13 great punk and rock documentaries to stream right now
A great documentary -- music or otherwise -- will often stir something within you, inspiring and transmitting some of that energy through the screen, whether it’s dropping you into a specific time or place, giving you access to an artist like you’ve never had before, or just pointing the camera at an undeniably magnetic personality. Some of the very best ones do this even if you weren’t already interested in the topic the doc is about, but there are also plenty that are great in less transportive ways and just full of interesting, educational information, told by the people who were there. Here are a baker’s dozen of rock documentaries -- with an emphasis on punk but also metal, grunge, and more -- that do at least one of the aforementioned things and that are all worth watching. This is not a definitive list, but as of March 2020, they are all currently available to watch for free on Tubi, or as part of one of the major streaming services (you can also rent most of them on demand).
American Hardcore (Tubi)
Unofficially known to many as the “hardcore bible,” Steven Blush’s 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History is one of the most essential pieces of literature on the early/mid ’80s American hardcore punk movement, and Paul Rachman’s 2006 film adaptation breathed new life into Blush’s work. The film version features rare footage of a lot of these bands’ in their prime -- some of which was shot by Rachman himself in the ’80s -- and it’s got interviews with some of hardcore’s most iconic figures, including Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Greg Ginn, Brett Gurewitz, Moby, Flea, and several others. From hardcore’s major bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, Cro-Mags, D.O.A., MDC, Agnostic Front, Negative Approach, Minutemen and 7Seconds to more overlooked but essential acts like Gang Green, Zero Boys, Articles of Faith, and Big Boys, American Hardcore touches on countless bands who defined this crucial underground movement, a movement whose influence can still be felt today.
The Damned - Don't You Wish That We Were Dead (Amazon Prime, Tubi)
Wes Orshoski followed up his great Lemmy documentary with this funny, bittersweet, all-access look at iconic punk group The Damned, from their origins through the current lineup of the band featuring Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible. Shot over a three-year period, Don't You Wish That We Were Dead is, like The Damned themselves, supremely entertaining, with mountains of archival footage and new interviews with estranged members Brian James and Rat Scabies, plus Lemmy, Chrissie Hynde, Chris Stein and Clem Burke of Blondie, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd (who produced their second album, Music for Pleasure), Mick Jones of The Clash, Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts, Buzzcocks' Steve Diggle, Dead Kennedys' founder Jello Biafra, Fred Armisen, Melvins' Buzz Osborne, Ian MacKaye and many more. The real star of the film is Sensible whose charm and sense of humor hasn't dulled over the last 40 years.
The Decline of Western Civilization Pt 1 (Tubi)
The first of Penelope Spheeris' three 'Decline' documentaries follows the nascent Los Angeles punk scene (filmed between December 1979 - May 1980), including Black Flag, the Germs, X, Alice Bag Band, the Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, and Fear. While the live footage of the bands is great, it's the empathetic, intimate interviews -- sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking -- that make the original Decline a classic, especially footage with the Germs' Darby Crash who died of a heroin overdose before the film was released. Unlike a lot of documentaries, Spheeris captured it all as it was happening making for real lightning in a bottle filmmaking.
Decline of Western Civilization Pt 2: The Metal Years (Tubi, Amazon Prime)
Los Angeles changed a lot between the original 1981 Decline of Western Civilization and it's 1988 sequel when glam/hair metal became all the rage on the Sunset Strip. Director Spheeris interviews KISS, Alice Cooper, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, WASP and more -- also Lemmy is in this -- and their conquests for partying and girls are mostly played for laughs, including Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast, and KISS' Paul Stanley interviewed in bed surrounded by scantily clad women. The most infamous scene, though, is certainly a extremely drunk Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. being interviewed in a pool while his mother sits in a lounge chair, which remains rough viewing. Watching the first two Declines back to back makes for a great double feature that bookends a very weird decade.
Don't Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker (Amazon Prime)
Jawbreaker's story is perfect for a movie: they become leaders of the underground, they seem poised to break out on a mainstream level (in the film, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong said he thought they were going to be the connection between Green Day and Nirvana), and just as that’s about to happen, the underground turns on them and the mainstream fails to accept them. As Adam Pfahler tells it, it would’ve been the typical punk band’s “rags to riches to rags” story. But then Don’t Break Down does a great job of portraying how interest in Jawbreaker’s major label flop Dear You skyrocketed after the band broke up, and with a coda of their reunion at Riot Fest 2017 (which would lead to a reunion tour), the Jawbreaker story finally gets the ending it always deserved.
Gimme Danger! (Amazon Prime)
You might expect this documentary about legendary wildman Iggy Pop made by indie film maverick Jim Jarmusch to be a little more dangerous, but Gimme Danger plays it pretty straight. And that's okay, as Jarmusch offers up this "love letter" to The Stooges, who he calls "The greatest rock and roll band ever.” Featuring interviews with most parties involved, Gimme Danger makes a great case for that, as the film goes from Iggy's high school days when he was known as James Osterberg Jr, to hooking up with Ron and Scott Asheton who created a whole new sound. Or, as Iggy told '70s daytime talk show host Dinah Shore in an infamous mid-'70s television appearance with David Bowie, "I think I helped wipe out the '60s."
Heavy Metal Parking Lot (Amazon Prime, Vimeo, Tubi)
Only 16 minutes long, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is nonetheless an all-time rock doc classic, hanging out with joyously inebriated Judas Priest fans tailgating before the band's 1986 concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. Loaded with quotes despite its short running time ("I'm Dave Helvey, I'm 20 years old…I'm ready to rock," everything the zebra-suit guy says), the film spent years available as a bootleg only, getting passed around on VHS, but is now widely available and has spawned sequels (Neil Diamond Parking Lot, Harry Potter Parking Lot), but nothing comes close to the original.
Hype! (Amazon Prime, Tubi, The Roku Channel)
Cameron Crowe tried and failed to capture the grunge zeitgeist with his romantic comedy Singles, but the real deal can be found in this great, funny 1996 film that starts at the rise of the Seattle scene, and charts the major label label feeding frenzy that took place in the wake of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Featuring interviews with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Melvins, Pearl Jam, Seaweed, Love Battery, The Gits, Supersuckers, 7 Year Bitch, Coffin Break, producers Jack Endino and Steve Fisk, Sub Pop staff-members and more, Hype! tackles it all with a mix of irony, affections, and a punk rock distrust of authority.
Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (Hulu)
Much like her five-decade career, this 2018 film is successful thanks to Joan Jett's charisma, wit and tenacity. There's loads of archival footage, from her years in The Runaways through her '80s solo stardom and the leaner '90s and '00s including her work with Bikini Kill, plus fawning accolades from the likes of Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Kathleen Hanna and Miley Cyrus. The film truly comes alive when it aims the camera at Jett who you could watch talk about anything, and thanks to her amazing relationship with her longtime producer and manager Kenny Laguna which the film also captures so well. She's got a lifetime of great stories and wisdom to share, and modern music fans not totally familiar with her story might be surprised about how much there is to learn about about this legend that is still as active as ever today.
Joe Strummer - The Future is Unwritten (Hulu)
Some consider The Clash to be the greatest British punk rock band ever, while others consider them posers who signed to a major label immediately, but there is little doubt that frontman Joe Strummer was a magnetic personality full of conviction and contradictions. All of that plays out in this in-depth 2007 portrait from Julian Temple (The Great Rock N' Roll Swindle) released five years after Strummer's passing. With mountains of archival footage, some of which was shot by Temple himself, it's a treasure-trove for Clash fans, even if you've seen Don Letts' great Westways to the World, and features interviews with fellow musicians and fans including Courtney Love, Mick Jones, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and Anthony Kiedis, Bono, John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), and more.
New York Doll (Amazon Prime)
Tales of redemption are at the heart of many rock n' roll documentaries -- and every episode of VH1's Behind the Music -- but 2005 film New York Doll is especially moving. The film follows onetime New York Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane after he has bottomed out with substance abuse, suicide attempts and other near-death experiences and found salvation and quiet happiness with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (who have also employed him in their L.A. library). Kane has all but given up on his former dreams of rock and roll glory when a call comes to reunite the band via a show organized by superfan Morrissey (who is interviewed here). Finally a second chance is presented to him, just as he's given the terrible news of a cancer diagnosis. (Kane died in 2004 before the release of the film.)
Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage (Netflix)
Rush were an unlikely trio who went from being nerds to influential rock gods while still keeping their core eccentricities in place. How did they do it? Friendship! No really, as this career-spanning documentary shows. (Also: practice, skill, talent and a good sense of humor.) Made in celebration of Rush's 40th anniversary, Beyond the Lighted Stage is loaded with rare footage -- including high school dance performances and Geddy Lee's bar mitzvah -- and interviews with Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart who passed away in January, plus superfans Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan and Jack Black. For those who count themselves as non-fans, your opinion may change by the end of it.
Salad Days (Tubi, Amazon)
Punk scenes were almost always a reaction to the environments they were birthed in, so it's perhaps no surprise that so many of the most iconic anti-establishment punk bands came from our nation's capital. The storied DC hardcore scene and the many factors that impacted it are subject of Scott Crawford's 2014 documentary Salad Days, which dissects the scene from the early days of Bad Brains, through The Teen Idles, Minor Threat and the formation of Dischord Records, though the creative shot in the arm brought on by 1985's Revolution Summer and the Positive Force movement, through the sensation that was Fugazi and the scene's connection to both Black Flag and Nirvana. Pretty much everyone from the scene who was still with us was interviewed (Guy Picciotto being a major exception), including Skip Groff (Rest in Peace) and of course Ian MacKaye who gets lots of screen time. Some documentaries have a "you had to be there" feel, but Salad Days remembers while still inspiring.
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