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Making Movies: 25 Unmissable Music Documentaries

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In cultural terms, the course of “popular” music has often been dictated by prevailing fads and fashions, and its harshest critics have often dismissed it as disposable. Yet rock, pop and modern music’s myriad subgenres have nonetheless inspired some of the most enduring documentaries of our age. To celebrate this achievement, we grab some popcorn, dim the lights and revisit 25 especially resonant docs from the past 50 years.

Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter US Poster 2 - 300Gimme Shelter (1970)
Often seen to mirror the death of the idealistic 60s, the free concert The Rolling Stones performed at California’s Altamont Speedway in December 1969 was tagged onto the end of their triumphant US tour and intended as a celebratory night out for fans. However, Gimme Shelter, the film the Maysles brothers shot that fateful night, captured one of the worst tragedies in rock history when fan Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro while the Stones performed. Five decades later, it has lost none of its bleak power; a feeling of dread still hangs over this most apocalyptic of all rock documentaries.

No Direction Home (2005)
Bob Dylan buffs can also gorge on excellent docs including DA Pennebaker’s brilliant, gonzo-style Dont Look Back and Murray Lerner’s The Other Side Of The Mirror, but Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home is surely the most thorough and comprehensive examination of the iconic trailblazer’s life and times. Including rarely seen Pennebaker-filmed footage circa ’66, exclusive interviews with Allen Ginsberg and Dylan’s ex-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, not to mention Dylan’s own candid commentary about his seismic early years, No Direction Home remains as close to lifting the veil as Dylan fans can get.

Cracked Actor (1974)
Ziggy acolytes have DA Pennebaker’s concert film Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, but Alan Yentob’s BBC-sponsored documentary Cracked Actor is equally mandatory. Filmed while David Bowie was touring Diamond Dogs in 1974 and struggling with a nagging cocaine dependency, it depicts the artist in a markedly fragile mental state. Indeed, it’s thrown into even sharper relief when you consider that, over the next 12 months, Bowie would somehow also complete Young Americans and star in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Sex Pistols Filth And The Fury - 300The Filth And The Fury (2000)
As all serious punk fans know, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle was (and still is) great fun, but ultimately it was Machiavellian manager Malcolm McLaren’s outrageous fantasy version of Sex Pistols’ history, and hard facts rarely entered into it. Two decades on, however, director Julien Temple gave the band a chance to set the record straight, which they did in no uncertain terms during The Filth And The Fury. Filmed in silhouette, the individual members are utterly candid in recalling the real story of their notorious past, with the normally cynical John Lydon even breaking down over the senseless death of Sid Vicious.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Directed by Wim Wenders and globally acclaimed on its initial release, Buena Vista Social Club chronicles Ry Cooder’s quest to bring together an ensemble of legendary, octogenarian Cuban musicians to record an LP and then perform the music in Europe and at a historic concert in New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. Wenders’ cinematography is typically lush and beautifully shot; the Cuban musicians’ roguish charm is undeniable. The film fully deserved its Academy Award nomination in 2000.

Amy (2015)
Two years in the making, Asif Kapadia’s complex, yet intimate, portrayal of Amy Winehouse’s brief, though brilliant, career and her tragically premature death was billed as “the singer in her own words”. Compiled from in-depth interviews with the star’s friends, family and associates, it also includes extensive, previously unseen archival footage and rarely heard live performances, and is a feast for fans. First released theatrically in July 2015, Amy has since received over 30 cinematic awards and currently holds the title for the highest-grossing British documentary of all time.

Made In Sheffield: The Birth Of Electronic Pop (2002)
Punk’s revolutionary DIY ethos may have set off a chain reaction around the UK, but as Eve Wood’s provocative Made In Sheffield asserts, the hipper scenesters in this seemingly dour Yorkshire steel town already knew guitars were passé and that synthesisers would reconfigure the musical landscape in the post-punk world. They weren’t wrong, either, as this transcendent little Sheffield scene spawned electro-pop giants such as The Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire, all of whom reflect on this intense period when, as Heaven 17’s Ian Craig Marsh so memorably puts it, “We thought we were killing off rock’n’roll.”

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
Radiohead’s critically adored third LP, 1997’s OK Computer, launched them onto the international stage, selling around five million copies worldwide; the subsequent world tour (taking in over 100 gigs) almost killed the band and left Thom Yorke on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The drama of the trek is chronicled by director Grant Gee’s Grammy Award-winning Meeting People Is Easy: a numb, abstract, yet compelling capture of the events presented using disorienting cinematic methods including slow tracking shots and time-lapse photography.

We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen (2005)
Punk-funk trailblazers The Minutemen were cited as influential by just about every US punk outfit worth their salt during the 80s, but their career was cruelly terminated when frontman D Boon was killed in a car crash in December 1985, aged just 27. Copping its moniker from SoCal slang for the band’s dedication to DIY low-cost record production and touring, We Jam Econo features poignant interviews with the band’s surviving members Mike Watt and George Hurley, and, fittingly, its 2005 premiere was in the trio’s hometown of San Pedro, California.

Chet Baker Let's Get Lost Film Poster - 300Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Brilliant, mercurial jazz trumpeter Chet Baker possessed looks worthy of James Dean, while his talent led him to record with jazz legends such as Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. However, after decades of heroin addiction and hard living, he died prematurely when he fell from a hotel window in Amsterdam. Baker’s turbulent life and career is framed beautifully in Bruce Weber’s critically acclaimed, novelistic Let’s Get Lost, which features insights from Baker’s ex-wives and former associates, plus vintage footage of Baker in his prime on US TV’s The Steve Allen Show from the late 50s.

Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)
Late Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt was arguably one of the greatest country-folk singer-songwriters of them all, but he was also a tormented soul. Compiled from intimate home movies, old TV performances and detailed interviews with contemporaries such as Steve Earle and Guy Clark, director Margaret Brown’s Be Here To Love Me paints a sympathetic portrait of a sensitive artist who would count superstars such as Willie Nelson among his fans, despite the fact that his poetic, fatalistic songs often sprang from his lifelong struggles with drink, drugs and bipolar disorder.

Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Peter Spirer’s exhaustive film explores the history of hip-hop culture and reveals how rap took the international music scene by storm. Beginning in the dingy tenements of the Bronx and ending in Hollywood, where many of the genre’s leading lights have relocated to become multi-millionaires, Rhyme & Reason lets the artists speak for themselves, with veteran old-school rappers (KRS-One, Chuck D) through to contemporaneous hit-makers (Wu-Tang Clan, Dr Dre, The Fugees) taking the opportunity to speak frankly about everything from sex to crime, drugs and the next generation.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week (2016)
With the exhaustive The Compleat Beatles and The Beatles Anthology already in the can, long-term Beatles addicts already have an embarrassment of quality docs to savour. The one everyone had long been anticipating, however, was director Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week. Subtitled The Touring Years, it charts the period from 1962-66, when The Beatles were probably the hardest working band on the planet. Given a theatrical release in September 2016, Howard’s critically acclaimed opus features electrifying footage from the influential Scousers’ early days at The Cavern through to their final US tour, though it’s the digitally restored film of the group wowing their adoring public at their first Shea Stadium bash which arguably best bottles the bedlam of Beatlemania.

Punk In Africa (2012)
Punk appealed to intelligent, forward-thinking kids in South Africa just as much as it did in the UK, but due to the nation’s repressive political regime, the revolution was only finally televised when Deon Maas and Keith Jones’ Punk In Africa premiered worldwide in 2012. Revealing how angry, courageous outfits such as Wild Youth and the mixed-race National Wake formed after the 1976 Soweto Riots and later handed the baton to the next generation of refuseniks in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the film tells the captivating story of the original artists against Apartheid.

The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2006)
Despite being diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, outsider artist Daniel Johnston became a grunge-era icon thanks to his lo-fi, home-recorded music and highly prized drawings garnering praise from renowned names such as Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain. He later became the subject of director Jeff Feuerzeig’s acclaimed, if painfully intimate, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, which won the Documentary Directing Award at 2005’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster (2004)
When metal leviathans Metallica agreed to allow directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to shoot a no-holds-barred film, they got rather more than they bargained for. Indeed, the subsequent Some Kind Of Monster documents arguably the band’s most turbulent era: a period wherein bassist Jason Newsted quits, frontman James Hetfield enters rehab, and a long-simmering power struggle between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich spills over and launches a tsunami of emotions.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)
Influenced by the horrific events of 9/11, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the fourth album by Chicagoan Americana pioneers turned alt.rockers Wilco, is often cited as their landmark release. Its creation, however, was fraught with difficulties, and Sam Jones’ engrossing black-and-white film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart consequently documents the internal tensions which led to the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and the events which led to Wilco recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for one Warner Bros imprint (Reprise) and eventually releasing it through another (Nonesuch).

Looking For Johnny: The Johnny Thunders Story (2014)
Central to the story of legendary NYC proto-punks New York Dolls, and later the leader of the talented but short-lived Heartbreakers, the enigmatic Johnny Thunders inspired glam-metal and punk, yet his career was blighted by chronic drug addiction and he died in mysterious circumstances in New Orleans in 1991. In the gripping Looking For Johnny, director Danny Garcia adroitly traces the arc of a surprisingly complex life, from Thunders’ early years as a shy, baseball-adoring teen to his poignant latter years battling narcotics and leukaemia.

U2 Rattle And Hum Film Poster - 300Rattle And Hum (1988)
U2’s sixth LP, Rattle And Hum was a runaway commercial success which sold 14 million copies, though the critics were divided over the Dublin quartet’s exploration of American roots music. Nonetheless, Phil Joanou’s emotive companion rockumentary captures U2’s rites of passage as they become fully fledged, stadium-filling superstars. Simply for its breathtaking live footage shot in Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium, Rattle And Hum remains worthy of the price of admission.

Oil City Confidential (2009)
Their glory days were cut short by internal squabbling and line-up changes, yet supercharged Canvey Island R&B outfit Dr Feelgood were arguably the coolest thing on eight legs during Britain’s pre-punk pub rock era. Warmly received by the critics on release in 2010, director Julien Temple’s insightful Oil City Confidential inevitably homes in on the lives of the band’s two major players: much-missed, harmonica-toting frontman Lee Brilleaux and studious English literature teacher turned manic, strutting lead guitarist Wilko Johnson.

American Hardcore: The History Of American Punk Rock 1980-86 (2006)
Directed by Paul Rachman and based on author Steven Blush’s book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, this engaging rockumentary does exactly what it says on the tin, addressing the birth and evolution of hardcore punk in its major strongholds such as Washington DC, LA and Chicago during the late 70s and early 80s. Featuring exclusive contemporaneous interviews with movers and shakers the likes of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and Fugazi/Minor Threat mainstay Ian MacKaye, the film also boasts vintage live footage often supplied by the bands themselves.

Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010)
Enduring prog rock trio Rush are akin to deities in their native Canada, and have earned a devoted audience that’s followed them for the best part of five decades. Their back catalogue includes seismic LPs such as 2112, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, and their long and winding career is treated with the reverence it deserves in Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn’s Beyond The Lighted Stage, which – aside from a wealth of backstage and personal footage – includes enthusiastic testimonials from stellar artists as diverse as Billy Corgan, Gene Simmons and Trent Reznor.

Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970)
The critically hailed ’68 Comeback Special arguably reintroduced Elvis Presley to a serious rock’n’roll audience, but director Denis Sanders’ Elvis: That’s The Way It Is was The King’s first non-dramatic movie since his film career began in 1956. Though ostensibly a record of Presley’s Las Vegas residency during the summer of 1970, there’s also plenty of compelling backstage and off-duty footage, while the electrifying live performances depict Elvis on lean and vital form.

Scott WalkerScott Walker 30 Century Man poster - 300: 30 Century Man (2007)
One of pop’s coolest ever enigmas, the naturally reclusive Scott Walker recorded an immaculate series of glorious, orchestrally inclined pop LPs during the late 60s, before he shunned the limelight for years. Finally resurfacing with 1984’s Climate Of Hunter, he’s since released a series of radical, avant-garde-inclined albums recorded at a snail’s pace. Director Stephen Kijak’s 30 Century Man was released to showcase Walker’s highly anticipated 2006 opus The Drift, and it remains an insightful overview of his elusive career, with input from high-profile interviewees including Brian Eno and the film’s executive producer, David Bowie.

The Decline Of Western Civilization (1981)
She’s overseen hit movies such as Wayne’s World, but Penelope Spheeris’ magnum opus surely still remains her three-part The Decline Of Western Civilization. Finally issued as a 3DVD box set in 2015, the entertaining (if sometimes preposterous) second volume, The Metal Years, depicted LA’s late 80s metal scene in all its pomp, while ’98’s III concentrated on the city’s newer breed of Mohican-sporting “gutter punks”. However, it’s Spheeris’ original 1981 The Decline Of Western Civilization – a warts’n’all portrayal of the LA punk scene, with electrifying footage of The Germs, X and Circle Jerks, which remains the trilogy’s iconic flick.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Garrett Jennings

    November 27, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    You have to include The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_kids_are_alright

  2. Paul O'Sullivan

    November 29, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    What about Julian Temple’s “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” ?
    The ex-Feelgood’s guitarist is diagnosed with terminal cancer & given only a few months to live.
    He refuses chemotherapy & concentrates on living what’s rest of his life.
    Then he survices an 11 hour operation is cancer free & becomes a bit lost 🙂

  3. Jc

    November 30, 2016 at 12:07 am

    Can’t leave out Muscle Shoals docu, even though it’s not singling out one band or genre.

  4. Eddy

    December 10, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    If you’re a Queen-fan, than Champions of the world (1995) is the best Queen documentary to watch.

  5. Alex Puptent

    January 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    I really liked ‘Dig!’ (2004) and ‘The Story of Anvil’ (2008), those were hilarious.

  6. Bruce

    January 19, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    The last waltz

  7. Bruce

    January 19, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    The last waltz

  8. heidi

    February 18, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    The Ramones: End of the Century is the best documentary of a band that I have ever seen.

  9. Benjamin

    August 29, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Searching for Sugar Man .. not that standard ‘everybodyknowthesongsandbandandcanplayitonviolin’ documentary ..

  10. Flexwalk

    August 30, 2017 at 5:37 am

    Hype great little documentary about the Seattle grunge music explosion

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