More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are watching rockumentaries. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled docs demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.
Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following famous people around, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best music documentaries manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.
Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 25 of the best documentaries that every music—and movie—fan should add to their must-watch list.
1. What’s Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A. (1964)
A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever. In 1990, the original 1964 film was re-edited and re-released as The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.
2. The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
This concert film is just plain cool. "Teen Age Music International" packed the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with screaming youths wielding free tickets and clamoring for a glimpse of pop royalty, and the film is a no-frills playlist of every 1964 hit that didn't involve The Beatles. Chuck Berry, Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and many more roll through their most-loved songs in front of a friendly, seat-swaying audience. Perfect for putting on in the background or for reeling in the years through the styles, sounds, and stage presence of the biggest names of the era.
3. Don’t Look Back (1967)
Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.
4. Gimme Shelter (1970)
The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when. After a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels, who were acting as security, a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”
5. Woodstock (1970)
The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace, love, and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.
6. Wattstax (1973)
Dubbed "Black Woodstock" by some cultural critics, the benefit concert marking the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots featured a vivid tapestry of gospel, funk, and R&B artists interwoven with speeches from Jesse Jackson, Fred Williams, and Melvin Van Peebles. It was only recently recognized by the Library of Congress with its 2020 inclusion in the National Film Registry, securing a well-earned spot in history for a film noted for its intensity of purpose and musical fervor. It's an amazing slice of history, made even more impressive by the gargantuan effort that made it possible: the concert itself only had one night to set up and one night to tear down so as not to jar the NFL schedule at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the audience couldn't be seated near the stage for fear that it might mar the field (they stormed it anyway to do The Funky Chicken). Against these limitations, symbolic in their own right, Stax Records pulled off an incredible day of music, headlined soulfully by Isaac Hayes and captured impeccably in this film.
7. Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1973)
Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.
8. The Decline Of Western Civilization (1981)
Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in Los Angeles again.
9. Urgh! A Music War (1981)
This surreal concert film is as straightforward as it gets, delivering performance after performance without narration, context, or any of that messy getting-to-know-the-band stuff. It's also as weird as it gets, populated by the 1980s drama pop goodness of Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi, and Oingo Boingo with a sprinkling of The Police and Joan Jett for mainstream appeal. The lengthy list of performers creates a bridge between punk and post-punk with a bit of garage rock and new wave presented with both stripped-down and over-the-top stage dressings. Its stylistic whiplash places The Go-Gos against The Dead Kennedys, and fans of the COVID lockdown guilty pleasure "Toyah and Robert's Sunday Lunch" will recognize new wave icon Toyah Willcox in some of the earliest footage of her solo career.
10. Stop Making Sense (1984)
There's little left to say about the concert film perfection of Jonathan Demme capturing The Talking Heads over four nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It's a glorious exploration of the band's strange and deeply human stage show that flowed through their funky series of great songs while lead singer David Byrne rocked his iconic oversized suit. It's a masterclass in theatricality, and a booster shot of joy. Get the VHS or Laserdisc if you can because there's even more music to love on them.
11. Sign "☮" The Times (1987)
Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring that it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.
12. Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991)
It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.
13. RHYME & REASON (1997)
An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Director Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.
14. Meeting People is Easy (1998)
Director Grant Gee described his intimate documentary of Radiohead's 1997 OK Computer world tour as "Radiohead Big Brother" because of the static cameras he placed in their dressing rooms. But the most striking elements of the film act as an antidote to happy sound-bite journalism. Viewers may want to watch an interview with their favorite musician before diving in to see the haggard, depressingly exhausted faces of Radiohead's members as they endure days filled with repetitive interview questions. Documentaries like this tend to sell "the real" person behind the music, but almost no film does it in as thoroughly unfiltered a way as this.
15. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
If you've ever wanted to see a heavy metal band go through couple's therapy, this is probably your only chance. Metallica was at the top of a very high mountain in 2000, having sustained and grown their popularity through the 1990s into the rarified mainstream air of Grammy Awards and blockbuster movie soundtracks. Then the mountain crumbled beneath them, and they attempt a last-ditch effort to stay together (after bassist Jason Newsted's exit) by spending time exploring their emotions and group dynamic with a performance enhancement coach. Through their lawsuit against file-sharing program Napster to the search for a new bassist, we get to witness thrash metal royalty dig into their childhood abandonment issues and scream obscenities in each other's faces until crawling out the other side as a very different beast.
16. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005)
In the summer of 2004, at the height of his stardom and a few months before walking away from it all, Dave Chappelle invited some bands to play in Brooklyn. He also invited random fans from around the country and the not-as-random Michel Gondry to film it all. The result is a wondrously carefree blend of amazing music (Erykah Badu, Kanye West, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, and a Fugees reunion), Chappelle's loudly affable charm, and the quirky personalities of the people in the crowd. It's a unique, head-bobbing delight.
17. The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005)
For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes, but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.
18. Awesome; I F*Ckin’ Shot That! (2006)
Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.
19. Soul Power (2009)
Jeff Levy-Hinte's bold and high-spirited film highlights the once-in-a-lifetime concert that accompanied Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, B.B. King, and other all-stars take center stage alongside the Pembe Dance Troupe for an hour of dancing, singing, and celebration capped off by an electric James Brown performance. Off-stage, it's one of the most privileged hangouts of all time, offering us the incomparable opportunity to spend time with legends as they get philosophical about Black Power, performing in then-Zaire, and the nature of freedom.
20. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
It's clear that director Michael Rapaport is a big fan of this pioneering rap group, aiming equally for a celebration of their music and handwringing consideration of why they can't seem to steadily stay together (or apart). Q-Tip and Phife Dawg's opposing personalities create incredible friction within the scope of smooth hip-hop vibes. Magnetically engaging, this film is the best example of sweet music creating a counterpart for the messy psychological dissection.
21. A Band Called Death (2012)
Emerging from the Motown scene of the 1960s, Death's punk-before-punk was shut out of a nationwide platform and relegated to an attic until finding popularity nearly four decades after the master tapes were first laid down. David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney obliterated the accepted racial norms of the time by playing heavy rock instead of crooning Motown soul, acting as a link between Marvin Gaye and the Misfits, and their music stands as a fascinating artifact of what might have been if major record labels had understood (and allowed for) the tectonic shift Death was offering. This documentary from Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett celebrates and chronicles a vital, almost-lost band, punctuated by the happy shock of Bobby's son making sense of his father's badass status.
22. The Punk Singer (2013)
It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).
23. Sound City (2013)
Directed by Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, this film is an exploration of a building that's an indelible part of rock history. Sound City Studios was the birthplace for a staggering amount of world-changing music—from Neil Young to Grateful Dead to Tom Petty to Nine Inch Nails to a hundred other legendary names—but it was a victim of digital technology and a shifting recording landscape that ditched massive analog consoles for the synthetic ease of computer editing. Packed with interviews from the most famous musicians in the world, Grohl acts as the protector of the studio's legacy, both by sharing its story and by saving its equipment so that future generations can achieve that sought-after sound.
24. Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)
Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of gravel-throated songstress Janis Joplin. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.
25. Amy (2015)
The Oscar-winning biography following Amy Winehouse's reluctant rise to fame and her death at the height of her acclaim is both an earnest exploration of the person behind the music as well as a condemnation of the public digestive tract that demands the world of some celebrities before discarding them. Director Asif Kapadia took his world-class lens and extensive interviews (over 100) to the difficult task of creating a portrait of a human being whose public image was already profoundly flattened in spite of (or because of) her towering success. It's essential viewing that will forever make you miss Winehouse's sublime contralto voice and retro-magic songwriting genius.
This piece originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.