The first thing we probably need to address before we jump into this is that we are not musicians. And we’re also not music documentary filmmakers. We’re just people that sometimes get to stand/jump/scream somewhere between the nosebleeds and front row, and enjoy everything that those who have given their life to music have to offer.
So in amassing our 10 most recommendable music documentaries of all-time, we decided to remove “favorite band” and “first concert” bias, and just pay homage to the most kick-ass stories, perspectives, and accounts—because there are a lot. Assemble a days worth of snacks, find a comfy position on the couch and enjoy the following 14.5 hours of the greatest visual stories the music world has to offer.
1. It Might Get Loud (2008)
Ever wonder what it would be like to spend a day in the studio with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s the Edge and The White Stripes’ Jack White? It Might Get Loud assembles the three legendary guitarists, all of which hail from different backgrounds, generations and influences, into a single space to discuss their lives, careers, inspirations, while jamming out and showing off a few of their skills. The entire film offers a unique perspective you wouldn’t otherwise receive anywhere else in the music world. Directed and moderated by one of the best documentary filmmakers of all time, Davis Guggenheim.
2. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (2013)
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon tells the story of a simple man that checked into a Beverly Hills motel and ended up becoming one of the greatest managers of music fame the industry has ever seen. The entire film is riddled with unbelievable anecdotes—getting beat up by Jimi Hendrix, selling out a 50,000 person venue in London within 24 hours, inventing the celebrity chef—but it’s really about Shep’s path to figuring out his own life after years of managing others. If there’s one documentary on this list that you watch on Netflix today, this is it.
3. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Stop Making Sense is a work of art. While most concert films are best enjoyed as background noise and visuals during a dinner-turned-house party put on by your parent’s for their friends of a similar age, this 40-minute live performance from the Talking Heads is something to train your eyes on and marvel at in full. Lead singer, David Bryne, sings the entirety of his heart out in an oversized suit, as the other band members gradually join in to provide an immeasurably energetic performance that effortlessly conveys all that can be humanly expressed through performing live music.
4. The Other F Word (2011)
Ever wonder what happens when an entire generation of anti-establishment youth grows to be the age of those they used to swear off and condemn? The Other F Word explores the unique transformation and adaptation of punk rockers who’ve aged into adulthood and are now attempting to raise their own families. The compelling documentary tackles the overlooked topic in an appropriately gritty format—which focuses on an interview with Pennywise frontman, Jim Lindberg, but also features interviews with 22 others, including legends like Fat Mike from NOFX, Mark Hoppus from blink-182, and pro skater, Tony Hawk.
5. The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2014)
The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir has caught a lot of attention for being the first Grateful Dead documentary not centered entirely around the late and legendary Jerry Garcia, nor the group as a collective. Instead, it follows Bob Weir—singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Dead—from his adopted upbringing in suburban San Francisco, to the band playing their first gigs at a venue that served LSD Kool-Aid, to the internal ups and downs the band was forced to navigate and Bob’s unique relationships with both Jerry and the other band members throughout it all. A good watch even if you don’t enjoy psychedelics, and it’s available on Netflix.
6. The Doors: When You’re Strange (2009)
Taking its title from the karaoke song you’re weird uncle is most likely to sing by them, When You’re Strange, takes viewers through the making of their six, ridiculously-successful studio albums over five years—with incredible moments from their live performances threaded throughout. Edited with heaps of unreleased archival footage, the 90-minute documentary portrays of one of America’s most iconic rock bands in a divine light. Side note: Johnny Depp, who they were able to lock in to redub the film after a rough version received less-than-stellar criticism, told the press, “As a rock n’ roll documentary, or any kind of documentary for that matter, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.”
7. Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
Shut Up and Play the Hits captures what, at the time, was supposed to be the final performance by LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden back in April of 2011. Although they’ve since regrouped, played shows in NYC, and are working on new music, this beautifully-shot documentary details the emotional time leading up to concert, as well as the 4-hour long, sold-out performance by a group of musicians that attempted to go out on top by disbanding at the climax of their popularity and careers. We suggest you position a few tissues near the couch before hitting play, just in case.
8. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Unlike the many other documentaries on Kurt Cobain’s life and death, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck does a phenomenal job of humanizing the Nirvana frontman. We get to see an honest evolution of Kurt as a child, teen, and man, as well as a musician, husband, and father. The intriguingly honest depiction of his life and death—complete with VHS home footage, interviews, and all the grunge you can handle—is available for streaming on HBO.
9. Daft Punk Unchained (2014)
Daft Punk Unchained is a must-see for anyone who has ever danced a night into early morning hours with the help of one of their hits. Widely regarded as revolutionaries in electronic music, the duo has collaborated with some of the most popular musical artists in the entire world over the past two decades—all while concealing their own identities from their fans and the general press. The 85-minute dance floor marathon provides a rare peek at the unique evolution of Daft Punk’s career, and attempts to take us behind the masks of the two most fascinating and purpose-driven subjects to ever grace the music world.
10. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Unless you spent some time in South Africa during the 90s, there’s a good chance that the name Sixto Rodriguez doesn’t mean anything to you. But for two men who had heard the mysterious American recording artist—whose music enjoyed a unique popularity in a large continent across the Atlantic—was rumored to have passed away, they set out to find the truth themselves. Searching for Sugar Man chronicles the hunt to find a forgotten legend in the music universe, as well as bring his unlikely tale and success to the surface in the music industry.
As featured in the 2017 Music Issue of Whalebone Magazine. Get your hands on a copy over here.