The 100 Greatest Music Documentaries

The 100 greatest music documentaries of all time.  While there are a million and one cheaply produced behind-the-music style docs out there, this list attempts to highlight the most illuminating, thoughtful, definitive or otherwise notable.  For the sake of inclusivity, films on the same band or subject have been grouped together.

 

  1.  The Beatles Anthology (1995)  The definitive 11+ hour history of the band that changed the world.
    See also: Let It Be (1969)
    The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years (2016)
    What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964)
    How the Beatles Changed the World (2017)
  2.  The Last Waltz (1978)  Famed farewell concert for The Band, featuring appearances by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, and more.
    See also: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (2019)
  3.  No Direction Home (2005)  Scorsese-directed film about the life and cultural impact of Bob Dylan, most notably in the years from 1961-66.
    See also: Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)
    Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
  4.  Woodstock (1970)  Academy-award winning account of the fabled 1969 music festival.
    See also: Woodstock (2019)
  5.  Gimme Shelter (1970)  The Rolling Stones 1969 tour, which ultimately culminated in the infamous Altamont Free Concert tragedy.
    See also: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996)
    Stones in Exile (2010)
    Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
    Shine a Light (2008)
    Keith Richards: Under the Influence (2015)
  6.  The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)  Chronicles the LA heavy metal scene of the late Eighties, featuring memorable interviews with Kiss, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy and countless others.
  7. Stop Making Sense (1984)  Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed concert film of Talking Heads, filmed over four nights using then-groundbreaking digital audio technology.
  8.   Jazz (2001) 10-part miniseries from Ken Burns about the history of jazz music.
  9.  The Defiant Ones (2017)  Directed by Allen Hughes.  Four-part HBO miniseries about the intertwining lives and music careers of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
  10.  Style Wars (1983)  PBS documentary on the emerging hip hop culture of the late seventies and early eighties and one of the first films to display rapping, graffiti, and breakdancing on screen.
  11.  Monterey Pop (1968)  D.A. Pennebaker film documenting the iconic 1967 Monterey Pop music festival.
  12.  Long Strange Trip – The Untold History of the Grateful Dead (2017)  4-hour film by Amir Bar Lev on the touring phenomenon that was The Grateful Dead.
    See also: The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)
    The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2014)
    Sunshine Daydream (2013)
    Tie-Died (1995)
  13.  George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)  Scorsese directed account of the life of beloved Beatle George Harrison.
  14. History of the Eagles (2013)  Two-part doc directed by Alison Ellwood about the turbulent history of the American rock group The Eagles.
  15.  Wattstax (1973)  Benefit concert organized by Stax records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, featuring performances by The Staples Singer, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, The Bar-Kays and more.
    See also: Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story (2007)
  16.  Amy (2015)  Film charting the life and troubled career of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse.
  17.  Country Music (2019)  Exhaustive 8-part historical account of country music, from its earliest beginnings through the mid-nineties.
  18.  Bad 25 (2012)  Spike Lee joint about the King of Pop during the ‘Bad’ era of the late Eighties.
    See also: Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (2016)
    This is It (2009)
    Leaving Neverland (2019)
  19.  The Kids Are Alright (1979)  A definitive look at The Who from their formation through 1978.  Drummer Keith Moon would pass away just a week after seeing the rough cut of the film.
    See also: Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007)
  20. Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)  Authorized biography of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain from writer/director Brett Morgen.
    See also: Nirvana: Unplugged in New York (1993)
    Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006)
    Soaked in Bleach (2015)
  21.  Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1979)  D. A. Pennebaker directed concert film of David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973.
    See also: David Bowie: Five Years (2013)
    David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)
    David Bowie: Finding Fame (2019)
  22. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972)  Influential concert film of Pink Floyd performing sans audience at the ancient Roman amphitheater at Pompeii.
    See also: Roger Waters: The Wall (2014)
  23. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)  Penelope Spheeris’ gritty debut documentary about the LA punk rock scene of the late seventies and early eighties, featuring appearances by Black Flag, Germs and Fear.
    See also: American Hardcore (2006)
    Salad Days (2014)
  24. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)  Film by Malik Bendjelloul about two men who go in search of the mysterious 1970’s musician Rodriguez.
  25.  The Concert For Bangladesh (1972)  Documents the two 1971 MSG concerts organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shanker to raise money for refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War.
  26.  From the Sky Down (2011)  Intimate look at U2 during the fraught production of their 1991 album Achtung Baby.
    See also: U2: Rattle and Hum (1998)
  27.  The Song Remains the Same (1976)  Led Zeppelin performs at Madison Square Garden over three nights in 1973.
    See also: Mr. Jimmy (2019)
    Led Zeppelin DVD (2003)
  28. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)  12-part series on the history of metal music in all it’s many forms.
  29. Pearl Jam Twenty (2011)   Pearl Jam retrospective from director Cameron Crowe.
  30.  Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010)  Directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen on the history of Canadian rock band Rush.
  31.  Imagine: John Lennon (1988)   Biographical account of the one and only John Lennon.
    See also: The U.S. vs John Lennon (2006)
    Above Us Only Sky (2018)
    LennoNYC (2010)
  32.  R.E.M. by MTV (2014)  Retrospective of the band R.E.M. through thirty years of MTV interviews and performances.
  33.  Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)  Probing portrait of the internal strife within Metallica as they embark on a new studio album in 2001.
    See also: Metallica: Through the Never (2013)
    Metallica: S&M (2000)
    Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story (2019)
  34.  Rhyme and Reason (1997)  Directed  by Peter Spirer, who interviews a wide array of hip hop stars to examine the genre’s history and place in the culture.
    See also: Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012)
    The Show (1995)
    Beef (2003)
  35. Soundbreaking: Stories From the Edge of Recorded Music (2016)  8-part PBS miniseries exploring music production and recording.
  36.  Bittersweet Motel (2000)  Todd Phillips directed showcase of Phish and its devoted fanbase during the 1997 and 1998 tours.
    See also: Phish: It (2004)
    Between Me and My Mind (2019)
  37.  Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)  Four hour history of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from director Peter Bogdanovich.
  38.  Dig! (2004)  Filmed over seven years, Dig! follows the intertwining careers and sometimes-fraught relationship between The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
  39. The Filth and the Fury (2000)  British film directed by Julien Temple on the history of punk rock pioneers The Sex Pistols.
  40.  Jimi Hendrix (1973)  Early example of what the modern music documentary could be, combining legendary performances with a wide array of interviews with the famed guitarist’s family and friends.
    See also:  Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church (2015)
    Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ (2013)
  41. The Carter (2009)  Revealing look at Lil Wayne leading up to and directly following the release of Tha Carter III.
  42. Festival Express (2003)  Film about the 1970 train tour across Canada with The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin and a host of other odd characters.
  43. Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)  Two-part HBO doc on the rise and fall of a rock god.
    See also: Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970)
  44.  Buena Vista Social Club (1999)  Wim Wenders directed film about the bringing together of an ensemble of legendary Cuban musicians for two concerts in Amsterdam and New York City.
  45.  Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015)  2-part doc from Alex Gibney about the life of singer, actor, and celebrity icon Frank Sinatra.
  46.  The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). Portrait of musician Daniel Johnston and his struggles with bipolor disorder.
  47.  Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)  Documentary short interviewing young fans tailgating before a Judas Priest concert.
  48.  Soul Power (2008)  Chronicles efforts to put on the Zaire ’74 music festival that accompanied the famous Ali-Frazier Rumble in the Jungle bout.  Featuring performances from James Brown, Bill Withers, and BB King.
  49. Daft Punk Unchained (2015) Anglo-French film from Hervé Martin-Delpierre about the rise of Daft Punk and their subsequent influence on the growth of electronic music.
  50. Tupac: Resurrection (2003)  Academy-award nominated testament of the life and career of Tupac Shakur.
    See also: Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel (2002)
    Biggie and Tupac (2002)
  51.  Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)  Directed by Paul Justman about The Funk Brothers, the largely unheralded house band who produced some of Motown’s biggest hits.
  52.  American Epic (2015)  Robert Redford narrated docuseries about the earliest recordings of American roots music and the democratizing effect they had on society.
  53.  Marley (2012) The life and music of icon Bob Marley.
    See also: Bob Marley: Rebel Music (2001)
  54.  Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)  Directed by Michael Rapaport about the seminal hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.
  55.  20 Feet From Stardom (2013). Academy-award winning film from Morgan Neville about the lives of backup singers.
  56.  It Might Get Loud (2008)  Follows Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White and their individual relationships to the guitar.
  57.  When You’re Strange (2009)  Grammy-award winning retrospective of The Doors.
  58.  Homecoming (2019) Concert film of Beyonce’s famous 2018 performance at Coachella.
  59.  Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (2014)  Written and directed by Alex Gibney about the hardest working man in show biz.
    See also: The Night James Brown Saved Boston (2008)
  60.  Big Fun in the Big Town (1986) Dutch program exploring the early hip hop scene, with appearances by LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash, Biz Markie, and Run DMC.
  61.  Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies (1993)  Written and directed by Todd Phillips about the most vile frontman in the history of punk rock.
  62.  Fyre (2019)  The infamous Fyre Festival disaster, one of the greatest fraud cases in music history.
  63.  Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)  Directed by Michel Gondry.  Comedian Dave Chappelle throws a block party in Brooklyn and invites his friends to perform, including The Roots, Mos Def, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu.
  64.  Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1996)  Film of the legendary 1970 music festival at the Isle of Wight, featuring performances from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Joni Mitchell.
  65.  Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) Follows Madonna during 1990’s Blond Ambition World Tour.
  66.  Sonic Highways (2014)  Miniseries from David Grohl that delves into the storied musical histories of various American cities.
  67. Beastie Boys Story (2020) Spike Jonze film about the lives and enduring friendship of Beastie Boys Mike D, Ad-Rock, and the late MCA.
    See also:  Awesome; I Fucking Shot That! (2006)
  68. Punk (2020)  Four part history of punk music, featuring interviews with Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, Marky Ramone, Henry Rollins and other pioneers of the medium.
  69. Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (2019) 4-part series on the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah and the M-E-T-H-O-D Man.
  70.  End of the Century (2003)  The story of the Ramones.
  71. Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars (2017)  Directed by Lili Fini Zanuck about the music and troubled personal life of guitar god Eric Clapton.
  72.  Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (2000)  Directed by Kevin Fitzgerald about freestyle rap.
    See also: Word is Bond (2018)
    Scratch (2001)
    Sample This (2012)
  73.  What Happened Miss Simone? (2015) The life of singer and activist Nina Simone
  74.  Meeting People is Easy (1998)  Follows Radiohead on their world tour following the success of OK Computer.
  75.  Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (2003)  The outsized and underappreciated career of producer and recording engineer Tom Dowd.
  76.  Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)  Examines the underwhelming career of heavy metal band Anvil.
  77.  Sign O’ The Times (1987)  Prince performs live.
  78.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)  Follows Wilco through the creation of their seminal fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
  79. Amazing Grace (2018)  Sydney Pollack directed film of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 live album of the same name, which due to issues with the audio sync was not released until almost 50 years later.
  80.  Lemmy (2010)  Interview-rich profile of Motörhead founder Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister.
  81.  Nas: Time is Illmatic (2014)  About the release of Nas’ seminal debut album Illmatic in 1994.
  82.  Laurel Canyon (2020)  Two-part look at the burgeoning music scene taking place in Laurel Canyon in the late sixties and early seventies.
    See also: Echo in the Canyon (2018)
  83.  Year of the Horse (1997)  Directed by Jim Jarmusch about Neil Young and Crazy Horse on the 1996 tour.
    See also: Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
  84.  Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talking About Him) (2010)  The life and career of enigmatic singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson.
  85.  Last Days Here (2011)  Follows Bobby Liebling, troubled lead singer of the heavy metal band Pentagram as he attempts to kick drugs and get his life back on track.
  86.  Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)  The life of jazz icon Miles Davis.
  87.  Death Row Chronicles (2018)  BET docuseries about Suge Knight, 2Pac, and the troubled legacy of Death Row Records.
    See also: N.W.A: The World’s Most Dangerous Group (2008)
  88.  Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)  The short life of singer-songwriter Janis Joplin.
  89. Hip Hop Evolution (2016)  Netflix series with journalist Shab Kabango
    See also: And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip Hop (2004)
  90.  Quincy (2018)  Grammy-award winning film about Quincy Jones, an EGOT winner responsible for recording nearly 3,000 songs.
  91.  Sound City (2013)  Dave Grohl directed film about the history of the famous California recording studio Sound City.
  92.  Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012). Follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy in the 48-hour period leading up to and directly following the band’s (at the time) final gig at Madison Square Garden.
  93.  The Clash: Westway to the World (2000)  Film about British punk rock titans The Clash.
    See also: Joe Strummer: The Future in Unwritten (2007)
  94.  Beware of Mr. Baker (2012)  Biographical film about rock drummer Ginger Baker.
  95.  Chasing Trane (2016)  The life of Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane.
  96.  I Called Him Morgan (2016)  An account of the relationship between Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his common-law wife Helen, who would later be held responsible for his murder.
  97.  The Blues (2003)  PBS series in which each episode a different director explores a stage in the history of the Blues.
  98.  Urgh! A Music War (1981)  British film featuring performances from many of the popular new wave and punk acts of the day including The Go-Go’s, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Devo, Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, UB40, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Police.
  99.  Gimme Danger (2016) Jim Jarmusch film chronicling Iggy Pop and The Stooges.
  100.  If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd (2018)  The often-tragic career of southern rock champions Lynyrd Skynyrd.

 

Honorable Mentions: Foo Fighters: Back and Forth (2011), Funky Monks (1991), All I Can Say (2019), Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America (2006), A Band Called Death (2012), Iron Maiden: Flight 666 (2009), David Crosby: Remember My Name (2019), AC/DC: Let There Be Rock (1980), Queen: Days of Our Lives (2011), Depeche Mode: 101 (1989), Remastered (2018), Oasis: Supersonic (2016), Finding Fela (2014), Let’s Get Lost (1988), Danny Says (2015), Fearless Freaks (2005), Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (2004), Young at Heart (2007), Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008), One More Time With Feeling (2016), Heaven Adores You (2014), Genesis: Together and Apart (2014), 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992), Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019), The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story (2019), All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (2015), As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM (2015), Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago (2016), Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (2018), Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge (2017), We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005), Surviving R Kelly (2019), The Beach Boys: Making Pet Sounds (2017), White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights (2008), The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (2019), NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell (2007), God Bless Ozzy Osbourne (2011), Pavarotti (2019), Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul (2017), Everybody’s Everything (2019), Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots (2011). Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation (2011), Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run (2005), Under African Skies (2012), Meat Loaf: In and Out of Hell (2015), Jeff Beck: Still On the Run (2018), Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019), Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017), Miss Americana (2020), Still Bill (2009), Troubadours (2011), Eat that Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016), Joy Division (2007), Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G. (2017), Notorious BIG: Bigger than Life (2007), Boy Howdy: The Story of Cream Magazine (2019), Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation – The First London Invasion Tour 1987 (2005), Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004), Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution (2008), Sam Cooke: Crossing Over (2010), The Wrecking Crew (2008), The Last Play at Shea (2010), Muscle Shoals (2013), Until the Light Takes Us (2008), Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo (2019), Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019), Dance to the Streaming Music (2020), Tina Turner (2020), Clint Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives (2017), The Gospel According to Al Green (1984), Inna de Yard (2019), Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (2019), Eminem AKA (2004), Bad Reputation (2018), George Michael: Freedom (2017), ZZ Top: That Little Old Band From Texas (2019), B.B. King: The Life of Riley (2012), The Go-Gos (2020), Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2012), Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built (2007), Inventing David Geffen (2012), Mavis! (2015), Justin Timberlake & The Tennessee Kids (2016), Blue Notes Records: Beyond the Notes (2019), Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert (2020), Finding the Funk (2013), We Are Freestyle Love Supreme (2020), Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives (2017), Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine (2019)

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