Perhaps it’s the deaths of Lemmy, David Bowie and Glenn Frey in such quick succession, but I’ve felt very conscious of the mortality of music lately. Obviously, music itself lives on as long as we can listen to it, perform it and remember it, but there’s a growing sense of something coming to a close, of an increasing weight of the history of popular music. Maybe that’s why I’ve been working my way through music documentaries on Netflix over the last few days, trying to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.
There is no throughline to these choices beyond the fact that they’re all part of the tapestry that makes up rock and roll history. The genres move from jazz to punk, with power-pop and AOR in between. But these docs humanize their subjects in such a way that you can’t help but listen to each familiar song with all-new, more sympathetic ears. Here are 10 of the best music documentaries out there.
NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (2006)
Jonathan Demme captures Young at a fragile point, surrounding surgery to correct a cerebral aneurysm and just prior to the death of his father; perhaps that explains the particular nature of Young throughout the whole thing, as he and his band discuss the making of the album Prairie Wind, set against a concert of songs from that album and throughout Young’s career.
RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE (2010)
The idea of a documentary about Canada’s leading prog-rock band does sound like the premise of a Spinal Tap-esque movie, but with interviewees including Trent Reznor, Les Claypool and South Park’s Matt Stone, you just might end up coming out of this with a new appreciation for the work of Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson.
AIN’T IN IT FOR MY HEALTH: A FILM ABOUT LEVON HELM (2010)
After the Band came to an end, Helm disappeared into the musical wilderness for decades, only to emerge close to the end of his life with a solo album and this beautiful, elegiac retrospective that promises more to come… not knowing that he wouldn’t have the opportunity.
BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME (2012)
The tragedy and almost-but-never-quite triumph of one of America’s most underrated bands is explored in this fascinating, heartbreaking documentary about the power pop perfection that was Alex Chilton’s Big Star: a band who made amazing records despite some of the worst luck in music industry history.
BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (2012)
What happened to the former drummer of Cream? After working his way through a number of different bands, he ended up living in seclusion in South Africa and becoming what one critic called one of music’s most “personally problematic” personalities. Beware of Mr. Baker illustrates why in such a way that you’ll be glad there’s a screen between the two of you.
HISTORY OF THE EAGLES (2013)
One of rock’s most critically reviled bands — at least when it comes to ones who achieved such levels of success — the Eagles are a group that never quite fit into whatever category anyone tried to push them into. Watching this (admittedly somewhat toothless) retrospective, you’ll find yourself more sympathetic to them… and maybe wanting to revisit some of their classics as well.
THE PUNK SINGER (2013)
Like Levon Helm, Kathleen Hanna’s career is one of massive importance followed by sudden disappearance. After fronting Bikini Kill and Le Tigre — and jumpstarting the Riot Grrl movement — Hanna essentially vanished from the music scene, and this movie explores why. (Spoilers: prepare to be upset.)
MUSCLE SHOALS (2013)
Consider this documentary about a recording studios that’s housed the Rolling Stones, U2, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and many, many others a history in modern music, and also a primer in a sound that many have tried to copy, but few have managed to match. To watch — and more importantly, listen — to this is to find soul.
GLEN CAMPBELL: I’LL BE ME (2014)
Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, this record of the farewell tour of the country legend — who is also coming to terms with being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease — is a powerful, honest look at a man who can’t stop doing what he loves, and those around him who help him keep going despite everything.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (2015)
Calling Nina Simone “temperamental” is an understatement, as this wonderful documentary about the musician — one of the finest jazz performers ever — easily demonstrates. At turns amusing, horrifying and everything in between, you get the impression that Simone was haunted by many ghosts, and that her talent was a necessary outlet that allowed her to stay sane… ish.