If ever there was evidence of DEVO-lution in our modern era, it would be in the recent proliferation of ahistoric, formulaic, and spectacularly inert musical biopics of artists teeming with life and ingenuity. I’m sure you know the ones: great marketing buzz and stunt casting, zero memorability.
Musical documentary cinema however, appears to be experiencing a golden era. Inroads made in digital restoration technology have made it far easier to sift through the archive of footage we call the 20th Century in order to construct a compelling documentary about a pop culture subject.
The primary criteria of this list requires that the films be about a specific musician or band, rather than a movement, era, or event. This alone ruled out so many other worthwhile documentaries that are also worth your time: Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam (2009), The Summer Of Soul (2021), and The Decline Of Western Civilization (I-III).
Any fictional films where actors perform a role are also disqualified. So no biopics, even if real musicians play themselves: 8 Mile (2002), Spice World (1997), or Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979)
What’s left are documentaries, concert films, and a compendium of different hybrids between the two. That most of these films are from the last decade or so is only a nice coincidence. In any case, the films on this list spotlight some of the very best musicians of our time making some of the very best music in the history of documentary cinema.
The Sparks Brothers (2021)
While at a Sparks show with director Phil Lord at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, filmmaker Edgar Wright recounts wondering aloud, “Someone should make a Sparks documentary!” Lord almost dares him in response, “Why don’t you make it?”
And so, The Sparks Brothers. A brand new feature-length documentary about “your favorite band’s favorite band” that boasts lots of “firsts” for audiences. For long term and new fans of the art band Sparks, it’s the first opportunity to go “behind-the-scenes” on the music and its septuagenarian creators. For followers of the films of Edgar Wright, it’s a chance to see that same grandiloquent style channeled into non-fiction for the first time.
In a broad distillation of the band’s legacy, Wright appraises and reviews each of Sparks’ twenty-five studio albums made between 1971 and 2020. It’s a structure seen elsewhere on this list, but nothing quite to this scale. With clout to go around, Wright effortlessly summons interviews from a coterie of Sparks fans and collaborators, from Todd Rundgren to Thurston Moore, to gush endlessly about the band’s influence as the film dances through its heroic 140 minute runtime.
Wright intends for this film to be a flashpoint for general audiences that have never heard of the band before despite unprecedented modern access to their music. In calling attention to the possible obsolescence of the music documentary form, Wright provides dictionary definitions of words found in the band’s song titles that unfold as if being searched by a budding fan. It even resembles the iPhone font design, linking modern fanaticism to a decidedly analog and old fashioned band. The act of discovering a 20th century artist in the Information Age, personified.
For all its breadth and scope, The Sparks Brothers will be misunderstood as superficial and minor when compared to other musical documentaries of its caliber. Whereas this form lends itself to be revealing in a “tell-all” sense, it’s clear that Ron and Russell Mael resist this expectation, reframing the film’s purpose in a subversive way. Notoriously private people, it would be silly to expect the film to suddenly demystify the Maels’ musical career, now fifty years in the making. The film is lightweight in its revelations as a condition rather than a defect. A product of Ron and Russell’s awareness of their role as documentary subjects to be explored, and Edgar Wright’s awareness of his role as a documentarian that must depict his subject(s) accurately.
Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? (2020)
Early on in Frank Marshall’s mournful and poppy How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?, Sir Barry Gibb of the Bee-Gees laments that he only has his memories of events in the band’s history. “My brothers would remember things differently,” he says.
On the surface, attempting to examine the works of a globally renowned trio without two-thirds of the members would appear to be a fool’s errand. The entire Bee-Gees catalog occupies such a specific cultural space in people’s mind, it would be tempting to ignore this disparity and deify Sir Barry Gibb as the one true Bee-Gee. Marshall intelligently sidesteps this with inclusion of a BBC interview from 1990 featuring all three of the brothers reflecting on their career until that point, giving voices to the voiceless. Working with these separate sources – the BBC interview, Sir Barry Gibb of today, and interviews with other renown musicians – Marshall crafts an oral history of sorts about the band’s early days as a skiffle band in Manchester, their fascination with R&B music, and their eventual transition to international pop stardom.
There is, of course, a fair bit of time paid to their breakout work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. How it came together, how it was received, etcetera, etcetera. But by design the film never has time to answer the more granular questions like how it was written. We’re left with the impression that the brothers went in to record one day and these songs came out, which very well may be true. It just leaves a tiny bit of something more to be desired, especially considering the film’s insistence on the trio’s genius songwriting abilities.
With interviews from musicians like Noel Gallagher and Nick Jonas, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart also traces the tradition of music as a family enterprise, one where creative talent and biology intersect. But whenever the film cuts back to the Barry Gibb of the present-day, the subject of the film changes entirely; a rousing pop doc about a rousing pop band collapses into a portrait of an old man, telling cherishing stories about his younger brothers.
Ariana Grande: excuse me, i love you (2020)
Beginning with an upside-down camera that flips in molasses slow motion, Paul Dugdale’s backstage documentary, excuse me, i love you, announces itself as an object of fluid boundaries. Filmed during Ariana Grande’s Sweetner World Tour, the film documents a run of shows in London and Inglewood during the latter part of 2019 (we were all so young). Her setlist and stage performance are impeccably crafted, but Dugdale is curious about more than just what takes place between first and final curtain. What emerges from this behind-the-scenes access is a portrait not just of the titular popstar, but of the entire ensemble that makes live music possible.
The ever-evolving aesthetic of the show, in graceful lockstep with the shifts from ballads to bangers, revolve around this orb structure that floats over the stage. Sometimes taking the shape of a moon. As the camera gazes at the packed arenas of fans, the light up wristbands attendees wear make them resemble stars in orbit, stars in their own right. With a looping stage that flares out into the arena of spectators, the barriers between spectator and performer (and indeed, the barriers between audience and participant) are gradually removed over the course of this cosmic film.
Grande, understandably skeptical of media appearances in the past, is refreshingly candid here (she’s a fan of both Midsommar & The First Wive’s Club) but she’s never exactly “interviewed” per se. The most direct insight comes when Grande confesses her idolatry for Mariah Carey and the 90s pop sound, but with verite restraint, the film never presses much further. It’s a spontaneous moment, along with the impeachment of the former President, that insinuates itself into the fabric of the film spontaneously and cinematically. Narratively (insomuch as any documentary can be based in narrative) Grande’s low-key presence in this film underlines her role as part of a unit. A team of people, from dancers to lighting technicians, that make music more accessible to her all ages audiences.
Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
An exhilarating experiment in narrative art posing as a traditional rock-documentary, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese boasts loads of never-before-seen archive footage restored in beautiful 4K resolution, and new interviews with the notoriously reclusive Dylan himself.
A supposed in-depth look at the carnivalesque, beat mayhem of Dylan’s touring band “The Rolling Thunder Revue”, Scorsese synthesizes the raw materials of concert footage from the tour, and interviews with band members into a rhythm of fact and truth. Myth, and legend. Its jazzy form resembles the agitated poetry of Patti Smith, who performed with the ensemble and is featured in an electrifying scene near the start of the film. Appearances like Smith’s almost disqualify this film from this list, but in both its title and its creative spirit, this is no doubt a movie about Bob Dylan.
In response to the curiosity about the white face paint he wore for the tour, Dylan supposes all artistic acts are lies that are interpreted as truth. “When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. When he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely”. Scorsese takes this credo to its natural conclusion by distorting the historical record of this tour, including scripted events, or otherwise decontextualizing actual occurrences so that they are thrown into doubt by the audience. Two artistic sensibilities merge together in competing mediums: sound and image. Beat poetry and cinema.
It’s a gamble that pays dividends by the final title card. Fans of Dylan’s music should be enthralled by the newly restored musical performances, while film fans will delight at the structural container of it all.
Gimme Danger (2016)
Another example of a primarily fiction writer/director/auteur trying their hand at the documentary form, Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger operates almost as anathema to Edgar Wright’s Sparks Brothers entree. The two bands exist on opposite ends of the punk spectrum, yes, but as films the two directors take vastly different approaches to achieve virtually the same goals: to extol the virtues of their chosen idols and make converts of us all.
Not unlike the structure of Wright’s film, Jarmusch takes an omniscient perspective on the life and origins of the so-called Michigan native Jim ‘Iggy Pop’ Osterberg. His humble origins as a drummer in the Ann Arbor scene is traced through each one of the 3 studio albums that he would record with The Stooges between 1969 & 1973. Jarmusch narrows in on this period as an explosive intersection of punk and youth culture as it invaded the mainstream, positioning The Stooges not merely as historic predecessors to punk music but also as the hardest, most chaotic band to ever do it.
In keeping with the pop art sensibility that pervaded the late ’60s period, Jarmusch punctuates the raw, exciting music the band was making with prominent middle-class advertising of the time. Commercial images and designs that Jarmusch, who grew up in nearby Ohio, would likely have been inundated with himself – no surprise then that they both wound up as counter culturalists. The elegance and prominence of the Ford Motor Company’s marketing gave young, politically conscious (and bored) kids something to react against. It’s not Jarmusch’s thesis, but it’s there. These montages of advertised reality and working class realities offer a glimpse at the unflinching disparities of the time that persist to this day in places like say, oh I don’t know, Flint, Michigan perhaps.
Despite the ferocity of his onstage persona, Osterberg is wildly lucid during interview portions of the film. Plenty of outstanding stories from his early life before The Stooges, and while on tour with the band are told with such aplomb, it’s no wonder that Osterberg has made a nice career as a character actor in film and television nowadays. His clarity of vision in life, and in his music, is what elevates Osterberg to that of a true American artist.
Some of the shaky but primal 16mm footage of The Stooges’ early shows underlines this, as scores of young people stand around a flailing Osterberg very politely, attempting to understand the history they were witnessing. No one doubted that there was something there, but like with most great art, no one also had any idea what to say about it. Jarmusch’s film is a step towards articulating that legacy and history.
A Poem Is A Naked Person (2015)
Suppressed for years by its subject – the folk-rock recording artist Leon Russell – Les Blank’s documentary A Poem Is A Naked Person received its first public screenings in 2015, two years after his passing.
Filmed across a two year period of writing, recording, and touring, Les Blank’s 16mm psychedelic portrait of Russell undermines perceptions of artistry as much as it does perceptions of the American South. Blank’s naturally lit panorama’s of Tulsa, Oklahoma provide as much context for the music as any interview could. In doing so, the film organically follows threads and plots that go beyond its subject activities, much to the chagrin of the subject.
“I paid for it and I own it but I didn’t care for it […] I’m not sure what the purpose was – it’s not my idea of a documentary.” This was Leon Russell’s response to a question about the possible release of Blank’s film. It’s this difference in expectations between documentarian and subject speaks to the tension that’s at the heart of each of the films on this list, and indeed every documentary made with ethics. For Blank, the story of Leon Russell does not begin and end with his music. He understands that cinema, and documentary in particular, can allow for greater expression than that.
Granted, there are lots of spectacularly photographed musical performances in this film that do capture the intoxicating effects of this particular flavor of folk rock blues. The high def restoration, giving immeasurable life to the previously unseen concert footage. Blank’s film honors the truth of these moments as much as he honors the truth of Russell’s less flattering and much decried moments, like when he swears or smokes cigarettes.
It’s a film about an era of music making, but the meta narrative around the film’s relationship to the rights of artists will remain as relevant as ever in this increasingly complicated world of intellectual property ownership.
As much a feat of editing as it is a primer on the subject it depicts, Asif Kapadia’s collage mosaic Amy, constructs its portrait of the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse out of a staggering amount of sources, from invasive paparazzi footage, to delicate and vulnerable home videos.
Coinciding with an increasingly widespread public image via nascent media platforms, Amy Winehouse’s ascendancy into global pop icon was thoroughly well documented, if grossly sensationalized. Her passing in 2011, still so fresh and so far away, was immediately met by the public with hateful stereotypes about addiction that are all the more insulting given the current opioid and narcotic epidemic in this country.
This is a film about Amy Winehouse the artist, but as it unravels in VHS, Digital Video (D/V), and then HD broadcast images, the film also becomes about our relationship to the camera as an object. Some of the recordings aren’t even that old, and yet their digital veneer appears almost prehistoric given the proliferation of 4K videos in our day-to-day lives. How slow time seemed to move back then.
In centering the film on these images of Amy, her digital ghost begins to emanate a measure of humanity that was denied to Winehouse when she was alive. The progression of these recording technologies developing in tandem with Winehouse’s increasing celebrity provides a thematic and visual structure if you need one, but mostly, the film is interested in showcasing the woman behind the celebrity. Even its title suggests a familiarity with the subject that seems integral to understanding Winehouse as an artist. The carefree, Jewish girl from north London who loved Tony Bennett records.
Kapadia’s access here is thorough without falling into the same exploitation of those around Winehouse. It’s an effecting, moving film that unravels in uncomfortable moments layered with moments of beauty that direct the audience towards the music that Winehouse left behind. As with most of the other documentaries on the list, what more could you want in a film about music?
It was once said by director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was paraphrasing from director Jonathan Demme (and whom I’ll paraphrase now), that ‘pure cinema’ is watching someone play music.
By the release of Junun in 2015, Anderson had directed nine music videos for four artists that would be (consciously or not) guided and informed by this ‘pure cinema’ sensibility that he learned from Demme. In reducing his canvas size from the 130-minute, widescreen magnum opi that made him famous down to the breezy length of a pop song, a new dimension of Anderson’s visual language would emerge.
In what Anderson has described as “home movies”, Junun is a synthesis of the director’s old-Hollywood inflected, operatic style and the pure cinema ideal that he had been honing till then with his music videos. On an invitation from longtime collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Anderson would travel to India to make his first film about music. Israeli recording artist Shye Ben-Tzur and The Rajasthan Express Band would retreat to Fort Rajasthan (where the band takes its name) in order to record the album called “Junun”.
Operating an array of digital cameras for the first time (drones, GoPros, blackmagics), Anderson imbibes his musical palette with a sense of geography, and texture as well. A trip to the harmonium store is captured with vigor, and images of flying birds promote the liberation in creating and listening to music.
Despite the effortlessness of the actual performances by the band in the film, Anderson keeps in just enough of the stiching to show the lengths to which one must go to keep up the illusion of flawlessness. In this case, the Junun album. The studio-fort in Rajasthan repeatedly runs into electricity and power issues that threaten to upend the album recording, as well as the movie Anderson is filming. As he does in his fiction films however, Anderson absorbs these obstacles into the forward momentum of his story, allowing the flaws room to breathe character into the scene.
Shut Up And Play The Hits (2012)
The advantage that most of the filmmakers on this list have over directors Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern is their historical perspective on their subject matter. Sparks, The Bee Gees, Iggy Pop, each of these artists had been working professionally for decades and were already ensconced in the mainstream musical canon before a documentary was made about them. Which makes the restrained but socratic Shut Up And Play The Hits all the more curious a document of music stardom and artistic image.
At the time of the film’s release in 2012, recording artist James Murphy had been releasing music under the name LCD Soundsystem for only ten years. A resume not nearly as long as Bob Dylan, but longer than most for bands in this particular, amorphous musical space of indie electronica. It’s this brief tenure, and the incongruent attention paid to it by the musical public, that makes Murphy more than a little embarrassed to have a camera crew following him. As he tells it, the band was a lark, made with friends – there was no pretense of selling out arenas.
Unlike the other films on this list, the filmmakers interview Murphy via a proxy in author and critic Chuck Klosterman, who interviews Murphy for The New York Times in the hours before LCD Soundsystem’s final show. Klosterman, thoughtful as ever, banters well with Murphy as they piece together a legacy without overstating it. Murphy is careful to manage expectations about what he can offer from his unique perspective as the subject matter of the article, and songwriter in the band. Despite his protestations however, it’s clear that Murphy has thought a lot about Klosterman’s questions long before they were written.
Watching this film in 2021, after the band’s semi-reunion for another album and tour, it feels a bit quaint. A much ado about nothing for a band in an era where no one really breaks up. Musicians simply release music as they make it. Sometimes it’s with the same people, and sometimes it’s not. Much of the narrativizing about legacy comes from us, the audience, but that’s not to say that Murphy, as much a fan of music as anyone, doesn’t think about it constantly as well.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
There’s an artful hope that turned to artful tragedy in September of 2019 when musician and songwriter Daniel Johnston left the Earth. As much a product of the Gen-X indie music boom as any of his DIY contemporaries, Johnston seemed the first to be transparently chasing dreams of greatness, or at the very least, likeability. Jeff Feuerzeig’s Sundance award winning documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, suggests John Lennon as being a closer musical touchstone for Johnston than any 90’s alt-troubadour could.
In the tradition of other documentaries on this list, The Devil And Daniel Johnston offers audiences a chance to follow the artist as the filmmaker does, in an attempt to contextualize and demystify the “outsider artist” image cultivated in Johnston’s lifetime. Feuerzeig’s work is cut out for him, as Johnston provides not merely himself as collaborator on the film but also a monstrous archive of audio diaries and unreleased songs for use in the film.
This trove of recorded material captures Johnston at some of his vulnerable moments, but the effect is more awe inspiring than it is voyeuristic. Feuerzeig offers Johnston plenty of room to speak for himself, but it’s clear during certain moments (like when recalling his time in mental institutions) there are certain things not worth going over again for the cameras. More often than not however, Johnston is happy to vamp for the crew and talk about his love of music, comic books, and Jesus endlessly.
To date, this is the only documentary of the artist that exists for modern audiences. With some years between his death, one wonders how soon before this particular story gets a reboot for newer generations. No matter the audience for this film, the reason people will return to it is because they love the songs of Daniel Johnston, songs that speak to the artist and romantic in us all.
American Utopia, Spike Lee (2020)
A Band Called Death, Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett (2012)
Cobain: Montage Of Heck, Brett Morgen (2015)
Gimme Shelter, Charlotte Zwerin, David & Albert Maysles (1970)
Hardcore DEVO Live!, Keidra Bahruth (2014)