You don't need to know the difference between a flugelhorn and a flumpet to appreciate a good music documentary. With the right mix of charismatic, offbeat personalities; rigorous attention to detail; and a judicious limitation of outright hagiography, the result can be simply a great movie (see: Dont Look Back).
Of course, loving the subject only makes a music doc more enjoyable, and Netflix has a solid selection of music docs to help you wile away the hours pondering what it would be like if you had become a rock 'n' roll star.
Gone far too soon, Amy Winehouse left behind an immensely innovative body of work and moving story that was always itching to be heard. Looking deeply at the British soul singer-songwriter's personal life and career, Amy explores exactly who the “Back to Black” singer was and the demons that plagued her life through archival footage and previously never-before-seen home videos. The film largely looks at Winehouse's struggle with addition and fame’s effect on it, without sensationalizing her pain. Rather, it tenderly focuses on the whole picture of who she was as an individual, hugely popular recording artist and otherwise.
Biggie & Tupac (2002)
Documentarian Nick Broomfield solicits controversy -- some feel he relies on uncredible sources and inserts too much of himself into films, while others find his confrontational style a refreshing way of extracting honest interviews. In his treatment of hip-hop's biggest feud, Broomfield frequently skirts the line between cold, hard facts and nutty conspiracy theories, which is itself revealing in the case of two murders that, despite the media scrutiny and a multitude of witnesses, remain unsolved.
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
There is the Lady Gaga of then -- the meat dresses, the lobster hats -- and, as chronicled in this behind-the-scenes doc, the Gaga of now, a forceful, musical talent who's just as vulnerable as every other "little monster" on the planet. Gaga: Five Foot Two contextualizes the woman behind the belted anthems in everyday life, from seconds before her big Super Bowl halftime show to the doctor's office, where reality hits hard. As MTV's Diary once bluntly stated, "You think you know... but you have no idea."
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
The debate over which Beatle is "the best" will still rage on centuries from now, but hey, allow acclaimed director Martin Scorsese to pitch you on George. This three-hour-and-28-minute doc explores every facet of Harrison's quirky personality, and makes the case that his cultural impact -- as an underrated Beatles songwriter, a vivid solo performer, a movie producer (and the reason most of us Americans know Monty Python), and a pioneer in the realm of benefit concerts -- can't be denied.
Perhaps the ultimate Dad Band, the Eagles went full-on bloat for this 3-hour (yes!) documentary in which the viewer learns that these dudes take themselves VERY seriously. Don Henley seems to have had the humor lobe excised from his brain, and he harbors such resentment over decades-old beefs that he refers to former bandmate Don Felder as "Mr. Felder." Glenn Frey (RIP) maintains his goofy California rock bro persona, while Joe Walsh brings just the right amount of wild insanity to make this well worth the watch.
I Called Him Morgan (2016)
Stop us if you've heard this one before: A preternaturally gifted jazz musician is murdered by his common-law wife, who went to prison for murder before being paroled and moving to North Carolina. Two decades later, she gives an interview to her night school teacher, then dies a year later. Two decades after that, a documentary comes out, based on her interviews and recollections of the jazz musician's contemporaries. Sound familiar? Of course not. The story of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot to death following a gig during a New York City blizzard, and his wife/murderer is singular, making I Called Him Morgan necessary viewing for any jazz fan and everyone interested in the limits of human relationships.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2016)
EDM superstar Steve Aoki is the son of Benihana founder Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki, and is known for throwing cakes into audience member's faces during crazed, acrobatic live sets. These two facts probably confirm whatever preconceived notions of EDM non-fans hold, but this look at Aoki's career and approach to music also illuminate a scene too often stereotyped as just a bunch of rich kids doing molly and dancing. Though that's there, too.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence (2015)
If there ever was a quintessential rock star, it may as well be Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones’ guitarist had his heyday in the rock and roll-, drug-, and sex-entrenched ’60s and ’70s, but this documentary proves he’s just as interesting and still on a high -- albeit an emotional one -- today. The film focuses on the musician’s present, featuring original interviews and footage from the recording of his recent solo record, Crosseyed Heart. And of course, there’s some insightful Stones anecdotes of the past. At the forefront of the film, Richards shows the old man’s still got it.
What happens when you put a metal band well past its prime into group therapy sessions as the members try to record a new album? Some Kind of Monster. In the early 2000s, Metallica took the drastic step of hiring a therapist to help them work through the (many, many) intrapersonal issues they'd built up after spending more than a decade together. The resulting album, St. Anger, famously inspired divided opinions (what the hell is going on with those drums?), but the documentary is a masterpiece.
There’s no denying you’ve heard Quincy Jones’ records, whether you know it or not -- it’s safe to say he’s left his mark on the music industry. Now a career veteran at 85 years old, the industry icon shares insight into his life and career in a documentary directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones. While the family-spearheaded film doesn’t dive too deep into the controversial world that is Quincy Jones, it does provide an intimate look of his life, from growing up on the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression to working with Michael Jackson. Featuring a number of exclusive interviews, Quincy Jones will feel like an old friend by the end of the film, one with particularly interesting stories about Lionel Richie and other icons.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nina Simone was an icon, a talent without parallel, a socially engaged artist, a person with mental illness... and so much more. As a black woman artist coming of age during the turbulent years of post-World War II America, Simone inspired legions of fans and alienated some of the people closest to her. Through interviews and archival footage, this somewhat standard approach to documentary filmmaking uncovers new layers of a totally nonstandard performer.
When You’re Strange (2009)
Chances are if you’re a fan of the Doors, you’ve seen the Olive Stone-directed, Val Kilmer-led 1991 biopic about the band. But if you’re a real Doors aficionado, you probably felt the film didn’t accurately represent Jim Morrison like friends of his expressed upon the film’s release. If that’s the case, When You’re Strange is more likely the film about the "Light My Fire" group for you, with its unearthed material drawn from Morrison’s self-made film HWY: An American Pastoral, historic performance footage, and exploration of who exactly the controversial frontman was and why he’s been hailed as a poetic legend. Plus, Johnny Depp, who is just about as strange as the Doors, narrates.
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