Best music documentaries you should be streaming right now
Practice your social distancing while getting your fill of behind-the-scenes drama with our list of the best music documentaries you can stream right now.
By Anabelle Vo
While music fans practice their social distancing skills at home, we’ve compiled a list of music documentaries for you to pass the time and do some learning.
Music documentaries have long been a category of filmmaking that challenges mainstream narratives about the music business. From the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary “Woodstock” to the Oscar-winning 2015 documentary about Amy Winehouse, “Amy,” the genre has attracted a diverse range of stars and filmmakers.
For most things streaming, Netflix is probably the best place to start. The streaming giant has produced a number of high profile music documentaries over the years, including Beyonce’s “Homecoming,” Lady Gaga’s “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” and Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana.” Along with Netflix, we’ve also scoured several streaming platforms for some lesser-known offerings that you might like.
Here are 10 well-crafted documentaries that fans of any music genre can enjoy.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
The Oscar-nominated 2015 documentary takes an unflinching look at the magnetic and gifted Nina Simone. A defining figure in soul and jazz, Nina’s powerful voice was matched with a fiery drive for social activism. The film is told through archival footage as well as interviews with those who knew her best, including Nina’s daughter, Lisa. From Nina’s evolution as an activist to her troubled personal life, the film attempts to provide a more complete picture of the woman who refused to play by other people’s rules. This is a must-see film about the “High Priestess of Soul.”
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”
The film follows DJ Steve Aoki, examining his success through his relationship with his father, Rocky, who founded the Benihana restaurant chain. Steve’s frenetic productions and live performances are parallelled with his father’s own exploits, including his powerboat racing days. The interviews with Steve and those close to him pulls back the curtains on his DJ persona and reveals a portrait of a family man, whose complicated relationship with his father is both resonant and revealing.
“Searching for Sugar Man”
Part music documentary, part mystery, this 2012 film follows two fans from South Africa as they try to unearth the real facts about a little known American artist named Rodriguez. In the 1970s, Rodriguez released two records in the U.S., both of which were quickly overlooked by Americans. However, Rodriguez’s album, Cold Fact, made its way to South Africa during the same time the anti-Apartheid movement was beginning to gain steam. Rodriguez’s socially conscious messages struck a nerve with the people involved with the movement. Rumors swirled that Rodriguez took his own life on stage, but two fans are determined to separate the facts from the fiction, and they set out in search of the mythical Rodriguez.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin visited the New Temple Baptist Mission Church in Los Angeles to record her live album of the same name. The session was documented on film, but for nearly 50 years, a slew of issues delayed its completion. Finally released in 2018, the concert film electrified audiences with the sheer power of its legendary star. Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots, accompanied by a church choir, and, for two nights, she moved the live audience watching her to tears.
Joan Jett loves rock ‘n’ roll and rock fans love Joan, but it wasn’t always that way. “Bad Reputation” recounts Jett’s early days of trying to break into the “boy’s club” of rock while her detractors verbally, and sometimes physically, put her down. Featuring stories from Joan as well as interviews from other big names, the film is an account of a decades-long career that started out with a young woman not giving a damn about her reputation.
“Hitsville: The Making of Motown”
You know Motown music. You know the artists that Motown Records launched to stardom. The label, founded by Berry Gordy, defined a generation, and the sound of Motown has certainly earned a significant place in American history. The documentary uses rare recordings of performances and behind-the-scenes footage to weave together a rich and enjoyable story about the legendary record label.
For audiophiles, this documentary has everything. There are artist interviews with everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to Phil Collins. There’s a technical deep dive into the unique sound of the Roland TR-808. There’s a healthy dose of music history. This is the story of how a little machine powered a number of emerging musical genres in the ‘80s and changed the musical landscape, for good.
“Long Strange Trip”
The Grateful Dead earned a reputation for their sprawling, psychedelic sound, and prolific touring. This four-hour documentary–split into six episodes on Prime Video–addresses everything from the childhood of the band’s leader, Jerry Garcia, to the Deadheads that followed the band on their extensive tours. Built around the 1960s counter-cultural ideals, The Grateful Dead fostered a dedicated community while simultaneously building a musical empire. The film relies on personal stories to piece together the band’s journey from their humble beginnings to becoming groundbreaking pioneers in musical history.