Discover Music Documentaries

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A couple months ago, we interviewed documentary filmmaker Brendan Toller about his recent work, Danny Says, a doc about Danny Fields, who was instrumental in the success of artists like The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and Nico. Yet Fields remained a somewhat mysterious figure until Toller decided to spend years interviewing him, combing through his footage, and reconstructing his forgotten narrative. At one point in our talk with Toller, he had this to say about documentary filmmaking: "I just think documentary filmmaking is an emerging form that is really exciting in terms of narrative, in terms of archive, and approach."

He's right. Though the form has been around for awhile, we're experiencing an unprecedented number of documentary subjects across all genres and interests. There are more ways to watch them, more ways to make them, and if you're tenacious enough, more fascinating stories out there to uncover and tell. Since it's music month, we thought we'd round up a few live music docs to give you just a small taste of what's out there.

The Earth Moves: A Documentary About Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass is a living legend. As a composer, he's brought experimental sounds from New York to concert halls, and has spent a career pushing boundaries and exploring music from every angle. Einstein on the Beach, which was conceived and put together by Glass and director Robert Wilson, is only an opera in the loosest sense of the word. What it actually is, is a 4+ hour piece, in multiple movements, that is frustrating, transcendent, and often consistently beautiful. It's an exhausting piece—in the best way—for both the players and the audience. Now, filmmaker John Walter is bringing the story of the experimental masterpiece to life. 

Here to be Heard: The Story of The Slits

Even if you've never heard of the first all-girl punk band The Slits— a band that managed to effortlessly fuse reggae with jittery, minimal post-punk—you've probably heard someone that was influenced by them. Now they're getting their proper due, with a documentary about their long, sometimes rocky career and massive influence on music today. There are also some killer rewards if you're already a superfan, including signed t-shirts and drum sticks, and more.

King of the Roadies: The Ben Dorcy Documentary

Behind every great musician, there's a great roadie, and Ben Dorcy may quite possibly be the first. Here's director Amy Nelson on Dorcy's unusual life: "He has no living relatives, yet he is the patriarch of a family of artists, and fellow roadies who love him dearly. They call him ‘Lovey’ And he calls them ‘Lovey’. Despite all odds, he shows up to work on tour after tour after tour." The release of the film—which is narrated by Willie Nelson (if that doesn't convince you on the importance of this guy, we're not sure what will)—is timed to coincide with Dorcy's 90th birthday.

Joe's Violin

The bulk of this list is filled up with rock docs in both content and form: you'll often get the story, from beginning to end of a specific project or band. Joe's Violin is a bit different. It's the story of how Joseph Feingold, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, donated his violin to a program that gave instruments to New York school kids who need instruments. That violin ended up in the hands of Brianna, who has recently been working on a song for Feingold, which she'll soon play for him.

The Blockheads: Beyond the Call of Dury

Near the top of the project page for this film, there's a list of a number of musicians The Blockheads have worked with in their long career. We're going to paste that list because it is bonkers: Paul McCartney, The Clash, Kilburn and the High Roads, John Legend, The Eurythmics, Nick Cave, Roger Daltrey, Roy Budd, Madness, Wilko Johnson, The Animals, Feargal Sharkey, Peter Frampton, Lulu, Link Wray, Tim Hardin, Ian Gillan & Roger Glover, Sinéad O'Connor, Talk Talk, Dr John, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Nick Lowe, Paul Young, Elkie Brooks, Bob Geldof, Tom Robinson, World Party, Robbie Williams, Kirsty McColl, Steve Cropper, Alan Hull (Lindisfarne), Wreckless Eric, Cerys Matthews, Viv Albertine, Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield, The Selector, London Beat, Rachel Sweet, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Dave Stewart and the Spiritual Cowboys, Jools Holland, and Shane MacGowan. The most notable thing about the list (besides, you know, the insanely big names that appear on it) is the breadth and variety contained within it. That was part of the appeal of the Blockheads, who got famous backing Ian Dury, and then went on to become versatile, flat-out amazing session musicians—AKA the secret weapons for musicians the world over.

The Glamour and the Squalor

One thing that many of these films have in common is that they shed light on behind-the-scene figures that helped make so much of the music we've come to love and treasure. The Glamour and the Squalor is about radio DJ Marco Collins. Based in Seattle, Collins was responsible for shaping the taste of a generation of listeners, and this is his story.

    1. Tim Williams on

      Awesome music coverage, Sam! I'd love for you to check out one more active one that would sit well on your list:

      The Gorge Amphitheatre's official film! :) Have you seen this?

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      SusanneTejada on

      Awesome music documentaries. I just wondered to see this post.

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