What are some great rock documentaries?
March 9, 2021 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I love a good rockumentary. What are some of your favorites?

- Must actually have the band's music in it (I'm looking at you, Led Zeppelin).
- Must have bits in the studio where a producer explains how they got a particular sound.
- A narrator giving historical context.
- In English, or with English subtitles.
- Not just a concert film.

Good to have:
- '70s rock, lots of guitars, amazing outfits, British music journalists with astounding teeth, Nudie suits, divorces, cars being driven into swimming pools.

Not required:
- Scandalous tell-alls. I loved the Bee Gees' How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which is basically two hours talking about how great they are. I can guess about the cocaine usage on my own.
- Child abuse, animal abuse, total squalor, etc. The intent is a relaxing good time.
posted by The corpse in the library to Media & Arts (81 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
This is Spinal Tap and Aja come to mind. In the case of Aja, the two musicians of Steely Dan are the narrators, effectively walking you through each piece.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:24 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

The Classic Albums series on AXS TV has a lot of what you want. Lots of talking to the original musicians and producers, and lots of sitting at the sound board working sliders up and down. It looks like there are new ones coming, too.
posted by lpsguy at 3:29 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

A couple I've seen recently and liked, with lots of historical context and some studio production discussion:

A Band Called Death (1970s, Detroit, punk/proto-punk) [This link appears to be a freely-available YouTube version]

Zappa [Trailer]

If you haven't seen it and want lots of geeking out over studio production, Sound City might tick that box.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:31 PM on March 9 [6 favorites]

I'll throw in a few off the top of my head. They don't fit every one of your requirements, but might be of interest.

Jim White's Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (trailer). Features a number of musicians from the weirder end of 90s alt-country.

Wilco's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (trailer) - probably the closest to what you're asking for.

Banks Tarver's Watch Me Jumpstart is a wonderful piece of 90's low-fi documentary making.

And then of course there's Jandek on Corwood.
posted by pipeski at 3:39 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

The South Bank Show with Peter Gabriel making PG4 (Security) is good.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:41 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I don't know if everything will tick all your must-haves (some have been a while since I've seen them) but I think most are close enough.

Less about a specific band (although ...) but The Wrecking Crew covers a lot of ground.

I wasn't that crazy about the recent The Go-Go's doc but it's fun enough.

A bit different, but A Life in Waves about Suzanne Ciani is great.

I was surprised at how much I genuinely enjoyed Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.

Gimme Danger, about Iggy Pop & the Stooges, almost felt too kind at some points but I still really enjoyed it.

Worth mentioning, although I had some issues with it, is Here to be Heard: The Story of the Slits.

I feel like there are a bunch I'm forgetting. I watch a lot of rock documentaries. They're my second favorite category of documentaries (the first being documentaries about fashion/fashion designers).
posted by edencosmic at 3:42 PM on March 9 [5 favorites]

Dig! which kind of covers the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols in the late 90s/early aughts, was pretty good, but might be a tad too scandalous with some of the BJM segments.
posted by LionIndex at 3:44 PM on March 9 [6 favorites]

Bad Reputation, about Joan Jett, who didn't listen when she was told "girls don't play rock 'n' roll."

The Linda Ronstadt documentary Sound of My Voice is a little bit sad, but a good story about another amazing, trailblazing woman.
posted by headnsouth at 3:46 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

The Story of Anvil is wonderful. It has early 80s metal, phenomenal guitar work, lovable Canadian hosers working dead-end jobs, supportive but bemused well-to-do siblings, ill-advised tour logistics, romance and … an ending that will make you happy-cry. Seriously.
posted by scruss at 3:56 PM on March 9 [16 favorites]

The original cut of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii is by no means just a concert film.
posted by flabdablet at 3:56 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

I knew I was forgetting a recent one! Suzi Q about Suzi Quatro is a delight!
posted by edencosmic at 3:57 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

The Story of Anvil is wonderful. It has early 80s metal, phenomenal guitar work, lovable Canadian hosers working dead-end jobs, supportive but bemused well-to-do siblings, ill-advised tour logistics, romance and … an ending that will make you happy-cry. Seriously.

Oh yeah! It's really, really good!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:59 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

The David Bowie trilogy (Five Years, The Last Five Years, and The First Five Years) are all great.

I really liked Mistaken for Strangers, which is about the National (and is centered on the relationship between the lead singer and his brother, who is not part of the band).
posted by carrienation at 4:01 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

2 recomendations that check a bunch if not all boxes, both have the 70s req covered (bigly!)

Heartworn Highways


2 very different musical genres, both films are amazing
posted by askmehow at 4:01 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Searching for Sugarman?

It's a bit different than a typical band documentary but a fav of mine.
posted by beccaj at 4:04 PM on March 9 [12 favorites]

We Are X is pretty awesome. And on my to-watch list is To Life, Death, and Beyond: The Music of Magma. That takes care of two of the most important rock bands in history most people have never heard of...
posted by th3ph17 at 4:07 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Aja recommendation from They sucked his brains out! The Purdie Shuffle bit is excellent.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:18 PM on March 9

The Kids Are Alright has it all, including a car in a pool (not actual footage but discussed).

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is psychologically fascinating and also has a plot.

If you liked This is Spinal Tap, the 2000 DVD edition has: "...a new audio commentary track with Guest, McKean and Shearer performing in character throughout, commenting on the film entirely in their fictional alter-egos, and often disapproving of how the film presents them..." which is perfectly petulant and jaded.
posted by ovvl at 4:21 PM on March 9 [5 favorites]

To scratch the production itch, I highly recommend the Song Exploder series on Netflix. I sometimes found the podcast a little too production-nerdy but the video version is kind of the perfect blend of anecdote and engineering.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:22 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

You should absolutely watch
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
posted by jimmereeno at 4:25 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]

Honestly, more a promo than a documentary, but the Foo Fighters Sonic Highways series on HBO was a fun watch. The hook is they travel to eight cities, take in the city's music history, and incorporate that into a song, which they record locally.
posted by General Malaise at 4:30 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I think Jay Bennett might have even had a nudie suit in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Even if he didn’t, it’s pretty much exactly what you’re looking for.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:30 PM on March 9

We went on a rock documentary binge and so I've seen at least a chunk of the ones in this thread

- A Band Called Death - I LOVED THIS ONE
- Zappa - less into this one. If you like his music, it's pretty great. If you find his music difficult, you will find the movie difficult
- The Story of Anvil - I LOVED THIS ONE
- The Go-Go's - agree with above, if you really liked them, there is some fun info here but oddly it's one of the more traditional style documentaries of the set
- ZZ Top That Little Ol' Band from Texas - pretty straightforward but very good

A few that I haven't seen mentioned

- Beware of Mister Baker (full movie on YouTube) about drummer Ginger Baker. Has some scandalous tell-all aspect but the guy was... like that.
- Rumble, The Indians Who Rocked the World - about four different musicians who were/are native and what their paths were like. This was exceptionally good.
- Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami - hits all your points but unless you are exceptionally into her I would not suggest it (kinda dull)
- Fresh Fruit For Rotting Eyeballs - about the Dead Kennedys early years, not a lot of historical context, but some.

I have heard there is one about Fanny but I have not found it or seen it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:38 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

I wore out my VHS copy of Bring on the Night back in the day. It chronicles Sting's first post-Police album and concert.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:39 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Watched The Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds last night. It was outstanding. Description: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of ‘Pet Sounds,' Brian Wilson and surviving members of The Beach Boys (Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks) revisit the writing and recording of the landmark album.
posted by sharks don't eat potatoes at 4:48 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

We also saw Beware of Mr Baker a while back. It's interesting and entertaining, with some fantastic music in it. However, as you will undoubtedly know and as Jessamyn alluded to, goodness me was Ginger Baker an arse. Be prepared to spend a reasonable amount of time in the company of a person with a significant talent but with little to recommend them in any other aspect.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:52 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

The Story of Anvil

Definitely recommend this.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:16 PM on March 9

30 Century Man, about Scott Walker.

Who Is Harry Nilsson?

The one about the new Journey singer they found in the Phillipines is nice and easy.
posted by rhizome at 5:30 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]

Muscle Shoals is fantastic. Highly recommend.
posted by pjsky at 5:31 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is about the Funk Brothers, Motown's original house band. It includes performances of Motown classics by the surviving members, but with singers including Chaka Khan, Ben Harper and Bootsy Collins. It's well made and very entertaining.
posted by mewsic at 5:47 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

Satan and Adam is more about blues than rock per se, but it's excellent. It's heartwarming and has a totally unexpected plot twist toward the end. It's streaming on Netflix.
posted by alex1965 at 5:47 PM on March 9

It Might Get Loud is part documentary, part love letter to the electric guitar. Half the film is bits where Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack Black each get their chance to speak individually about their separate careers, complete with discussing how they each developed their style and grew as artists; like, they take Jimmy Page to that farmhouse where Led Zepplin recorded one of their albums, or Edge revisits the school where Larry Mullen first put U2 together or whatever.

But the best bits are the clips from the other half, where the three of them are all hanging out in a room together and talking shop, discussing how they each came up with various riffs and showing each other how to play them. Early on there's a bit where Jimmy Page is showing them the riff for "Whole Lotta Love," and both Edge and Jack Black are studying his fingering intently - but they both also have these enormous fanboy grins as they do. And it's a three-way admiration - there's an outtake you can find on the DVD where Jack Black is showing the others how to play the riff from "Seven Nation Army".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:13 PM on March 9 [9 favorites]

Started watching Satan and Adam (recommended by alex1965, above) and it is great! Haven't got to the plot twist yet.
posted by Grok Lobster at 6:31 PM on March 9

It's not a rockumentary, but if you enjoy hearing how classic 70s sounds were made in the studio and haven't seen Toni Visconti talking through how the song Heroes was written and recorded, it's well worth your 15 minutes.
posted by Candleman at 6:58 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

I enjoyed We Are Twisted Fucking Sister .. a neat picture of a totally different time when one could make an actual living as a regional band if you outworked/outlucked 10000 other regional bands. And the scene where Dee and Jay Jay decode the nasty shit underneath "disco sucks!" is pretty memorable. Not sure this hits the "producer explains" requirement tho, it's mostly them talking about playing live, not much recording.

Some Kind of Monster literally killed my enthusiasm for Metallica. It is not flattering to them at all, esp. Lars, so it is not a fun watch ... but it appears to be wayyyy more unflinching and genuine than the usual modern rock band documentary.

note that with SKoM you can second screen the "producer explains how they got a particular sound" bit, because the internet flowers with articles about how the snare drum on the contemporaneous St. Anger record came to resemble the world's most hateful mouse click.
posted by Sauce Trough at 7:02 PM on March 9 [4 favorites]

and the Story of Anvil is wonderful. You will believe.
posted by Sauce Trough at 7:09 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

All You Need is Love is a 17 part series on popular music, with parts 12 to 16 dealing with 'rock and roll'. It was broadcast in the late 70's, and is just great!
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 7:24 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I second the recommendation of “It Might Get Loud” — especially for the way it humanizes these three guys. Jimmy Page has been living immersed in rock-god-ness for so long that he’s effectively always in character because he doesn’t have anything underneath anymore. By contrast the Edge is the most self-aware of the bunch — a bit embarrassed and a bit amused by the fact that for all his skills and talents and accomplishments, his best-known and most-loved riffs are just two or three notes, with effects. I saw the movie on a plane ten years ago with a baby sleeping on my shoulder, so my memories might be warped, but I still remember a bit where he shows the riff to maybe “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on an acoustic guitar, grinning a little sheepishly and acknowledging how little there is to it.

Oh, and I’m sure everyone has figured this out already, but it’s Jack White, NOT Jack Black, who’s a part of this documentary. Though a version with Jack Black wouldn’t be wholly unthinkable, it would have, shall we say, a totally different vibe...
posted by sesquipedalia at 7:29 PM on March 9 [3 favorites]

make it a double feature: the last waltz, then once were brothers.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:39 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

The Defiant Ones was pretty good, though I can't be sure it wasn't just an ad for Beats headphones (speaking to the success of the partnership)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:59 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Flaming Lips - Fearless Freaks tells a great and epic story.

You can say the same for Super Duper Alice Cooper

Song of the South - Duane Allman + The Rise of the Allman Brothers Band really goes deep with the music, which is how I like it.

Just a few that come to mind ...
posted by philip-random at 8:02 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Seconding Heavy Metal Parking Lot! It really captures the subculture of metal fans.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:47 PM on March 9

The BBC's Synth Britannia has got lots of brits in it. And synthesizers. And Gary Numan. But no swimming pools. Vimeo bootleg here.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:50 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

All You Need is Love is a 17 part series on popular music, with parts 12 to 16 dealing with 'rock and roll'. It was broadcast in the late 70's, and is just great!

Oooh that crazy miniseries is something! It's on YT. Here's a preview.
posted by ovvl at 10:00 PM on March 9

+1 for The Story of Anvil

I started watching this thinking it was a parody like Spinal Tap, and then came to the realization it was true!
posted by coberh at 10:24 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King. Here are the first ten minutes.
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. Not about a band but a DJ--a DJ for outer space. Short and sweet.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston. An amazing film! Actually rather heartbreaking, so maybe not what you're looking for.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:34 PM on March 9

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Trailer, and it may be on Netflix now.
posted by indexy at 11:13 PM on March 9 [6 favorites]

Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a hell of a thing but it misses on a couple of the OP's criteria. No narrator, just a videographer, and no studio stuff.
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:51 AM on March 10

+1 for Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.
I'm not a fan, but my wife is, and it's STILL just such an engaging and endearing story of just how nice and cool those three dudes were as people and as a band.
Rest in peace, Neil.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 2:10 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]

Tons of good suggestions. I'll add Meeting People is Easy, starring Ok Computer era Radiohead.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:09 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]

Seconding Tom Dowd & The Language of Music; The Wrecking Crew; Once Were Brothers.

The Last Waltz is a go-to rewatch favorite of mine.

I also loved The History of The Eagles
posted by sundrop at 7:49 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Thirding “It Might Get Loud”, but you have to be able to handle guitar guys nerding out together.
posted by scruss at 8:24 AM on March 10

Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a hell of a thing but it misses on a couple of the OP's criteria.

I guess they'll miss out on the best rockumentary ever, then
posted by niicholas at 8:56 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (It’s okay, I’ve seen it and liked it.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:59 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]

Festival Express should be right up your alley.

Not quite the glam rock you mentioned, but Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall by Spike Lee is one of my absolute faves.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:04 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]

We Jam Econo The Story of the Minutemen, is just brilliant. Not at all about rock and roll excesses, but inspiring, hilarious, beautiful, tragic, and triumphant.
posted by dirtdirt at 11:06 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]

Gonna have to throw "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind" (amazon prime link) in there, as I knew almost nothing about him, but turns out to be fascinating.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 1:31 PM on March 10

Adding to the suggestions for:

It Might Get Loud, where The Edge explains his sound;
Bring On The Night, which I wore out the VHS tape and picked up a DVD and was watching most every summer until about 3 or 4 years ago, when I misplaced the disc (now found);
Beyond the Lighted Stage - I really enjoyed this and had it as a DVD from Netflix (my last I borrowed but was lost in the mail returning it so had to pay for it, but I don't own it

I'd add any of the Steely Dan making of (I think there were 3) Aja is the most easy to find and may be the best of them. Deep dives into choices on each song and selecting musicians for songs or segments of a song, with alternate musicians they considered as well.
posted by vanderwal at 2:45 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]

  • Such Hawks, Such Hounds (underground American hard rock)

  • posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:46 PM on March 10

    The intro to the History of the Eagles is my favorite opening scene of any documentary.
    posted by sandmanwv at 11:46 AM on March 11

    Besides what's already been mentioned:
    The Nomi Song, a documentary of the late great Klaus Nomi.
    You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977 to 1984. Can't remember if it has producers in it, but I think there were bands talking about how they get their sounds (and Steve Albini is interviewed as well, so...)
    Hype!, a very good shot-at-the-time documentary about the 90's Seattle scene, and not just grunge (got folks like Fastbacks and Mono Men in there as well). There's also a good 20 years later followup as well.
    From Straight to Bizarre, a look at the Straight and Bizarre record labels set up by Frank Zappa, which also released works by the likes of Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer, and some guy named Beefheart.
    The Filth and the Fury, about ye olde Sex Pistols. Don't think it has any producers-in-studios in it, but it clicks off the rest of the required boxes (including historical context). You can catch the first ten minutes here. (There's a full length version up as well, but it has someone translating everything into Russian over the soundtrack).
    posted by gtrwolf at 10:57 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

    Danny Says
    Seconding Searching for Sugarman and Decline of Western Civilization
    Also The Unheard Music is really great, and one you might not have heard of: Conny Plank: The Potential of Noise . I know there are things I'm forgetting, sorry about that.
    posted by evilDoug at 11:21 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]

    I forgot this one! I saw it PBS back in the day. So very awesome. It's on Youtube, but it looks like they have a really awful copy (480p?).
    posted by evilDoug at 11:16 AM on March 12

    If you can find it, PBS's The History of Rock 'n' Roll from 1995 is good.
    posted by rhizome at 3:24 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

    Today on BoingBoing: Watch the Rolling Stones arranging and recording Sympathy for the Devil about Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil (Amazon non-Prime or a 42 minute excerpt).
    posted by ShooBoo at 7:46 AM on March 13

    Nthing We Are X (about X Japan, a band that is both very popular and not well-known outside of certain circles), and The Nomi Song.
    posted by verbminx at 10:25 PM on March 13

    Nobody's mentioned 20 Feet from Stardom?

    Also, I haven't seen it so I could be wrong, but I think Echo in the Canyon might meet your requirements.
    posted by kristi at 4:43 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]

    Dropping this here because it was mentioned in the recent Yo La Tengo thread: There's a 2006 documentary about the Holy Modal Rounders that ought to be interesting. They were the essential east-coast hippy band, Sam Shepard was a member for a while, and later relocated to Portland OR.
    posted by ardgedee at 11:42 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]

    20 Feet from Stardom

    Gimme Shelter (CW: actual murder)

    The Beatles Anthology, if you want to get into something miniseries-length. It's basically my gold standard for rockumentaries. Be prepared to be sad bc it was made before the deaths of Georges Harrison and Martin and both are featured a lot. Most beautiful moment is George Martin explaining the beginning of a Day in the Life while playing it and then he just goes quiet when Lennon's vocals begin, with a proud, sad smile. Poignant and heartbreaking. Man this is a good series.

    Also, Scorsese recently did a doc about George Harrison post-Beatles that was pretty damn good though the name escapes me. Mostly about the All Things Must Pass era.
    posted by nayantara at 5:54 PM on March 15

    Scorsese recently did a doc about George Harrison post-Beatles that was pretty damn good though the name escapes me.

    George Harrison: Living In The Material World.
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 PM on March 15 [2 favorites]

    Response by poster: Thank you for all these excellent answers! I was happy to learn that my library system has tons of them on DVD, and I'm working through them all. This is great.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 8:24 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

    I enjoyed Who Is Harry Nilsson but it may tip in to the too depressing zone for what you're looking for. The harm he did was mostly to himself, but quite a downer of a movie. Still, does feature lots of 70s people doing 70s things.
    posted by latkes at 3:03 PM on March 24

    Response by poster: I've set up a rockumentaries FanFare club, if you want to chat more about this excellent genre. Nothing should be read into the order I'm working through these -- it's just how I come across them.
    posted by The corpse in the library at 8:37 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

    « Older What are these two publications?   |   What kind of ball is this? Newer »

    You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments