There’s nothing like a great music documentary. Music is the universal language, and multiple studies link music study to academic achievement, overall happiness, and creative inspiration. And documentaries about music and the people who make it give fans fly-on-the-wall looks at our favorite artists and festivals, all while showing how some classic hits were made.
Watching a music-centered documentary is an incredible way to learn about artists' creative output and the history behind their careers' longevity. Even more, these films often contain performances and background info that are essential to understanding the time periods some of your favorite hits were made in. From analyzing the art of Justin Timberlake's dance moves to showcasing the crooning of Nina Simone's timeless voice, the docs on the list below all let fans get a fascinating inside look at some of the industry's hardest working people. These docs vary in genre and tone, but each film is an intimate and important account you're going to want to see ASAP.
After the 1965 riots in Watts, Memphis record label Stax Records created a benefit concert to uplift the Black community. The festival was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972, and it featured all genres of soul, funk, blues, jazz and gospel. Some of the great artists showcased in this documentary about it include Isaac Hayes, the Dramatics, Staple Singers, and Carla Thomas. WATTSTAX is available to watch on Amazon.
2. The Last Waltz
The rock-and-roll-documentary features Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Neil Diamond in an incredible farewell concert for The Band. The film feels like a personal one for director Martin Scorsese, who records the work of some of his musical heroes in the San Francisco concert hall. The Last Waltz is available on Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
3. Nas: Time Is Illmatic
Time Is Illmatic focuses on arguably one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time, Nas. The documentary talks about his debut Illmatic, his family, and the collaborators on the album. It gives ans a background of Nas and his relationship with his jazz trumpeter father Olu Dara, as well as the social and political issues that he tackled on his breakthrough record. Time Is Illmatic can be viewed on YouTube, Amazon and iTunes.
4. Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
The documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives recently premiered on the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie, directed by Chris Perkel, is based on Davis’ 2013 autobiography, which recounts how he became president of Columbia Records and then went on to huge success. He played a key role in the careers of Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Santana, Janis Joplin, and many others. The documentary is available on iTunes.
5. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Harnessing the voice of Miss Nina Simone herself and incorporating eye-opening reflections from her past, this documentary takes a deep look into who Simone really was. The documentary shows audiences how her courage was undeniable, but was also a shield designed to protect her from hostile forces, real and imagined, that came against her talent. What Happened, Miss Simone is available on Netflix.
6. The Year Punk Broke
This documentary follows Sonic Youth on tour in Europe in 1991, and it brings along Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball, and The Ramones for the ride. You can watch The Year Punk Broke on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
7. Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme
Some of the industry's most influential MCs discuss the art of freestyling to highlight the world of hip-hop. The documentary takes a look at what rap is all about: the raw material of rhyming itself. The films switches between exciting footage of rap battles and interviews with artists like The Roots, Jurassic 5, and Mos Def, all of whom have differing opinions about whether improvisation is essential to rap music, or if it's more artful to write lyrics down and perform them. Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme is available for streaming on Amazon, iTunes and YouTube.
8. Madonna: Truth Or Dare
In this documentary, Madonna puts on a show for the cameras, obliterating the line between her private life and her public personality. You see her do a provocative bump-and-grind onstage, then have awkward encounters with old friends and family who remember her as a working-class kid from Detroit. The documentary feels like a big question posed by Madonna herself about how she wants the audience to see her. Madonna: Truth or Dare is available on Google Play, YouTube and iTunes.
9. Finding Fela
"As far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment... it's for revolution" — Fela Kuti. He pioneered the Afro Beat sound, and, upon discovering the Black Panther Party, used his findings from the party to heavily influence his music and politics. In Nigeria in the 1970s, he became an outspoken activist for human rights and the anti-Nationalist regime through his groups, Nigerian ’70, Afrika ’70, and Egypt ’80. Over the years, his music has majorly impacted international politics and music. Finding Fela is available on YouTube, Google Play and iTunes.
10. Justin TimberLake + The Tennessee Kids
Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is a must watch. Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble to make sure the whole show is seamlessly epic. This documentary embodies the singer's love for good music and performing, always with the audience's enjoyment in mind. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is available to watch on Netflix.
11. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser
Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was deeply admired by his peers and the jazz music scene because of his sense of improvisation and fire to create original music. His sound, which was sophisticated and innovative, influenced a lot of what jazz performers do now. The documentary Straight, No Chaser is built around footage shot from a 1967 German TV special about Monk, capturing his glory on and off stage. You can watch this film on iTunes and Vudu.
12. Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck
A collection of never-seen-before home movies, performance footage, animations, behind-the-scenes videos, and interviews with friends and family, the doc is also accompanied by classic Nirvana recordings with orchestral/choral arrangements of their back catalogue. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a bio-doc that takes an in-depth look at the tragic life of Kurt Cobain. You can watch the film on Amazon.
13. Janis: Little Girl Blue
Capturing the life and phenomenon of Janis Joplin, the documentary takes on the daunting task of trying to condense all of her influence into a two-hour film. Watch this film on YouTube, Amazon and iTunes.
14. Celine: Through The Eyes Of The World
Celine Dion is one of the most powerful voices in the international world of music, and Celine: Through The Eyes of The World follows her on her 2008-2009 Taking Chances world tour. The film lifts the lid on Dion's private side, showing her visits to Africa, tender moments with Muhammad Ali, and the family trips taken with her late husband. The emotional and insightful look at Dion's life is not to be missed. You can watch this documentary on YouTube and Amazon.
15. Muscle Shoals
On the banks of the Tennessee River is the small town of Muscle Shoals, a place from which some of the most influential music of all time was created. Songs like “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “Mustang Sally”, “Freebird”, and “Tell Mama” are just a few hits made there. The founder of FAME Studios, Rick Hall, brought Black and White musicians together to create unique, never-before-heard sounds. Muscle Shoals is available on Netflix, Amazon and Google Play for streaming.
All of these documentaries will inspire you to appreciate music more than you already do, and get a better look at the artists we have all grown to love.