24 Must-See Music Documentaries

A hand-picked selection of films that go behind the music, from jazz to punk.

In seeking light relief from lockdown, We Are Cult combs over some must-see music documentaries, listed in chronological order, and cataloguing a host of names from jazz to punk.

Some of these ‘rock-docs’ may be on your radar, others less familiar.

In the words of This Is Spinal Tap‘s Marti DiBergi, “Enough of my yakkin’ – let’s boogie!”

Don’t Look Back (1967)

What they said:
“Although the film is arranged in loose chronological order, there is little obvious editing within each scene. This takes advantage of cinéma vérité’s strong point–its ability to show exactly what happened, moment by moment, the bad along with the good.” – Roger Ebert, 1968.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2T7ceZZ

If you like this, you’ll also like: Charlie Is My Darling (1966).

Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968 (1968)

What they said:
“’Mingus,’ like Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason,’ makes no pretense to being the work of a hidden camera. Mingus knows – as we know – that he is being filmed. This frontal approach is, of course, as interpretive as staged, fictional cinema. Although it is one step removed from reality, it is no less true.” – Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1968.

Availability: https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/400

If you like this, you’ll also like: Triumph of the Underdog (1998)

A Film About Jimi Hendrix (1973)

What they said:
“Assembled from the by-now-familiar footage filmed at Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, this film conclusively proves that Jimi may have been a shy boy, beset with as many worries as the next cosmic guitar wrangler, but on stage he nearly always delivered transcendence.” – Chris Jones, BBC Music, 2006.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3dJsxEj

If you like this, you’ll also like: The Doors Are Open (1968)

Cocksucker Blues (1972)

What they said:
“Today’s Stones so perfectly epitomize the smug classicism of “dad-rock”, it’s downright jaw-dropping to watch them at a time when they made dads fear for their daughters’ virtue, if not their lives. It’s great, too, to see them looking so beautiful, a quality lost to them by the late 70s. Here, they’re all chiselled cheekbones, tapered torsos, rich shags and pouting lips. It’s the Greek god vision of the 70s rock star.” – Jim Farber, The Guardian, 2016.

Availability: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjklyzZ-m1Q&has_verified=1

If you like this, you’ll also like: Let It Be (1970)

The Who: The Kids Are Alright (1979)

What they said:
“For those who love this band, The Kids Are Alright is as near to the realization of our dreams as we are likely to come. The Who were always the one band that refused to conceal its inner conflicts and torments. There’s no copping out here, either. And Stein never loses sight of the fact that the music was what made it all mean anything.” – Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, 1978.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2yMIM4N

If you like this, you’ll also like: 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1989)

Rude Boy (1980)

What they said:
“Perhaps the best of the punk era films, ‘Rude Boy’ practises what it preaches. With its mix of documentary footage, largely improvised ‘fictional’ scenes and live concert footage of The Clash, it captures the guerrilla energy of punk and the racial tension of the time.” –   Alan Morrison, Empire, 2000.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2WZ9OOe

If you like this, you’ll also like: D.O.A: A Rite Of Passage (1980)

Rough Cut & Ready Dubbed (1982)

What they said:
“Something of a wake for punk’s decline, it’s full of self-parodic shock values, and best communicates a sense of musical recession, mapping a territory rife for the subsequent easy ascendancy of back-tracking trends. John Peel contributes his customary good sense in small doses; almost everyone else dissipates enthusiasm in antagonism.” – Time Out, 1982.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2WVScD0

If you like this, you’ll also like: The Punk Rock Movie (1978)

The Decline & Fall of Western Civilisation Pt. II: The Metal Years (1988)

What they said:
“The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, depicts a scene that is bloated, almost a caricature, and, in 1988, was only a few short years from imploding and collapsing in on itself. Featuring interviews with established bands like Poison, as well as acts like Odin, Lizzy Borden, Faster Pussycat, and others struggling to break through and find mainstream success, The Metal Years is a portrait of excess.” – PopMatters, 2015.

Availability: https://amzn.to/360sFMT

If you like this, you’ll also like: 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)

What they said:
“The film’s late-60’s portions, which document a European tour and also catch Monk playing in clubs and in recording sessions, are some of the most valuable jazz sequences ever shot… Closeups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard reveal a technique that was unusually tense, spiky and aggressive. Other scenes show him explaining his compositions and chord structures, giving instructions in terse, barely intelligible growls that even his fellow musicians found difficult to interpret.” – Stephen Holden, New York Times, 1989.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2T62n6R

If you like this, you’ll also like: A Great Day In Harlem (1994)

In Bed with Madonna/ Truth or Dare (1991)

What they said:
“Part of the alchemy of a great music documentary is catching the subject at exactly the right moment, and Alek Keshishian couldn’t have trained his cameras on Madonna at a better time. In the midst of the inventive and influential Blonde Ambition tour, he finds a self-possessed genius who is a magnet for controversy” – Ryan Gilbey, The Guardian, 2018.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3fRvkwY

If you like this, you’ll also like: Strike A Pose (2017)

Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (1995)

What they said:
“Helmer shrewdly avoids a conventional biographical approach, offering instead a selective view of the man through interviews with his family, colleagues, and music experts… Unlike most films about artists, this one succeeds in deciphering in accessible terms what was innovative about Wilson’s compositions.” – Emanuel Levy, Variety, 1995.

Availability: Out of print.

If you like this, you’ll also like: Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2007)

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

What they said:
“So much more than a stream of talking heads, Wenders delivers a fly-on-the-wall/Steadicam viewpoint that allows us to enjoy seeing old-timers reeling back the years through the simple pleasure of singing and playing, doing what comes naturally.” – Neil Jeffries, Empire, 2000.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3dJxnkX

If you like this, you’ll also like: Cuba, An African Odyssey (2006)

The Filth and the Fury (2000)

What they said:
“The telling of this journey is not fuelled by ferocity but examined with consideration. The only new footage is interviews curated in silhouette creating disembodied voices, cleverly focusing attentions and centring the viewer in the heart of the action.” – Liz Hainsworth, GigWise, 2016.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2yOdzhG

If you like this, you’ll also like: The Clash: Westway To The World (2000)

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2002)

What they said:
“In spite of its ambivalence towards race relations, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ still shines as one of the most enduring and fascinating documentaries of the decade. Pulsating with rhythm, forgotten legends and overlooked tales, Paul Justman’s film is a timely celebration and visual act of historical revisionism.” – Gary Collins, NoRipCord, 2008.

Availability: Out of print: https://vimeo.com/306924495

If you like this, you’ll also like: The Wrecking Crew! (2008)

Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)

What they said:
“’Mayor of the Sunset Strip’ is one of those rare documentaries, who just raises above the rest. It is full of insight, pathos, great music and history. It is deeply moving and honest to the bone. It is documentary film at its very best.” – Henrik Sylow, DVDbeaver, 2005.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3dKnlQp

If you like this, you’ll also like: Paul Williams Still Alive (2012)

Dig! (2004)

What they said:
“Ondi Timoner’s film charts the career paths of two bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but the latter’s singer, Anton Newcombe, is the focal point. His vision and talent are in epic, drug-addled conflict with ideas about integrity, while the Dandy Warhols temper themselves somewhat to the market. This conflict is manically, entertainingly played out and captured, nailing the contradiction of rock’n’roll authenticity in the process.” – The Guardian, 2017.

Availability: Out of print: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBAKMy6MtS0

If you like this, you’ll also like: Lawrence of Belgravia (2011)

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

What they said:
“An excruciating watch at times, the unflinching bluntness is captivating and somehow, despite their flaws, the group’s rock godhood is maintained.” – William Thomas, Empire, 2000.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2X1i00m

If you like this, you’ll also like: Iron Maiden: Flight 666 (2009)

The Nomi Song (2004)

What they said:
“Andrew Horn compellingly chronicles the New Wave wunderkind’s ability to tap into a missing link in the New York music scene with an intergalactic shtick and frightening falsetto unlike anything anyone had ever heard before” – Ed Gonzales, Slant Magazine, 2005.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2WUxvr7

If you like this, you’ll also like: Jobriath AD 2000 (2012)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

What they said:
“A prize-winner at Sundance in 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig’s artful documentary about the underground musican and artist Daniel Johnston offers the microscopic insight of a fan without scrimping on the wider compassion and analysis required from a decent biographer… To share Feuerzeig’s loving investigation is to share an insightful study of the destructive and creative capabilities of the mind.” – Time Out, 2006.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3fRtCf2

If you like this, you’ll also like: You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005)

New York Doll (2006)

What they said:
“Whiteley’s camera follows Kane to London, to a Dolls reunion gig at the 2004 Meltdown Festival. It soon becomes clear that, despite his born-again Mormonism and bitterness towards the enduringly successful Johansen, Arthur Kane has only ever wanted to turn the clock back to 1973. It’s touching to see him to do just that, even for a single night.” – Matt McNally, BBC, 2006.

Availability: https://amzn.to/3fPgwiy

If you like this, you’ll also like: MC5: A True Testimonial (2002)

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

What they said:
“This is Scorsese’s gift to the memory of Harrison, a man he clearly considers a genius. Like all such works of heart, it is prone to the occasional spasm of indulgence. It’s long, too – nudging three-and-a-half hours. But its release ten years after Harrison’s death is timely and fitting. The quiet Beatle is silent no longer.” – Terry Payne, Radio Times, 2011.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2WWHXOD

If you like this, you’ll also like: Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005)

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)

What they said:
“Much like the DIY aesthetic that prompted formation of the group, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary tracking the women’s fate and the cultural convulsions that develop in Russia and ripple out worldwide following the group’s performance displays an endearing scrappiness and commitment to speak truth to power. ” – Justin Lowe, Hollywood Reporter, 2013.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2T3EXz6

If you like this, you’ll also like: Don’t Need You (2004)

The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna (2013)

What they said:
“’The Punk Singer’ is a reminder that the music world needs someone to make rock ‘n roll feel truly dangerous, subversive and life-changing again.” – Kevin Jagernauth, IndieWire, 2013.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2T6trCY

If you like this, you’ll also like: Not Bad For A Girl (1995)

Finding Fela! (2014)

What they said:
“Gibney emphasizes Fela’s political importance to the people of his country and throughout Africa. He also traces his musical development, with the help of impassioned commentary from musicians, and shows how the two driving forces in his life were inseparable.” – Sheri Linden, LA Times, 2014.

Availability: https://amzn.to/2yWSWjf

If you like this, you’ll also like: Beware of Mr Baker (2012)

How many of these films have you seen? Did we miss out your favourites? What would you include in YOUR must-see music documentaries? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, on our Facebook page, or Tweet us!

 James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.

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