a rather arrogant yet charismatic young man.

It also features a selection of songs from Dylan’s Royal Albert Hall performance which perhaps confirm why that arrogance was beginning to show. Having spent the previous few years as the apple of the music industry’s collective eye, it’s perhaps no surprise.

7. Five Foot Two – Lady Gaga (2017)

This is a documentary released in 2017 about American singer-songwriter Lady Gaga. The film features, apart from home life, and life on tour, her role in the American Horror Story and a discussion of her feud with singer Madonna.

Five Foot Two is made in the style of cinéma vérité, to give the viewers unfiltered access to the woman behind the costumes, glitz and glamour. Undoubtedly one of the biggest pop stars of the 21st century, Gaga has seemingly made her name as the most authentic act around.

A born performer, this film allows us to look behind the glory of her performances and appearances and get to know the woman behind the Lady.

6. Some Kind Of Monster – Metallica (2005)

An insight into the world of heavy metal, Some kind of monster is a revealing documentary into the lives of the band Metallica and their journey of battling with repressed rage and aggression which came to the forefront following bassist Jason Newsted quitting the band and the rest of the team having to find a replacement.

The documentary sheds light on some of the most honest, and therefore vulnerable moments in the members’ lives. A heavy metal band is the first place you think of when you think of vulnerability, but the band show it with touching humility.

The film, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005.

5. Amy (2015)

Amy is a British documentary film about the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. When Winehouse’s death was confirmed the entire world held their breath in horror. This film takes a candid look at her life leading up to that moment.

The film throws light on her struggle with substance abuse both before and after she rose to fame, and how that eventually became the cause of her death, while also capturing her as a person and her musical genius.

The film, released in 2015, directed by Asif Kapadia, won multiple awards including the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary (2016), Grammy Award for Best Music Film (2016), Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature) (2016) and Empire Award for Best Documentary (2016).

4. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones (1970)

This documentary on The Rolling Stone is in equal parts chilling as it is compelling. Gimme Shelter revolves around the band’s free concert at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco in 1969, the violence that unravelled and resulted in a murder.

Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, the film was screened out of competition as the opening film of the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a piece of film that not only captures a band nearing their peak but an entire society coming to terms with the death of the swinging sixties.

The documentary represents the counterculture era and is associated with the Direct Cinema movement, providing a searing moment of film. Gimme Shelter also features some of The Rolling Stones’ most fervid performances which only goes to highlight further their dominance.

3. Woodstock (1970)

Unlike many of the other documentaries, Woodstock is more about the audience than it is about the artists. It is, in essence, about the people.

The Woodstock festival was a three-day-long event held at a dairy farm in upstate New York in the August of 1969, when the nation was in the midst of an ongoing national uproar — sexual politics, civil rights and the Vietnam War.

The Woodstock festival wasn’t just about the music. It was about a cultural revolution being borne out of a political revolution. The film, directed by Barak Goodman tells the story of a three-day music festival with artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who et al on stage, of challenging the establishment, of the triumph with perhaps a dose of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

2. Homecoming – Beyoncé (2019)

Beyoncé has been one of the most inspiring and erudite musicians of all time and this film goes a long way to show that her shine doesn’t end on the stage.

With a history of racial discrimination being carried out around the world and in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, it becomes extremely important for celebrities like her, who have a huge fanbase, to use their platform to inspire people to be on the right side of history.

Homecoming, initially released in 2019, is one of the most notable films because it showcases Beyoncé, not just as an artist, but also as a proud black woman, representing the marginalized sections of the society in her own capacity, in a way that portrays much of her culture and heritage and also her musical artistry.

1. Searching For Sugar Man – Sixto Rodriguez (2012)

One of the most intriguing music documentaries out there. Directed and written by Malik Bendjelloul, it is a Swedish-British-Finnish documentary film about Sixto Rodriguez, an American musician, who had never quite achieved success in the United States.

But more than the singer himself, the movie revolves around the efforts of two fans of his from Cape Town, South Africa, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew, who embark on a journey to find out the truth behind the singer’s death and what had become of him.

Rodriguez may not have flourished in the US but he had become quite popular in South Africa although little was known about him. The documentary achieved wide acclaim both by the critics as well as the general audience and won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary at the 66th British Academy Film Awards and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood.

It’s a piece of film that not only encapsulates the star quality of Rodriguez, and the heartening story that followed him, but also the magic of music itself. What else could drive such a search?