There are a ton of documentary films about music. Here are 15 you should watch ASAP.
1. 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil' (2008)
Awards: Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary; Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Documentary
Length: 90 minutes
Why It’s Important: So there was a real Spinal Tap. They weren’t British. They were Canadian. And at one point in the mid-1980s, they provided the runway for future metal mega stars Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. ‘The Story of Anvil’ catches up with the band 30 years after that prime, which lasted only a couple of years and led nowhere. They are back in their hometown, Toronto, where their emotional lead singer, known as Lips, now 50, delivers school lunches and fruit for a catering company.
But Anvil are still at it. They are seen playing in teeny tiny clubs around the city. The band tries several different strategies to kickstart their careers, from a budget tour across Europe, organized by an Eastern European woman who solicited them through the Internet to borrowing money from a relative to record their 13th album, ‘This Is Thirteen,’ in England to cold-calling record executives. Much of what keeps the band going is the drive of its frontman Lips, and the friendship between him and his drummer Robb Reiner, which provides the emotional heart of the film. (Richard S. Chang)
2. 'Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest' (2011)
Length: 97 minutes
Why It's Important: This isn’t a stuffy documentary. Director (and actor) Michael Rapaport isn’t interested in making acute critical realizations of one of the most celebrated hip-hop groups of all time. He’s just a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, and is eager to tell their story. It’s lively, honest, and full of good music – tracing the history of Tribe from humble Queens to the cornerstones of Rap 101. There are cameos by Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes, Dennis Miller, Talib Kweli, De La Soul, Common, Too $hort, The Roots, Beastie Boys, Mos Def, Ludacris, and more.
It also lets us know definitively that there probably won’t be another Tribe album. Too much drama, too much controversy, and too much time divides Phife and Q-Tip. Reunion tours only go so far. In fact, only a few months ago, Tribe announced their opening set for Kanye West would be their “last show ever.” This is the real, unedited history. Beats, rhymes, and a whole lot of life. (Luke Winkie)
3. 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston' (2005)
Awards: Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Directing Award
Length: 110 minutes
Why It's Important: I met Daniel Johnston once. He was standing out in front of the Hi, How Are You mural in Austin, Texas. It was apparently his birthday, and this was some sort of meet’n’greet put on by his family and friends. He didn’t seem alright. I’m not sure if he ever was, or ever will be. I think that’s the point of 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston.'
Its subject matter is a known schizophrenic, manic depressive, who, according to legend, once ripped the keys out of a plane that he and his father were piloting. He’s someone who simply can’t look after himself, but he’s also responsible for some brilliant music, and some brilliant art. So there’s this nurturing quality, and a slight sense of humor to the doc, plus interviews with 'The Simpson's' creator Matt Groenig and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. And, through all of Johnston’s psychosis, there’s a whole world out there unanimously and unflinchingly in love with his artistry. That's reassuring. (LW)
4. 'DIG!' (2004)
Awards: Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Grand Jury Prize
Length: 107 minutes
Why It's Important: It would have been suitable for 'DIG!' to be called 'EGO!' Directed by Ondi Timoner, it follows two decent rock bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, as they try to make it, but don't. This never stops them from posing like Rock Gods, and stroking the self-created myths of their own Genius, and being utterly flabbergasted when nobody else seems to care about their decent music. This is what rock music, or at least one version of it, is all about: pretending.
Whether you're an aspiring musician or just an aspiring human, there is a nice message here: be humble. There are tons of laughs, too, like when BJM frontman (and Genius!) Anton Newcombe starts a fight with his bandmate, onstage, while a label rep is supposedly in the building to scout the band, and then he brags about how his bandmate's blood is all over him, and he complains about how, in the kerfuffle, his sitar was broken. Poor Genius. This is our music, this is our tragedy. (Elliott Sharp)
5. 'Don't Look Back' (1967)
Length: 96 minutes
Why It's Important: Bob Dylan is an asshole. And this is Dylan being a really big asshole right at the outset of his insurmountable fame. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the doc follows Dylan on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom. It opens with his now-famous 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' video, and it shows early clips of Dylan's manic fans and his bizarre, toying relationship with them and the press.
Folk singer Joan Baez, then Dylan's one true love, was by his side throughout, and there are also appearances by John Mayall, Ginger Baker and Allen Ginsberg. The best cameo, however, is by Donovan. Dylan encounters the then-also-emerging-folkie at a hotel party, and they square off for one of the most brutal pass-the-acoustic, song-for-song battles ever. Dylan, of course, wins. And it wonderfully captures one of the most aggressive, menacing, magical moments of his life. (ES)
6. 'Gimme Shelter' (1970)
Length: 91 minutes
Why It’s Important: Let’s start with these: A member of the audience is stabbed to death. Jefferson Airplane’s frontman gets knocked out by a Hell’s Angel. Mick Jagger gets punched in the face by a fan. Young Tina Turner. George Lucas shot some of the footage.
‘Gimme Shelter,’ which was directed by Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, contains plenty of performances from two shows: one at Madison Square Garden and the Altamont Free Concert in Northern California. It’s the latter show that provides the drama and action behind the film, and in many ways, ‘Gimme Shelter’ plays out like a thriller, with the ugly aftermath presented very early, and the rest of the film playing out in flashback.
The second half of 'Gimme Shelter' focuses almost entirely on the Altamont show, where security was provided by the Hell’s Angels. There have probably been thousands of worse decisions made in rock ‘n’ roll history, but very few of them were captured on film. (RSC)
7. 'Instrument' (1999)
Length: 115 minutes
Why It's Important: There's something fun but severe and zealous about this Fugazi doc, which makes perfect sense, because Fugazi was a fun but severe and zealous band. Directed by Jem Cohen, it was shot from 1987 to 1998, and consists of awesome live performances, endearing portraits of fans, behind-the-scenes studio footage, and great shots from the band's now-legendary, scene-defining DIY tours.
The narrative is choppy, in part because it pulls from 11 years of footage, but there's something weirdly coherent and revealing even though Fugazi ensures that we see quite a bit but don't learn too much. Part of its enduring magic is that even the most boring parts of Fugazi's life are exposed, like the dreadful waiting room void that every band on tour experiences but the fans never see because they only see the 30 minutes of onstage glory. Ian MacKaye and company are as self-righteous and angry as ever here, in their primes, and in full-on myth-building/dissolving mode. (ES)
8. 'The Last Waltz' (1978)
Length: 117 minutes
Why It’s Important: Because it’s a concert film directed by Martin Scorsese on the final performance by The Band, a roots rock group that started life as Bob Dylan’s backing band but then struck out on their own and became one of the most influential bands of the 1970s. 'The Last Waltz' captures their break-up concert, held on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
During the concert, The Band, anchored by Robbie Robertson in all of his suave, guitar virtuoso glory and a grizzled Levon Helm, who actually gives a solid impression of a large rock behind his drums, are joined on stage by a litany of legends, including Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton and – and shall I go on?
There are interviews (with mostly Robertson), and the Winterland performances are edited with studio performances (i.e., for 'The Weight,' which was accompanied by the Staples Singers). But otherwise, Scorsese let’s the music do the heavy lifting, and by the time you’re done, you’ll be on YouTube, watching every Levon Helm song you can find. (RSC)
9. 'loudQUIETloud: A Film About The Pixies' (2006)
Length: 85 minutes
Why It's Important: The Pixies are a bit of a joke now: their superextended reunion tour resembles a sad, desperate jab at commercial sustainability. Kim Deal quit the band -- Joey Santiago, Dave Lovering, and Frank Black are getting paid to feign enthusiasm for 25-year-old songs night after night. This is partially what makes 'loudQUIETloud' so entertaining.
Shot at the beginning of the Pixies’ revival, it pulls no punches in painting a band that’s getting back together for economic viability, not artistic advancement. You’re watching a legendary act start their engines again, fighting through the anxiety, and hoping to stave off a day job. It’s a story about the Pixies, but it’s also a story about what it takes to live happily ever after through the fruits of great art – even if it requires becoming a legacy act and selling T-shirts with the 'Doolittle' cover. (LW)
10. 'Scott Walker: 30 Century Man' (2006)
Length: 95 minutes
Why It's Important: For the uninitiated, Scott Walker was a template trad-pop singer in the early-1960s. His career was destined for minor celebrity and the occasional Vegas gig for the rest of his life. Until 1967, when he went crazy. Well, not crazy, but he totally reshaped his career, and put out a series of some of the most unconventional, ubiquitous art-pop albums the world would ever hear. This continues to this day: every 10 years or so, Walker returns with another mammoth, the latest being 2012’s 'Bish Bosch.'
'30 Century Man' captures a rare interview with Walker, where he talks about his work, his inspirations, and his bizarre creative process. It takes the ersatz anonymity away from him, and lets him speak from a place of down-to-earth passion. It’s always wonderful when we get to hear who our heroes really are. Plus, there's an all-star cast of talking heads, including David Bowie, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, and members of Radiohead. (LW)
11. 'Some Kind of Monster' (2004)
Awards: Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary
Length: 141 minutes
Why It's Important: Metallica's first five albums – 'Kill 'Em All,' 'Ride The Lightning,' 'Master Of Puppets,' '...And Justice For All,' and 'Metallica' – were the soundtrack of my pre-teen years. To me, these guys were invincible, immortal, immovable, irreverant. So cool and so bad-ass. But nothing lasts forever, and there is something transcendentally beautiful about watching your idols fall from such great heights, and this is what's so great about 'Some Kind of Monster.'
This doc catches up with our metal heroes over a decade after they have made any relevant music (i.e. 1991's 'Metallica), just as they're working on 'St. Anger.' Bassist Jason Newsted's leaving the band and frontman James Hetfield's checking into rehab. They're old, tired and cranky, and the film follows the metal-grumps as a "performance-enhancing coach," pretty much a therapist, tries to put them back together again because they are broken. Beyond broken? There are petty power struggles and childish fights by grown men, and even an appearance by ex-Metallica, Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine, who's still pretty pissed. It gets ugly, it gets sad, it gets pathetic. But it's real. (ES)
12. 'Style Wars' (1983)
Awards: Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Documentary Prize
Length: 70 minutes
Why It’s Important: No film since ‘Style Wars’ has captured the early days of hip-hop culture quite the same way. And no film really needs to because ‘Style Wars’ did it so well. It effortlessly revealed the relationship between graffiti, rap and breakdancing. While it may be less noticeable these days, the three were heavily intertwined from the beginning. KASE 2, one of the charismatic graffiti writers that director Tony Silver focuses on, raps about his art. B-boys dance to those beats. And the cycle goes round and round.
'Style Wars' doesn’t feel like an archival film. The cinematography is fresh. The filmmakers provide responsible reporting and one of the best elements of 'Style Wars' is its tremendous access to graffiti artists and breakdancers and the New York government, including interviews with Mayor Ed Koch and head of the MTA Richard Ravitch. And there's music by The Sugarhill Gang, Fearless Four, Grandmaster Flash, Rammellzee, and more. (RSC)
13. 'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey' (1993)
Awards: Sundance Film Festival's Documentary Filmmakers Trophy
Length: 82 minutes
Why It’s Important: Hipster infatuation with lost objects – and the Internet – has meant that the theremin is no longer the obscure musical instrument it once was. But it’s still among the oddest -- and comes with an equally odd history. That history is relished and told in ‘Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.’
The theremin was invented by accident (by Leon Theremin, a Russian scientist) and did not catch on. You could say it’s still on the fringe, but the instrument does have its place, and has appealed to a variety of geniuses, ranging from synth pioneer Robert Moog to the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who are both interviewed in the film. And any interview with Brian Wilson is always worth the price of admission. (RSC)
14. 'Wattstax' (1973)
Length: 98 minutes
Why It's Important: On August 20, 1972, a huge music festival called Wattstax was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was organized by famed Memphis record label Stax to honor the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. Tickets cost $1, and the performers included The Dramatics, The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Little Milton, Luther Ingram, and Isaac Hayes. Some called it the "Black Woodstock."
Directed by Mel Stuart -- the same guy who did 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' -- 'Wattstax' documents the day-long festival through spectacular live concert footage and interviews with musicians, festival-goers, and up-and-coming celebs like comedian Richard Pryor and actor/director Ted Lange. It's a snapshot of a great moment in American history, where excellent music, radical politics and joy were briefly united. (ES)
15. 'You’re Gonna Miss Me' (2005)
Length: 95 minutes
Why It's Important: These days, Roky Erikson is doing pretty well. He plays one or two shows in Austin every year, his voice is in good shape, and his fans are more legion than ever. But it was not always this way. Erikson’s 13th Floor Elevators were one of the premiere psych bands of the 1960s, before Erikson burnt his brain with too much LSD, struggled immensely with schizophrenia, and bounced around a few mental wards in various degrees of competency.
In fact, 'You’re Gonna Miss Me,' the Keven McAlester Roky doc that features interviews with Thurston Moore (who's in pretty much every rock doc there is), Patti Smith, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, opens on Erikson in reclusive squalor, apparently living alone for 10 years. It is an amazing portrait of perhaps the greatest saga in pop music history. The triumph, tragedy, recovery, and second triumph of a great singer who fell through the cracks of society. (LW)