August 29, 2013 Slideshows

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35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing 

This week, the latest music documentary -- One Direction: This is Us -- hits theaters. Director Morgan Spurlock spent three months on tour with the guys, whirling from Japan to Norway to Mexico, but doesn't seem to have asked them a single question besides, "How does it feel to be really, really popular?" Instead, he lumps them together like a box of chicken nuggets.

As an antidote, we present this collection of 35 music documentaries that are worth seeing.

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This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

We know, we know, This Is Spinal Tap isn't actually a documentary (be careful calling it a "mockumentary" as well, Christopher Guest isn't especially fond of that term). But Spinal Tap's influence can't be dismissed. Most modern, straight music documentaries unknowingly (or knowingly?) steal narrative form, structure, and other storytelling devices from Spinal Tap, which works to increase how dead-on the satire is as time passes between viewings. It's no wonder members of famous bands (Aerosmith, U2, to name two) have said that This is Spinal Tap is too realistic to be funny; it's a sobering experience to find out that the art your life is imitating happens to be the funniest movie ever made. -- Nick Greene
The Carter (2009)

The Carter captures Lil Wayne at the height of his codeine-fueled hip-hop mega-celebrity, when even his stoned ramblings captured the attentions of millions. The fact that Wayne himself sued to block this film tells you just how honest it is. --Ben Westhoff
Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

Fluid, open-ended documentaries that demand more of an audience than foregone assent or fleeting bouts of passive outrage are rare these days, which is what makes Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugar Man such a gift. In telling the tale of Sixto Rodriguez--a Mexican-American balladeer from Detroit who cut a couple of tepidly received LPs in the late '60s, vanished amid hazy rumors of onstage suicide, and subsequently became an Elvis-size rock god in South Africa--the Swedish filmmaker sidesteps arthritic VH1-style "where are they now" antics in favor of a more equivocal interrogation of celebrity culture. Read the full Searching for Sugar Man doc. review. --Mark Holcomb
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)

Despite the passive-aggressive bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hop's Some Kind of Monster. (At one point, when Phife's wife suggests band therapy, as Metallica underwent in that doc, he rebuffs her with, "I know what the problem is, I'm not paying for you to tell me nothing!") And instead of editing his subjects into pre-ordained music biz roles, director Michael Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, both letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcase--as former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, "I love Q-Tip, but he's a fucking nut." (read the full story) --Camille Dodero
A Band Called Death (2012)

A band of black brothers inventing punk in Detroit only to be discovered three decades after the fact? It sounds, as Henry Rollins says in the opening of a new film about the band's moving, hard-to-believe journey, "like a movie." And so it is. Read the full A Band Called Death doc. review. --Brian McManus
© 2002 - United Artists Films - All Rights Reserved
The Last Waltz (1978)

Take one of the 20th century's most famous directors, throw in the most famous backing band of all time, and combine it with the concert where said Band quits in its prime, never to reform. What you've got there is not only one of the best music documentaries of all time, you've got one of the most compelling pieces of cinema of the last fifty years. As if that angle weren't enough, the whole concert is a who's who of music's golden 1960/1970s period, from Bob Dylan to Neil Young, from Muddy Waters to Van Morrison, recorded and filmed flawlessly. A must-see. --Gavin Cleaver
Until The Light Takes Us (2008)

Until the Light Takes Us defines Norse Black Metal as a combination of image (morbid corpse paint), philosophy (rejection of post-A.D. 600 history; anti-Judeo-Christian, pro-Odin), and music. As with any sect, arguments supersede doctrine--and the primary divide is illustrated via two elder statesmen: Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, drummer for the long-lived Darkthrone, and "Varg" Vikernes, of the equally venerable one-man-band Burzum. Fenriz is supposedly apolitical, an aesthete who compares his music's dredging horror to Edvard Munch. Varg is the hardcore lived-it Thoreau of the movement's early years, a self-styled ultranationalist prophet, interviewed while in prison for arson and internecine murder. (read the full review) --Nick Pinkerton
Lemmy (2010)

"Lemmy is the baddest motherfucker in the world," exclaims Dave Grohl in Lemmy: 49% Motherf---er, 51% Son of a Bitch. It's a sentiment shared by almost everyone who appears on camera (Dave Navarro, Ozzy, Metallica, Slash, Billy Bob Thornton) in this fawning documentary. (read the full review) --Ernest Hardy
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

The awe-inspiring persistence of Anvil guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow (on right) is the focal point of director Sacha Gervasi's phenomenal rockumentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Even though Anvil never amounted to anything more than "the demigods of Canadian metal" (which is sort of like being the Slam Dunk Champ of Chippewa Falls), Lips and Robb decided early on that their sole objective was "to rock forever," and at all costs. --Camille Dodero

Read more: The Indefatigable Joy of Anvil's Metal-on-Metal Rock Doc
© 2012 - Sundance Selects
Last Days Here (2011)

When we're first introduced to emaciated, bug-eyed, trembling Bobby Liebling, the fiftyish frontman of the frequently dormant cult metal band Pentagram and the subject of this small-scale but weirdly engrossing documentary, he's showing off his past stage outfits: perfectly preserved hip-huggers purchased in 1967, "paisley shit," chiffon scarves. "I was saving them for when I got big. And that never happened, so I saved them forever," the crack, heroin, and meth addict says in the subbasement of his parents' Germantown, Maryland, home, where he has resided for decades. (Read the full review of Last Days Here.) --Melissa Anderson.
We Jam Econo (2005)

"Some dudes from Pedro" found themselves in the Southern California punk scene, befriending Black Flag, although the sounds of the Minutemen guitarist D. Boon were wildly different than the low-end pushed out by Black Flag. Punk-outsider-hippies, The Minutemen were one of the most original punk bands of the '80s until tragedy struck. You can watch the full doc. on YouTube. --Nick Lucchesi
The Road to God Knows Where (1990)

The product of a German film student with a single handheld camera spending five weeks on the road with one of the must-see underground acts of the 1980s, The Road To God Knows Where is a fascinating look at one band's descent into a drug-addled behavioral sink as they tour an unfamiliar USA. With the feel of a great American road movie, it's almost Fear And Loathing as imagined by a depressed Australian songwriter and his backing band. --Gavin Cleaver
Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? (2006)

A really good documentary is capable of taking you to a world you don't care about, explaining a boiling controversy you weren't aware of, and leaving you with the sudden urge to take sides. If you've never been inside a Christian bookstore the tension between the major Christian labels and more ambiguous outsiders like Larry Norman, Steve Taylor, and Pedro the Lion might seem unimportant, but you'll leave Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music? with an opinion about all of them, even if you have no desire to ever listen to I Predict 1990. --Dan Moore
Edward Colver
American Hardcore (2006)

This hardcore chronicle is great, covering all the cities with scenes of fans and bands, interviewing the men and women who were on the frontlines of the genres birthing, including godfathers Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, and Ian MacKaye. Read the book too, it's got plenty of hardcore history as well. --Craig Hlavaty
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010)

If you aren't a fan of these prog gods from the Great White North, you will at least have a respect for them after checking out this star-studded doc. Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan are just some of the followers who weigh in on the power trio. --Craig Hlavaty
DiG! (2004)

This Ondi Timoner film made Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe an instant batshit rock and roll legend and painted The Dandy Warhols as a Pollyanna-ish pack of kids in over their heads. --Craig Hlavaty
The Devil & Daniel Johnston (2005)

The best thing about this Daniel Johnston flick is that it does not shy away from explaining his mental illness, showing how DJ's fight effected his family and friends. The home footage and recordings are a great look into his jagged creative process. --Craig Hlavaty
Imagine (1988)

This 1988 film and 2006's The U.S. Vs. John Lennon are looks into what made J-Yo tick. The scenes dealing with Lennon's "lost weekend" in the former are excellent. --Craig Hlavaty
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)

Over the course of two hours, Wilco is seen recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then getting shafted by Reprise. We love the part where a harried Jeff Tweedy and family are at a fast food place trying to stay sane. --Craig Hlavaty
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

This Penelope Spheeris documentary, plus her Roger Corman-produced punksploitation Suburbia, no doubt turn countless kids into punk rockers after one viewing, if not by the halfway point. --Craig Hlavaty
© 2004 Lakeshore Entertainment. All rights reserved.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)

Rodney Bingenheimer (on far left) was a sort of Andy Warhol for the L.A. music scene, touching most every genre from the mid-'60s until today. He gets exalted by everyone who comes in his path, but finds that big business isn't as receptive to him along the way. Bonus points for appearances by the greasy yet influential Kim Fowley. --Craig Hlavaty
Madonna: Truth or Dare

The chick who made Lady Gaga possible takes us into her world with Truth Or Dare, and manages to humanize herself in the midst of one of the most vanity-laced periods in her career. --Craig Hlavaty
Don't Look Back (1967)

You don't realize how much of am insufferable smart-ass Bob Dylan was in the beginnings of his fame until you see D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, which follows him on his 1965 UK tour. The opening scene is the most iconic part, with Dylan famously rolling through the lyrics of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on large cards as Allen Ginsberg hangs around behind him. --Craig Hlavaty
Joy Division (2007)

Before you watch Anton Corbijn's feature film about Joy Division and Ian Curtis, Control, be sure to check out this Grant Gee film on the band. --Craig Hlavaty
Fearless Freaks (2005)

This Flaming Lips documentary will instantly turn you into a fan. Before we saw this film we weren't a convert, but after Freaks we were hooked for life. Be sure to watch for Wayne Coyne's Long John Silver's horror story. You can watch the full doc. on Vimeo. --Craig Hlavaty
End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003)

The Ramones made great music together, but they seemed to hate the shit out of each other while they were together. For a band as documented as the Ramones, this film actually manages to shed new light on the band, even for the devotees out there. --Craig Hlavaty
Instrument (2003)

Fugazi is broken down into film mode. Check out the "Ice Cream Eating Motherfucker" scene. --Craig Hlavaty
You're Gonna Miss Me (2005)

This look into Texas garage legend Roky Erickson's life isn't so much different than the Daniel Johnston flick, with both dealing in the family drama behind mental illness. Now we just have to wait for the big budget biopic. --Craig Hlavaty
Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies (2012)

If you ever wanted to see GG Allin throw feces and piss on his fans, Hated is your chance. The 1994 doc was directed by Todd Phillips, who would go on to also make Road Trip, Old School, and The Hangover. --Craig Hlavaty
It Might Get Loud (2008)

Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White join forces to show us how they each make their signature sounds. White builds a guitar on a back porch, and Page is generally a badass. The Edge shows us his array of pedals and how he makes the "U2" sound. --Craig Hlavaty
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007)

Following the same course as Westway, The Future Is Unwritten jumps into the life at the heart of the Clash, Strummer, and the meandering turns his life took from his birth to death in 2002. --Craig Hlavaty
Radiohead: Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

Radiohead goes insane on tour as they overtake Oasis as the biggest band from the UK in the last years of the '90s. --Craig Hlavaty
Hype! (1996)

Grunge hit Seattle like an atom bomb, and this 1996 doc talks to locals who were the most effected, from zine publishers, the bands, to the folks at Sub Pop Records who sat on top of it all. It gets sanctimonious at times, but it's a great grunge primer. Hell, we discovered Pierced Arrows because of it. You can watch the full doc. on YouTube.--Craig Hlavaty
Westway To the World (2000)

The best film about the Clash, so far, takes you from the band's fitful beginnings to pop semi-stardom and finally their slow-motion collapse. which the late Joe Strummer is seen choking up even speaking about. Watch the full documentary on YouTube.--Craig Hlavaty
Thunder Soul (2010)

Straight out of a high school in Texas, the electrifying Kashmere Stage Band was the brainchild of gifted music teacher Conrad Johnson.
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This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

We know, we know, This Is Spinal Tap isn't actually a documentary (be careful calling it a "mockumentary" as well, Christopher Guest isn't especially fond of that term). But Spinal Tap's influence can't be dismissed. Most modern, straight music documentaries unknowingly (or knowingly?) steal narrative form, structure, and other storytelling devices from Spinal Tap, which works to increase how dead-on the satire is as time passes between viewings. It's no wonder members of famous bands (Aerosmith, U2, to name two) have said that This is Spinal Tap is too realistic to be funny; it's a sobering experience to find out that the art your life is imitating happens to be the funniest movie ever made. -- Nick Greene
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