Top 10 Music Documentaries

The life of an artist and their collaborators and co-conspirators can be as fascinating and full of spectacle as any fiction. It often takes an exceptional set of circumstances to drive a person to art and to draw deeply creative, unique personalities together in order to express a world view which is almost invariably aroused and influenced by some truly remarkable lives.

Some of the films here offer a chance to tell an otherwise untold story, to reveal the uncelebrated heroics that go into making soundtracks of our everyday lives. Some allow us to just sit and marvel at the charisma, ability and daring of some of the most idiosyncratic members of the human race. Whatever the case, the best ones can prove more than a match for mere fiction.

10. The Devil And Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2006)

daniel johnston, music documentary,

A strong candidate, alongside Larry ‘Wild Man’ Fischer, for the title of godfather of outsider music, and another musician with the load of manic-depression to bear, Daniel Johnston was revered by many, including Kurt Cobain, during his prolific recording output in the 1980s and 90s.

While The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw somewhat rightly pointed out that the film follows the well-worn narrative arc of “fat old cult singer-songwriter finally gets recognition, though poignantly not the massive success he once pined for”, it would take a cold-hearted viewer not to be profoundly moved by Johnston’s story and his often beatific, childlike songs.

9. Standing In The Shadows of Motown (Paul Justman, 2002)

music documentary film, top 10, motown, blues,

Like Buena Vista Social Club before it, Paul Justman’s Standing In The Shadows of Motown takes the classic film premise of ‘getting the band back together’ to new heights, telling the hitherto untold story of The Funk Brothers, the humble, unsung heroes being the legendary music that put Detroit square in the of the musical map.

While the resulting performance, with guest star vocalists, may now appear dated and is a bit hammy at times, laid-back conversational anecdotes from such greats as pianist Earl van Dyke and drummer Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen more than make up for the final concerts small misgivings as the boys get back together to recount how they, through the alchemy of talent and sheer graft, created the sound that defined a decade.

8. Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wender, 1999)

buena vista social club, best music documentary,

Legendary musician Ry Cooder travelled to Cuba in the late 1990s to assemble a long-forgotten but majestically talented group of musicians whose music was practically buried following Castro’s revolution. Indeed, Buena Vista Social Club touches on politics, love and life as much as it does music.

Documented by Wim Wender, Cooder’s visit to Havana is shot in colours as vibrant as the people and music he discovered, and the stories the musicians tell, as well as the music they go on to make once reunited, make for a heartwarming and spirited film.

Even Cooder’s faintly arrogant, professorial demeanour is overshadowed as these ageing virtuosos cross the border to America for a triumphant return to performance.

7. Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes van Zandt (Margaret Brown, 2004)

best music documentaries, be here to love

“Townes van Zandt is the greatest songwriter in the world – and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that.” So spoke country legend Steve Earle, and this film goes a long way to proving his boast to be true.
Be Here To Love Me tells the story of a man who truly lived the life he sang about in his weather-beaten, downtrodden songs about drinking, rambling, lost bets and lost women.

Born into money but shrugging it off like an unneeded overcoat, Townes van Zandt was every bit the itinerant country singer, who chose to deal with his clinical depression by self medicating with drink, drugs and music. His family most certainly lost out, but the world of music gained a talent so profound that a who’s who of country music stars turn out to pay their respects.

And paying their respects is just what they do, van Zandt having passed away in 1997. Margaret Brown, though, clearly has an intimate understanding of the man and his fragile, heartfelt songs, and chooses wisely to cast the singer at the front of the film rather than turn to a string of living stars clamouring to heap praise on a man who lived it as he sang it.

6. The Filth and The Fury (Julien Temple, 2000)

filth and the fury, film, music, punk, sex pistols,

Twenty years after The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, Julien Temple’s heavily stylised, fictional account of The Sex Pistols’ formation, this documentary from 2000 takes a more traditional format, looking at the short but influential career of the band that shook Britain to its core.

Now that the dust has settled, the royalties have been counted and the myth has been carved into the cultural landscape of Britain, Temple gives the surviving band members a chance to tell their side of the story, and it makes for very interesting viewing.

Without the self-mythologising svengali swindler Malcolm McClaren present to lay claim to all and sundry, the band give their testimony and, true to the punk spirit, appear silhouetted throughout.

With this, the film inhabits the form of part conspiratorial, anonymous confessional, part whispered revelation, and smashes the myth McClaren built while telling a surprisingly emotional story of friendship, betrayal and a country in turmoil.

5. Derailroaded (Josh Rubin, 2005)

derailedroaded, film, music documentary

Josh Rubin takes on the task of documenting the life and career of Larry ‘Wild Man’ Fischer, paranoid-schizophrenic, manic-depressive cult musician and one-time friend of Frank Zappa.

Inevitably, it’s not an easy ride as Rubin charts the unlikely success of a man who was institutionalised at 16 and spent the resulting years playing his songs to passers-by on the streets of L.A.

Discovered by Zappa and then later dropped after he threw a jar at Zappa’s daughter, Fischer, despite his cult following, descends into obscurity and deeper mental illness – at one point he disappears in Los Angeles for days, reappearing at his beloved aunt’s house in a state of near-feral wildness, convinced ‘they’ are trying to kill him.

The film also rather interestingly – and perhaps unwillingly – forms part of a body of evidence which backs many claims that Zappa was a pretty ruthless, business-minded musician with few heartstrings to pull when it came to the fortunes of those around him.

This, however, is a point of contention among many and all part of a subtext that the viewer can choose to read at their own volition – what Derailroaded does is celebrate Fischer’s extraordinary music while telling the heartbreaking tale of his extraordinary life.

4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2009)

anvil, best music documentaries

A heart-warming and at times heart-wrenching tale of two Canadian metal-heads and their band Anvil, Sacha Gervasi’s film explores the almost exclusively fraternal bond of hard rock musicians with the utmost warmth.

Having vowed as teenage friends to ‘rock together forever’, Anvil members Rob Reiner and Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow wound up on the bill of Super Rock Festival in Japan, 1984, along with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Scorpions. In the intervening period, Reiner and Kudlow have wound up making a living as a delivery driver and construction worker, all the time playing and recording together, self-releasing their home-made records.

The film follows the pair, desperate for the success they rightly feel should be theirs, on a disastrous European tour, a costly recording session in England with their one-time producer and a final show to a packed house back in Japan.

What Gervasi – ex roadie and self-proclaimed biggest Anvil fan in England – manages to capture here are not the trials and tribulations of success and fame, but the various tolls that failure and ostensibly blind determination take on the lives and relationships of two men with a truly indomitable human spirit.

Regardless of what they might tell you, nobody has stuck to their guns like these guys, and their gratitude at what they achieve is tear-jerking, living as you do every minute of their journey.

3. Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

dig, music documentary

A cult smash at the time of its 2004 release, Dig! charts the thought-provoking and contrasting fortunes of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the friendship-cum-rivalry of their front men, Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor.

Convinced that he is permanently on the cusp of a musical revolution, Newcombe drags ‘his’ band The Brian Jonestown massacre, a talented, fiercely independent, paisley-swathed troupe, through drug induced meltdowns, aborted tours and record company bewilderment.

The band he hopes will assist them on their dismantling of the music industry are Taylor’s The Dandy Warhols, an altogether more commercially-minded outfit whose rampant success not only leaves them in a desperate bid for credibility, but on the receiving end of some of Newcombe’s more vitriolic, drug-fuelled assaults.

As a result of all this, Dig! is never short of either incident or charismatic cast members, and it’s an entertaining rollercoaster of a documentary for it, but it’s one which also gives a fresh insight into the never-ending quest for a balance between success and integrity.

Both bands unquestionably have either one or the other, but there are no sentences cast here, only leanings to and fro, and which side of the fence you’d like to sit on is left to your own judgement. Enthralling.

2. Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback (Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios, 2006)

Monks, film, music, country, rock n roll, folk, punk, blues,

Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios tell the remarkable and obscure story of Monks, a group of American G.I.s who stayed in Germany after their tour of duty and ended up forming what must have been one of the 1960s most hyperopic and experimental bands.

Guided by two design students who then became ad-men, the five young musicians were plucked from their lives playing covers in post-Beatles Hamburg and reinvented as a living, punk art project more than a decade before punk was even a word in music, playing feral rhythms awash with screeching organ, untamed feedback, pounding banjo and shouted snippets of vocals (example: Vietnam? My brother died in Vietnam!).

Given a handbook which insisted upon them living like Monks at all times while emanating a sense of ‘danger’ and ‘sexy’, and having tonsures shaved into their heads, Monks created not just a revolution in conceptual art but in sound as well, having since been considered forerunners of punk, metal and industrial music. The only trouble was that nobody really heard it, and they disbanded after one badly-received album.

As if this wasn’t incredible enough, their story is told by the band members themselves as they prepare for their 1999 debut American performance in front of a crowd of cult enthusiasts, and their testimonies, comprising a mix of pride, disbelief and dismissal, come from five men as fascinating now as they were then.

1. Don’t Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967)

bob dylan, don't look back, film, music, documentary, folk,

Filmed in stark monochrome on hand-rigged cameras, D. A. Pennebaker’s film followed a young superstar as he spent three weeks touring England in the period just preceding his decision to ‘go electric’.

What results is a groundbreaking piece of documentary filmmaking, cinema verite that provokes and receives its willing subject in equal measure, and featuring a prototype music video with Dylan performing some now-typically agile wordplay on a series of cardboard sheets to the sound of the equally groundbreaking Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Dylan himself is most certainly a creature in transition; from the earnest folk of his early records to the smart, full throttled rock and roll that he would return with a year later. This is a film about a young man undergoing a profound change in his consciousness and aesthetic vision under the scrutiny of millions of adoring fans and a team of cameramen.

Some people recoiled at the spoiled, arrogant brat on their screens, his acerbic treatment of the press, self-referential comments regarding his public image and his generally salty demeanour. This, though, is a man in his early-to-mid twenties, on the defensive from a lazy press who are always three steps behind their subject yet still keen to pigeonhole him.

Dylan is a delight to watch as he dismantles numbskull journalists one by one, resplendent in dark sunglasses and smoking a series of cigarettes; a proto-punk railing against the inadequacies of his interrogators and his contemporaries.

Cut with scenes of live performances a revealing bedroom jams with Joan Baez, his soon-to-be ex, and his sparring with members of the press, Dylan is magnetic and Don’t Look Back is compelling throughout, a portrait of an artist as a young man, who doesn’t even seem to be of this earth.

Written and compiled by Donald Wolf.

Donald Wolf writes a weekly DVD review column for Choose.net’s DVD rental site. The site also features news and reviews on the UK’s online DVD rental providers including Lovefilm.

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Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Aiden R. Reply

    This is exactly why I want to watch nothing but rockumentaries right now. Of this list, I’ve only seen Daniel Johnston and Anvil, but I’m flat-out giddy over here to see that you included them on your list. Well done. Really want to see Dig already.

  2. Ripley Reply

    Nice piece, great directions to look – for the music and the film-making. I might add, as a runner-up, The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart, a John Peel-produced BBC doc. Not a brilliant film but the Captain (Don Van Vliet) most certainly was. Zappa comes off as a prick in this one too, though kind of sad as well.

    Again, very nice work here, thanks for this.

  3. Dave Reply

    DiG! is possibly the best music documentary ever. If I was on a deserted island and could only take 5 movies with me then DiG! would be one of them.

    There’s never been a soundtrack available for the film, but you can now get the playlist and select songs on MusicFilmWeb.

    http://www.musicfilmweb.com/db/film/dig/

  4. Raghav Modi Reply

    Great list. Haven’t seen any and knew of only two. Thanks

  5. Colin Reply

    Good list. It’s lovely to read someone else who shares a passion of mine, combining music and movies. I was less enamoured with Anvil than you, and I’d add Still Bill to this list and possibly the Tribe Called Quest doc, but this is a solid list. Cheers!

  6. mark Reply

    Zappa’s 200 Motels isn’t exactly a documentary – if anything it’s kind of a surrealist mockumentary – but after years of listening to his music and reading about the man, the 1971 film/blown up video surprisingly makes a lot of sense.

    The “body of evidence” that he was a ruthless bastard is indeed real -his dismantling of the original Mothers of Invention (see the video FZ and the MOI in the 1960s)is a testament to that, as are some of the stories about him in Barry Miles mid-2000s biography.

    However, having said this, there is no way a loon like Wild Man Fischer would have been able to make a commercially unviable DOUBLE album (just three or so years after the release of Freak Out! and Blonde on Blonde, which were rock’s first two double LPs) without the help of Zappa.

    As for Beefheart, my theory is that FZ was secretly miffed by the fact that one of the best albums he ever produced was the good captain’s Trout Mask Replica. Still, as late as 1976, Zappa was trying to keep Beefheart’s career going via his involvement with the logistically (and legally) messy Bat Chain Puller – this after they had publically slagged each other off in the press.

    Surely that says something about the generosity of the man?

  7. Pete Reply

    Sad not to see Gimme Shelter on here but haven’t seen many of these so can’t really comment.

  8. Cris Reply

    What about “This is Spinal Tap” ? Could’ve made it up there, i think…

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