Looking for some documentaries about musicians!
December 28, 2014 5:04 PM   Subscribe

Lately, I've been watching and enjoying a lot of documentaries about musicians and I'm hoping I can get some more recommendations!

I'm looking for documentaries that are more of a retrospective look back at an entire career (or time period/place) rather than straight up touring/concert films. I'm not too particular about what genre of music they deal with or how "famous" the musicians in question are/were

So far, I've seen and enjoyed the following: 20 Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals, A Band Called Death, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Searching for Sugarman, Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, The Nomi Song, Who Is Harry Nilsson?, and New York Doll.

On my "to watch" list I have: Beware of Mr. Baker, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.

I'd appreciate any recommendations!
posted by modesty.blaise to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

You're Gonna Miss Me (Roky Erickson) and End of the Century (Ramones) both come to mind.
posted by Saddy Dumpington at 5:15 PM on December 28, 2014

I don't know if Behind The Music episodes are inline but a lot of them were amazing.

Oh and you have to watch Dig!
posted by fshgrl at 5:26 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by tonycpsu at 5:29 PM on December 28, 2014

I've been on the same kick for the last year or two. Are you on Netflix? (I've seen a bunch in your list by streaming Netflix, so my guess is yes.) If so, here are a few more that I've see that I liked:

The Punk Singer about Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, The Julie Ruin)
How to Grow a Band about the Punch Brothers
Shut Up and Play the Hits about LCD Soundsystem
Socalled about Socalled (New York Jewish rapper)

Also, I recently watched Take Me I'm Yours about Squeeze and Days of Our Lives about Queen, both on YouTube.
posted by ochenk at 5:37 PM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jandek on Corwood!
posted by divined by radio at 5:43 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Good Ol' Freda (about the Beatles' secretary, but also about the Beatles, of course)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:44 PM on December 28, 2014

I really enjoyed Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Dig was fascinating too. Buena Vista Social Club also.
posted by mewsic at 5:46 PM on December 28, 2014

You mention the genre isn't really important, so I need to recommend Marley which is a great documentary about Bob Marley
posted by Jaymzifer at 5:51 PM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

It Might Get Loud was awesome.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:06 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man combines a showcase of his songs covered by artists he really likes with a biography of him. I never liked him that much before seeing this film. Strongly recommended.
posted by janey47 at 6:10 PM on December 28, 2014

Gorman Bechard has made a few of these. Every Everything (about Grant from Husker Du) broke me in half, and Color Me Obsessed had its moments. Both are on Hulu.

X: The Unheard Music (about the band X as they recorded Under the Big Black Sun) had a nice collagey feel that humanized the band for me.

I also really liked The Devil and Daniel Johnston, although Gibby Haynes' interview (held while he's getting a root canal) is a little squicky.

Am on mobile -- sorry for the lack of links.

Oh! The Mighty Uke and Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings are both really good.
posted by pxe2000 at 6:12 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found History of the Eagles to be quite good.

Also, This is Spinal Tap. ;)
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:13 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few that aren't quite exactly what you asked for, but still you might find them interesting:

Peefeeyatko - Frank Zappa talks about composition

Cry Baby - The Pedal That Rocked The World

Play It Loud - The Story of the Marshall Amp

posted by doctor tough love at 6:32 PM on December 28, 2014

The Ken Burns "Jazz" series goes into some depth about a lot of different musicians...
posted by BillMcMurdo at 6:45 PM on December 28, 2014

Paul Williams Is Still Alive, about the diminutive singer-songwriter who once wrote most of the best Muppets songs, starred in The Phantom of the Paradise, etc., is pretty great.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:48 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost (previously) about alt.country/indie rock singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. is great as a portrait of a guy beloved by many of the cognoscenti, but still terribly unsuccessful.

Sample exchange... upon being told he's a major talent and deserves to be huge:
"I just want to make enough money so that everyone's not mad at me all the time."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:53 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Classic Albums episodes are online in various forms, some on YouTube, and others may be available on Netflix or elsewhere. But instead of focusing on the band, they focus on an album, including people outside of the band who made the album possible.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:53 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recently watched Straight, No Chaser on Netflix about jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. So good, even if you're not a jazz fan.
posted by klausman at 7:02 PM on December 28, 2014

And continuing my weird rut of "music docs about has beens or never weres" Anvil: The Story of Anvil about the long-running Canadian heavy metal band Anvil is weirdly endearing, so much so that it was a festival hit, even with non-metal fans.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:04 PM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fantastic Man, about pioneering Nigerian synthesizer funk musician William Onyeabor, is excellent.
posted by kaspen at 7:11 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ooh, and Dig! about the friendship/rivalry between The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre is also good.

Man, I watch a lot of music docs.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:13 PM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

End of the Century.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:37 PM on December 28, 2014

Music Is The Weapon, then Finding Fela makes a grrrreat double feature.
posted by ifjuly at 7:40 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought that "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" was an interesting documentary, not only about this performance, but also about Cash's social activism on behalf of prisoners.
posted by calgirl at 8:33 PM on December 28, 2014

Let's Get Lost about Chet Baker is excellent.
posted by third rail at 10:37 PM on December 28, 2014

I loved Control, about Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 10:44 PM on December 28, 2014

One of the best is Some Kind of Monster - its so strange that Metallica even let this very revealing doco be released.

Don't Look Back on Bob Dylan by DA Pennebaker is where the rock documenatry started (at least according to Roger Ebert)

The Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter is considered another important doco - it is often cited as the end of hippies. A murder by the Hell's Angels security is captured on film.

(As per your question, these three recommendations aren't career retrospectives but nor are they straight up touring/concert docos. I feel their power comes from being in the moment, capturing the now - as opposed to an omniscient look back.)

Seconding The Classic Albums series - just watched the making of Screamadelica last night.
posted by meech at 12:28 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here Comes Huffamoose was fascinating to me. it follows a one "hit" wonder band as they flirt with success, fight with idiotic and musically oblivious label execs, and ultimately fall apart in the middle of a tour. as a fan of the band I loved it, but my fiance who didn't know their music enjoyed it as well.
posted by isaacq at 5:19 AM on December 29, 2014

Beautiful Dreamer - Brian Wilson and the Story of 'SMiLE' is fantastic.
posted by jbickers at 6:06 AM on December 29, 2014

The Joy of the Bee Gees is a new BBC documentary that's up on YouTube (though it might not be there for too long) that's pretty enjoyable and career-spanning, for the most part. It's hard to cram in everything the Bee Gees did into one hour.

Also really enjoyed The Byrd Who Flew Alone about Gene Clark; I don't know if it's available streaming anywhere, though.
posted by plasticpalacealice at 6:38 AM on December 29, 2014

Tommy Down and the Language of Music

Should be Tom Dowd (but the link is right); in any event a great film about the former Manhattan Project engineer who went on to become a recording engineer with a number of legendary musicians in various genres. Also agree with the Classic Albums series being great.

You might also like the current HBO series Sonic Highways, in which the Foo Fighters explore various people and places in the history of American music and how they relate to their newest album.
posted by TedW at 6:40 AM on December 29, 2014


Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew
posted by TedW at 6:51 AM on December 29, 2014

David Eugene Edwards Documentary: Preacher.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:55 AM on December 29, 2014

Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways - Victory Tischler-Blue, former bassist for the Runaways, reveals the gritty rise and fall of the '70s all-girl rockers.

Wish Me Away - Feature-length documentary Wish Me Away is a personal and intimate look at Chely Wright, the first country music star to come out as gay.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:26 AM on December 29, 2014

Oh - I'm sure I'll catch some grief over this one, but Madonna: Truth Or Dare is an interesting experience. I'm not exactly a big fan of hers, and a lot of people thought this movie was crap. But if you find yourself looking for something 'different', this might be worth checking out. As I recall, Warren Beatty makes a short appearance or two, and it's surreal.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:53 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

i don't know how easily available it is, but in the vein of dbiedny's lovely recs the kickstarted I Dream Of Wires is fun. and also possibly hard to source i don't know, but there's a lot of great footage of electronic music pioneers (including the wonderful Laurie Spiegel) bundled with the Ohm box set.
posted by ifjuly at 9:42 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hit So Hard - ostensibly about Patty Schemel, drummer of Hole, but there is a fair amount about Hole in general as well as home movie footage of Kurt Cobain.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:30 AM on December 29, 2014

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is really, really well done, and you don't have to be Rush fan to enjoy it. Has a lot of interviews with numerous musicians, and even the band member's parents! It was even nominated for a Grammy.

Having Geddy Lee's mom talk about how nebbish he was as a kid is just precious.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:15 PM on December 29, 2014

Angelic Voices: The Choristers of Salisbury. It's on Amazon Prime.
posted by oceano at 1:33 PM on December 29, 2014

We Jam Econo

This was a great question, as I am taking note of lots of these myself.
posted by layceepee at 1:36 PM on December 29, 2014

Autoluminescent - Rowland S. Howard
posted by K.P. at 2:48 PM on December 29, 2014

History of the Eagles
posted by irish01 at 3:22 PM on December 29, 2014

note: one might argue about the perceived authenticity of 'This is Spinal Tap', but it is really a perfect synthesis of every music documentary ever made. Required viewing.
posted by ovvl at 3:31 PM on December 29, 2014

There are several available at the PBS American Masters site:

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin'
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll
Cab Calloway: Sketches
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
Troubadours (Carole King, James Taylor, and The Rise of the Singer Songwriter)

Check your library, too - my library has DVDs of the LennonNYC, Les Paul, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie episodes.
posted by kristi at 4:00 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sound City Definitely learned a lot about how the sound of so many 90s records came about.
posted by yoHighness at 4:40 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stavx awesome list! And I came in to second the jimi hendrix film on pbs.
posted by bluesky43 at 6:07 PM on December 29, 2014

Sound City Definitely learned a lot about how the sound of so many 90s records came about.

I sure hope Butch Vig is rich. I unknowingly bought so much of his stuff for decades.
posted by DigDoug at 6:57 AM on December 30, 2014

OMG how could I forget The Kate Bush Story, from this year even. More a love letter than anything, granted (it thrilled me to no end what John Lydon says throughout), but a landmark event if you're someone like me, ha.
posted by ifjuly at 9:01 PM on December 30, 2014

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