Music documentaries are one of the best subgenres in documentary filmmaking. It serves as glimpses into the inner workings of musicians as they rise, fall, fight, or play some sick tunes.
Whether you’re a casual listener or a seasoned musician, these films will provide new insights into the music you love or have never heard before. There are films honoring pop, rock, rap, jazz, country, and classical that cover:
- stories of up-and-comers or long-established legends
- thrilling concert docs and personal artist profiles
- films made by the artists themselves
- famous narrative filmmakers working in a new genre.
10 Best Music Documentaries
Knowing where to begin might be challenging, which is why we’ve compiled a list of some of the best music documentaries to watch. Check them out and start your musical journey.
1. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
Martin Scorsese is a legendary documentarian and his work includes a suitably enigmatic pair of films on Bob Dylan, as if his illustrious career crafting scripted dramas wasn’t enough. The first, No Direction Home, was released in 2005 and is a more direct narrative of the artist’s journey to popularity in the 1960s.
In 2019, they released “Rolling Thunder Revue,” a documentary based on Dylan’s 1975 tour of the same name.
It depicts the spirit of the time, on the verge of a complex nation’s bicentennial. As subversive as its topic, the picture defies easy categorization. By fusing fact and fiction, Scorsese creates something that is perhaps not strictly correct, but all the way to true legend.
2. Montage of Heck
Kurt Cobain passed away just over 27 years ago. But the talented guitarist and composer have not been forgotten, thanks in part to outstanding movies like Montage of Heck. One of the best music documentaries that commemorate the late Nirvana singer’s life and impact.
Filmmakers have created a variety of documentaries about Cobain’s life. They delve into both his tragic death and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. However, Montage of Heck is the first to receive support from family and friends, including ex-wife Courtney Love.
We see Cobain as we’ve never seen him before. Thanks to archival footage, animated scenarios, and moving recollections from those closest to him. The documentary delves into his early battles with mental illness, his fight with teenage homelessness, and his eventual recovery.
3. Moonage Daydream
This three-part TV series is characterized by director Peter Jackson as “a documentary about a documentary.” It draws on a treasure trove of unused footage originally taken for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s controversial 1970 doc Let It Be.
The end effect is a meditative slow-cinema examination of the creative process that creates an unsettling feeling of intimacy. A spin-off short film used upgraded audio footage of the rooftop concert for more theatrical flair.
One thing you should keep in mind is that this series is nearly eight hours long. So, you should plan accordingly to delve into this best music documentary.
Amy focuses on the life of the varied and gifted Amy Winehouse and is likely one of the best music documentaries of the last 15 years. Winehouse, whose career began in 2002, swept the music scene by storm in 2006 with the release of her second album, Back To Black. Her explosive voice and eclectic use of numerous genres made the album a great hit.
Winehouse died in 2011, but her music lives on. The documentary film Amy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. It was later released in theaters the same year. It went on to win 30 prizes, including a Grammy and an Academy Award.
5. Summer of Soul
Music documentaries have the ability to highlight marginalized perspectives and shed light on historical events that the mainstream media and music critics have overlooked.
The Harlem Cultural Festival, held at Mount Morris Park at the same time as the landmark 1969 Woodstock music festival (the subject of its own Academy Award-winning documentary in 1970), drew many of the era’s renowned Black artists.
Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, the 5th Dimension, the Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Blinky Williams, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Chambers Brothers all performed on the show.
“Summer of Soul” delves into the history of prejudice against Black musicians, with Questlove himself reflecting in one emotional dialogue, “What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table?” Some of the talks are bleak, but the performance video has been meticulously recreated.
The music documentary, directed by Beyoncé, begins with an explosive entrance, revealing the massive backup band she’d been practicing with for eight difficult months. A 100-strong collection of band performers, steppers, and dancers collected from the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) whose long musical and cultural traditions the singer celebrates throughout.
In flashbacks to the rehearsal process, Beyoncé wonders if she is able to pull off her big plans after the painful C-section birth of twins that forced her to cancel the previous year.
She pulls off one of the most rousing homages to Black music and the unstoppable Beyoncé that anybody could have imagined, which is definitely eye-opening to the typically white Coachella crowd.
7. Gimme Shelter
Gimme Shelter is a 1970 documentary film that covers the last weeks of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour. It concludes with the Altamont Free Concert, which some hoped would be the Woodstock of the West but was eventually marred by so much controversy that everyone would want to forget it.
The film adheres to the Direct Cinema idea of documenting events as they occur rather than researching them afterward.
You’re thrown right into the middle of the action, and it’s a riot (literally). Mick Jagger is struck in the face as soon as he comes off the helicopter for the final concert. It’s insane.
8. Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster
Metallica’s studio practices and live concerts are followed in Some Kind of Monster. It began collecting honors soon after its first debut and was eventually re-released in 2014 with an additional documentary. This is a must-watch music documentary if you are a metalhead.
It’s an open and honest look at the drama and tribulations of being in a big band and balancing the money with the loss of independence.
They discuss their lawsuit against Napster, Jason Newsted’s resignation, the band essentially going through group therapy to stay together, James Hetfield entering rehab, Kirk Hammett becoming upset that there are no guitar solos on the new record, etc.
It’s a tumultuous voyage that ends with St. Anger debuting at number one on the charts in 30 nations.
9. Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
If you are a jazz fan, there are not so many good music documentaries as this one to watch. Chasing Trane is a documentary that details the life and career of jazz musician and composer John Coltrane.
Denzel Washington narrates the documentary, which covers numerous persons who knew John Coltrane. Chasing Trane presents an exciting, impassioned, and thought-provoking narrative of the saxophonist’s life in this way.
10. The Velvet Underground
Making a documentary on The Velvet Underground, a band as important, distinctive, and mythological as they are, is no simple assignment. This music documentary sheds light on a band as elusive as they.
Director Todd Haynes is well aware of this and instead provides a unique and engaging look at a band that helped move the culture in the late 1960s away from classic rock and roll and toward punk and new wave.
The almost two-hour documentary combines interviews with surviving band members John Cale and Maureen “Moe” Tucker that will please new and longtime fans alike, while also giving the background needed to grasp how unique the Velvet Underground truly was.
Choosing the 10 best music documentaries was not an easy task since there are so many great documentaries left behind. Some of the honorable mentions are:
- Samsara (2011)
- George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
- The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Tourin… (2016)
- Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Bury (2021)
Recent years have seen a major increase in the popularity of music documentaries, with a number of prominent films enjoying both critical and economic success. They provide a special opportunity for listeners to engage with music more deeply, learn about the creative process, and recognize the cultural significance of their favorite musicians.
Let us know in the comment which one is the best music documentary in your opinion.