With the poetic and powerful Kurt Cobain: A Montage of Heck hitting theaters, it's a fine moment to fire up the Marshall stacks and windmill our way down cinema's 18 most significant music documentaries. Apart from having killer tunes, these films often capture seismic cultural change (Woodstock, Soul Power) and evolving cultural tastes (Depeche Mode 101, Dig!). Turn it up and enjoy.
The 18 best music documentaries of all time
Get in tune with these essential portraits of backstage drama and sold-out-stadium euphoria
Juxtaposing archival band footage with everything from stop-motion dinosaur flicks to Laurence Olivier’s onscreen portrayal of Richard III, Julian Temple depicts the Pistols’ tempestuous two-year history via sensory assault, so that the movie often feels less like a documentary than like a prolonged, vaguely coherent soapbox rant. (That’s a compliment.)
A sprawling indie-rock tell-all swirled in trippy video fantasia and some rather stupefying naïveté: Even if you’re not savvy to Ondi Timoner’s dueling subjects—two rambunctious ’60s-obsessed acts called the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre—that’s okay. The bands are enormously charming.
Rock critics tossed breathless superlatives at Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sam Jones’s account of that album's uncertain creation has an attribute that makes it well worth seeing by even nonfans: It's shot in black-and-white and charged by some iconically luscious images.
“Led Zeppelin is overexplained; the Beatles are overexplained,” says the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Instead, he and other superfans set the record straight about the revered (if deeply uncool) Canadian power trio. The result is an exhilarating career history, and also a testament to going your own way.
A seminal time capsule of glam rock at its glammiest, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on the final concert of Bowie playing the leper messiah with the snow-white tan captures the performer in prime peacock mode.
Patron saint of lo-fi music and home-recording enthusiast Daniel Johnston has written some of the most bizarrely sweet and catchy pop songs you’re ever likely to hear. As this documentary demonstrates, he’s got some pretty serious mental problems as well. A solid portrait of genius as filtered through insanity.
Woodstock, schmoodstock! Jimi Hendrix was in much better form at the first great ’60s rock festival, an event well captured by doc legend D.A. Pennebaker (with some help from Albert Maysles) in a film that also features performances by Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane and the Who.