The 25 Best Documentaries About Pop Idols and Rock Stars, Ranked

These are the most captivating documentaries about the likes of The Beatles, Tina Turner, Billie Eilish, and more.

best rock star documentaries
Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist
Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist

Today, every pop act under the sun has a documentary. The medium became de rigueur in the 2010s, with current and retired musicians alike revisiting the highs and lows of life in the blinding spotlight. This year alone, we’ll see documentaries about George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Lizzo, Sinead O'Connor, David Bowie, Menudo, Ronnie James Dio, Tanya Tucker, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Lil Baby, in addition to already released projects about Jennifer Lopez (Halftime, newly available on Netflix), Olivia Rodrigo, Sheryl Crow, Kanye West, Janet Jackson, and the late rapper XXXTentacion.

Many of the films in this genre are glorified press releases that reveal little about their subjects, taking a paint-by-numbers technique better suited to Behind the Music than a proper feature film. But over the years, a handful of directors have found inspired approaches. Some capitalized on the vérité stylings introduced in 1962's Lonely Boy (about former teen heartthrob Paul Anka), 1964's What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., and 1967's Dont Look Back (about Bob Dylan), while others lucked into a saga so juicy it must be seen. Maybe they got access to a superstar at a key moment, or maybe they were able to deconstruct the mythology surrounding that person's fame in a novel way. Whatever it is, they managed to transcend the internet's illusion of transparency and the music business' heavily corporatized gatekeepers.

Thrillist has ranked 25 worthwhile rock docs, with a few caveats. Qualifying films must be proper documentaries, which means concert films like Beyoncé's Homecoming, Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, and Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense don't count. And to streamline what would otherwise be an unruly ranking, we're only considering profiles of individual artists and bands, as opposed to movies about a particular scene, era, or event, à la The Decline of Western Civilization, Sound City, or last year's Oscar-winning Summer of Soul.

taylor swift in miss americana

25. Miss Americana (2020)

When Miss Americana premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, the question in the air was: Would a celebrity as famously guarded as Taylor Swift allow a documentary to reveal, frankly, anything about her? The answer is yes and no: Working with Lana Wilson, Miss Americana is memoir-like in its approach to its subject. You're getting Taylor's Version, yes, but it's also intimate. Swift and Wilson choose not to lean fully into the gossip of the Kim-Kanye fracas, instead framing the film around Swift's political awakening, including an argument with her father about her willingness to speak up. Maybe you're not getting the full story, but Swift is as open as she wants to be. —Esther Zuckerman

gaga five foot two documentary

24. 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 directed by Chris Moukarbel, 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 set of American Horror Story to the recording studio to the doctor's office, where reality hits hard. The doc follows the composition of her fifth album Joanne, which marked a notable departure from the pop anthems that made her into a star and the start of a new era of musical experimentation that only Gaga could make. —Emma Stefansky

oasis in supersonic

23. Oasis: Supersonic (2016)

Yes, guys with acoustic guitars playing "Wonderwall" have been the bane of college parties for nearly 30 years, but Oasis' debut and consequent breakout as the second coming of The Beatles—thanks to the albums Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory?—are more fascinating than the grim specter of one song might allow you to remember. Oasis: Supersonic, directed by Mat Whitecross, traces the band's formation and their meteoric mid-'90s rise that catapulted them from Manchester lads to the new face of Britpop, driven largely by the arrogance of the smarmy Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel. While the doc only touches on the Gallagher rivalry that led to the band's demise, it's largely a sunny piece of '90s nostalgia that captures the magic of one group's halcyon days. —Leanne Butkovic

charli xcx in alone together
Greenwich Entertainment

22. Charli XCX: Alone Together (2022) 

Charli XCX is an interesting pop phenomenon, being that she's always existed somewhat outside of the mainstream despite constant critical acclaim for her innovative music. It's something she doesn't seem to mind all that much, though, because of the devout, supportive fan base known as the Angels that she's garnered over the years. Charli XCX: Alone Together is singular in that it depicts the making of an album—her 2020 release how i'm feeling now, which was recorded at home during lockdown—but focuses primarily on her fascinatingly close relationship with her fans. Compiling home footage from both the hyperpop princess and some of her biggest fans, Alone Together shows how she's influenced so many young queer people and how they uplift her just the same. It's a humble film somewhat designed for confirmed Angels but a cherubic piece of pandemic art that shows how special a relationship between artist and admirer can be. —Sadie Bell

blackpink in light up the sky

21. BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky (2020)

Unless you've been living under a rock, this shouldn't come as news: K-pop has been commanding the music industry with its picture-perfect idols, blow-out aesthetics, synchronized choreography, and pop-rap bangers. This documentary about genre royalty BLACKPINK is an excellent entry point in gaining a deeper understanding about the intensive work its members put in to make their fans, called Blinks, go wild. Documentarian Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat) chronicles the group's rise, from their early days training under management agency YG Entertainment, to their global breakout, with contemporary interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at their performances. Light Up the Sky turns the stage lights on these four artists—Lisa, Rosé, Jennie, and Jisoo—to spotlight their individuality, struggles, and triumphs. It'll certainly give you a newfound respect for the girl group. Or if you're already a Blink, you'll love these women even more. —LB

metallica in some kind of monster
IFC Films

20. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

What happens when a metal band past its prime undergoes group therapy sessions as its members try to record a new album? Some Kind of Monster. In the early 2000s, Metallica took the unusual step of hiring a psychotherapist—good for them!—to help them work through the many, many intrapersonal issues its remaining members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett built up after spending more than a decade together. During that time, they were also auditioning new bass players, resulting in Robert Trujillo joining the band, and spending two years recording their 2003 album St. Anger, which famously inspired divided opinions. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Simonofky, who worked on Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy together, Some Kind of Monster is many things at once: semi-intentionally hilarious, sad, introspective, and euphoric, all of it humanizing one of the biggest bands still working and offering keen insight into the dynamics of a group with huge personalities. —LB

lil peep in everybody's everything
Gunpowder & Sky

19. Everybody's Everything (2019)

Lil Peep, née Gustav Elijah Åhr, was a huge deal among certain music circles, yet unknown almost entirely to others until after his death via an accidental overdose of Xanax laced with fentanyl on his tour bus in 2017, not long after his 21st birthday. Achieving the true definition of cult status, a pioneer of the SoundCloud emo-rap scene and member of the Goth Boi Clique, Peep left behind a career on the verge of mainstream stardom. His shocking death led fans searching for closure—which is what Everybody's Everything, executive produced by Terrence Malick and Åhr's mother, set out to do. Directed by Sebastian Jones (who has edited many of Malick's films, including A Hidden Life) and Ramez Silyan, the film is gentle in its approach, diving into the quiet, sensitive guy Gus was in private and the heavily tattooed, bombastic presence Peep was onstage, commanding raucous sold-out arena shows in major cities across the world. It's a touching portrait of a wunderkind gone too soon. —LB

billie eilish in the world's a little blurry
Apple TV+

18. Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry (2021)

R.J. Cutler's look at Billie Eilish is a miracle of access. Though The World's a Little Blurry came out after Eilish first swept the Grammys, Cutler started following her when she was still in the process of writing her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, with her brother Finneas in their childhood home. What follows is a portrait of nascent stardom and a close-knit family trying to navigate an impending storm. Cutler captures both how talented Eilish is and how lucky she is to have a support system while transforming into a global superstar. The cameras capture incredible moments—Eilish freaking out over Justin Bieber; Orlando Bloom embarrassing himself—but beyond the gossip, The World's a Little Blurry is one of the best looks at teen fame ever put to screen. —EZ

a band called death documentary
Drafthouse Films

17. A Band Called Death (2012)

The doc's tagline says it all: Before there was punk, there was a band called Death. Formed by Bobby, David, and Dannis Hackney in early-'70s Detroit, the three Black teens were making thrashing, angsty, guitar-driven music years before the Sex Pistols and The Clash popularized the genre. This doc, directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, works to set the record straight about Death as one of the earliest progenitors of punk, their descent into obscurity (*cough* institutional racism), and their rediscovery through crate-digging record collectors. Running parallel is a journey through the band's inner workings as young kids first inspired by The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, how they were molded by their father's sudden death, and their shape-shifting music careers and complicated personal lives after Death's breakup in the late '70s and reunion in 2009 when their catalog was rereleased via Drag City. A story of long-deserved recognition, A Band Called Death is a hugely important piece in the rock-doc canon. —LB

tina turner documentary

16. Tina (2021)

There’s an inherent risk in making a Tina Turner documentary. She resents the degree to which intrigue about her much-chronicled marriage to the controlling and physically abusive Ike Turner has haunted her ever since she left him in 1976. To make a film about her life is to return to that well yet again, and Tina spends a lot of its two-hour running time mapping out the horror story that was their relationship. But it’s an essential preamble to what becomes the film’s true focus: her triumphant liberation. Thanks to an explosive solo career in the '80s, Turner has built a legacy entirely separate from Ike. Tina honors that trajectory, paying homage to one of the most electrifying live performers to step her decadent legs onstage. —Matthew Jacobs

nas in time is illmatic
Tribeca Film

15. Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014)

Nas' 1994 debut Illmatic is considered one of the most legendary rap albums of all time and a landmark for the New York sound. Time Is Illmatic is a historic look at what led to the making of the album, as well as a proposal that nearly everything in an artist's life influences the first statement they put out into the world. In just 74 minutes, it thoroughly examines how Nas' childhood, his early days exploring the New York scene, and the Queensbridge neighborhood informed his art. And like Illmatic itself, in chronicling Nas' life, it makes a powerful statement about the insidious ways incarceration shapes communities and how few support systems exist for Black men. Rather than being a strictly celebratory retrospective, the One9-directed film finds the rapper and key collaborators both sobering and candid about the backdrop that inspired the album and the responsibility Nas has always felt with his success story. —SB

sparks brothers documentary
Focus Features

14. The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Edgar Wright sets out to explain the underground phenomenon behind Ron and Russell Mael's two-man band Sparks, which has weaved in and out of the public eye since the early 1970s. The director methodically goes through the Maels' discography in his long and loving documentary, highlighting their pop experiments and deeply amusing and bizarre lyrics. It's meticulous and also enormously funny, featuring insight from the Maels themselves as well as devoted fans like Flea, Weird Al, and Mike Myers. (Wright has a great time with the chyrons identifying these talking heads.) There are animated recreations, recreations acted out by the elder Maels, and tons of archival footage of "the best British band ever to come out of America." Mostly, you leave with a towering affection for these weirdos and their weirdo music. —ES

dig documentary
Palm Pictures

13. Dig! (2004)

Most bands aren't too keen to air their dirty laundry, resulting in "unauthorized" documentaries about controversy and flame wars. But most bands aren't The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Dandy Warhols, West Coast trailblazers who got their start in the mid-'90s and eventually had a notorious falling-out. Using sparse, reflective voiceover from Dandy's lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor and vérité-style footage captured by director Ondi Timoner across seven years of the frenemy bands' shows, recording sessions, and often volatile hangouts, Dig! strikes different chords, sometimes playing as a rueful dirge for better days between Taylor-Taylor and BJM frontman Anton Newcombe—who would fire bandmates in the middle of sets—and other times like a flailing punk song as Newcombe and Taylor-Taylor's outsized personalities and overzealous conviction that they are God's gift to music flare up in overly intimate rants and one-liners like "I sneeze and hits come out." Eventually acquired by MoMA, rock docs like Dig! just don't get made anymore. —LB

the go gos documentary

12. The Go-Go's (2020)

The Go-Go's got a bit lost in the ongoing rock-doc wave, but it’s a testament to the heights this genre can reach when the right director is paired with the right subject. Australian documentarian Alison Ellwood, who has also made miniseries about The Eagles and the Laurel Canyon music scene, suffuses the film with an exhilarating punk spirit, charting the ascent of the first girl group to hit No. 1 by writing their own songs and playing their own instruments. Once the quintet became wealthy, the fights broke out—a timeless story that Ellwood tells with enough pizzazz and melancholy to make it feel brand new. The best documentaries about artists make you rethink what you know, and The Go-Go's illuminates an often oversimplified narrative about a band that saw wild highs and wilder lows. —MJ

george harrison in living in a material world

11. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

The debate over which Beatle is "the best" will rage on through eternity, but allow the one and only Martin Scorsese to pitch you on George (who is, in fact, the best Beatle). Yes, this doc is long, clocking in at three hours and 28 minutes, but you will come out on the other side with a profoundly thorough understanding of the late Beatle, who died in 2001 after a battle with lung cancer, two years after being stabbed in a home invasion. The film, blessed and executive produced by his widowed wife Olivia, explores every facet of Harrison's personality and lifelong evolution, making the case that his cultural impact—as an underrated Beatles songwriter, a vibrant solo performer, a spiritualist, a movie producer (and the reason most Americans know Monty Python), and a pioneer of benefit concerts—can't be denied. George might have been the shy guitar virtuoso of The Beatles, but his legacy as a true visionary speaks volumes. —LB

kenny g in listening to kenny g

10. Listening to Kenny G (2021)

Even if you're a Kenny G hater—or maybe especially if you are—you would be wise to watch Penny Lane's fascinating and thoughtful exploration of the work and legacy of the curly-haired sax man known for creating the kind of smooth jazz that is piped into dentist offices and elevators. Lane's doc is a fascinating portrait of Kenny G himself, as he sits for long interviews describing his perfectionist style with an almost deluded self-confidence. But it's also a meditation on what makes music quote-unquote good. She gives space to those who think that Kenny G's tunes are a blight on the ears as well as those who are devotees, taking a detour to China, where his songs have become part of the cultural tradition. The film is funny and will make you reconsider your biases, even if you still hate Kenny G when it's over. —EZ

the beatles in get back
Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+

9. The Beatles: Get Back (2021)

Peter Jackson's epic rock documentary The Beatles: Get Back is a collection of small, intimate moments that follow the making of the band's final studio album, Let It Be, over nearly a month of marathon recording sessions. Painstakingly cut together from hundreds of hours of archival footage, the three mega-episodes of the series chart the band members' shifting relationships and loyalties, zeroing in on moments of tension and cooperation among a group of people who have known each other for most of their lives. One of the best of these is the making of "Get Back" itself, the album's first single and one of the most recognizable Beatles songs of all time, which Paul McCartney composed by just picking around on a guitar for a few minutes. Despite the status of the band and the pressure they were under at the time, the movie has a playful, mischievous quality that's reflected in the ways the members interact. Fundamentally, it's a film about riffing: musically, comedically, professionally, romantically, and socially. —ES

kathleen hanna in the punk singer
Sundance Selects

8. The Punk Singer (2013)

Sini Anderson's bio-doc about Kathleen Hanna is as much a portrait of the Bikini Kill frontwoman as it is a chronicle of the genre she helped to establish. The film is a riot grrrl tome as well as an emotional exploration of pain and fucking over the patriarchy. Anderson charts Hanna's importance within the riot grrrl movement and looks at her life out of the spotlight as she deals with chronic pain caused by late-stage Lyme disease. It's a love story about how Hanna, the face of feminine rage, fell for Adam Horovitz, the Beastie Boy who once rapped misogynistic lyrics. It's as messy and as honest as its subject. —EZ

lou reed in the velvet underground documentary
Apple TV+

7. The Velvet Underground (2021)

Rarely has a documentary been so thrilling, so viscerally alive, so completely enveloping as The Velvet Underground. It's no surprise it comes from the deft direction of none other than queer icon Todd Haynes, who has glam rock glittering through his veins. A portrait of the seminal band that follows the very beginnings of the Lou Reed enterprise that changed art and music, the film delves into the knotty relationships between Lou and John Cale, the band and Nico, and everyone and Andy Warhol. It's a fascinating look at a group that perhaps didn't set out to change culture, but did anyway. And as Ewan McGregor's Curt Wild says in Haynes' glam-rock masterpiece Velvet Goldmine, "We set out to change the world ... and ended up just changing ourselves." —Kerensa Cadenas

kurt cobain and courtney love in montage of heck
Home Box Office/Universal Pictures

6. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

A poetic journey through the mind of the storied Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck dispels the overcooked lore that paints its subject as an avatar for anarchy. Using a trove of artwork, audio recordings, and diary entries that Courtney Love handed over, director Brett Morgan—whose Davie Bowie doc Moonage Daydream comes out this September—weaves together an immersive exploration of Cobain’s troubled soul, trafficking in none of the Behind the Music-esque clichés that sink most rock docs. Some of Cobain's friends have said Montage of Heck, which takes its name from a sonic collage he created one year before Nirvana released their debut album, Bleach, focused too much on his sad-boy persona and drug use, but the idea that everyone seems to know a different version of Kurt Cobain is the point: He was mercurial, prone to fabrication, self-mythologizing, and resistant to any single interpretation. —MJ

bob dylan in dont look back
Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc.

5. Dont Look Back (1967)

Trailblazing documentarian D.A. Pennebaker pioneered the feature-length pop doc when he picked up his camera and captured a 24-year-old Bob Dylan during the folk legend's 1965 tour across England. Dylan’s gift for language is as evident as his boundless rock-star hubris, and Dont Look Back—released without an apostrophe in the title—showcased celebrity candor in an unprecedented way. Martin Scorsese’s 208-minute No Direction Home from 2005 is a far more comprehensive portrait of Dylan's life and cultural impact, but Pennebaker's vérité style has influenced multiple generations of documentarians seeking intimacy from their larger-than-life subjects. —MJ

searching for sugar man
NonStop Entertainment

4. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

A catalog of pre-internet fame, music discovery, and redemption, the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, explores the remarkable career of Rodriguez, a musician who released two albums in the early 1970s before fading into obscurity. Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music had become wildly popular in South Africa, where he reportedly outsold Elvis Presley and his songs became anthems for the growing apartheid movement. In Searching for Sugar Man, two obsessive fans in the late '90s decide to track down what became of their enigmatic folk idol, who by then was rumored dead. One of the best films from 2012, documentary and otherwise, the movie's real strength lies in its empathy for and focus on the fans themselves, embarking on an investigative whirlwind driven by love and determination that eventually led to a late-career revival of a once-forgotten musician. —LB

amy winehouse in amy, amy winehouse documentary

3. Amy (2015)

Truly, there has never been anyone quite like Amy Winehouse. Perhaps there never will be. The British singer died tragically at 27, releasing only two albums in her lifetime. She was a tabloid fixture for her exploits, which at times overshadowed her raw talent. That's what Asif Kapadia's Oscar-winning archival documentary Amy explores. When it was released in 2015, the wound her death left felt like it had broken open again. The film is both tender and thorny, showcasing the immense talent she had and the delightful person she was. But it also gets into her demons—her family, lovers, addiction, media scrutiny. It's a complicated portrait of a woman who could never be easily defined and left a void both in art and the souls of the people who she could have never known she meant the world to. —KC

madonna in truth or dare
Miramax Films

2. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Often one step ahead of her peers, Madonna had a documentary before everyone had a documentary. Truth or Dare was originally meant to be a straightforward concert film, but it morphed into something bigger when director Alek Keshishian started interviewing Madonna’s dancers (most of them queer men of color, at once headstrong and vulnerable) while on the road. What resulted was an evocative portrait of a superstar playing mother to a brood of young souls. But even if her dancers and backup singers became minor celebrities unto themselves, it’s Madonna who, to no one’s surprise, owns the show, not least because Truth or Dare is intercut with numbers from her influential 1990 Blond Ambition tour. Spiky and highly aware that she’s at the apex of her powers, Madonna is having a blast, making the film a respite from the industry hardships depicted in most showbiz docs. —MJ

mick jagger in gimme shelter
Cinema 5/20th Century Fox

1. Gimme Shelter (1970)

No music documentary on this list is better at depicting the agony and ecstasy of writing, composing, and performing than Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin's revolutionary Gimme Shelter, which follows the last weeks of the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour and ends with their somewhat disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway. Starting with the end of the band's Madison Square Garden show, the film eavesdrops on the head-scratching negotiations needed to put on an enormous free concert on a California racetrack, drops in on the studio sessions for "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," and finally trucks all the way out to Altamont, where the Stones lit up the stage after the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers, with security from an increasingly rowdy—and eventually violent—audience provided by Hell's Angels armed with pool cues. What's more rock 'n' roll than that? Filmed in the Maysles' direct-cinema style of the '50s, '60s and '70s, for which the filmmakers followed their subjects around, depicting events as they happen instead of intercutting a narrative from miles of footage and interviews, the doc is as much a portrait of intertwined elements involving the counterculture of the mid-20th century as it is of the band itself, whose songs provide the rumbling, fiery musical beats. As Mick Jagger says in one of his characteristically dry moments during a press conference: "Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying." —ES

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