10 Great Music Documentaries to Stream Right Now
The holiday season is upon us and it's a great time to catch up on music documentaries. Any time is a good time to watch a music documentary, but you hopefully have a little extra time on your hands between now and the end of the year. If you're done seeing how HBO's Woodstock '99 documentary compares to Netflix's, we've picked 10 (technically 11) new-ish music docs that you might not have seen yet, including some of the most famous musicians of all time, cult heroes, space bubbles, aliens, scenesters, and more.
These films, most of which are included with a streaming service subscription, are perfect for lounging on the couch, eating leftovers. If you need even more documentary suggestions, we've got 50 others here, and if you want to recreate Thanksgiving 2021 you can always rewatch The Beatles: Get Back.
Head below for our list, in no particular order, along with trailers for each one...
Meet Me in the Bathroom (Showtime / Showtime Anytime)
Directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (LCD Soundsystem: Shut Up and Play the Hits), Meet Me in the Bathroom is the documentary adaptation of Lizzy Goodman's 2017 oral history of the early '00s NYC scene that gave us The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more. While following the same bands -- not as many here as the book -- their film runs parallel to the book and feels less like an adaptation and more of a companion piece. There are no talking head interviews like you find in most rock docs; instead they tell the story with video footage from the era, both onstage and off, which is set against audio of new and archival interviews. It's more of a "you are there" than a "remember when" experience that should strike a chord both with folks who lived and those who are curious as to what it was like.
This Is GWAR (Shudder)
"It was a joke and we just kept going with it," says former GWAR member Kim Dylla (aka Vulvatron) in the trailer for This Is GWAR, which is out now on horror streaming service Shudder. "It’s like, joke’s on everyone else now, 30 years later, you know?" it's hard to imagine a world without GWAR, but how did they get here? What was their blood-splattered path to iconic status like? This Is GWAR dives into all of that, shining a light on the band's roots, telling the stories of the actual people behind the monstrous costumes, giving behind-the-scenes looks at how their over-the-top stage performance comes to fruition, and much more. It looks at GWAR's unlikely Grammy nomination for Phallus In Wonderland, contains never-before-seen footage of the late GWAR frontman Dave Brockie (aka Oderus Urungus), and it features interviews with several GWAR members as well as Weird Al Yankovic, Bam Margera, Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted), Ethan Embry (who got eaten by GWAR in Empire Records), comedian Thomas Lennon, and more. There's always been more to GWAR than meets the eye, and This Is GWAR makes it a priority to show that to the world.
Don Letts has led a very cool life. He was the DJ at '70s London club The Roxy where he turned punk crowds (and the bands) onto reggae when there were no punk records to play yet. He parlayed that into a career as a music video director, making videos for everyone from The Clash, The Slits and Elvis Costello to Musical Youth, Ratt, The Gap Band, and The Pogues. He's also made documentaries about The Clash, Sun Ra, George Clinton and many more. As a member of Big Audio Dynamite with The Clash's Mick Jones, his love of dub and film shaped the sound of the group. For the last 20 years Don has hosted "Culture Clash Radio" on BBC-6 where he continues to blur genre lines. His story is the subject of great new documentary, Rebel Dread, made by William E. Badgley (Here to be Heard: The Story of The Slits). Don is front and center, all but serving as narrator, monologuing more than being interviewed, and augmented with rare footage from Don's archives, as well as new interviews with Mick Jones (The Clash, BAD), Paul Simonon (The Clash), John Lydon (Sex Pistols, PiL), Jazzy B (Soul II Soul), Daddy G (Massive Attack), producer Dennis Bovell, writer/musician Vivien Goldman, and more. Don doesn't sugarcoat anything either, though, as the film follows him through the racial tensions of the '70s, though the punk scene, the '80s, infidelities, fatherhood and beyond. Even those who have followed Letts' career over the years are likely to learn some amazing factoid they didn't know.
Nothing Compares (Showtime / Showtime Anytime)
At the height of her late-'80s/early-'90s stardom, Sinéad O'Connor was ahead of her time. She railed against the Catholic church, rampant nationalism, war, and gender stereotypes, and generally did things her way. She possessed the voice of an angel and a banshee, the heart of an uncompromising protest singer, and had endless passion -- but all most wanted to talk to her about at the time was her shaved head. When Sinéad refused to let the US national anthem be played at a show in New Jersey in 1990 and, two years later, tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, O'Connor unleashed a firestorm of controversy that led to her exile from the entertainment industry that had reluctantly embraced her. Using new audio interviews and archival footage, director Kathryn Ferguson paints a vivid, affecting portrait of an iconoclast who was never really interested in fame in the first place.
Don't go into Moonage Daydream hoping for insight into who David Bowie was or how he made his music. Filmmaker Brett Morgen (Montage of Heck) says there are plenty of other documentaries, or Wikipedia entries, to learn the facts. He created this film, using the vast archives of the Bowie Estate (including hours and hours of never-before-seen footage), to give audiences an immersive experience that is more like a theme park ride or a Marvel movie. A dazzling, kaleidoscopic collage of concert footage, movie clips, music videos and other imagery, Moonage Daydream is none of the facts and all the feeling, sewn together with words from Bowie culled from interviews and other sources that plays like commentary from another plane of existence. You don't leave the film knowing anything more about Bowie than you did going in but it's two amazing hours in his one-of-a-kind presence and with his music. Created for IMAX's enormous screen and dazzling surround sound, the film nonetheless plays great at home. You should still watch it on the biggest screen and best sound system you have access to.
The Flaming Lips Space Bubble Film (Criterion Channel)
At the height of the 2020 pandemic, when live music had all but ceased to happen, The Flaming Lips came up with an idea for having shows. an idea they were uniquely prepared for. Frontman Wayne Coyne had long been using a clear polymer "space bubble" to walk atop crowds at festival shows and he wondered: what if everyone, the band and the audience, was in space bubbles? What began as a drawing Wayne posted to Instagram soon became something the band were actually going to try to pull it off. And they did, after a couple postponements, in 2021. The Flaming Lips Space Bubble Film, co-directed by Coyne and Blake Studdard, tells the story of how the shows came to be and how they did it, as well as serving as a concert film of the shows themselves. It's successful on both fronts, though the documentary is more fascinating as Coyne takes this "it's so crazy it just might work" idea into reality, featuring interviews with Coyne and the rest of the Lips, Coyne's wife Katy Weaver, band manager Scott Booker and Oklahoma City mayor David Holt. It answers such questions as "what if you have to use the bathroom?" and "is there enough oxygen in those things?" and more with lots of great footage of those truly special shows. It's good that all shows aren't like this now but we're glad this showed it was possible.
Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall (Netflix)
It was a historical moment when Creedence Clearwater Revival toured Europe and played London's iconic Royal Albert Hall in 1970, and footage of that storied night has existed in the vault for over 50 years until finally getting released as part of this new 2022 film. The first half of the film is documentary-style, narrated by Jeff Bridges (who famously rocked out and crashed a car to "Lookin' Out My Back Door" as The Dude in The Big Lebowski), and it tells the story of John Fogerty, Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford's pre-CCR days up through the 1970 tour, which it includes lots of on and off stage footage of. It chronicles John and Stu getting drafted, the early cover songs that gave CCR a chart presence, their first original hit, playing The Ed Sullivan Show and Woodstock, and more. And then the second half is a concert film with multiple full songs from the Royal Albert Hall show. It's the best of both the documentary and concert film worlds, and a great watch.
Like A Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben-Fong Torres (Netflix)
We at music publication BrooklynVegan may be biased, but almost as important as the actual musicians who shaped the various counter-culture movements over the years were the music publications that documented those movements, and the hippie movement was immortalized in part by Rolling Stone and one of their most beloved writers, Ben-Fong Torres. (You may remember him depicted by Terry Chen in Almost Famous.) As the son of Chinese immigrants, he was an unlikely success story in the world of rock criticism, and he became a writer that was not just loved by readers of the magazine but also by the legendary musicians he interviewed over the years. Icons like Elton John and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir pop up in this film to celebrate him. Like A Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben-Fong Torres may technically be a documentary about one individual journalist, but it's also about the history of Rolling Stone and the music of the late '60s and early '70s, and if you care about any or all of that, this is worth a watch.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell (Netflix)
Christopher Wallace's story has been told time and time again, but the Emmett Malloy-directed Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell still manages to celebrate the late hip hop legend in ways that feel entirely fresh. It uses interviews with those close to Biggie like his mother Voletta Wallace, his frequent collaborator Diddy, ex-wife Faith Evans, childhood friend and collaborator Lil' Cease, and his jazz musician neighbor Donald Harrison, plus old footage and photos of Biggie himself as well as the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in. It's one of the more intimate portrayals of Biggie that's out there, and about much more than just his music.
Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill (DOC NYC)
Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill is a fitting tribute for the cult folk legend Judee Sill. The film covers the entirety of her life, from her childhood in Oakland and LA (including the passing of her father, mother, abusive step-father, and brother) to her struggle with addiction from age 19 through her death, as well as the role of religion, love, and fame in her life. It opens on Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold covering "The Kiss" off 1973's Heart Food and later features Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker analyzing and playing the song on solo acoustic guitar; JD Souther and Linda Ronstadt, whose love triangle with Judee heavily influenced songs on her self-titled debut, comment on early hit "Jesus Was A Crossmaker"; Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood and a number of musicians and journalists break down the tragic opus that is "The Donor." The film documents her songwriting and instrumental prowess, including orchestration and conducting (both of which she taught herself). Song after song, chapter after chapter, Judee Sill's soul is laid bare. Read our full review here.
The film is streaming on DOC NYC and the last date to watch is this Sunday (11/27), so check it out while you still can!
We said it was a list of 10, but here's one more for good luck. It won an Oscar, a Grammy and a few other awards, but if you haven't seen Questlove's film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, what are you waiting for? It's as good as everyone says it is. He shines a light on this festival that was every bit as incredible as that year's most famous festival that happened the exact same weekend -- with incredible performances by Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and more. It's an engaging document of a truly significant social and musical event that was almost lost to the dust heaps of history.
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