A great music documentary is about more than seeing a band or artist you like in concert. Of course, while some of the best music docs ever made are concert films, the cinematic fusion of art, sound, and performance, at its best, manages to capture the essence and personalities of a musical act, and a moment (or movement).

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

Beyoncé in 'Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé'
Beyoncé in ‘Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé’. COURTESY OF PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT

If this film about Beyoncé headlining Coachella in 2018 were just a concert film, it would go down as one of the most astounding, triumphant musical performances ever. Homecoming, expertly pieced together from the singer’s two-night stint headlining the festival (the first Black woman to have done so) also serves as a testament to the ambition and costs of spectacle. There’s a reason why that year’s festival became known as “Beychella.”

Directed by Beyoncé herself, the film kicks off with an explosive entrance, with the superstar revealing the enormous backup band she’d been rehearsing with for eight grueling months — a 100-strong mix of marching band performers, steppers, and dancers, all culled from the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) whose long musical and cultural traditions the singer celebrates throughout. Flashbacks to that rehearsal process (complete with an increasingly ominous countdown to Coachella) see even Beyoncé wondering if she can pull off her grand plans in the wake of the difficult C-section birth of twins that saw her canceling the year before. What she and her massive team pull off is one of the most rousing (and, to the traditionally white Coachella crowd, undoubtedly eye-opening) tributes to Black music — and the indefatigable Beyoncé — anyone could have imagined.

Where to watch Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé: Netflix

The Last Waltz (1978)

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in 'The Last Waltz'

In 1984’s mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” Rob Reiner’s documentary director Marty Di Bergi was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s onscreen presence in “The Last Waltz.” However, this does not detract from how skillfully Scorsese captures the last performance of the legendary country-rock band, The Band. Scorsese’s interviewing style tends to be verbose and worshipful, but that is all forgotten when he directs his skills to document an all-star tribute show for a band with consummate energy and infectious drive.

Pulling together a concert with artists such as Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters, and the Staple Singers (among others), was a monumental achievement. It was a predictably chaotic one, as a reluctant Dylan had to be talked out of walking out at the last minute, endangering the entire project. The Band’s fractious nature saw them later diluting the film’s impact by repeatedly reuniting. However, what emerges is a prodigal bounty of disparate but complementary sounds and styles, all caught by Scorsese’s cameras with elegance and verve.

Where to watch The Last Waltz: Tubi

Awesome; I F—in’ Shot That (2006)

Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch, and Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys

If you’re willing to relinquish all semblance of auteurist creative control, then the Beastie Boys’ Awesome; I F—in’ Shot That is the perfect example of punk-ethos rockumentary filmmaking. This 2006 concert film was directed and pieced together by band member Adam “MCA” Yauch from raw and unpredictable footage captured by 50 hi-def cameras given to fans during the band’s Madison Square Garden concert. The end result is as anarchic as it is exhilarating.

As you watch the film, you’ll be able to spot several famous faces in the audience, including Ben Stiller, his wife Christine Taylor and the then-rising star Donald Glover. The Boys are also joined onstage by Doug E. Fresh and DMC.

Awesome; I F—in’ Shot That is currently only available on DVD

Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)

James Murphy in 'Shut Up and Play the Hits'

LCD Soundsystem, an indie dance-rock band, played their final concert at Madison Square Garden before being disbanded at the peak of their artistic and commercial success by founder James Murphy. The concert was a party, unlike The Last Waltz, which was a funeral for a band. The film by directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace captures Murphy’s mixed feelings with palpable ambivalence, interspersing clips of him before the big show and in the morning and days after. Murphy is shown trying to convince everyone, including himself, that walking away in favor of some sort of normal life is the right thing to do, in an interview prior to the farewell by writer Chuck Klosterman. The show itself is a riotously energetic showcase for LCD’s mix of dance, art rock, and punk. Murphy orchestrates a dazzlingly eclectic goodbye to a rapturous crowd. He wound up reforming LCD Soundsystem in 2016, partly at the urging of fan David Bowie.

Where to watch Shut Up and Play the Hits: Kanopy

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)


If you’re looking for a movie that tells the story of a band that nearly gave up but persevered, you should check out I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco. The album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is now considered a masterpiece, but this film by Sam Jones shows how Wilco’s groundbreaking fourth album became a battleground for the band and their studio when the finished record was rejected, and they were dropped by their label, Reprise.

After being dropped by Reprise, Wilco decided to stream Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free on their website before being given a proper release by Nonesuch Records — ironically owned by the same record company as Reprise. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is an illuminating look into the tenuous relationship between artists and the music industry at large, and a testament to the importance of having faith in one’s own art.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart can only be found on DVD.

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The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Alice Bag in 'The Decline of Western Civilization'
Alice Bag in ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’. EVERETT COLLECTION

Years before Penelope Spheeris became the director of comedy classics like Wayne’s World (1992), her trio of documentaries about the Los Angeles punk and metal scenes were as influential as they were infamous. In this, the first of her three similarly titled portraits of the fringes of the L.A. music scenes, she chronicles the daily life of punk bands like the Germs, X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Fear, among others.

As Spheeris’ connection to the raw and troubled denizens of that scene progressed, she eventually made 1984’s fictionalized Suburbia, pulling in actual musicians and assorted punks to craft her own interpretation of their world. But The Decline of Western Civilization is the real deal, as Spheeris, in interviews with musicians and fans, attempts to pull out of her subjects their attraction to the unfiltered, hostile, sometimes violent world of the punk subculture. We see John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X giving each other home tattoos, the Germs’ Darby Crash (who died by suicide at 22 the year before the film was released) slurring through a set while audience members scrawl permanent marker on his naked torso, and Lee Ving of Fear berating a crowd into spitting, punch-throwing fury with a string of sexism and homophobia. Yet, the unseen Spheeris is clearly on the young musicians’ side, probing into broken home lives, mental issues, poverty, and marginalization on the brink of Ronald Reagan‘s America with an anthropological eye toward understanding, and even admiration.

Where to watch The Decline of Western Civilization: Amazon Prime Video via Freevee

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Devil and Daniel Johnston. SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

If you have an interest in the unconventional, we highly recommend watching “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”. Johnston, a musician and artist from West Virginia, became known for his unique style and dedication to his craft. Despite his challenges with mental health, his musical abilities caught the attention of influential figures, including Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Jeff Feuerzig’s film sheds light on the complexities of Johnston’s life, including his struggles with mental illness, drug experimentation, and preoccupation with the devil. However, the movie also provides a profound insight into how an artist’s creative expression can transcend their personal demons and connect with others in a meaningful way.

Where to rent The Devil and Daniel Johnston: Amazon Prime Video

Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

Can 16 minutes capture the soul of an entire generation? Perhaps only if you’re filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, and you have the bright idea to take your equipment to a mid-sized Maryland performance venue in the hours leading up to a 1986 Judas Priest concert. Toiling at the low rungs of the video production industry at the time, the filmmakers, after lying that they were filming the pre-show parking lot hangout for MTV, immortalized a particular place and time in the history of music fandom in all its mullet-headed, half-shirted, Bud-swilling glory. And in doing so, Krulik and Heyn secured a time capsule of 1980s teenage rebellion, the “Just say no” Reagan era drowned out in a gleeful barrage of vulgarity and underage misbehavior.

Long a cult hit on bands’ tour buses (Nirvana was one loyal proponent), Heavy Metal Parking Lot functions as a real-world sequel to 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, as Priest’s young and loaded fans exuberantly (but solemnly) assert their favorite band’s primacy above all others. And while it’s tempting to pop in Heavy Metal Parking Lot for a quick hit of gawking fun at the expense of the kids’ clothes, hair, and all-purpose stoned certitude, the film instead lives on as an endearingly nostalgic glimpse into a moment in time. In the years since Parking Lot went on to become an underground staple, many of the indelible characters captured on that fateful May day (now adults with teenagers themselves) appear to hold few regrets. After all, every generation of music fans finds a like-minded peer group whose youthful, fleeting, inarticulate passion for one particular band provides a soft, stoned landing place in a hard world.

Where to watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot: Tubi

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Steve 'Lips' Kudlow in 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil'
Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow in ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’. EVERETT COLLECTION

If you want to delve into a world where those kids’ heavy metal dreams never really died, check out Anvil! The Story of Anvil. In 2008, filmmaker Sacha Gervasi tracked down the two-man nucleus of never-quite successful Canadian headbangers Anvil. Still holding fast to hopes of metal stardom in their underemployed 50s, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are lured onto a disastrously sketchy European tour whose constant catastrophes remind viewers of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. It’s a boisterous, empathetic, and ultimately almost uplifting tale of heavy metal optimism through the years.

The release of Anvil! — which was nominated for and won multiple awards including Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards — helped to revive interest in the band, leading to them opening for AC/DC, performing on The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, and going on a European tour. EW has since praised the film as “the funniest music documentary of all time.”

Where to watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil: Paramount+ with Showtime

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain in 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'

Taking its title from an audio recording made by a pre-fame Kurt Cobain, Brett Morgen’s spellbindingly intimate portrait of the Nirvana singer takes a similar tack in tackling Cobain’s short life. Executive produced by Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances, and with Morgen being given unprecedented access to everything from Cobain’s journals to a lifetime of home movies, the film juxtaposes live performances and snippets of news stories and interviews with animated sequences, clips of old movies and TV, and judiciously-chosen talking head interviews with Cobain’s family and friends.

What results is less a standard Behind the Music-style, fill-in-the-blanks story of a talented musician’s rise and inevitable fall. Instead, Montage of Heck functions as an impressionistic — yet comprehensive and readable — sketch of Cobain, an unhappy and disaffected teen-turned-world’s most influential musical voice. As Morgen’s deftly edited and animated portrait jolts along toward the singer’s self-inflicted death at the age of 27 through rare live performance footage and layered but unpretentious editing, the film does remarkable work in taking us as deep inside the fragile Cobain’s genius, and madness, as anyone ever has.

Where to watch Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: Max

Amy (2015)

Amy Winehouse

Since we’re recommending fine documentaries about troubled and influential rock stars who died from their addictions at the age of 27, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, makes for a similarly touching and tragic double feature. More conventional in structure than Montage of Heck, the 2015 film strikes right to the heart of how the talent and pain inspiring great music can also contribute to seemingly inevitable slow-motion disaster.

The film is told through archival footage, tracking her early childhood through her meteoric rise to fame with her Grammy-winning 2006 album Back to Black, her tumultuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, and the addiction to drugs and alcohol that would lead to her tragic death in 2011. Receiving near-universal acclaim at the time of its release, Amy went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Where to watch Amy: Max

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

Meeting People Is Easy

There’s nothing duller than watching a successful band complain about the trappings of fame. And yet, Grant Gee’s documentary about the brain-muddying slog that was Radiohead’s worldwide press gauntlet after the monster success of OK Computer makes the most convincing case yet that being a rock star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Like Radiohead’s music, the ironically titled Meeting People Is Easy takes some patience to appreciate the ambition.

Capturing Thom Yorke and company in a muddy, jaggedly-edited blur of greens and low-res black-and-white (sometimes via hidden camera), Gee’s film would be more of the screw-you to music journalists it undeniably is if we didn’t see just how bad most music writers are at their jobs. The same questions, asked in dingy hotel rooms and DJ booths, are chopped and distorted into an incessant, irritating buzz. (Gee inserts actual buzzing and beeping sounds to further bring us into the band’s increasingly frazzled mind frame.) Concert footage from Radiohead’s endurance-sapping tour is fleeting and unsatisfying, swept away in another mandatory march of promo appearances and lonely plane rides. At one point we see chat show hosts slagging off the band’s “miserable” music while footage of Yorke literally drowning for his art in the “No Surprises” video plays in the background, about as apt a metaphor for the disconnect between musician and critic as it gets.

Meeting People Is Easy is only available on DVD.

Dig! (2004)


For more about the miseries of rock fame, check out Dig!. Paralleling the at-first evenly matched rise of Northwest bands the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, filmmaker Ondi Timoner mercilessly chronicles how the contrasting abilities of the bands’ frontmen to handle success send each in very different directions.

The film digs into the wild dissonance of the alt-rock music scene in the wake of Nirvana, when the underground became mainstream. Each band attempts to maintain their authenticity at every turn as they fight with record companies — and themselves. Dig! ultimately won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Where to watch Dig!: Tubi

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

Darlene Love in '20 Feet From Stardom'

This documentary by Morgan Neville tells the story of some of the most important women in the history of music, whose contributions have often gone unrecognized. The film highlights the various factors that led to this situation, including racism, sexism, bad timing, and plain old bad luck. The majority of these women are Black, and despite their indispensable role in the music industry, they have never received the credit they deserve.

Among these women is Merry Clayton, who was once part of Ray Charles’ group, The Rayettes. She was four months pregnant when she received a late-night phone call summoning her to the studio where the Rolling Stones were recording “Gimme Shelter” in 1969. Her soaring performance in the classic song is unforgettable. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that she lost her baby soon after. Her sacrifice, and that of other unsung contemporaries like Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, and Darlene Love, is a metaphor for the challenges they faced.

The documentary ends with a reunion of these former backup singers, who perform a rendition of “Lean on Me.” Throughout the film, male and white superstars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting are featured, praising the contributions of their former collaborators but seemingly unaware of the obstacles these women had to overcome.these women had to overcome.

Where to watch 20 Feet From Stardom: Max

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)

Elvis Presley in 'Elvis: That's the Way It Is'

“That’s the Way It Is” is an entertaining concert film that captures Elvis Presley’s 1970 Las Vegas residency, providing a last chance to watch him perform before he started to look silly doing karate moves in his white jumpsuit. The film features illuminating glimpses of Presley’s backup singers, the Sweet Inspirations, who were three Black women named Myrna Smith, Estell Brown, and Sylvia Shemmell. The Inspirations ably sweeten the King’s sound, while his loyal Memphis Mafia competes for his attention.

The film was conceived by Presley’s infamous manager Col. Tom Parker as a tribute to the icon’s enduring legacy. It contains behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage, interviews with diehard fans, and performances of some of his greatest hits on the Vegas stage. A revised edition of the film was released in 2001, which replaces some of the more extraneous moments of the original with additional footage of Presley performing.

Where to rent Elvis: That’s the Way It Is: Amazon Prime Video

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

Barry Gibb in 'The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart'

The Bee Gees, a band of Australian brothers who grew up in Manchester, are the focus of Frank Marshall’s career-spanning documentary. Despite the sad fact that only Barry Gibb remains alive at the time of filming, the film explores the Bee Gees’ journey as a band from their early folk music success to their worldwide phenomenon album, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Throughout, the brothers are depicted as steadfastly true to their childhood dream of achieving musical stardom together, setting trends rather than chasing them.

The film also delves into the post-Fever, anti-disco backlash that derailed the band’s top-40 dominance. Through it all, the brothers remained dedicated to their craft, penning hits for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers. The film juxtaposes the brothers’ bewilderment at their latest and most fruitful musical evolution becoming the target of racist and homophobic criticism with the riotous Chicago “disco demolition night.” The Bee Gees come off as dedicated craftsmen and innovators who stayed true to their musical vision despite the obstacles they faced.

Where to watch The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart: Max