45 Great Music Documentaries to Stream Right Now
There never seems to be a shortage of new music documentaries to watch on streaming services, be feature-length films or multi-part docu-series. Here's an updated list -- with a dozen new additions, most of which are new or recent -- including films on the '90s ska scene, the history of hip hop, Voidoids guitaris Ivan Julian, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, legendary punk/alternative superfans Dennis & Lois, Anti-Flag, the UK's Rock Against Racism movement of the late-'70s, The Sound's Adrian Borland, and more.
Many of these are included with streaming service subscriptions. Head below for reviews and to watch trailers for all the documentaires.
Pick It Up! - Ska in the '90s (on-demand)
There's a lot of excitement surrounding ska right now, and that's due in part to Pick It Up! - Ska in the '90s, the fantastic independent documentary that PopMotion Pictures released in 2019. Narrated by Rancid/Operation Ivy's Tim Armstrong and featuring interviews with members of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Less Than Jake, The Suicide Machines, Hepcat, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, No Doubt, Sublime, The Specials, The Selecter, Dance Hall Crashers, Buck-O-Nine, MU330, Big D and the Kids Table, Let's Go Bowling, The Toasters, Voodoo Glow Skulls, The Slackers, Save Ferris, and Fishbone, as well as Mike Park, Jeff Rosenstock, Travis Barker, and several others, the documentary chronicles ska's development from its origins in late 1950s Jamaica to the 2 Tone movement in the UK to its mainstream explosion in America in the '90s. The doc is full of rich history and entertaining stories, and it answers just about any question you'd have, whether you're a ska hater or a diehard fan. As a few of the interviewees touch upon, now is a good time for this film because '90s nostalgia remains high, but also because enough time has passed that a new generation can get introduced to this music without knowing about the bad reputation it had gotten by the end of the '90s. That reputation hurt the genre for a long time, but as this film makes clear, the bad parts were far outweighed by the good. I think, even if "ska in the '90s" sounds unappealing to you, that you'll walk away from this documentary with a much deeper appreciation for the music. [Andrew Sacher]
Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix)
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about hip hop, you're guaranteed to learn something new from Hip-Hop Evolution. Hosted by Canadian rapper Shad, the four-season, 16-episode series trace's hip hop's history from its forebears in the early 1970s, to DJ Kool Herc's historic house party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11, 1973, to "Rapper's Delight," to the various hip hop scenes that sprung up in other parts of New York, the West Coast, the South, and beyond. It touches on the birth of gangsta rap with NWA and Ice-T, Def Jam and the rise of the Beastie Boys, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry, Miami bass and 2 Live Crew's impact on free speech within music, Geto Boys' impact on Houston rap, the Dungeon Family's impact on Atlanta rap, the alternative hip hop scenes with Mos Def and Talib Kweli in NYC and the Freestyle Fellowship in LA, the battle rap scene that birthed Eminem, New Orleans bounce, how Lil Jon brought crunk to the mainstream, the influential Virginia Beach sound spearheaded by Timbaland and the Neptunes, the mixtape culture that helped put 50 Cent on the map, and much, much more. Hip-Hop Evolution presents all of this history in an entertaining, digestible way that will draw you in whether you're a lifelong hip hop head or just have a casual appreciation for the genre. The amount of thrilling anecdotes, footage, and information packed into these 16 episodes is astonishing. When it ends, you'll be begging for a fifth season. [Andrew Sacher]
You Don't Know Ivan Julian (Amazon)
"I have written songs since the first time i picked up an instrument, 'cause the idea was to express myself. Especially the guitar," says Ivan Julian. "I'd come from a classical background where I was taught bassoon and saxophone. And the future of that meant playing somebody else's music for the rest of your life. I thought, 'No, I want to be able to pick up an instrument and play, when I'm feeling my own music.'" Geoffray Barbier's new documentary is a nice hang with legendary New York guitarist Ivan Julian, best known for playing in Richard Hell & The Voidoids, but who has also played with The Clash, Matthew Sweet, The Bongos, Shriekback and more. While some of the ups and downs of Julian's life are represented here -- including his 2015 cancer diagnosis (he's currently doing well) -- but the film makes a point to focus on the music. He talks about what he brought to Voidoids songs "Blank Generation" and "Love Comes in Spurts," playing on The Clash's "Sandinista" and his work as a producer and studio owner. The film also talks with friends and collaborators including Richard Hell, Vernon Reid, Alejandro Escovedo, The Fleshtones' Peter Zaremba & Keith Streng, Garland Jeffreys, and The Bongos' Richard Barone who says "Ivan can play the entire history of rock n' roll in one solo." [Bill Pearis]
Other Music (Amazon Prime)
"I like curators," says The National's Matt Berninger in the Other Music documentary. "People who are passionate enough to comb through it all and write a hundred words on a little card and make sure it stays stuck to the shelf." Those little cards at Other Music, the beloved NYC record store that was open from 1995-2016, meant a lot. Berninger added, "The first show at Mercury Lounge and the first time we got a card at Other Music, it was like 'My band is real.'" The Other Music documentary is a love letter to record store culture, a bygone era of NYC and one tiny shop on W. 4th street in particular. "Per square meter it probably had more interest value than any other shop I'd even been in in the world," says Depeche Mode's Martin Gore. While tons of artists are interviewed for the film -- Le Tigre's JD Samson, James Chance, Interpol's Daniel Kessler, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Brian Chase, Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, Magnetic Fields maestro Stephin Merritt and many more -- most of the documentary is dedicated to the staff, including owners Chris Vanderloo and Josh Madell, and many of the clerks who stayed with the store for years. What Other Music does best is show how record stores could be a community, where clerks got to know their customer base, and how person-to-person recommendations offer more than an algorithm ever could. Read more here. [Bill Pearis]
Grass Is Greener (Netflix)
Directed and narrated by hip hop legend Fab 5 Freddy, Grass Is Greener ties the racial injustice associated with America's war on drugs and the criminalization (and eventual legalization) of marijuana to the developments of jazz, hip hop, and reggae. It features interviews with a handful of great musicians, including Snoop Dogg, Killer Mike, Damian Marley, Chuck D, DMC, B-Real, Doug E Fresh, and more, and it's equally about music, weed, and civil rights. It discusses the way old jazz records like Cab Calloway's "The Reefer Man" spread the word about pot in the early 20th century, and how dealers like Branson earned a reputation by being shouted out on rap records, and it includes the alarming quote from former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman saying, "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities." In an era where the current president is throwing fuel on racism's fire like Nixon was over half a century ago, this documentary is not just fascinating but also a necessary telling of history that we can really learn from today. [Andrew Sacher]
Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All (Netflix)
Frank Sinatra is the focal point of the two-part, four-hour Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, but like many great documentaries, this film is just as much about its subject as it's about the history that surrounded him. It touches on racial tensions in the 20th century, the mafia, John F. Kennedy, and more, as well as Ol' Blue Eyes' singing and acting career, his proto-rockstar superstardom, and the darker sides of his personal life. The history unfolds without on-screen interviews, using archival recordings of Sinatra, as well as stories by his children and ex-wives, and a few celebrity sound bites like Bruce Springsteen and the late Pete Hamill. You probably need even more than four hours to tell Frank Sinatra's story, but this very thorough film does not skimp on the details. [Andrew Sacher]
Dennis and Lois (Amazon Prime)
Dennis Anderson and Lois Kahlert met at a Fats Domino show, went on their first "real" date to see Television and Talking Heads at CBGBs, and it's been a rock n' roll love story ever since. They are legendary superfans who, now in their early '70s, are still at it. Chris Cassidy's long-in-the-works film Dennis & Lois is a warm, funny, and inspiring documentary about their dual loves. The film spends a lot of time with them, be it on tour with The Vaccines, in Manchester seeing Happy Mondays, or at their Long Island home that is packed to the gills with memorabilia and toys. Dennis and Lois is similarly packed with amazing stories, such as when they were on tour in the UK selling merch for the Ramones in the early '80s and, at the Manchester show, took a very young boy backstage to meet the band. That boy grew up to be Jimi Goodwin of Doves. Or the time Happy Mondays asked them to score some weed for them -- the band were recording in L.A. and Dennis and Lois FedExed it to them from NYC. Though Lois has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is mostly confined to a wheelchair, she's still seeing shows with Dennis -- they haven't lost their love for rock n' roll, or each other. Read more here. [Bill Pearis]
Walking In The Opposite Direction - Adrian Borland and The Sound (Vimeo)
"Left all alone, I'm with the one I most fear," Adrian Borland sang on "I Can't Escape Myself," the first and best song on The Sound's 1980 debut album Jeopardy, and as conveyed in the 2016 Adrian Borland documentary Walking in the Opposite Direction -- which just became available to stream this year -- that line was more than your typical goth posturing. Adrian was truly his own worst enemy, and he battled serious mental health issues and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for decades before ultimately taking his own life in 1999. His health issues were at least part of the reason that Adrian never gained the popularity that he truly deserved, but as his father Bob Borland said in Walking in the Opposite Direction, even if The Sound or any of Adrian's other projects had hit it big, "I'm not sure that Adrian could've handled it."
The documentary traces Adrian's career from his days fronting the punk band The Outsiders in the late '70s to fronting the post-punk band The Sound in the '80s to his solo career in the late '80s and '90s, with which he dabbled in jangle pop, folk, alternative rock, psychedelic rock, and more. It features interviews with Adrian's family members, bandmates, producers, and significant others, and it really does a great job of showing what a fascinating and troubled life Adrian lived. It's full of fantastic live footage and all kinds of intriguing insight into Adrian's music and personal life. Interviewees describe some of Adrian's scariest episodes, but the documentary is full of fond memories as well. It's clear that the people who were closest to him thought so highly of Adrian as an artist, and that music was truly so important to him. "His music was more important to him than his health," his father said. Read more here. [Andrew Sacher]
White Riot (Film Movement)
Though director Rubikah Shah's new documentary White Riot takes place over 40 years ago, it has a message that's essential today. Named after The Clash's anti-racism anthem, the film chronicles the UK's late 1970s "Rock Against Racism" movement, which happened as a result of heightened racial tension in the UK. Far-right group The National Front had become mainstream as prominent politician Enoch Powell began pushing an increasingly xenophobic and racist agenda. When rock stars like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart began spewing similar rhetoric, music photographer Red Saunders reacted by getting together with Roger Huddle, Kate Webb, Syd Shelton, and Ruth Gregory to launch the "Rock Against Racism" movement and the Temporary Hoarding fanzine. They put on shows with punk, ska, reggae, and new wave bands, with the goal of bringing Black and white musicians and fans together to preach unity and fight against racism.
The documentary features interviews with Red, Roger, Kate, Syd, Ruth, The Clash's Topper Headon, The Selecter's Pauline Black, Steel Pulse's Mykaell Riley & David Hinds, Matumbi's Dennis Bovell, Tom Robinson, and others, as well as concert footage, old photos, clips of the Temporary Hoarding fanzine and more, and it culminates in RAR and the Anti-Nazi League's big 1978 Carnival Against the Nazis in Victoria Park, which featured Patrick Fitzgerald, X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, The Clash (joined by Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey for guest lead vocals on "White Riot"), and the Tom Robinson Band. Read more here. [Andrew Sacher]
Breadcrumb Trail (Slint) (YouTube)
"Just keep in mind for the next few days that we're in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York City. This is a weird place." That quote from Hunter S. Thompson opens and sets the tone for Lance Bang's 2014 documentary on storied Louisville, KY post-hardcore/post-rock group Slint who broke up before the release of their classic 1991 LP Spiderland. Told from Bangs' personal perspective and fascination with the record -- at points like an investigation of unexplained phenomena, like Bigfoot -- before becoming a slightly more conventional documentary, Breadcrumb Trail looks at the history of the band, from from pre-Slint band Squirrel Bait, through their early days though their dissolution. There's also a fair amount of time exploring the '80s Louisville punk scene, Spiderland's haunting album art (photo by Will Oldham), and the lasting impact the record has made. In addition to intimate revealing interviews with band members, Bangs also talks to James Murphy, Steve Albini, David Yow, Ian MacKaye, Matt Sweeney, and drummer Brit Walford’s parents who let them practice and record till all hours of the night. It's a fascinating, off-kilter look at a group you could describe similarly. [Bill Pearis]
Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag (on-demand)
Long-running, politically involved punks Anti-Flag bring their message to the screen with Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag. The new documentary was directed by Jon Nix of Turnstyle Films, and it features live and behind-the-scenes footage from over the years, interviews with all four members of Anti-Flag, and interviews with Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Billy Bragg, Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Brian Baker (Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, Minor Threat), Chris Cresswell (The Flatliners, Hot Water Music), Tom May and Greg Barnett (The Menzingers), and others. The film is as much about politics as it's about the last 30 years of punk rock as it's about Anti-Flag themselves, and if you have an interest in any or all of those topics, it's highly recommend.
"Right now it is important to remind people that positive change is possible, but it is earned, not given freely by those who hold institutional power," frontman Justin Sane told us in our recent interview about the film. "It comes because people speak out and stand up. People stand in solidarity with each other. In the film, we remind people that we don’t win every fight, but when we do win, it matters. It truly impacts others in a very real and tangible way. And if you can help one person in life, then I believe that you did something important. We may not win every time, it’s important to remember that. But if we try, if we don’t speak up, things will never get better. Right now I think people need to be reminded of this fact." Read more here. [Andrew Sacher]
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix)
"I'll tell you what freedom is to me," Nina Simone says in a 1968 interview included in director Liz Garbus' documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. "No fear." The documentary tells the legendary musician's story from childhood to stardom to civil rights activist, using archival interviews with Nina herself, more recent interviews with her daughter Lisa, and -- controversially -- interviews with her ex-husband/manager Andrew Stroud, who violently abused her and who did not support Nina in her fight for civil rights. "He protected me against everyone but himself," she said in one interview. It's not easy to paint a picture of someone as storied as Nina Simone with just 101 minutes, but Garbus does a fine job. The doc portrays Nina as the multi-faceted, groundbreaking artist who wrote "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," while also capturing the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, working in Nina's connections to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other iconic figures of the era. It's worth watching for the live footage alone, including her performance of "I Loves You Porgy" on a Playboy Penthouse broadcast and her performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Watching her sing is breathtaking, and hearing her speak bluntly about racial injustice is both powerful and chilling, especially as we see so many of these same issues plaguing society today. [Andrew Sacher]
The Go-Go's (included with Showtime and available to rent on other digital platforms)
"We lived it and we survived it," The Go-Go's say of the new documentary about their band. "Now, looking back on our history through this film, we get to relive our journey as a band: the fun, the adventure, the highs and the lows. We hope this documentary will show the world that we were pioneers, and how our experience paved the way for many other female (and some male!) musicians." It also features interviews with Kathleen Hanna, The Police's Stewart Copeland, The Specials' Terry Hall & Lynval Golding, MTV's Martha Quinn, and more, not to mention the first new Go-Go's song in 19 years.
CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine (video on demand)
CREEM magazine -- the storied, rebellious rock n' roll rag that ran from 1969 to 1989 and was home to the writing of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, founder Barry Kramer and more -- is the subject of this new documentary from Scott Crawford (Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, 1980-90). The film includes interviews with Alice Cooper, Cameron Crowe, Joan Jett, Michael Stipe, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Kirk Hammett, Thurston Moore, Peter Wolf, and more, and features new music from MC5's Wayne Kramer. Rent it here.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (iTunes, Amazon, more)
If you love The Last Waltz but want to know more about The Band and frontman Robbie Robertson, Once Were Brothers is the "confessional, cautionary, and occasionally humorous tale of Robertson’s young life and the creation of one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music, The Band. The film is a moving story of Robertson’s personal journey, overcoming adversity and finding camaraderie alongside the four other men who would become his brothers in music, together making their mark on music history." It's got interviews with Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and more.
Laurel Canyon (Epix)
Laurel Canyon is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but for a lot of music fans it's a time and place, and a shorthand for a mystical folk-rock sound that included Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Doors, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and more. This two-part docu-series, made by Alison Ellwood (who also directed The Go-Go's), gives an overview of the scene, the sound and the people who made the music. "Through a wealth of rare and newly unearthed footage and audio recordings, the series features an intimate portrait of the artists who created a musical revolution that changed popular culture. Uniquely immersive and experiential, this event takes us back in time to a place where a rustic canyon in the heart of Los Angeles became a musical petri dish."
Murder in the Front Row (iTunes, Amazon, more)
"There was a time when everybody was equal," filmmaker Adam Dubin told us of his Bay Area thrash metal documentary, Murder in the Front Row. "When James Hetfield was just an 18-year-old kid, just like the kids listening to him who were maybe his age or a little younger, and that’s the time I wanted to get to and bring everybody back to the interviews which we did by showing them the old photographs and stuff like that. At that moment in time, that’s really cool to capture." In addition to Metallica, Murder in the Front Row also features interviews with members of Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, Possessed and more. It's available to rent via most streaming platforms.
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (Netflix)
Taylor Swift's folklore, her new album where she collaborated with The National's Aaron Dessner, and dueted with Bon Iver, recently debuted at #1 on the album charts, but this Netflix documentary isn't about her "indie" turn. It's a coming-of-age-in-the-spotlight origin story, following her from her beginnings as a country singer to her pop transformation, to megastardom, through the Kanye incident, her struggles with an eating disorder, and much more. There's even a little about her appearance in the Cats movie, though maybe she wishes the film stopped a little before that happened.
The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps (video on demand)
Documentary The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy Of Martin Phillipps tracks the many ups and downs of New Zealand indie icons The Chills and its sole constant member, Martin Phillipps. Featuring rare live and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as new interviews with Phillipps and many of the musicians who have been members over the years, the documentary is a warts-and-all look at Phillipps' foibles and genius, as well as a portrait of triumph over the adversity that is sometimes yourself.
Desolation Center (video on demand)
"You know, in Europe you don't have the same access to explosives and weapons that Americans do," Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld said of his band's truly incendiary 1984 performance in the California desert, one of a series of totally DIY shows put on by the Desolation Center collective during the Reagan Years. Desolation Center was the brainchild of Stuart Swezey who, nearly 40 years later, has made a wonderful documentary about the concerts and the time. It's not often that a film leaves you totally envious of the people who were there, but this is one of them. Desolation Center also features Sonic Youth, The Minutemen, Redd Kross, Meat Puppets and more, and you can read our full review here.
Athens, GA: Inside/Out (Tubi)
In the early to mid '80s, college town Athens, GA -- a blue, arty dot in a conservative state -- became perhaps the biggest hotbed of new music in the USA. Filmed in 1986, Inside/Out captures a moment in time of alternative culture, taking a snapshot of Athens' music scene, featuring interviews and performances from most of the big groups at the time, including R.E.M., The B-52's, Pylon (who had broken up by the time this film was made), and Love Tractor, as well as rockabilly firecrackers Flat Duo Jets, Kilkenny Cats and punks Bar-B-Que Killers. One of the best things about the movie, though, is it's not just about the music; it spends time with Athens notables including folk artist Howard Finster (who did the cover art for R.E.M.'s Reckoning and Talking Heads' Little Creatures), poet John Searight, local celebrity ORT, and Walter Rittenberry who owned R.E.M. hangout Walter's BBQ. The film sells the appeal of the town more than anything, where bohemian cool and southern hospitality made beautiful music together.
Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (Prime Video)
You may have seen the 2014 film Frank starring Michael Fassbender, but the true story of the man behind the mask is much more interesting. Chris Sievey always wanted to be in the spotlight, having made wildly creative films, cartoons and videos with no budget, and was in a number of bands with not much success... till he created a paper mache head and Frank Sidebottom was born. A truly one of a kind creation, Frank did parodies of both popular songs and indie hits, all reworked to be about Frank's life in Timperley, England. (Many of them also featured his sidekick, Little Frank.) Unfortunately, Frank also took over Chris' life -- family, friends, health be damned. Being Frank shows all sides of Sievy, the funny, the sweet, the unbelievable, and the sad (Seivy died of cancer in 2010). Chris spent much of his life in front of a camera (whether underneath Frank's head or not), so Being Frank director Steve Sullivan had access to an amazing amount of footage making for a very rich documentary that succeeds in being nearly as unforgettable as Frank himself.
Filmed over the course of seven years, Ondi Timoner‘s 2004 documentary DIG! follows the careers of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, who began as partners in crime but ended up bitter rivals. Full of quotable exchanges, onstage meltdowns and fistfights, every kind of rock n’ roll excess imaginable, real life Spinal Tap moments, broken sitars, and great music, too, DIG! is a modern classic that is compelling even if you’ve never heard one note of either band. Both Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor and BJM's Anton Newcombe now contend DiG! is an inaccurate portrait of both, but that doesn't stop this from being an enthralling film from start to finish.
Duran Duran: There's Something You Should Know (Showtime)
Armed with teen idol good looks, flashy videos made in exotic locales and glammy new wave pop songs that are better than critics gave them credit for at the time, Duran Duran were a genuine worldwide sensation in the early '80s and arguably the biggest British band to hit America since the Beatles. There's Something You Should Know charts the rise and fall and rise of the group in an economical, breezy 59 minutes that may skirt over the dark stuff but is nonetheless entertaining. Like the Spandau Ballet documentary, the early years are the most interesting part; once you get past Rio, the rock cliches really kick in and you may not care about the 2015 album they made with Mark Ronson that takes up a chunk of the short running time. But they all seem to still get along and their camaraderie is infectious (though original and currently ex member Andy Taylor is notably absent here).
New Order: Decades (Showtime)
New Order played a very special show at the 2017 Manchester International Festival where they “deconstructed, rethought and rebuilt” songs from their catalogue, playing alongside a 12-piece synthesizer ensemble from the Royal Northern College of Music with a very cool stage set designed by conceptual artist Liam Gillick. For those shows, their set featured a lot of songs that New Order hadn’t played in years, or even decades -- including "Decades" which was by Joy Division, the group New Order was birthed from. As a warm-up for those Manchester shows, New Order played shows in Vienna which were filmed for this concert film/documentary that shows the creation process between New Order, the 12 young musicians, and Gillick. Decades also spends time with band members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert -- as well as the group's graphic designer Peter Saville -- as they pour through their 40-year career in order to make something new.
Pavement: Slow Century (YouTube)
Lance Bangs' documentary Slow Century tracks the history of '90s indie rock heroes Pavement from their formation in 1989 to their final live show in London a decade later. It hits on Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich's pre-Pavement UVA band Ectoslavia, the group's early days with headstand-loving wildman drummer Gary Young, their mid-'90s Buzz Bin success, touring as part of the disastrous Lollapalooza '95, working with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on their final album, and that final show. Like the band themselves, Slow Century is a little shaggy -- seriously, why is Thurston Moore in this movie? -- but it also doesn't frame Pavement as weirdo geniuses, just regular people...one of whom had an extreme obsession with horse racing.
Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (Prime Video)
Pulp capped off their 2012 reunion tour with a triumphant hometown show at Sheffield's Motorpoint Arena. Director Florian Habicht documents that performance but also Sheffield itself, but spends as much time with fans and local residents as it does Jarvis Cocker and the rest of the band, painting a vivid portrait of the city that shaped the band. It is not a film charting Pulp’s beginnings through their breakup in 2002. “That’s what YouTube and Wikipedia is for,” says Habicht. It’s a sweet, charming movie that you don’t have to have even heard “Common People” to enjoy. Plus: if you've ever wanted to see Jarvis change a tire, this is your movie.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (Hulu, Prime Video, Tubi)
After releasing their third album, James Murphy decided to break up LCD Soundsystem and play one final show with the ethos of "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever." It was their biggest show of their existence by a mile -- at Madison Square Garden -- with an all-white (suggested) dress code and guest appearances by members of Arcade Fire and Reggie Watts. The genuinely ecstatic concert footage is juxtaposed with footage of Murphy the next day, making coffee and walking his dog, as well as an interview with Chuck Klosterman from the week before. In both circumstances, Murphy wonders if he didn't make a huge mistake. Even though the film has since been somewhat undercut by LCD getting back together six years later, Shut Up and Play the Hits is a fantastic concert film and a thoughtful portrait of an artist trying to end things on his own terms. At the time.
Soul Boys of the Western World (Hulu)
A documentary about the rise and fall of '80s new romantic stars Spandau Ballet -- makers of melodramatic slow dance classic "True" -- might not seem like something you want to see, but George Hencken's is an engaging look and a band loaded with strong personalities. It's an even more fascinating look at early-'80s Britain when post-punk musicians decided they'd have a go at pop stardom. The part of the film that focuses on the Blitz Kids scene that birthed the New Romantic movement (which also gave us Visage, Culture Club, The Associates and more) is especially vibrant and there's a surprising amount of footage from that time period that makes you wish you could've been there (or go back). The film becomes less interesting as it then follows a traditional rock doc trajectory -- complete with the big reunion show -- but Soul Boys of the Western World still holds your attention through that encore of "True."
Stop Making Sense (Prime Video, Tubi)
One of the greatest concert films ever made, Stop Making Sense is both a Talking Heads film and a Jonathan Demme film. The director, who passed away in 2017, brings his empathetic, unobtrusive style and fondness for close-ups to the unique 1983 Speaking in Tongues tour where the show begins with just David Byrne and a boombox but adds musicians slowly over the course of the set, becoming a Very Big Production with Byrne in a Very Big Suit. Stop Making Sense is extremely rewatchable so if you haven't seen it in a while (or have never seen it), whatever else you were thinking of watching is probably not going to be as good as this.
Supersonic: Oasis (Netflix)
For a few years in the '90s, Oasis were the biggest band in Britain, though Noel and Liam Gallagher would probably say the world. That might also be the only thing they agree on, and Supersonic doesn't shy away from the sibling rivalry that fueled this Manchester band. (Also fueling them: booze and cocaine.) The profane rows between the Gallaghers are the definite highlights of the documentary that tracks the band from their formation through headlining Knebworth in 1996. The film stops there, before the drugs became a problem, the songs got too long, and the Noel/Liam infighting totally overshadowed the tunes. That's okay, though, as there's enough sex, drugs and rock n' roll to fill its two-hour running time.
Upside Down: The Creation Records Story (Prime Video)
If you need more drugs, rock and roll, thick accents and Gallagher brothers antics, Upside Down is the story of Oasis' label, Creation Records. Founded by true rock n' roll true believer Alan McGee, Creation began as the indiest of indie labels till they released Jesus & Mary Chain's feedback-ridden debut single (whose title is the same as this documentary) and almost instantly became a very hip label. Then with Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, Creation really started to sell records which then led to Oasis and serious money...and problems. (Also on Creation in the '90s: The Boo Radleys, Slowdive, Ride, Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, Sugar, and more.) Upside Down is also a tale of rock n' roll excess, where drug use and My Bloody Valentine's never-ending recording sessions threaten to bankrupt the label. Most of the major players involved are interviewed for this, though you may want to turn the subtitles on given the sheer amount of impenetrable Scottish accents as there are in this every entertaining film.
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.