(Photo by Adrienne Pitts)
I am a sucker for a great music documentary. If one is in front of me, I will watch it. And indeed I can watch films about pretty much any act or artist, whether I care for them or not. Sometimes the best of the bunch are about bands, singers, or genres that are not strictly my cup of tea. Sometimes they may revolve around someone I’ve never heard of. The skill is in the storytelling, and I watch music documentaries to be educated about the life of an artist and/or the cultural context of their work. Like the greatest narrative movies, the best documentaries can be funny, shocking, profound, thought-provoking, and sometimes life-changing. Out of a very long list, here’s 10 of my favourite music documentaries that I’ve enjoyed on multiple occasions. Turn these up to 11. – Edgar Wright, June 2021
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Julian Temple’s 2000 film on the short life and fast times of the Sex Pistols is, I think, the best music documentary of all time. Temple weaves in a dizzying amount of archive to give context to the hard times and bland culture from which the Sex Pistols emerged like a four-headed monster. It’s so brilliantly edited and conceived on every level, and all the talking heads (shot mostly in silhouette like people in witness protection) are brilliant — especially John Lydon and Steve Jones, who are unfailingly candid, profound, profane, and funny.
Penelope Spheeris’ snapshot of the music and excesses of the hair metal scene of 1980s Los Angeles is unforgettable. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but two images are burned into my brain. One is drunken WASP guitarist Chris Holmes sitting in an inflatable chair in his swimming pool being interviewed with his mother present and pouring a whole bottle of vodka over his head. The other is Paul Stanley from KISS being interviewed on a high angle over his bed, surrounded by half naked women. This documentary is rightly infamous, and while you might not want to be a part of this scene, it’s difficult not to get a contact high from the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
A great music documentary requires no previous knowledge of the subject, and I think a lot of people who became obsessed with Ondi Timoner’s 2003 film didn’t know a lot about the ups and downs of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and its mercurial frontman Anton Newcombe. This document of the rivalry between cult band The Brian Jonestown Massacre and their more popular colleagues The Dandy Warhols is a fascinating and highly quotable watch. It became something of the indie rock Spinal Tap as it was subject of much fevered discussion by every person who was in a band at the time.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
A brilliant document of the unsung heroes of the rock and pop world: the backing singers. We all know the parts. Indeed they may be the only bits of the songs that one sings along to. But for the most part, session and back-up singers don’t get the glory of being front-of-stage. This film shines the spotlight on the women behind the songs we love: Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Judith Hill. Most memorably of all, we hear Merry Clayton’s isolated vocal from The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and it’s spine-tinglingly powerful.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Okay maybe this is really a concert film, but it is a documentary of a band at the peak of their powers, and it also just happens to be the best concert film of all time. Jonathan Demme presents the band in such a formal fashion, building up first from singer David Byrne’s solo on stage to a full nine-piece ensemble, that the results are hypnotic. It draws you in rather than presenting a great concert at arm’s length. I think every concert film since has tried to copy or subvert this approach. It’s a magical movie.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
Both This Is Spinal Tap! and the UK’s Bad News skewered the music documentary in the ’80s with pitch-perfect sketches of a rock band on the road. But here, Canadian rockers Anvil are very real. Former fan and roadie Sacha Gervasi (now a successful writer and director in Hollywood) reunites with the band 20 years on and shows their path back to the stage and an adoring audience. It’s impossible not to admire the journey of frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow as he goes from delivering meals for children’s charities to being back in his natural habitat: commanding the crowd at a rock festival. Showing the tough but often funny path back from rock bottom, Anvil is an inspiring watch.
When the Screaming Stops (1973)
London pop trio Bros had an 18-month hot flash of success when they were the biggest thing since sliced bread. I wasn’t a fan back then — several of my female school friends were — but it was impossible to escape their songs and not get swept up in the teen hysteria. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. This charming and hilarious documentary picks up 28 years after Bros’ chart-topping heyday and shows the fractious relationship between the band’s core members, identical twins Matt and Luke Goss. While their outlook on life is sometimes unintentionally funny, there’s a lot of real laughs too, not least an epic tangent about the banning of childhood game Conkers. There is also a real heart to the film, and it’s difficult not to be moved as they overcome tragedies and their differences to return to the arena for a comeback show. Highly entertaining.
Dont Look Back (1967)
Many music documentaries try to recapture a time and a place, and a huge percentage of those that do are all working hard to evoke one particular decade – the 1960s. D.A. Pennebaker just happened to be in the right place at the right time when he covered Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England. Rather than try and capture the zeitgeist, Pennebaker just trained his camera on Bob Dylan and watched the scene whirl around him. An essential music documentary on every level.
Frances Whatley’s trio of Bowie documentaries – comprising this, The Last Five Years, and Finding Fame – are brilliantly comprehensive films detailing the greatest chameleon in rock. What’s extraordinary in this case is even though the documentary does not feature a new interview with David Bowie, his journey is told beautifully through many key collaborators whose insights are revealing and thrilling. As a fan, seeing musicians and producers such as Rick Wakemen, Tony Visconti, Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Gale Ann Dorsey, Nile Rodgers, and others break down the songs was just magical.
A wildcard for my 10th choice. This episode of Documentary Now! is the finest musical mockumentary since all-time classic Spinal Tap. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader brilliantly skewer the overly reverent approach seen in many a classic rock doc. It tells the saga of soft rock band The Blue Jean Committee and is clearly taking loving potshots at The Eagles and Chicago along the way. Having the likes of Cameron Crowe, Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, and Michael McDonald as themselves doing the talking head duties for a wholly fictitious band is the icing on the cake.
Edgar Wright’s own music doc, The Sparks Brothers, is in theaters on June 18, 2021.
Thumbnail image: ©Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection, Adrienne Pitts, ©RADiUS-TWC/Courtesy Everett Collection