The 50 best music documentaries of all time

Unmissable movies – and where to watch them

A collection of the greatest ever documentary films about music – from rock biogs and drug-fuelled histories to concert movies and underground accounts. Here is a must-watch list for all (in alphabetical order and with handy, UK-based streaming options).

Words by Mark Beaumont

20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

Those backing singers often have just as rollercoaster lives as the star they’re harmonising with, as Morgan Neville’s acclaimed film explores. Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer are among the back-up singers granted a spotlight to unravel emotional, funny and revealing stories from life on the rearmost podium, sometimes flecked with sadness at their permanent bridesmaid status. When Neville isolates Clayton’s astonishing vocal on the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ though, there’s only one star of this show.

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Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play (to rent)

20,000 Days On Earth (2014)

Picking up two awards at 2014’s Sundance festival, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days On Earth depicted a fictitious day in the life of Nick Cave as he worked on 2013’s ‘Push The Sky Away’. Staging scenes from therapy sessions, studio recording, performance and in-car conversations with Kylie or Ray Winstone – the very antithesis of Carpool Karaoke – its scripted construct doesn’t stop it being an artful and revealing insight into Cave’s life, or at least what Cave wants us to think his life is.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video (to rent)

A Band Called Death (2012)

Punk could have come around a little sooner if David Hackney, prime mover of a trio of Detroit rock brothers credited with being one of the first bands of the genre, had given in to label pressures to change the name of his band to something more commercial than Death. Instead obscurity, alcoholism and next-gen rediscovery beckoned, as directors Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett explore here in a doc that’s equal parts tragedy and redemption.

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Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube (to rent)

Amazing Grace (2018)

Filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1972 but gathering dust on the shelf until three months after her death in 2018, Aretha Franklin’s live recordings for her gospel album ‘Amazing Grace’ – shot over two nights in a church in LA – caught a heaven-sent voice at its most powerful and impassioned.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and Virgin TV Go

Amy (2015)

From stars-in-her-eyes childhood home movies to final onstage meltdowns, the volatile, demon-plagued life of Amy Winehouse is laid bare in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy. Watching such a mercurial talent spiral into drink, drugs, bulimia and tragedy while a scandal-hungry media swarm greedily ogles the skidding car makes for a true slice of celluloid heartbreak.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ (to rent)

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2008)

‘The real-life Spinal Tap’, went the hype. And this tale of two 1980s heavy metal coulda-beens refusing to give up on their dreams in the face of half-empty bars, embarking on an ill-fated European tour, breaking up, reuniting and forging on to semi-glory certainly takes the past-their-prime metal journeyman story up to eleven. Albeit with some touching pathos instead of tiny Stonehenges.

Where to watch: NOW and Virgin TV Go

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (2021)

Not yet old enough to have lived out the traditional music documentary narrative arc – hardship, big break, sing for President, stomach pump – Eilish’s verité doc rather sets her monumental superstardom within a frame of domestic relatability. Director RJ Cutler is welcomed into the Eilish family between 2018 and 2020, capturing as much of Billie’s unmanufactured, homespun authenticity as the blur of the pop world spinning around her. Engrossing stuff.

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Beyoncé: Homecoming (2019)

Hailed as amongst the greatest concert films (which are, of course, still music documentaries) ever on release, this onstage and behind-the-scenes document of Beyoncé’s dazzling set at Coachella 2018 marries the sheer spectacle of Beyoncé in full, eye-popping flow with incisive, intimate and politically charged offstage vignettes. Its Rotten Tomatoes critic consensus reads “Beychella forever”.

Where to watch: Netflix

Biggie & Tupac (2002)

Fresh from his equally contentious Kurt & Courtney, director Nick Broomfield delivered a similarly investigative study of the tragic end of rap’s most famous beef. His verdict? Suge Knight dun it, in an elaborate plot of revenge, control and diversion, abetted by hit men hired from the LAPD. His case had more holes than a Crips’ car door, but Broomfield’s manner of pulling his threads together in a film largely about his attempts to make it made for compelling viewing.

Where to watch: Subs

Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)

The original fly-on-the-wall rock doc, DA Pennebaker’s document of Dylan’s infamous 1965 ‘Electric Judas’ tour caught the bleared bard at a pivotal watershed moment for folk and rock music, crossing over from protest folk favourite to mainstream rock rebel but blinded by the furore he caused simply by plugging in and letting rip. It’s a cornucopia of historic moments, from Dylan baiting the press to pioneering the music video in the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ cue card section.

Where to watch: A physical copy? Surely, not…

Bros: After The Screaming Stops (2018)

An accidental classic, thanks to Matt Goss’s timeless, and instantly viral philosophising on Rome, conkers, regal road sweepers and bulldogs drinking beer. A must-watch in 2018 just to keep up with what the internet was pissing itself over, and every bit as hilarious three years on since it remains, unbelievably, not scripted by Steve Coogan. So important because it personifies the word ‘WTF’.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

When the titular Cuban ensemble – put together in 1996 by Ry Cooder – arrived in New York for their first American performances, German director Wim Wenders was on hand to capture the event on film, explore the history of Cuban music and delve into the players’ experiences of crossing the political divide between Cuba and the US.

Where to watch: BFI Player

Dave Chapelle’s Block Party (2005)

In which comic rocket Chappelle, struggling with the sort of guy a $50 million contract with Comedy Central makes you, decides to organise a free rap show in Brooklyn featuring Kanye West, Mos Def, The Fugees and Erykah Badu (among others), bussing in locals from his Ohio hometown. Come for the performances by rap legends and between-set monologues from one of America’s most celebrated comedians, stay for the existential wrestling; Chappelle would walk away from the contract soon after filming.

Where to watch: You’ll have to track down a copy of this one…

Dig! (2004)

Filmed over seven years and cut for drama (“it’s a movie, not a documentary,” claimed The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor), Ondi Timoner’s Dig! followed the differing fortunes and inter-personal rivalries of The Warhols and Anton Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre as major label opportunity knocked for the ‘90s Portland psych-pop scene. You’ve never seen bohemians like this…

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video (to rent)

Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme (2000)

From the Baptist preacher to the reggae toaster and the rap battler, the art of freestyling seems an arcane magic. “The goal of freestyling,” rapper Juice tells filmmaker Kevin Fitzgerald (aka DJ Organic) in this enthusiastic history of the form, “is to throw something out once and you can never do it again. That’s what makes it free”, and Freestyle… itself lives by this fundamental tenet, including spontaneous raps captured during filming while also uncovering such fantastic footage as Biggie Smalls freestyling on street corners as a teenager.

Where to watch: Plex

George Harrison: Living In The Material World (2011)

Five years in the making, three-and-a-half hours in the watching, Martin Scorsese’s enthusiastic and lovingly compiled Harrison mega-documentary is inevitably a landmark of the form. Remaining Beatles, George Martin, Pythons, an elephant-dodging Eric Clapton and a cavalcade of rock greats turn out to explore the history, talent, spirituality and monumental influence of ‘the quietly iconic one’.

Where to watch: You’re going to have to buy this one on DVD

Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)

A modern-day Madonna: Truth Or Dare (despite the beef with Madge touched on several times here) this 100-minute vérité-style glimpse into the life of Stefani Germanotta in the lead-up to 2016’s fifth album ‘Joanne’ and her Super Bowl half time show lifts the wig on a funny, tempestuous, vulnerable, driven and reflective woman behind the façade of the pop art persona.

Where to watch: Netflix

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Chronicling the day the ‘60s died, The Rolling Stones’ doc Gimme Shelter followed their 1969 US tour up to Altamont, covering the fateful event’s chaotic organisation, violent run-up, fraught performance and tragic climax. Exhilarating and chilling by turns, it’s as much a record of the darkness that swallowed the counterculture as a band leaping the ‘60s/’70s divide.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

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

Sometimes a classic rockumentary falls in your lap, as with photographer Sam Jones, who began filming Wilco in 2001 just as the band began to fracture and split, their label dropped them and a seminal album, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, rose from the wreckage. Art and commerce collide, sparks fly and Wilco end up getting paid twice for the album by the same label. Heartbreaking? Arguably. Riveting? Undeniably.

Where to watch: Vimeo (to rent)

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

Fiercely independent, supremely talented, deeply troubled, tragically addicted; the Janis Joplin story is of a kind with that of most 27 Club members, but director Amy J. Berg does a fine job of unpicking the childhood bullying, narcotic dependence and raw-throated passion that made her one of the greatest and most fascinating figures of the ‘60s counterculture.

Where to watch: Apple TV, Google Play (to rent)

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2015)

The first family-approved Cobain documentary set out to trace the full arc of his troubled life and expose the human being, husband and father behind the blank generation figurehead using home videos, unearthed demos and personal notebooks. Director Brett Morgen would be accused of falling for a lot of half-truths about Kurt, but his own mesmerising montages of Cobain’s music and art do full justice to the talent behind the tragedy.

Where to watch: NOW and Virgin TV Go

Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991)

Scandalising the world on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour – banned by the Pope in Italy; threatened with arrest for lewd behaviour in Canada – Madonna allowed filmmaker Alek Keshishian behind the scenes to record her growing relationships (and mildly salacious drinking games) with her dancers, her attempted seductions of married stars and her encounters with famous backstage admirers. While profiling a powerful workaholic conquering a man’s world and delivering some of pop’s most memorable performances, Truth Or Dare marked the birth of the celebrity reality show.

Where to watch: Get that DVD ordered!

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

It’s tough, alienating and tedious at the top, according to Grant Gee’s fly-on-the-wall doc about Radiohead’s relentless promotional duties as ‘OK Computer’ took off worldwide in 1997. An endless churn of airports, hotels, flashbulbs, interviews and introspection – plus some memorable street hassle – it’s an unflinching look at the machinery behind the music at a superstardom level, and how easily it can chew up the fragile humans caught inside.

Where to watch: Another one you’ll have to seek out for yourself…

Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster (2004)

At the other end of the scale from Anvil!, Metallica’s Some Kind Of Monster gets inside the room as a mid-life rock behemoth collapses under its own weight. Alcohol rehab, indecision, band fights and group therapy with a “performance enhancement coach” during the troubled genesis of 2003’s ‘St Anger’ album make for an (unwittingly comical) insight into the workings of a major league rock act big on ego but short on ideas.

Where to watch: Netflix

Miss Americana (2020)

Following Taylor Swift over several years and covering her 2018 ‘Reputation’ tour and the making of 2019’s ‘Lover’, Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana became the highest rated Netflix original music documentary thanks to Swift’s candid discussions on her body dysmorphia, the pressures of media scrutiny and internet toxicity and her sexual assault trial.

Where to watch: Netflix

Oasis: Supersonic (2016)

Starting and ending at Knebworth, Mat Whitecross’s Oasis doc focuses on their stratospheric rise over the first two albums, before everything went sodden and sour. Unmissable thanks to the hilarious love/hate comic interplay between its two principals – in archive footage and new voiceovers – a dash of childhood soul searching, and some of the ‘90s most momentous tunes.

Where to watch: Netflix and Virgin TV Go

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (2021)

Inspiration, flash-in-pan genius, success, depression, bipolar disorder, drugs, later-period shift into eastern mysticism – the story of X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene might contain rock doc cliches by the dozen. But Paul Sng and (Poly’s daughter) Celeste Bell’s portrait of this confrontational punk driving force and champion of personal liberation – be it over identity issues or one’s love of BDSM – paints her as utterly unique.

Where to watch: NOW

Risky Roadz 0121 (2021)

After 15 years away, iconic grime filmmaker Risky Roadz is back to document Birmingham’s long history with the genre. Featuring interviews from the likes of Mist, Lady Leshurr, Jaykae and more Brummie rappers.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Rhyme & Reason (1997)

Over 80 major artists contributed to this significant origin story of rap, from pioneers like Kurtis Blow, KRS-One and Chuck D to ‘90s greats such as Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac and Biggie, interviewed here just four days before his death. Essentially hip-hop 101 for the ‘90s newcomers, it’s virtually a historical primer for modern audiences, digging deep into the foundations of the scene right back to jazz, gospel and blues.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and Chili (to rent)

Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

Ever picked up a needle-worn album from your collection and wondered what happened to the act? Then picked up a Super 8 camera and tracked them down across continents? This was the story of Searching For Sugar Man, a BAFTA and Oscar winner in which South African record store owner Stephen Segerman and director Malik Bendjelloul hunt down forgotten ‘70s Detroit singer Sixto Rodriguez after his records become surprise anthems of the anti-apartheid movement.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, NOW and Virgin TV Go

Shut Up And Play The Hits (2012)

What happens when you quit at the top? It’s a question Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s document of LCD Soundsystem’s final pre-split show at Madison Square Garden in 2011, tries to answer, intercutting one of the finest concert films put to celluloid with footage of James Murphy wandering around his flat the following day or in conversation-cum-interview therapy with pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman.

Where to watch: Apple TV+

Sisters With Transistors (2021)

Narrated by Laurie Anderson, Sisters With Transistors is director Lisa Rovner’s deep dive into the female pioneers of electronic music: drawing out the stories of figures such as experimental theremin maestro Clara Rockmore, Moog developer Wendy Carlos and Delia Derbyshire, co-writer of the Doctor Who theme. Art school rockers such as Sonic Youth and early Silicon Valley tech-heads line up to pay their respects.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play (to rent)

Sound City (2013)

Before he set out across America to tell the tales of legendary studios for 2014’s Sonic Highways series, Dave Grohl delved into the history of LA’s Sound City Studios, where ‘Rumours’-era Fleetwood Mac were formed and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ roared into life. As visual love letters to mixing desks go, they rarely come so funny, affectionate and brilliantly soundtracked.

Where to watch: Plex

Stop Making Sense (1984)

When David Byrne walked onto an empty stage with a guitar, a boombox and a casual “hi, I got a tape I wanna play”, Talking Heads and director Jonathan Demme upturned the conceit of the ‘authentic’ concert film and began building the band and the stage spectacle around him as a visual art statement. Film and live music performance fused right there, and Byrne’s recent American Utopia movie would later repeat the seemingly unrepeatable.

Where to watch: BFI Player

Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In the wake of the summer of love, Black music had its own celebratory season at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, where Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly And The Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and others put on quite possibly the greatest musical event you’ve never heard of. In what Mark Kermode called “one of the best concert movies [again, still a music doc] of all time”, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson restores footage that has been gathering dust for decades, nails it to the now with incisive interviews with artists, crowd members and civil rights activists, and unpicks why the event has gone largely unrecognised. Soul power indeed.

Where to watch: Disney+

The Decline Of Western Civilisation Pt II: The Metal Years (1988)

Sequel to Penelope Spheeris’ excellent 1981 cinematic dive into the US post-punk hardcore scene, here she turned her lens to the LA glam metal scene with even more salacious results. Endless tales of excess, ambition and overdose; vodka showers in swimming pools; Kiss‘ Paul Stanley interviewed in a bed full of lingerie-clad models; Ozzy spilling his orange juice from (faked) alcohol withdrawal and Steven Tyler admitting to blowing millions of dollars on gak – the film was both ridiculously entertaining and so repugnant to the next generation of American rock that it reportedly helped kickstart grunge.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and Microsoft (to rent)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

The line between creative genius and mental illness is often painted thin, and never thinner than in Jeff Feuerzeig’s portrait of bipolar DIY folk singer and Kurt Cobain favourite Daniel Johnston. Johnston’s illnesses fuel life-threatening accidents, violent episodes, stints in psychiatric institutions and demonic obsessions but, nonetheless, his talent shines through the murk.

Where to watch: Arrow

The Filth And The Fury (2000)

Twenty years after 1980’s Malcom McLaren-dominated The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, the Sex Pistols themselves get a say on their turbulent rise, two-year rampage and messy implosion – and the seismic cultural after-effect – in Julien Temple’s second Pistols doc. In-band battles, peak-era poverty, establishment oppression, tabloid outrage and blood-stained collapse: ever get the feeling you’re finally getting your money’s worth?

Where to watch: Let us know when you find it!

The Girls In The Band (2011)

The side-lining of talented women in music is a story at least as old as the jazz era of the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the unsung players spotlighted in The Girls In The Band came up against racism and sexism aplenty, often having to join girl bands as male groups believed they didn’t have the physical capabilities to blow horns. Spirited stuff.

Where to watch: BroadwayHD

The Go-Go’s (2020)

As fiery and effervescent as its subject matter, Alison Ellwood’s The Go-Go’s wowed last year’s Sundance, going deep – and often emotional – on the biggest all-female band in rock history. The point where the LA punk scene met The Shangri-Las, The Go-Go’s partied harder than most of their contemporaries – the story of drinking all day before playing a frankly wankered Saturday Night Live gig is legendary, as is guitarist Charlotte Caffey’s secret heroin habit – and crashed just as hard too, all captured here and topped off with a touching reunion.

Where to watch: NOW and Virgin TV Go

The Kids Are Alright (1979)

Exploding drumkits on US TV. Stripping on the Russell Harty show. Destroying Woodstock and the Monterey Pop festival. The final glimpses of Keith Moon; at home with Ringo Starr or playing his last ever performances. Using archive footage – sometimes rescued from trash dumps – and fresh recordings, Jeff Stein’s The Kids Are Alright epitomised the kit-trashing anarchy of The Who’s Moon era mayhem.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and IMDb TV

The Last Waltz (1978)

“This film should be played loud!” reads a title card, and Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s farewell show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom has certainly made some noise down the years. Featuring guests including Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and The Band’s most famous frontman Bob Dylan, the gig was an astounding send-off for the road-and-drugs-ravaged Americana pioneers, and the movie a masterclass in artfully and sensitively capturing live music on film.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video (to rent)

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

An icon of riot grrrl and figurehead of fem-punk activism, Hanna’s story leaps off the screen in Sini Anderson’s documentary, whether she’s destroying stages with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, inventing the phrase “smells like Teen Spirit” for Kurt Cobain or battling Lyme disease over the latter part of her career.

Where to watch: Apple TV, YouTube (to rent)

The Wrecking Crew (2008)

The daddy of the unsung-backroom-stars seam of music documentaries, Denny Tedesco’s celebrated The Wrecking Crew pulls back the Oz-like curtain on the team of largely uncredited LA session musicians who were actually playing all those hits by ‘60s greats such as The Beach Boys, the Monkees and The Byrds, and on Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound recordings. Vibrations are kept good, that lovin’ feeling strong, but there are touches of tragedy on show for some, once music moves on.

Where to watch: Apple TV+ (to rent)

TINA (2021)

A key release in the new golden age of music docs, TINA traces the rags-to-riches tale of Tina Turner from abandoned child to beaten superstar wife of Ike to the comeback queen of the ‘80s and beyond. With Turner involved in the film, her traumas are de-emphasised in favour of scintillating live footage of a performer who was, in her prime, better than all the rest.

Where to watch: NOW and Virgin TV Go

Wattstax (1973)

In 1972, Stax records held a seven-hour benefit concert to commemorate the 1965 Watts Uprising in LA, featuring The Staple Singers, Albert King, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes. Combined with show-stealing monologues from comedian Richard Pryor, the initial 1973 release was magnificent and moving enough – particularly Jesse Jackson leading the entire LA Memorial Coliseum in a defiant chant of ‘I Am Somebody’ – but a 2003 remake restoring Hayes’ previously cut Shaft songs elevated the film to something akin to the soul Woodstock.

Where to watch: Google Play, YouTube (to buy)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Showered with award nominations, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? let the talent do the talking, peppering colourful and mesmerising archive performances – her ‘I Love You, Porgy’ is worth the subs fee alone – with details of the blues legend’s abusive marriage, pill addiction, civil rights activism and notorious bipolar volatility.

Where to watch: Netflix

White Riot (2019)

Purposely fast-cut and DIY in aesthetic, Rubika Shah’s history of the birth of Rock Against Racism in the late ‘70s brims with the punk ire of the age, tracing the movement from its initial east London activist uprising to 1978’s Carnival Against The Nazis which saw 100,000 people march across London to a festival in Victoria Park headlined by The Clash. A visual handbook, perhaps, for tackling today’s right-wing resurgence.

Where to watch: NOW

Whitney
 (2018)

As much detective story as biography, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston doc delves into the roots of her unravelling from ‘80s pop stardom to her death in 2012, uncovering issues of identity, addiction and abuse. Yet her talent shines through in rare and archival footage juxtaposing her pop star life against her personal troubles.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video and Virgin TV Go

Woodstock (1970)

Not just a record of the biggest countercultural event of the ‘60s but also the most evocative insight into the mindset of the movement ever filmed. Even without The Who tearing through ‘See Me, Feel Me’ or Jimi Hendrix shredding ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, the hippie culture displayed in Woodstock’s split-screen sequences – dancing, skinny-dipping, feeding each other, grooving through the storm – seemed like a vision from a more humane, caring, mud-spattered utopia.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube (to buy)

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