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The 20 Best Music Documentaries

Controversy, struggle, success, breakups, reunions and obscurity.

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Musicians tend to be pretty complex people. And, unless you’re family or a close friend, the only windows you have into their lives and psyche are the concerts they play and the songs they record. So the backstory of an artist, band or album — often wracked with controversy, struggle, success, breakups and reunions — is kept hidden from view.

But occasionally, we get a glimpse into life offstage and on the road. When other artists follow musicians and bands with their own recording equipment — cameras and microphones — to document everything, we get to see a glimpse into the lives of incredibly intelligent, often hyper-emotional people, in some of the most intriguing scenarios, both public and private. The music documentary, in its best form, is as visually captivating as the artists it covers, filling in the life of an artist in full color and resonant sound.

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The Filth and the Fury
Co-produced by Johnny Rotten himself, The Filth and the Fury was made to set the record straight on the world-famous British punk band. Even though the band only lasted 26 months, the volatile characters that made up The Sex Pistols became icons. Exclusive footage, interviews and insights portray the band as it should be — a force that changed the world.
Amazon DVD
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Sonic Highways
“A love letter to American music” is how director and producer David Grohl describes Sonic Highways. He sets out to make a map of the origins and contemporaries of American music in all its genres. The Foo Fighters also make one of their most ambitious albums along the way. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming
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I Trust You to Kill Me
Kiefer Sutherland takes indie rock band Rocco DeLuca & the Burden on their first international tour. It should be noted, however: Sutherland has never been a tour manager before. The successes, disappointments, and excitements of getting a band off the ground are documented all too well. Amazon DVD
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Twenty Feet from Stardom
Not all the talent on stage is front and center. Twenty Feet from Stardom tells the story of backup singers like Darlene Love and Claudia Lennear, who have performed with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, and are just as riveting as the headlining acts they toured with. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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No Direction Home
Directed by Martin Scorsese, focused on Bob Dylan: A fantastic story was bound to be told. No Direction Home depicts a pivotal period in Dylan’s early life with never-before-seen footage and performances. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Scratch
Director Doug Pray pays homage to the history of deejaying and turntable artists. Its a window into the world of underground hip-hop and how it has evolved, with interviews from legends like Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay to contemporaries DJ Q-Bert and Mix Master Mike. Amazon DVD / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Searching for Sugar Man
Two South Africans set out to solve what happened to the mysterious rock musician from their childhood, Rodriguez. Searching for Sugar Man is about the artist who was believed to have committed suicide onstage, the South African pair later find the rocker in Detroit, alive and well, unaware of the international sensation he has become. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Muscle Shoals
Most music documentaries are about the artists themselves and the songs they make, not where they make the music exactly. Muscle Shoals is the story of the recording studio that saw hundreds of hits from artists like The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers — the list goes on. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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The Last Waltz
Another documentary spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz is focused on the last concert by The Band. “Star studded” would be an understatement, with a string of performances from Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Amazon DVD / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Buena Vista Social Club
Once Castro took over Cuba, aging Cuban musicians and their talents started to disappear with time. Buena Vista Social Club documents Ry Cooder traveling to Cuba, finding and bringing these musicians out of retirement, and in some cases, revitalizing entire careers. Amazon DVD / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Shut Up and Play the Hits
LCD SoundSystem is one of the most celebrated bands of its generation. Shut Up and Play the Hits follows lead singer James Murphy and paints an intimate portrait of the lead-up to the band’s final performance at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Mistaken for Strangers
Tom Berninger gets hired as a roadie in his brother’s rock band. His brother: Matt Berninger, the band: The National. Tom documents the experience while attempting and often failing to fulfill his roadie duties; what follows is the hilarity and emotion that can only happen when your brother is a rock star. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming /iTunes
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Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
As one of the forefathers of the punk revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Joe Strummer impacted people all over the world, even after his death. Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten chronicles The Clash’s lead singer, before, during and after the band’s run. Drawing from his own friendship with the frontman, director Julien Temple celebrates the legend and his global impact. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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A Band Called Death
Before The Sex Pistols, before The Ramones, there were three black brothers from Detroit. A Band Called Death tells the story of one of the earliest examples of punk rock, but in an era where Motown was one of very few outlets for black musicians in America, Death struggled to make it to the big time. Their tapes were stored away in an attic and only recently found, now inspiring a new generation, 30 years separated. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
In a modern punk protest, the Russian female punk band Pussy Riot played in a Russian cathedral and now face up to seven years in prison. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer has gripped the world and brought to light a nation’s fraught social issues. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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It Might Get Loud
Jack White gathers with U2 guitarist The Edge and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page for a documentary about the electric guitar and what it means to them. With the three together in a room full of guitars, an incredible jam session is inevitable. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Dig!
Not all rock bands are success stories, and the friendship/rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols is a prime example. Dig! shows the rise and fall of two bands and what could have been. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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Time Is Illmatic
Nas’s 1994 album Illmatic is said to be one of the most pivotal albums in countless rappers’ lives and careers. Time Is Illmatic goes deep into the process that helped Nas develop the cornerstone album, including a look at his own personal life and the many larger social issues wihin his neighborhood and the country at large. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes
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The Decline of Western Civilization
Once the punk movement took hold in the US in the ‘80s, it was hard to stop. Youth in every major city were inspired to rebel and dissent. The Decline of Western Civilization, the first of the trilogy, chronicles punk as it takes hold in L.A., featuring bands Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear and others. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / iTunes
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Good Ol’ Freda
Sometimes the best perspective of the inner workings of a rock band isn’t from its members at all. Good Ol’ Freda is about Freda Kelly and her look back on being the secretary for The Beatles for all 10 years of the band’s existence. From before they were famous to when they started to drift apart, good ol’ Freda saw it all. Amazon DVD / Amazon Streaming / Netflix (DVD) / iTunes

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