As the wise bard Madonna once said, “Music makes the people come together,” and she was right. Music is a source of magic in the life of human beings on earth. Sometimes people want to live inside a song so much that they make documentaries, bringing some visual acuity to aural pleasure. The best examples of this particular genre take your favorite songs, or songs you haven’t even heard before, and show how music leaves a mark on us.
Whether it’s through history, sociology, or performance, these documentaries take a unique approach to a panoply of topics, and there’s great sounds to boot. Many of these films are true passion projects, with a lot of funding coming from Kickstarter campaigns. We rounded up a wild collection of 25 movies, from Oscar winners to cult oddities to Ken Burns, that you can watch tonight.
Notice that the film had to stretch to get Nilsson’s signature song, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” best known as the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, into the title. Besides that, the Nilsson documentary is about the short and wild life of one of rock’s most talented singer-songwriters, who found success at young age and had a legendary “lost weekend” with John Lennon, and the booze and drugs that made his life short and tortured.
The world has been strangely silent about what Kathleen Hanna has done for women as a musician, activist, and feminist, so it’s great that The Punk Singer is there to set the record straight. Hearing from Hanna herself and a host of her female contemporaries, this film delves into her life, her music, her time as the figurehead of the riot grrrl movement, and her feminist legacy.
The winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, Morgan Neville’s film on backup singers and thrilling talents will send chills down your spine and let your soul fly; and I’m not even exaggerating. The actual film is a bit flawed insofar as it leans towards hagiography as opposed to journalism, which is a probable danger with the whole genre of music documentary. Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling, wonderful experience.
Tracing the 69th year (naturally) of “the world’s first X-rated rapper,” The Weird World of Blowfly is about Clarence Reid, a man who was writing R&B hits in Florida in the ’60s and ’70s, and who has an alter ego who’s a filthy riot as a rapper trying to make a comeback on the road.
A documentary about Hole drummer Patty Schemel — also a longtime friend of Kurt Cobain and the drummer for Nirvana for a spell — Hit So Hard uses a mix of Schemel’s on-the-road videotapes and interviews with Courtney Love, Melissa Auf der Mar, Eric Erlandson, and other grunge-era musicians to document Schemel’s talent, struggle with drugs, and rebirth; but the reason the film is interesting is because it’s a pretty intimate sociological portrait of life inside the grunge bubble, complete with home movies of Kurt and Courtney and baby Frances Bean.
Tiffany! Best known as an ’80s teen singer who toured malls, she’s apparently left a mark on the two subjects of this documentary who are still obsessed with her. Jeff and Kelly have their own problems, and the doc takes a tour of their lives through their sometimes — okay, a lot of times — disturbing love for Tiffany.
Remember when a country star was going to come out of the closet and the gossip machine started with what country A-list star it could be and it ended up being … Chely Wright, a musician firmly ensconced in the Nashville niche? Nevertheless, she made a brave, possibly career-ending choice in a conservative industry, and this documentary is about that choice and the consequences.
Maybe you know Harry Belafonte from his hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” But in Sing Your Song, we get to know the real Belafonte: total fox, singer, actor, entertainer, and, most importantly, a major civil rights activist — inspired by the mentorship of Paul Robeson — and a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. His art can be seen anywhere, but this documentary makes a point of highlighting his humanitarianism.
Remember old New York? Where hip-hop was born? The 1983 documentary Style Wars will show you the origin of hip-hop culture and, well, style, by following around some of New York’s best graffiti artists and breakdancers. An important anthropological document that was a major stepping point in showing off urban art, and in its way, it’s probably responsible for everything from Basquiat’s mainstream success to Banksy’s career.
A violin prodigy since he was eight years old, Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew, moved to Berlin in order to play his music. But with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, he realized that he had something more important to do, and he worked to get 1,000 Jewish musicians out of Europe and into Palestine the only way he knew how: by starting an orchestra.
Peak Madonna, rendered in luscious black and white. Far before the rise of the celebrity reality show, this 1991 documentary showed the biggest music star of her day putting on Gautlier during her Blonde Ambition tour and messing around with then-boyfriend Warren Beatty. Absolutely iconic, and the basis for every realistic look at a celebrity since.
This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject), this documentary is about the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust, Alice Herz Sommer, who passed away earlier this year at the incredible age of 109. It’s an intimate look at what Alice lived through and survived, and how her love of music — she was a concert pianist — helped her through inconceivable trauma.
The pop-star documentary has been a trend as of late, and Katy Perry’s is the best for a couple of reasons. Watching Perry move from her religious background to LA Cobrasnake-era party girl to world-beating pop star is fascinating. And, notably, there’s peeks of the real girl behind the makeup; when an absent Russell Brand (her then-husband) sends her a blasé text, we watch Perry cry in her costume, and then straighten herself out with some show-must-go-on gumption. Even if you don’t like her music, it’s an endearing film.
Chris Thile first came to prominence playing the mandolin in the platinum-selling Nickel Creek, a bluegrass trio that had been playing together since they were very young children. When the band went on hiatus in 2006, Thile, a prodigy who’d go on to be a 2012 MacArthur Grant fellow (in his 30s, which is quite young), moved on by starting another band, The Punch Brothers. How to Grow a Band follows Thile as he works on a long suite with his band, showing him moving on from childhood into something like manhood.
Best for fans of Big Star — and if you have two ears and a heart and have heard “September Gurls,” you certainly do — this doc suffers from an over-reliance of Ken Burns effect abuse, panning in and out of photos as opposed to action. It’s still a good overview about the guys behind one of the best bands of all time, with some great, weird anecdotes that stick in your brain, like the time a rock journalist convention was held in Memphis — obstensibly to talk about unionizing — so Big Star could play for them.
If you want to know the history of the United States, you need to know the history of jazz music. By telling the stories of such legendary musicians as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, Burns shows us the story of American ingenuity and love of art in the face of a rough, sometimes impossible world.
In the ’70s, a band called Death, made up of three teenage brothers in Detroit, came together and played some amazing punk rock. But because of their name, nobody wanted to release their record, and they fell into obscurity. This documentary shows the now grown-up brothers reuniting, the toll that time has taken on them, the record collectors (including Questlove) who loved them, and the eventual reissue of their ’70s classic on Drag City.
The late Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band, wasn’t just one of the best rock ‘n’ rollers of all time (as seen in the classic concert film, 1978’s The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese). Helm was also a fixture of his community in Woodstock, and this lovely work shows an older, wiser musician battling throat cancer, recording comeback albums, and starting summer Midnight Rambles, where musicians would come to his barn and jam out for a willing audience. He left a hole when he passed in 2012.
Well, Hello (original) Dolly! Carol Channing is 93 years young, and this documentary follows her legendary career, starting with her triumphs on Broadway in Hello Dolly and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and her eventual presence in films as well. They don’t make broads like Channing anymore, and her big personality is celebrated to full effect.
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s reputation preceded him: in countless biographies and films, he was portrayed as a musical Howard Hughes, besieged by his compulsions, neuroses, and mental troubles, yet also able to interpret Bach like proof that there’s heaven on earth. This documentary gets behind the legend to find the real story of Gould’s life, and the role he played with women, friends, and his family. The results are warm, inviting and vivid.
Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators practically invented psychedelic rock with the song “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” and this documentary is about his strange, difficult life. He struggled with mental health issues — including an obsession with the mail which got him arrested for mail theft in 1989 — fell off the map, and came back. In fact, after this documentary’s release, new Roky Erickson albums were released in 2010 (backed up by Okkervil River) and 2013.
Jay Duplass, the director (and sometimes actor, seen in Transparent and The Mindy Project) probably best known as one half of the Duplass brothers (along with his brother Mark), the prolific mumblecore filmmakers behind works like The Puffy Chair and Jeff Who Lives at Home, was obsessed with musician Kevin Gant, an Austin stalwart of the early ’90s who seemingly disappeared in 1995. Duplass never forgot Kevin’s music, and went out to look for him several years ago. He found the musician, and what he got was a story about music and perseverance, the sort of story that makes for documentary gold.
A documentary inspired by a film adapted from a novel — catch that? — Taqwacore traces the rise of an Islam punk rock scene. The word was first coined by author Michael Muhammed Knight in his book, The Taqwacores, and as his work spread, Islamic punk rock bands began to rise. The documentary follows Knight on a tour with a bunch of punk rock bands, wreaking havoc and showing the rise of a new youth culture in the U.S.
French documentarian Caeine Danhier shows us what it was like to be a member of the poor and struggling no wave “Blank Generation” — with original hipsters like John Lurie, Debbie Harry, and Jim Jarmusch — in early ’80s New York City, hustling for food and rent and creating some of the greatest music, art, and film that embodies the spirit of the New York City that the world obsesses over.
Irish step dancing has its own fascinating culture, and Jig is a spotlight on the Irish Dancing World Championships. Why does dancing require such elaborate wigs and frippery? What inspires a young kid to do this sort of hobby? The sacrifice and stubbornness of serious dance to serious music enlivens this story.