In no particular order, our Top Fifteen Music Documentaries:
Chasing Trane (Netflix) John Coltrane was everything we expect our genius musicians to be – brilliant, creative, damaged, and self-destructive. There will only ever be one Coltrane and this 2016 documentary captures the man to his core.
The Defiant Ones (HBO) The LA Times called this doc “a must-watch for anyone invested in the history of hip-hop and modern pop,” and we couldn’t agree more. Jimmy Iovine has his hands (and ears) all over 80s rock and pop, but his partnership with Dr. Dre literally forever changed the music and pop-culture scene in the 1990s.
Clive Davis – The Soundtrack of Our Lives (Netflix) With admittedly no musical background, Clive Davis joined Columbia records as a staff attorney and two years later he was president of the venerable label. The rise and fall and rise again of the “man with golden ears” tells the amazing story of rock and pop from the 1960s forward.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Paramount Pictures) This film by Martin Scorsese (who has a CV letter filled with amazing rock and roll films) focuses on the seminal years of Bob Dylan from his 1961 arrival in New York City until his 1966 motorcycle crash – five years that truly redefined the culture.
Marley (Magnolia Pictures) Jonathan Demme replaced original director Martin Scorsese in 2009 and went on to produce this magical look (complete with ultra-rare concert and personal footage) of the legend that is Bob Marley.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (BBS/American Masters Pictures) Miles Davis may be an acquired taste if you’re new to be-bop and ‘cool’ jazz, but once you get familiar with his music it stays with you forever. Davis’ estate provided rare footage and session outtakes that are combined with interviews from music historians and friends to paint a complete picture of the enigmatic genius.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Hulu) Woodstock was a disaster and a financial black hole, but it wasn’t a scam. On the other hand, Fyre Festival slated to take place in 2017, was all three. This intriguing documentary looks at how a scam of this magnitude was pulled on fans and artists alike.
Big Easy Express (Emmett Malloy) In the spring of 2011, Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes board a train in San Francisco bound for New Orleans. Great music surrounds great scenery. As a bonus make it an evening of train and music documentaries and watch Festival Express, the 2003 documentary that takes a look at the 1970 trans-Canada train trip by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Delaney & Bonnie among others.
Quincy (Netflix) Maybe the most complete musician and producer America has ever produced, Quincy Jones is to music what air is to walking around the block. Get to know him on a personal level.
The Go-Go’s (Showtime) Were they punk? Were they pop? Were they badass? Yes. There’s a lot of backstory to the seminal 80s LA punk band gone pop, and this documentary captures it in all of its raw detail.
Edgeplay (2004) Not to be outdone, this 2004 documentary about late 70s LA punk band the Runaways is even edgier, because of course, so was the band, and it got ugly.
The United States vs. John Lennon (Leaf/Scheinfeld) In 1972, the FBI and the Nixon Administration went full-on after ex-Beatle John Lennon in an attempt to get him deported for his anti-war activities. Told by firsthand witnesses and participants, this documentary sums up another tumultuous time in American history.
Devil At the Crossroads (Netflix) Had blues pioneer (and eminent ‘borrower’) Robert Johnson lived a full life he might be barely remembered. But – deal with the devil in Clarksdale Mississippi notwithstanding – he lived a short and tragic life that was in and of itself a blues masterpiece. And to be fair, there is no rock & roll without him.
Twenty Feet From Stardom (Neville) This ‘Best Documentary’ Oscar-winning (2013) film tells the inside story of the people who make their living belting out background vocals in front of tens of thousands of people a night. You might not know who they are, but their story is riveting.
ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas (Netflix) This documentary about the power-blues trio from Houston, Texas, tells more than just the story of a wildly successfully Classic Rock band, it also tells the story of the times and culture that made Classic Rock possible in the first place. It’s a must see if for that reason alone, but revisiting the music is pretty cool too.
So there you have it, that’s at least one more weekend’s worth of television watching for you.
Enjoy (and turn it up)!