In this piece, Glen Peoples has compiled a list of some of the greatest documentaries from the '70s through to the '10s covering musicians, instruments, and music scenes. Although not comprehensive, the list contains some of the most exceptional highlights from the past fifty years.
Guest post by Glenn Peoples from Medium
Four decades of releases are represented here: the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s—more if you count archival footage. To be clear, this is not a complete list of best music documentaries. Who knows what a complete list would look like? Instead, this list is a good beginning to capturing the best documentaries about musicians, music scenes and movements, a retailer, and musical instruments.
This list is fluid and can grow over time. Please leave comments and recommendations. I’ll be happy to add titles.
20 Feet From Stardom is about backup singers, how they are overlooked, and how important they are to both recordings and live performances.
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records is about the history of the late, great music retailer Tower Records
Amy is about Amy Winehouse and was released after her death.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil is about heavy metal band Anvil’s decades-long journey.
As the Palaces Burn is a 2014 film about the metal band Lamb Of God on its 2012 world tour.
Bang! The Bert Berns Story is a 2017 picture about songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Bert Berns (“Twist and Shout,” “Piece Of My Heart”).
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is about, well, hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. It was produced by actor Michael Rapaport.
Better Living Through Circuitry about the U.S. EDM scene in the ’90s. It has interviews with Moby, Carl Cox, Roni Size, Genesis P-Orridge, Roni Size, and others.
Big Star: No One Can Hurt Me is about the cult-status band, Big Star and its impactful but short-lived existence.
Buena Vista Social Club follows Ry Cooder on a trip to Cuba that resulted in a best-selling soundtrack and launched numerous Cuban musicians’ solo careers.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is about the party Chappelle threw in Brooklyn, NY, in 2004. Performers include Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Kanye West, and The Roots.
Cobain: Montage of Heck! about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain told through his photos, recordings, artwork, and journals.
Dig! is about two rock bands/friends, Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, their careers in the late ‘90s/early ’00s, and their relationship.
Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour.
George Michael: Freedom received a recommendation but received some poor reviews (The LA Times called it “flimsy”) and has a 65 at Rotten Tomatoes.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot has conversations with fans outside a Judas Priest concert.
Hype!, about the Seattle music scene, was released in 1996.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart follows Wilco during the recording of its 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It Might Get Loud a meeting of the minds with Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack Black
Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul is about, well, singer Joe Cocker
Lemmy about the late frontman for rock/metal band Motörhead.
Madonna: Truth Or Dare was recorded during her Blonde Ambition tour and released in 1991.
Meeting People Is Easy is a 1999 “rockumentary” about Radiohead, released by Capitol Records.
Metal Evolution a series about heavy metal albums.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster follows the band through group therapy and studio recordings
Miss Sharon Jones! is about the late singer for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The movie was released in 2014, a year before Jones died from pancreatic cancer.
Modulations: Cinema For The Ear about electronic dance music in the late 90s
Moog about Bob Moog and his self-named synthesizer
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown is about the Godfather of Soul
Muscle Shoals about Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Quincy a Netflix documentary about producer/arranger Quincy Jones
Residente about rapper Residente’s visits to the ten countries in his DNA profile
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is a Grammy-nominated history of the rock band Rush.
Searching for Sugar Man is about a South African man’s search for a lost musician.
Shut Up & Sing about Dixie Chicks after their infamous comment about President Bush
Songs For Cassavetes is about the underground music scene in the Pacific Northwest.
Sound City about the late, great recording studio of the same name in Los Angeles.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is about the studio musicians, The Funk Brothers, that played on many Motown Recordings.
The Decline of Western Civilization about late 70s/early 80s punk in Los Angeles.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years about late ’80s heavy metal scene in Los Angeles
The Defiant Ones a mini-series about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
The Nomi Song is about avant garde musician Klaus Nomi.
The Other F Word traces the career of Pennywise band member Jim Lindberg
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir is a well-received Netflix documentary about the guitarist and singer from The Grateful Dead.
The Wrecking Crew about the Los Angeles session musicians who played on countless hits in the ’60s and ’70s.
Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey is about Leon Theremin and the odd musical instrument that carries his name.
Tokyo Idols about Japanese idol groups and their middle-aged, male super-fans
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music about the studio engineer and producer
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream was produced by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 2007.
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen is about the LA punk band Minutemen.
XTC: This is Pop is about the British group XTC.