With movies like 'In the Heights' out now and 'Respect' and 'West Side Story' on the way, the buzz seems to be all about the musical biopic. That non-fiction fellow melodic movie genre of music documentaries can be a bit neglected in comparison.
There have been some great music documentaries, particularly in the last decade, tracking the lives and careers of contemporary and classic music legends.
Here are our recommendations for some you might have missed.
This music documentary demands to be seen on the big screen with the best surround sound possible as the life and career of the music legend Phil Lynott is told to the soundtrack of his greatest hits. We learn of how Lynott grew up in Crumlin, raised by his grandparents. The rise and rise of Thin Lizzy and Lynott’s romantic and family life are also looked into. The context behind the musician’s big hits like “Whiskey in the Jar”, ‘The Boys are Back in Town”, “Cowboy Song”, “Jailbreak” and “Sarah”, among many others, are all explored. While the ending is sad, the tone is ultimately uplifting and celebratory.
Based on the life and career of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, ‘Crock of Gold’ isn’t just any documentary. Throughout it, the man himself shares pints and stories, and exchanges jokes with his friends and contemporaries. It’s energetic and MacGowan proves an exquisite storyteller as he recounts growing up in Ireland, offering bold and crass details – with language to match. He’s also humble, shirking off praise when he receives too much, and refuses to answer questions he doesn't like the sound of. With Gerry Adams, MacGowan talks of the history, British-Irish tensions, and the IRA; with Johnny Depp, he teases the actor about ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. This is a complex artist, with a multi-faceted personality, who has grown and changed greatly over the years.
‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ depicts a fascinating insight into who Billie Eilish is and how her career has exploded in the past few years. The intimacy of the moments caught on camera are striking. You’re consistently reminded that in spite of her maturity, Billie is still just a kid, and that makes her accomplishments and bold vulnerability all the more impressive. We observe her perfectionism and insecurities. We get insight into Billie’s innovation and creativity and hands on approach to songs and their music videos. Billie describes how music has always been a part of her family and upbringing. The family dynamics are where ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’ feels at its most authentic and insightful.
Our next pick for top music documentaries follows the pop legend Pink behind-the-scenes on her ‘Beautiful Trauma’ world tour as she manages the balance between being a mother, a performer, and a bad ass boss. Where the feature is at its most interesting is when Pink talks about touring and carving out time with her kids, Willow and Jameson, and we see them being their adorable selves. Elsewhere, we observe Pink’s managerial approach when it comes to the various moving parts of her concerts. It is fascinating to see how she does those amazing acrobatics and sings, and learn of her background in gymnastics. Pink never exhibits vulnerability, as say Billie Eilish did in ‘The World’s a Little Blurry’. At this point in her career, she has evolved into a mature, balanced, self-assured, and self-made woman.
Released four years after her tragic death at the age of 27, 'Amy' is a nuanced, intimate and gripping portrait of singer Amy Winehouse, relying on audio and home video footage to craft its tale of woe. Knowing how the story ends makes the footage of a young Winehouse, with so much talent, hope and those powerhouse, emotive vocals, even more heart-breaking. Director Asif Kapadia also explored other tragic, incredibly talented individuals in the documentaries 'Senna' and 'Diego Maradona'.
Searching for Sugar Man
One of the most popular and influential music documentaries of the last ten years, 'Searching For Sugar Man' tells the “too strange to be true” story of Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero: a mysterious 1970s rock n roll, Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez released two forgotten early ’70s albums, which, unknown to him, were beloved and culturally important hit records in Apartheid South Africa. The mystery of how his records got over there and the artist’s ultimate fate draw the viewer in. The movie won the Oscar for Best Documentary of 2013.
Produced and directed by Dave Grohl in his directorial debut, this music doc tracks the history of recording studio Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. It tells the story of the studio from its early days in 1969 until its closing in 2011. Artists such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Rage Against the Machine, and Slipknot all recorded groundbreaking music at the studio. It gave birth to Nirvana’s 1991 "Nevermind" album, to name just one hit record. The studio was also responsible for the birth of Fleetwood Mac. After hearing Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham recording in the studio, Mick Fleetwood asked the two to join the band.
20 Feet from Stardom
There’s a lot of people behind the scenes who are responsible for a lot of the music we all grew up on. '20 Feet From Stardom' tells the story of those predominantly African American backup singers whose voices powered hits from the ‘60s to the present day. At times hilarious, heartbreaking and insightful, it shines a light on singers whose talent has been unrecognised for far too long.
Oasis's breakthrough years are documented in this detailed depiction of the infamous brothers from Manchester. It explores how the band was formed in the early 90's, right up to the legendary performance at Knebworth. You can watch this documentary on Netflix now; and no, it doesn't delve into the messiness of Noel and Liam Gallagher's relationship now, though it does gesture towards the origins of that fraught brotherhood.