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Ranking Martin Scorsese's music documentaries from worst to best

Martin Scorsese has long held a passion for music, and he regularly infuses his films’ soundtracks with a collection of rock-oriented songs to punch up the more dramatic moments in his work. Who, for one, can forget the sound of Sid Vicious singing over the closing credits of Goodfellas, or ignore the sound of Eric Clapton serenading over The Color of Money.

No less a luminary than Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel wrote the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bob Dylan guitarist Robbie Robertson wrote the lacerating theme to The Irishman. So, it should come as no surprise that Scorses has directed seven, yes seven, music documentaries.

The Last Waltz remains one of the most astonishing examples of rock cinema put to celluloid, showcasing career-best performances from Van Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It offered viewers the chance to celebrate the closing of one era, at a time when the decade was becoming more cynical and commercial.

Scorsese doesn’t hold back on the documentaries, giving them as much focus, finesse and vigour as he would on any other project. The seven listed stand up with much of his better work, and the world is all the better for them.

Ranking Martin Scorsese’s music documentaries:

7. The Rolling Stones – Shine A Light (2008)

This might be the only time that Scorsese hasn’t played ‘Gimme Shelter’ in one of his films, precisely because The Rolling Stones refused to play it for him. The director captured the band in full performance, but anyone hoping for Last Waltz II was to be sorely disappointed. The film quickly establishes that this footage is less about the occasion and more about the grooves.

To their credit, the Stones play very well, but there’s a pointless opening section that makes us believe that the director isn’t fully aware of the set on the night. It all feels too staged to pull off this level of spontaneity, but the guitars are solid, and it’s nice to see Charlie Watts chiming in from behind the kit. The drummer died in 2021, so this is one of the last times you can see him live.

6. Various artists – The Blues: Feel Like Going Home (2003)

Scorses’s seven-part series traces the blues genre back to its earthier roots, and the series finds the director in more anthropological form, delving into the history of the work that later formed jazz and rock. What he provides is context, especially as he traces the history back to its original intent, capturing the genre in a style that is excitingly reverent to the sound and to the musical form.

It’s a bit too long for casual music fans, largely because the series is so unvarnished and so uncompromising in its resolve. But when he uncovers gold, it’s solid gold, and the interviews will serve as components of a movement in later years when everyone who has seen the rise of the genre has left this earth.

5. Paul McCartney – The Concert For New York City: The Neighborhood (2001)

Scorsese is a born New Yorker, and the city served as the central character in his 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver. The city forms the backdrop of this work, buoyed by the emotion of the recent terrorist attacks. Former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney organised the concert, and the performers on the night included The Who, David Bowie, Elton John and Eric Clapton. The film captures the emotion of the night and shows the city in a more heartfelt light.

Sure, it’s a bit twee, but it’s done with a lot of heart, and the performances linger on in the memory, long after the credits have finished rolling. Where it’s strong, it’s strong in its visual content, and the editing is tightly spliced together. As a younger man, Scorsese had edited rock documentaries together, and he was one of the editors who worked on the Woodstock film in 1970.

4. George Harrison – George Harrison: Living In The Material World (2011)

Let’s get the obvious criticism out of the way: The film is definitely hagiographic, and no one – not even former bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr – has a bad word to say about George Harrison. The guitarist had a reputation for being the “difficult” Beatle, but it’s hard to discern that from this particular feature-length film. But its strength is in its archival content, exhibiting many of the private films the former Beatle had recorded at his home in Friar Park.

What’s apparent from the film is that Harrison was keen to unite the world under the banner of peace, as he espoused meditation and pacifism in the world. The film also goes out of its way to show the many hooks Harrison brought to The Beatles, and McCartney charitably suggests that his arpeggio on the sombre ‘And I Love Her’ is as important to the recording as the lyrics are.

3. Bob Dylan – Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese (2019)

Scorsese clearly loves Bob Dylan, as the next three films focus on the songwriters enduring legacy. This picture focuses on a part of the songwriter’s great journey, as Scorsese presents a guitarist undergoing a creative rebirth in a new and more cynical decade. The feature exhibits Dylan in 1975, as he is preparing himself for the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The documentary is certainly the most idiosyncratic to appear on this list, as the film holds re-enactments with actors filling in the missing spaces.

If it sounds more like Todd Haynes than Michael Apted, then you’re not wrong, but the work is no less organised than the works that went before it. Indeed, it reads like a love letter from one committed artist to another, as the film details the creative process of the one songwriter The Beatles would concede as their superior.

2. Bob Dylan – No Direction Home (2005)

Where Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese focuses on one small section on Dylan’s storied career, this offers a more fleshed out picture, as it aims to circumnavigate the highs and lows of the songwriter’s many triumphs and catastrophes. The film begins with the burgeoning songwriter in the early 1960s, escaping the clutches of the genre to come up with a new form of music that focused on the power of the lyrics, and the urgency of the electric guitar riffs.

What the documentary showcases are the mania that an artist must go through to see their creations come to life. In many ways, this picture is pleasantly reminiscent of Hearts of Darkness, the probing documentary the Coppola family released detailing the turbulent Apocalypse Now production in startling detail.

1. The Band – The Last Waltz (1978)

There could only be one winner. The Last Waltz isn’t simply the greatest music documentary put to film, but it’s quite possibly one of the greatest musicals ever made. Scorsese has a musical to his name (New York, New York), but this film has a greater impact, marrying the contemporary and the dreamlike to showcase the end of the 1960s, as a new form of creativity took over the music industry.

The concert has many highlights – Eric Clapton is excellent – but the band, or The Band, seem chuffed when their former boss Bob Dylan joins them for a rousing version of ‘I Shall Be Released.’ Between musical segments comes the voice of Robbie Robertson, who gives an overview of the damage the rock mythos has caused for the artists themselves.