From jazz to country to rock and roll, here’s our list of the 10 best music-related documentaries you need to watch. Most are available digitally on Netflix, YouTube or Hulu.
01 U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)
Runtime: 99 min
It’s time to take another look at this documentary chronicling U2’s Fall 1987 tour of North America. Highlights include the band playing with B.B. King on “When Love Comes to Town” and performing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking” with The Harlem Choir. The opening notes of “Where The Streets Have No Name” still deliver goosebumps. The title, Rattle and Hum, is taken from a lyric from “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and the accompanying album sold over 14 million copies.
Interesting side note: Most of the footage was shot in black and white due to the limited budget. In fact, about 90% of the footage was done in that format rather than color.
02 The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016)
Runtime: 137 min
Does Ron Howard produce anything that’s mediocre? Given the full cooperation of McCartney, Ringo and the Lennon and Harrison estates, this documentary delivers live footage and interviews that have never before been made public. Focusing on The Beatles’ 250 concerts between 1963 and 1966, the audience can palpably feel the Beatles’ outright exuberance and astonishment at their massive and unanticipated global success. One can also sense their feelings of absolute pressure and their need to escape the never-ending limelight in which they found themselves.
The archival footage is extraordinary and a pure delight.
03 The History Of The Eagles (2013)
Runtime: 187 min
As the Eagles continue their “Hotel California” tour, watching this documentary is a great primer to refresh your memory on this legendary Southern California band.
The Eagles were always a band that stood apart from their peers. In the heady and incestuous collaborative days of the late-60’s underground music scene in Los Angeles that brought us Poco, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and others, The Eagles not only had the hit songs, but also had a business-like core that made them consummate professionals.
There are new interviews and past footage – all of it painfully honest and a revelation. RIP Glenn Frey.
04 Woodstock (1970)
Runtime: 185 min (director’s cut)
This film captures the three-day Woodstock festival over three immersive hours and won an Oscar in 1970. (If you’d like to delve in even deeper, watch the 1994 director’s cut that clocks in at 225 minutes).
So many people have watched this documentary that many of them claim to have actually been at the concert, where attendance topped 400,000. Despite the vast amount of people showing up at an isolated rural dairy farm, and running out of food, water and medical supplies while dealing with a torrential downpour, there was no rioting and no violence. It’s all “peace, love and understanding.” This might be the perfect balm for the confusing current political climate.
05 Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
Runtime: 86 min
Here’s another Oscar winner, this time for a documentary of an obscure character named Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a little-known folk-rock artist from Detroit who recorded two albums in the early 70’s, and then literally just disappeared. His music, however, became hugely popular in of all places, South Africa, where all of his fans mistakenly believed he was dead.
The film begins when Cape Town record store owner Stephen Segerman, whose nickname “Sugar Man” mirrors one of Rodriguez’ most famous songs, meets music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and the two undertake to investigate what had happened to Sixto. Spoiler alert: they found Sixto alive and well, completely unaware of his iconic status in South Africa. Part mystery, this is a story that you cannot believe would be possible in this day and age of digital communications.
06 What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Runtime: 101 min
This 2015 Netflix documentary is about the life and times of singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Assembled from hundreds of hours of audio recordings and interviews, the film shows Simone struggling to reconcile her artistic identity and ambition with her devotion to the Civil Rights movement. At the height of her fame, she left her family, her country and her career. Later diagnosed as bipolar, the film is an achingly honest portrayal of this singular artist.
07 Lemmy (2010)
Runtime: 116 min
Lemmy (subtitled “49% motherf**ker, 51% son of a bitch”) is an engrossing documentary about the life and times of Motörhead‘s late bassist/frontman Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, one of the most unfiltered, raw and bad-ass figures in rock and roll. Even if you think you’re not a Motörhead fan, you’ll be totally entertained and won over by this profile of a man who was definitely a true original. I mean, who else got their mail delivered to the bar at the Rainbow on the Sunset Strip?
From Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters) to Nikki Sixx (Mötley Crüe), Slash and Duff (Guns N’ Roses), Scott Ian (Anthrax) and all of the members of Metallica, just about every major name in rock and roll seemed to come onboard for this human account of a musician who transcended the boundaries of heavy metal to become an embodiment of the rock and roll spirit.
08 Keith Richards: Under The Influence (2015)
Runtime: 81 min
Originally conceived as a companion promotional piece for Keith Richards’ solo album Crosseyed Heart, Under the Influence evolved into a must-see documentary that follows Richards across America to New York, Chicago and Nashville as he extols on his love and fascination for American music. It’s a touching and personal look at what shaped the musical views of perhaps one of rock’s greatest guitarists. If you want to hear and see Richards talk about legends Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry, this one’s for you.
09 Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014)
Runtime: 116 min
It’s said that this film has yet to attract a single negative review, and there’s a good reason why – it’s a triumph. In 2011, Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and he and his family made the brave and sometimes painful decision to film his last concert tour. What was slated to be a short three-week run became an emotional nationwide 16-month farewell tour of 151 shows. His wife, Kim, and many of his children, who form part of his band, somehow live each moment in the present while preparing for the future, and the love and respect they share for each other is always evident. With songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind,” one is reminded why Campbell won the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
10 Jaco (2015)
Runtime: 110 min
Co-produced by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, Jaco is about bassist Jaco Pastorius, the man credited with recording the best jazz bass album of all time, 1976’s Jaco Pastorius. It also touches on Pastorius’ bipolar disease, which affected him later in his career and contributed to his death. The doc, which Trujillo estimates cost him personally over $800,000 and took over five years to make, features cameos from Pastorious fans including Geddy Lee (Rush), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Sting, who all effusively shower praise on Jaco, as well as people who jammed with him, including Jimmy Page and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum. Trujillo says, “Jaco was incredibly funky, but he could also be really, really heavy; he had a lot of growl and edge to his sound. I loved the way he is able to still have his unique sound – and his dynamic presence is felt through his instrument – but at the same time, he’s melodic, which is very rare for a lot of players, bass players especially.”