13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, 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 of the best 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 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—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.

2. 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.

3. 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 acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. 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 and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. 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.

6. 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 LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring 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.

8. 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.

9. 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. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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 the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. 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.

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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15 Halloween Movies for People Who Don’t Like Horror Movies

Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974).
Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As soon as the first cool breeze blows a few crunchy leaves off their branches, horror fans come crawling out of the woodwork, eager to indulge their love of every movie that features a chainsaw, a massacre, or a chainsaw massacre. Meanwhile, people who prefer to celebrate Halloween without having to sleep with the lights on return to a few safe favorites—classics like Hocus Pocus (1993), Beetlejuice (1998), and The Addams Family (1991). While your steel-nerved friends are busy with slashers and scream queens, here are 15 gently spooky movies for you to check out.

1. Halloweentown (1998)

What Bette Midler did for Hocus Pocus, Debbie Reynolds does for Halloweentown (though, regrettably, Reynolds doesn’t get a chance to show off her singing chops beyond the odd incantation). The Singin’ in the Rain star plays a kooky, kindly witch whose three grandchildren follow her to Halloweentown—home to every magical creature imaginable—and battle evil forces with their newly discovered powers. The film was first released as a Disney Channel Original Movie, and it quickly became a fan favorite among ’90s kids. Unsurprisingly, Disney happily capitalized on this success: By 2006, three sequels had been made.

2. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 mockumentary—the basis for the equally hysterical FX series of the same name—follows a few wacky vampires trying to navigate roommate conflicts, nightclub dynamics, and other modern-day situations without drawing attention to their more murderous predilections. Not only will the film have you screaming for mercy (due to laughter, not pain), it’ll also make it impossible for you to ever fear a vampire again. Warning: Though the movie is undoubtedly a comedy, there is a lot of blood featured.

3. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brooks’s 1974 mock horror film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson, a doctor who has spent his life trying—and failing—to distance himself from his embarrassing elder relative. The younger Dr. Frankenstein reluctantly takes a trip to Transylvania to scope out his inherited castle and ends up embroiled in experiments that involve several creepy servants (played by Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman, among others) and, yes, an undead monster. Wilder is wild-eyed, wild-haired, and side-splittingly hilarious throughout the film, making this a must-see for everyone who thinks all horror films should actually just be comedies.

4. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical been acclaimed as a feat of theater for more than 30 years. But not enough people appreciate Joel Schumacher's 2004 film adaptation, which boasts earnest performances by Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, and Gerard Butler (plus Minnie Driver in a standing-ovation-worthy supporting role). It’s not exactly a ghost story, since the titular phantom is a real man, but it does have plenty of eerie organ music, secret passageways, and possibly the best underground lair of all time.

5. Practical Magic (1998)

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as spirited sister witches with cursed love lives (literally—their beaus always die young) in this big-screen adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s beloved novel. One accidental murder and an ill-advised resurrection spell later, the pair ends up being investigated by a dashing, steely-eyed detective played by Aidan Quinn. Think Gilmore Girls, but with magic.

6. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play aging frenemies who toss back questionable cocktails from the enigmatic Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who promises them wrinkle-free eternal life. They soon find out that “alive” and “not dead” aren’t exactly the same state, and plastic surgeon-turned-mortician Ernest Menvill (Bruce Willis) scrambles to keep them from (quite literally) falling to pieces. It’s equal parts campy and macabre, complete with creaky old mansions and dark stormy nights.

7. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Some films may have a bloodthirsty talking plant, a sadistic dentist, or Rick Moranis, but the 1986 remake of 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors is the only one with all three. Said dentist, by the way, is played by Steve Martin, and Levi Stubbs lends his bluesy baritone to the plant. Bill Murray and John Candy both make memorable cameos, and Tisha Campbell heads up a ’60s-inspired trio that narrates the action, Greek chorus-style. Did we mention that everyone is constantly singing?

8. Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

Based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book, this enchanting movie from a couple former Studio Ghibli filmmakers tells the story of a girl who stumbles upon a magical flower and gets carried off to a witch’s school in the sky. She has to fight a few evildoers, of course, but the film overall exudes the same curative charm as Ghibli projects like Howl’s Moving Castle (which easily could’ve landed on this list, too).

9. Scooby-Doo (2002)

Everyone’s favorite inarticulate Great Dane and his meddling friends head to a theme park called Spooky Island to investigate possible demon activity. The mystery itself is mildly engaging, but the cast’s commitment to their caricature-ish roles is what does the heavy-lifting for this goofy movie: Linda Cardellini as Velma; Sarah Michelle Gellar as Daphne; Matthew Lillard as Shaggy; and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred. And in case you forget mid-movie that this takes place during the early 2000s, Sugar Ray’s beach concert should help you remember.

10. Van Helsing (2004)

This kitschy monster mash features Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, some werewolves, and Kate Beckinsale’s Transylvanian accent. The unifying factor is Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing, an upstanding monster assassin with the swagger of Robin Hood and the general vibe of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost as if writer/director/producer Stephen Sommers (best known for 1999's The Mummy) challenged himself to see how many monsters he could fit into one film in the same way that you might stuff your cheeks full of marshmallows. The result is just as entertaining.

11. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

A devilish stranger named Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) shows up in a small Rhode Island town and promptly begins seducing three local friends, played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon. As the women grow closer to their mysterious new man, they start to discover some latent powers of their own. (Their hair also gets significantly bigger, which seems to be some stylistic indication that magic is afoot.) The film isn’t scary, but it will teach you not to enter into a polygamous relationship with a man who keeps hinting that he’s the devil.

12. Corpse Bride (2005)

The Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) has all the obvious trappings of a Halloween film—pumpkins, skeletons, monsters, a town called “Halloween Town,” etc.—but his 2005 fantasy Corpse Bride is just as spooky. Through almost no fault of his own, a spindly young groom ends up married to a dead, maggoty maiden, who leads him through the underworld to help him get back to his real bride. It’s very Gothic, vaguely Orphean, and much more quirky than scary.

13. Beautiful Creatures (2012)

In modern-day South Carolina, a teenage “caster” (as in spellcaster) races to break a curse that will determine whether she’s good or evil as soon as she turns 16 years old. Listening to Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons drawl in syrupy Southern accents is a good enough reason to watch this box office flop, and the fact that there’s a giant spell book with shadowy ink spilling from its pages (among other seasonally appropriate special effects) justifies doing it around Halloween.

14. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

When a doe-eyed young woman (Susan Sarandon) and her clean-cut fiancé (Barry Bostwick) run into car trouble, they happen upon a creepy old castle that they hope has a working telephone—so far, pretty predictable. What follows is anything but. Inside, a self-described transvestite named Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is hosting various ghoulish punks for the Annual Transylvanian Convention, where he debuts a glistening, muscly boy toy of his own creation. Innocence is lost, the Time Warp is performed with gusto, and this film (which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year) is not appropriate for young kids. It is, however, appropriate for Halloween.

15. The Witches (1990)

If 1991’s The Addams Family and its 1993 sequel made Anjelica Huston a Halloween icon, 1990’s The Witches set her on that path in the first place. It’s a Jim Henson-produced adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, and Huston plays an elegant, cackling witch with big plans (namely, to transform all children into mice). By next year’s holiday, you’ll be able to compare Huston’s performance to Anne Hathaway’s—as she’s reprising the role in a remake tentatively scheduled for 2021.