There are countless films based on the successes and struggles faced by musicians in the music industry. Here’s a list of the most eye-opening, shocking, insightful and inspiring documentaries every music lover must see.
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This is a multi award-winning documentary about Sixto Rodriguez whose music did not manage to make it big in the US but somehow he became a massive rock icon in South Africa. When his albums flopped in America, Rodriguez’s ‘almost-fame’ slipped away into anonymity in his home land but a bootleg copy of one of his records managed to cross the water and get in the palms (and ears) of the apartheid-suffering South Africans. The messages that Rodriguez’s music conveyed struck a chord with the people there and subsequently he became a huge success.
The story follows two young natives who want to find out more about the illusive Rodriguez following rumors that he had met a gruesome end and all sorts of other inventions about his location and life situation. All sorts of exciting adventures occur on their path to discovering the truth about their idol; with little information to go on they have their work cut out. As the story unfolds there are twists and turns that will shock your socks off.
This is a must-see film written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul (who later committed suicide) about humanity, hope and the eternal intrinsic power of music.
Filmed in 1969 on the last leg of The Rolling Stones’ US tour of that year. This insightful yet ultimately tragic depiction of life on the road with the Stones is truly remarkable. This counterculture era film follows a “reactive” method of filmmaking. The direct cinema style is filmed spontaneously as things unfold rather than reconstructing events that have already occurred giving the film a more realistic feel. The tragic final concert on this tour, and film, is the notorious Altamont Speedway Concert which resulted in death and a hell of a lot of problems. The Hell’s Angels were, in hindsight, mistakenly hired as the security for the event in return for free beer. The crowd got fired up, the Angels got riled up and everything got very messy. Four people were killed; there is even footage of a Hell’s Angel stabbing a gun-carrying attendee to death. This is a dark representation of music culture, but it’s true and it happened. The Maysles directors’ spin on it does add to the sinister undertones with a lot of flashing back and forward to brutal moments in the Altamont disaster, despite this it is a truly remarkable and “must-see” film.
Don’t Look Back is a film by D.A. Pennebaker, which follows Bob Dylan for four weeks during a tour of England in 1965, in this 96 minute long fly-on-the-wall style documentary. A typical interview, concert depicting documentary this is not as Dylan is shown backstage and in between gigs for more than half of it and gives full on displays of his obvious disdain for the less intelligent folk that cross his path. Despite some seemingly antagonistic and arrogant moments this is a very intimate, emotional and quite wonderful film both musically and personally. Dylan is a musical genius, whether you like his attitude and personality or not, it is not quite a delusion of grandeur with him, it’s more of an utter belief of grandeur in mental stature.
Bob Dylan is one of the most poignant musical stars of our time and so Don’t Look Back is an honest reflection of a life few can comprehend; it definitely set a standard for music documentaries that followed.
This is not for the faint hearted – eleven hours worth of film spanning the entire career of the biggest thing to come out of Liverpool probably for all eternity; the phenomenon that is The Beatles. It begins with a bit about their backgrounds and upbringings and follows them right through to their break up in 1970 with footage derived from a plethora of media sources. There are clips of interviews, newsreels, anecdotes, photographs, even home movies are all woven majestically into this timeline of historical success. This is another honest and frank documentary which does not dismiss differences between the band members but rather adds this in to portray the reality of the intensity of their relationships and the pressures of being superstars. Anthology is a staggeringly detailed and intimate account of the life of The Beatles and definitely rates with the best documentaries of all time.
This really was it, Michael Jackson was no more and this documentary film, the footage originally being intended for his personal library, was made and released as a sort of consolation to his fans that the King of Pop would no longer be performing his final tour as planned. He died before he even reached the first destination and so this depiction of the lead up to the tour is all we have to inform us as to how those concerts would have been. There is rigid choreography, pedantic perfection, a lot of energy and a few strange moments of Michael having “issues” but overall an amazing insight into the illusive character and secret world of one of the biggest and most controversial and talented stars of all time.
The Last Waltz is a moment in legendary rock history never to be repeated, or probably beaten. The Band were signing out as, well, a band and decided to have a farewell concert in their own honour. And what a send off it was. This film by Martin Scorcese documents this night and the major stars which headlined this monumental Thanksgiving on November 25, 1976. Up on stage you will see the likes of Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, The Staple Singers and Eric Clapton performing live at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Critical acclaim has given The Last Waltz the title of being one of the best concert films ever made covering the career and the influences of the band members and fantastic performances by one of the best line ups in history.
Woodstock was a legendary event which could never be repeated. It was a one off, unique moment in music history and so any documentary with real footage from the weekend of madness that was Woodstock has to be worthy of a place in the top ten best music documentaries. Whether the coverage is any good or not would be irrelevant but as it turned out the documentary has become one of the most entertaining ever made and was (and is) a huge success winning many accolades including an Academy Award. This culturally historic document was an enormous box office hit and grossed over 50 million dollars in the US. With performances by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, The Who, Sha-Na-Na, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Arlo Guthrie, Ten Years After, Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the line-up couldn’t really get much better than that.
Marley is a film documenting much of the artist’s stand on life, love, music, race and religion. Much of the information is from the memories and knowledge of Marley though his family and friends. The film covers his feelings towards being of mixed race, his family, his political beliefs and involvement, his loyalty to the Rastafari movement and Haile Selassie all of which inspire many of the songs depicted in the documentary. Most of all though Marley’s belief and hope for the future was that we could all share “One Love” and live together in harmony. He was a great prophet, poet and musician and despite a difficult start to his career eventually became one of the most influential and successful reggae artists ever. This “epic and uplifiting” film, featuring a great many performances of his popular work, offers a fascinating insight into this intense and thought-provoked man.
“Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama is the unlikely breeding ground for some of the most creative and defiant music in American history”. This is the setting for the documentary which looks at the recording studio which inspired and produced so many of the all time greats. In this movie, legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, Greg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Wilson Pickett, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Steve Winwood and others bear witness to the magnetism and mystery of Muscle Shoals and why it remains a global influence today.
Whether this corset-wearing, overtly sexual and controversial superstar is your cup of tea or not, this insight into the woman with the “Blonde Ambition” is quite a piece of work. There is a lot of backstage and behind the scenes footage, some of which seems quite contrived and ironically does not portray the songstress in the best light, as well as onstage performances from the tour in 1990. Madonna can come across as slightly neurotic with diva tendencies and a lot of seemingly staged offstage filming makes it all look a bit too Hollywood. However, this is one of the most famous women to walk the earth, the biggest selling female artist ever with one of the most chameleon-like careers spanning four decades and counting. Madonna may not be to everyone’s taste but her iconic status and career longevity win her the right to make this film appear on our top ten list. Look out for the cameo appearances by Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, the list goes on…
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