20 music documentaries you need to watch this weekend, from ‘Summer of Soul’ to ‘Get Back’
It’s often difficult to figure out an artist’s true identity at face value. Press interviews and social media offer a more transparent lens into the worlds of our favorite artists. Even so, the bigger — and more complicated — picture can often remain out of view. Because these intimate yet truthful depictions of our favorite acts are hard to come by, we can rely on journalists and directors to provide us with the unknown side of every story.
Music documentaries can take things to the next level. A good film can give us a chance to immerse ourselves in an artist’s day-to-day life. They also help us hear the music better, taking us behind the scenes of a band’s glory days, early years or creative efforts in the studio. Most importantly, they show us a more subtle picture of an artist, their multitudes, virtues and flaws. From the glory days of first-wave punk and soul to grunge, pop punk, hip-hop and alt-rock, here are 20 music documentaries you should watch right now.
The Other F Word
Punk is often typecast as a youthful genre, but it’s truly a multigenerational phenomenon. The Other F Word documents the leading figures of the ’80s and ’90s punk scene as they grapple with the newfound existential crisis of fatherhood. This 2011 documentary follows punk icons such as blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, NOFX’s Fat Mike and many others as they try to succeed in fatherhood while also touring, recording and otherwise maintaining the independent spirit their music is rooted in. Not only does The Other F Word give us an intimate look into artists’ personal lives, but it also helps us understand that ever-evolving answer about what it means to be punk.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
Peek into the chaotic world of the teenage pop star during the final weeks of recording her debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?. The documentary is flooded with intimate home videos of Billie Eilish’s childhood, leading up to her supersonic rise to fame. Starring alongside her parents and brother/producer FINNEAS, The World’s A Little Blurry gives us an exclusive look at the multitudes and angles of a once-in-a-generation style and music icon.
The Decline of Western Civilization
The formative years of punk rock may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t experience the cataclysmic energy that radiates from the underground punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Legendary punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization captured the underground Los Angeles punk scene in its earliest moments. Set between 1979 and 1980, the film features interviews and live concert footage from pioneering punk bands who lived it such as Circle Jerks, Black Flag, X and Fear.
Beastie Boys Story
Beastie Boys Story depicts the decade-spanning saga of the famous rap-rock trio as told by themselves. From their hardcore-punk days to solidifying themselves as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the live documentary was filmed at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, and is narrated by members Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock). Adapted from the band’s memoir Beastie Boys Book, Diamond and Horovitz lovingly cherish and recollect the group’s musical and personal evolution over the past four decades.
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts
There’s more to RuPaul’s Drag Race alumnus Trixie Mattel than outstanding makeup and lip-syncs. In Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, we follow the drag superstar through her rise to fame post-drag race and ensuing country music career. The documentary unveils the true Trixie that sits behind the sharp eyeshadow and platinum beehive wigs, as viewers get to see the personal depth of the queer icon as she steps into the spotlight of the musical world.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
The sudden breakup of A Tribe Called Quest in 1998 stunned fans and the music industry alike. The documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest takes fans inside the group’s dynamics over the years. Directed by Michael Rapaport, the 2011 film also features interviews and commentary from industry legends such as Pharrell Williams, Ludacris and Questlove. The influence that A Tribe Called Quest had on the music industry was always apparent, but Beats, Rhymes & Life offers new insight to just how uniquely talented the group were.
Hype! traces the evolution of grunge, from when it sprouted in the basements of the Pacific Northwest to its eventual domination of the airwaves. The 1996 documentary features interviews and rare concert footage from some of the genre’s pioneering acts of the early to mid-’90s. Of course, a grunge documentary has to feature Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. However, Hype! also praises less famous grunge acts that helped establish the genre, such as Mudhoney and TAD.
The Velvet Underground
As one of the biggest influences on new wave and post-punk, the Velvet Underground helped shape the avant-garde counter culture of New York in the ’60s. The 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground provides fans with interviews from two surviving members of the group — John Cale and Maureen Tucker — as well as an in-depth look at the influence of the band’s manager, Andy Warhol.
There’s no existing footage of the Beatles that comes close to being as profound as the eight-hour docuseries Get Back. With 21 days to write, record and rehearse a new album, Get Back depicts the monotonous labor of songwriting that coincides with the band’s creative genius. The archived footage stems from an attempted 1970 documentary on the band’s 12th album, Let It Be, and depicts their dynamics in the studio as well as growing tensions that would signal the beginning of the end for the Fab Four.
The Punk Singer
The Punk Singer looks back at Kathleen Hanna’s life and career as one of the prime leaders of the riot grrrl movement of the early to mid-’90s. Not only do the archival footage and interviews give viewers a closer look at Hanna’s punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, but it also delves into her feminist work. As if she wasn’t already enough of a badass, the documentary also includes praise from Joan Jett and Hanna’s partner Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock of Beastie Boys).
American Hardcore covers the extensive history of punk rock’s uprising in the United States in the late ‘70s and early to mid-’80s. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2006, is highly acclaimed by critics and features in-depth interviews with members from pioneering punk bands such as Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains. Its underground footage from the onset days of punk prove just how explosive and politically significant the genre was nationwide.
A Band Called Death
Before there was punk, there was Death. A Band Called Death traces the evolution of ‘70s band Death, whose prominence came about decades after their formation. Death, consisting of three brothers from Detroit, drew their influences from rock acts such as Alice Cooper and the Who. While the band failed to acquire record deals and radio airtime in ‘70s, their everlasting influence and pioneering sound make them the best punk band you’ve probably never heard of.
Jagged delves into the meteoric success and trailblazing attitude of Alanis Morissette. The documentary focuses on Morissette’s production of her breakthrough 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill, alongside defining herself in the male-dominated genre of ‘90s alternative rock. Her rejection of traditional gender roles as a woman in music in the ‘90s opened the flood gates for a generation of pent-up female rage.
Summer of Soul
Directed by the Roots’ frontman and drummer Questlove, Summer of Soul brings the archived footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival back to life. The six-week festival featured a stellar lineup of Black musicians, including Stevie Wonder (only 19 at the time), Nina Simone and Gladys Knight, to name a few. The festival film that otherwise sat in a basement for the past half-century is revitalized and given new life in this incredible documentary, filled with commentary from soul’s greatest artists.
Amy is an emotionally heavy documentary that captures the multitudes and layers of the late Amy Winehouse. The film unveils the tender side of Winehouse as she navigated her growing musical success and rise to fame. Amy features rare home videos of the musician, as well as unreleased songs recorded before her death. Bypassing the tabloids and media’s depiction, Amy allows Winehouse’s closest friends and family to paint an accurate image of her legacy.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck depicts grunge icon and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain like never before. The film moves from his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington, in the ‘70s to the formation and success of Nirvana, which Cobain co-founded when he was 17. Montage of Heck is a deep dive of one of music’s most influential singers. Like Winehouse, Cobain is also a member of the 27 club and struggled with inner demons for most of his life. To exemplify his visions and creativity, original artwork and sound collages created by Cobain are also included in the documentary.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell offers an alternative and intimate look at the life of Christopher Wallace — or as you may know him by his stage name — the Notorious B.I.G. Using rare footage and interviews with close friends and relatives, the documentary dives into Wallace’s Brooklyn upbringing, Jamaican roots and rise to hip-hop stardom. While his impeccable flow solidified him as an immortal in the hip-hop world, the documentary also looks as Wallace’s tragic death and its effect on family, friends and the music industry.
Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag
Beyond Barricades: The Story of Anti-Flag proves once and for all that Anti-Flag have always put their money where their mouth is. The documentary explores the band’s political activism of the past three decades, which includes seven presidential administrations. The film dives into the unique upbringings that shaped the band’s progressive political ideology and also shows their current involvement in political protests across the world. If you’re looking for more proof, just listen to how Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, or Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath back the band’s historic political activism.
Los Punks: We Are All We Have
There are many documentaries that cover the Los Angeles punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few address the city’s current, flourishing subculture like Los Punks: We Are All We Have. The film explores the intersectional community of street punk, anarcho punk and crust punk that thrive not in clubs, but in the backyards and empty lots of East Los Angeles. Beyond the music, the bond and solidarity among the scrappy adolescents and young adults are eminent in the documentary’s interviews and raw footage of house shows. To many, these neighborhoods are just houses on the side of the 710 freeway. But to the DIY punk subculture, they’re everything.
If anyone opened the floodgates for women in rock ‘n’ roll, it was Joan Jett. Her biographical documentary Bad Reputation takes the audience through her early days as the founder of punk band the Runaways to her creation of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The documentary is filled with praise of Jett from other musical legends, including, but not limited to, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Miley Cyrus and Pete Townshend of the Who.