Documentaries have become very popular in recent years, and music documentaries are no exception. Whether you are interested in classic bands such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or if you are interested in unknown musicians and seeing their hidden talents, there’s a music documentary out there for you.
While some films focus on the history of music or take a deep dive into the lives of your favorite artists, other directors are more interested in capturing the raw talent and music abilities of iconic performers. Here are what we believe are the top 50 best music documentaries out there.
For the documentary It Might Get Loud, director Davis Guggenheim gathered three guitarists from completely different generations and backgrounds. His simple yet profound idea was to talk to them about their influences, techniques, and philosophies.
The three musicians were Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s The Edge, and the White Stripes’ Jack White. The three men told the truth about some of their bad habits and styles. However, they spent their entire careers trying to create the perfect conditions to be the best they can be, and it shows.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Prince rose to stardom. His relentless energy and subversive sexuality during his live acts impressed both crowds and critics. The concert film Sign o’ the Times was basically a recreation of the album. It was intended so that fans who couldn’t get concert tickets had the next best thing.
But, it wasn’t easy to get a hold of. After being released as a limited theatrical run on video, the artist took it out of circulation. After Prince passed away, the film was randomly aired on TV, which got people talking about it. It’s incredible to watch a revolutionary musician during his heyday, bringing audiences into his intense rock gospel music life.
James Szalapski was hanging around Austin, Texas, filming new upcoming songwriters who had a huge influence on the “outlaw country” movement. Heartworn Highways presents casual sounds and bull-sessions, bringing together multiple artists.
Some of these artists include Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, and Charlie Daniels. Also, you can see young Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. The artists were working outside of the established country music industry but were writing such soulful music that Nashville started paying attention.
Terry Zwigoff shot a documentary about the talented blues musician Howards “Louie Bluie” Armstrong. This was the first time Zwigoff handled a motion camera. He originally planned to write an article on the artist but decided he might as well make a film.
He made the right choice and thus launched his directing career. He went on to direct Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa. Louie Bluie shares the stories and music of an artist who may have otherwise been forgotten.
Tom Dowd started Atlantic Records in the 1950s and was known as a technical wizard in the music world. He was able to solve the logistical difficulties of creating artists as unique as John Coltrane and Ray Charles.
The documentary highlights Dowd’s career, which was basically the center of music from 1950-1980. The film also portrayed the art of recording, especially in an incredible scene of Tom Dowd walking Mark Moormann (the director of this documentary) through each song of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos.
Harry Nilsson is known as a musical genius with a pure angelic voice. As talented as he was, critics thought he rarely reached his potential. John Scheinfeld’s documentary, Who Is Harry Nelson, focuses on the narrative of feeling bad for the musician.
Therefore, it downplayed Nilsson’s Brilliant mid-1970 albums. The director managed to bring together enough witnesses to explain that Nilsson was more than just a boozy musician with a few random hits.
This documentary is about LCD Soundsystem’s last show, but it is more than just a concert film. However, directors Dylan Southern and William Lovelace didn’t want the film to be a comprehensive biography of James Murphy and his band. Instead, the documentary focused on right before and right after his farewell.
Also, there’s an extended interview with Chuck Klosterman, who fills in some background details. It then shows the LCD frontman taking in the moment and coming to grips with the party really ending. The main reason to watch this documentary is because of the energetic live footage at Madison Square Garden.
The Canadian trio Rush was loved by their fans yet ignored by critics. In Beyond the Lighted Stage, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson tell and defend their stories. They also denied accusations of starting off too conceited, to becoming political before turning soft.
The band actually comes across as decent, smart, honest, and motivated. It shows them as real people who were determined to head off in exciting directions. This is a way for their fans and followers to come along.
As music fans, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why certain performers go mainstream while others struggle. Dig!, directed by Ondi Timoner, explains this phenomenon through the different fortunes of two west coast 1990s rock bands.
One of the rock groups was The Dandy Warhols and the other was The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Both groups accused the director of exaggerating the situations to make the documentary more dramatic. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of Truth to Dig! Whether it’s blown out of proportion or not, the documentary portrays the reasons why some artists can satisfy their backers.
The lead singer, Riot grrrl (Kathleen Hanna), has lived a very interesting life. With a mixture of health problems and her work as an activist, it wasn’t hard to make a documentary surrounding the musician. The Punk Singer, directed by Sini Anderson, exposes the unknown details behind her health struggles.
Also, it sheds light on the debate over Hanna’s marriage and if it undercuts her feminism. The film shows that no matter what her political beliefs are, she is still a major contributor to modern music.
In the early 1960s, the United States cut off a lot of its economic and cultural deals with Cuba. As a result, many Cuban performers lost their international following they gained during the era of Havana nightlife. Ry Cooder took some of these artists into the studio to record an album and play some concerts.
German director Wim Wenders documented their journey in this Oscar-Nominated documentary. The film also revealed what life was like in Cuba under Castro by exposing how isolation led these musicians to hone their own craft.
Just a few years after Jimmy Hendrix passed away, three filmmakers wanted to give the legendary guitarist a proper goodbye through memories and his live performances. The stories and songs come together perfectly until a narrative about the artist doing a Harlem shows becomes just as exciting as his music.
The Jimi Hendrix documentary didn’t receive nearly the amount of attention it deserved. Probably because it didn’t emerge in a promising era. If you are interested in who Jimi Hendrix was and why he is such a big deal, this is the place to start.
The Beatles are the inspiration for countless films and documentaries; however, nothing comes close to Ryan White’s inside look into the band’s secretary, Freda Kelly. Freda didn’t just make sure they’re answered their fan mail…
He helped the band members take care of their day to day business and routines while the rest of the world was getting to know them as musical icons. If you are interested in seeing the lives of one of the most famous bands in history from a close and personal perspective, Good Ol’ Freda is definitely for you.
Due to financial and legal issues, it took 27 years for Murray Lerner’s film, The Isle of Wight Festival 1970, to make it to the big screen. The movie was able to wonderfully bring together the sunshine of Woodstock and the storms of Gimme Shelter.
Beyond showcasing amazing performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Free, and many more, the documentary shows how young radicals pushed back against the festival organizers to make money. This creates a film about a generation of demanding and entitled people and how they act when their favorite musicians are trying to perform for them.
The Target Shoots First isn’t about any band in particular. Instead, it’s Chris Wilcha’s video diary of his time in the 1990s working for Columbia House. It’s a crucial documentary explaining how big companies deal with selling to the unpredictable younger generation.
Wilcha was working as a marketer at the esteemed “Eight CDs for a penny” record club during the excitement of Alternative Rock music. He had first-hand experience watching his older bosses with no idea as to what younger music lovers will buy. The documentary showcases the victories, frustrations, and making money in the music industry.
Hype!, directed by Doug Pray, focuses on the Seattle grunge scene in the early 1990s. A local journalist basically summed up the entire movie stating, “When you see a pop-culture revolution from the inside, you realize how stupid the whole thing is.”
At the time, participants had a difficult time taking themselves and their success seriously. This might be one of the reasons that artists at that time only made it to the top for a brief time in their careers. It also includes some rock and roll, proving how talented, iconic bands such as Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana really are.
Brett Morgen constructed his image of Cobain through his 2015 documentary. He tried to bring together how the grunge stalwart emerged as an angry romantic and defined those feelings in his platinum-selling music.
Along with Kurt’s old public appearances, the documentary accesses his personal diaries, drawings, recordings, and even home movies. If you want a personal dive into the life of Cobain before his untimely death, check this one out.
Scott Walker had a strange career compared to other musicians. Although he was born in Ohio, the teen idol moved to the U.K. and became a 1960s phenomenon. He was the frontman of the Walker brothers before getting into country-rock in the 1970s.
In 30th Century Man, Stephen Kijak swings between old and new footage of Walker at work. The documentary also illustrates a portrait of a man who can’t explain why he does the things he does.
A band Called Death helps prove once again that relatively unknown artists make the best subjects for a documentary. This satisfying and epic story describes what happened when three African American brothers started a punk band in 1970s Detroit.
The movie shines a light on all different kinds of discrimination that the brothers faced. As black musicians, they were expected to play R&B and were criticized when they didn’t. On top of that, the industry thought their sound was too raw.
Gospel music has its own following and is usually preformed and recorded outside the mainstream media that tends to promote pop music. In Say Amen, Somebody, director George Nierenberg shines a light on the lesser-known histories and personalities of Gospel artists.
Nierenberg treats these stories the same way he would for the well-known and iconic artists. The documentary reveals jaw-dropping performances of these experienced singers and proves that the Gospel is an important part of musical history.
Les Blank had to wait 40 years for his documentary about Leon Russel to finally get a theatrical release. Apparently, the subject hated what the director did with his two-year footage, only stalling the process.
A Poem Is a Naked Person portrays Russel as an obnoxious and superficial embodiment of the music industry. The documentary also contains incredible performances by the entertainer and some of his friends. Russel waited for Blank to pass away, but eventually let us see the film.
The 1960s was an era when Rock Music was becoming the sound of the times. At the end of the decade, Elvis Presley had a commercial comeback and ultimately became one of the highest-paid entertainers in Las Vegas.
That’s the Way It Is presents how the basic and classic country-rock sound that Elvis began pursuing in 1968 continued after he moved to Nevada. This documentary presents the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from a down to earth perspective.
In 20 Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville combines many different elements to acknowledge backup singers. Not only does he give us an interesting history lesson, but he also puts names to the back voices behind major stars, such as The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
This documentary gives you an inside look at what goes on in the lives of these backup singers and what it’s like to make money on the sidelines. The movie also sheds some light on how the industry marginalizes talented women and in particular, a woman of color. They use them for their soulful talent but won’t give them solo careers.
This documentary follows the band Wilco while it was going through a lot of turmoil in 2001. The frontman Jeff Tweedy fired Jay Bennett, one of his chief creative partners, and during that same time, his record label let him go because of his unmarketable music.
Sam Jones’s black-and-white documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, follows the ups and downs of these numerous hardships. The film also has a satisfying relief, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Amir Bar-Lev is a successful documentarian who gave the Grateful Dead some recognizable treatment that helped span their career. The documentary is four hours long and breaks apart a complex story into smaller parts to make it easy for audiences to understand.
Long Strange Trip focuses on minor details like huge amplifiers, the fans, competitive culture, and even the bootleg trading community. It starts off with a fun feel before taking you into the mythology of a hardworking band trying to live up to its reputation.
If you want a fantastic music documentary, Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost takes a deep dive into the life of talented jazz musicians, Chet Baker. He combines the beautifully composed shots of Baker at the end of his life, along with the contrasting images of the handsome and youthful boy he once was.
Let’s Get Lost is both admiring and despairing. It delivers a detailed summary of Baker’s career. His friends and jazz fans expressed the importance of his songs “My Funny Valentine” and “But Not for Me” while simultaneously exposing what a heroin addiction can do to a person.
The problem with celebrating broken and unstable musicians as more “authentic” is that it may encourage them to be more destructive than creative. Jeff Feuerzeig sheds light on this complicated issue in The Devil and Daniel Johnson.
This documentary focuses on Daniel Johnson, who is a mentally ill musician. The singer-songwriter has made both strange and beautiful music. Unfortunately, he was a huge burden to his family and a danger to his peers.
Even though the sequel was way better, it doesn’t take away from Penelope Spheeris’s first films. The documentary is about the Los Angeles punk rock scene and was shot between 1979 and 1980.
With fan interviews and footage of the band off stage and in their ordinary life, the documentary did a good job connecting the artist with the audience. Spheeris also added some historically significant information about the inception of West Coast Punk.
The Wrecking Crew, directed by Danny Tedesco, is intended to shine the light on the Las Angeles musicians in the 1960s, who helped revolutionize how we hear pop and rock music. They helped differentiate the music styles and helped bridge the gap between artists like Frank Sinatra and the Byrds.
Tedesco grew up surrounded by these musicians, so he knew exactly who to talk to and get anyone who matters on record. The documentary also includes stories behind songs such as “A Taste of Honey” and “good vibrations.”
Photographer Art Kane took 57 of the most recognized jazz musicians in 1958, for a photo in front of a Harlem Brownstone. He intended to capture the past and future of American artists.
The documentary uses home-video footage in addition to interviews to relay the story. It helps portray the interesting lives of these jazz musicians while still showing the sense of community. If you are interested in the behind the scenes lives of jazz musicians, this one is for you!
Julien Temple’s documentary The Filth and the Fury is focused on the central contradiction of the Pistols. Bomb-throwing radicals who knew they would undermine everything they stood for if they lasted long enough to leave a legacy.
This film went over way better than Temple’s 1980 Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Although The Filth and the Fury also acknowledge the Pistols, it talks more about their story. There’s no way to understand the evolution of rock since the 1970s without understanding the Pistols.
Amy Winehouse was a talented vocalist who left the world way too soon. Her album Back to Black is considered the best albums of the 2000s. The purpose of Asia Kapadia’s documentary is to celebrate Amy’s talent and to show how old school R&B is still relevant today.
The documentary dives deep into the artist’s life. It examines her drug abuse and the intense pressure she was constantly getting from the media. It focuses on the circumstances surrounding her death and begs the question, did she die from this horrible sickness, or was it all the anxiety she was feeling? Check out the documentary to find out.
What makes Truth or Dare such an amazing documentary is you can see how self-aware Madonna Louise Ciccone really is. She knew everything she does in front of the director (Alek Keshishian) would be caught on film and analyzed by the world.
In the film, Madonna had some snide remarks to say about Opera Winfrey and Kevin Costner. She also talks to some family members and old friends who knew her way before she got famous. The entire documentary forces you to wonder who Madonna really is.
Several documentaries speak about the ups and downs of the Clash, but the greatest one is Westway to the World. The documentary tells the story of the group’s history. It starts off with the politicized wing of 1970s British Punk.
It then continues to show off the diverse and musically motivated Strummer. Mick Jones expanded on the band’s sound and the combination between reggae and rock. If you are interested in the origins of the band, you will love this.
Anvil is known as “a real-life Spinal Tap” because it talks about the popular heavy metal band holding on to their rock start dreams. The band’s frontman Steve Kudlow, otherwise known as “Lips,” comes across as funny and hopeful.
Although it can be comical, the director Sacha Gervasi was going for something different. It touches on lifelong delusions of fame and giving money to producers and promoters who don’t actually do anything to help their career.
Tony Silver’s documentary Style Wars focuses on the rise of graffiti artists taking place in New York City in the 1980s. It talks about their ongoing conflicts with not only authorities but also with each other.
Silver brings up street-corner break-dancers to show the era in a larger perspective. He fit it all together brilliantly, showing the poor, inner-city New York hip hop scene, and how they use the music to express themselves.
Queen B is an A-list celebrity who needs no introduction. With her beauty, popularity, and talent, it seems like there’s nothing this pop star can’t do. The documentary takes a deeper look into the star’s life on tour.
Homecoming is more than just a Beyoncé concert beautifully recorded, but it also shows what goes on behind the scenes to create the perfect show. It is a wonderful testament to one of the era’s best entertainers.
Metallica allowed directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to document the complex process leading up the St. Anger, the bands 2003 album. Although in more recent years they admitted that they regret it, however, this documentary was a gift to heavy metal lovers.
The documentary is an open book following the band’s life and showing how they spend their time and well-earned money. It goes as far as showing Metallica’s therapy sessions. This is a real look at how the other side lives.
Thelonious Monk was a loved and talented jazz pianist. People admired him because of his sophistication and unexplainable piano skills. Straight, No Chaser takes footage from a 1967 German Special about the pianist and tells a beautiful story of his glory both on and off stage.
The vintage documentary presents old pictures and interviews with Monk’s family and friends. It focuses on how someone who went through so many hardships was able to make such beautiful music. If you have any interest in jazz music, take a look at this troubled musical genius.
In the 1970s, Italian filmmaker Martin Scorsese was friends with Robbie Robertson. Therefore he gave the songwriter a lot of screen time in his documentary to talk about the tough life of being a touring musician.
That was probably the only downside of this incredible documentary. The Last Waltz includes popular artists from the 60s and 70s, such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchel, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Neil Diamond, making it a huge contribution to the world of rock & roll documentaries.
One of the major issues with creating a documentary on bands like the Who or the Stones is that they are so popular, and fans already think they know everything there’s to know about their favorite musicians.
In Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Benjelloul’s aims towards an audience who find an incredible old album and become desperate to learn about where it came from. Specifically to find out whether the rumored death of American musician Sixto Rodriguez was true and, if not, to discover what had become of him
Some music documentaries can be frustrating for fans because they tend to talk more about the artist’s life as opposed to their music. That’s the main reason everybody loves Jeff Stein’s; The Kids are Alright.
The film is almost completely filled with performances from the popular band, The Who. The interview segments are minimal and entertaining. It is perfectly simple and shows the incredible talent of the band members.
Multiple documentaries are focusing on the early hip hop days, but Freestyle takes a new and interesting approach. Kevin Fitzgerald explains the raw material of rap and the rhyme itself.
You can see existing footage of rap battles from dozens of different artists. It brings up a fascinating debate about whether or not improvising is essential to this music or if it’s more creative and respectful to write down lyrics beforehand.
When Bob Dylan began his career, he was considered distinctive and culturally informed. However, he became more mysterious when D.A. Pennebaker followed him across Europe for his 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back.
The documentary shines a brand new light on the artists. Pennebaker shows him goofing around, sparring with reporting, and joking around with his friends. It goes on to show Dylan challenging audiences with his new musical style and direction.
Gimme Shelter is known as being the movie that exposed commotion surrounding Altamont and the shocking murder that happened right in front of the festival stage. The directors followed the Rolling Stones across the United States while it was sinking into violence in 1969.
The documentary was filmed through the perspective of some rich musicians who loved the music created by poor artists. The purpose of the documentary is to show how counterculture idols were inspired by the intensity of their generation.
Amazing Grace was originally filmed in 1972, directed by Sydney Pollack. She filmed two live recording sessions from Aretha Franklin’s gospel album titled Amazing Grace and shelved it for years due to legal disputes.
Just three months after Franklin’s death (August 16, 2018), the finished version of the film was released. The documentary was mainly focused on Aretha Franklin’s recordings that she sang with her Las Angeles Church. It is also a story of the crowd packed into the chapel after hearing about the incredible performances going on inside.
If you don’t believe that a turntable can be a real musical instrument, Doug Pray can change your mind in his excellent dive into the culture and history of spinning and sampling. It starts off with the origins of hip hop music and innovators, including GrandMixer DXT, Jam Master Jay, and plenty more.
The documentary can teach people who know nothing about spinning and are unfamiliar with terms like “crate digging.” It also features Doug Pray watching performances and realizing they are just as skilled as any guitarist.
Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, lacks interviews and deeply personal information about musicians. It’s still a documentary, however, because it has a storyline and portrays reality.
David Byrne, the lead singer of Talking Heads, came up with a theoretical stage for his band’s 1983 tour. Although the concert documentary is more focused on the actual performance, it beautifully portrays how they created these noticeable changes and if it lived up to Byrne’s vision.
Penelope Spheeris’s The Metal Years wasn’t as popular as the rest of the documentaries in her trilogy. This is mostly because heavy metal wasn’t considered as cool as a punk rock at the time. Still, this film was more meaningful and honest. It captured both superstars and amateurs all on the sunset strip in the 1980s.
She managed to film rich stars filled with hardships and low self-esteem, as well as newcomers who are scared of not making it. This movie does a great job of conveying what happens when a materialistic culture creates unrealistic expectations.
Woodstock is known as the perfect enshrinement of the 1960s counterculture. It represents political idealism, communal spirit, and exciting music. Director Michael Wadleigh wanted to show the festival as an event as opposed to a museum piece.
Although it was released in 1970, the documentary is getting more and more popular each year now that the backlash against the boomer generation is dying down. Woodstock tells a wonderful story and includes performances by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and many more.