August 29, 2013

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© 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
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
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
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
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.
© 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.