The best music documentaries to watch on repeat (part 1)

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The Beatles, the Buena Vista Social Club, Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, Orelsan… many pop culture stars have been the subject of cult music documentaries. For this first part devoted to the highlights of the genre, we have selected 13 must-see documentaries.

best music documentaries beatles metallica sugar man
Naturally non-exhaustive, our selection of the best music documentaries examines some of the most iconic rock bands, while broadening the horizon to include salsa, rap and soul.

With the release of Peter Jackson’s documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, which revisits one of the Fab Four’s defining moments, we take a look back at some of the greatest music documentaries exploring famous bands and artists.

The Beatles: Get Back, by Peter Jackson (2021)

Without a doubt, the Beatles are to rock what The Lord of the Rings is to heroic fantasy. The godfather of pop culture legend Peter Jackson obviously did not choose his subject at random. This collaboration also appears to be excellent news for fans of the Fab Four. The director shines when he has to weave a story out of a colossal amount of information. It was clearly the case with the intricate trilogy written by Tolkien. And this ability is just as evident in the exceptional editing of countless rushes (60 hours of footage, 150 hours of audio!) used for the documentary series The Beatles: Get Back.

The Beatles: Get Back series poster
The poster for the documentary features a photogram of the 42-minute concert given on the roof of the Savile Row building on January 30, 1969. This iconic concert appears in full in The Beatles: Get Back.

As always, Peter Jackson eschews a short format or an ellipse (his lengthy Hobbit trilogy is a testament to this). And for good reason, the three episodes of the series last on average 2h30 for a total duration of 7h47. This runtime was probably necessary to meticulously reconstruct the eight hours spent by John, Paul, George and Ringo in the intimacy of their studio in 1969.

Documentary Photogram Get Back Beatles
The sessions of The Beatles: Get Back are very prolific: the group rehearses and records, in addition to all the songs of Let It Be, most of those that appeared in Abbey Road. Several songs even appeared on the albums of Harrison, McCartney and Lennon after the group split. – Copyright Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Germany

Stuck somewhere between genius and exhaustion, inspiration and decline, the Fab Four find themselves in a kind of loft – the Twickenham film studios and the Apple Corps studios – to prepare a TV show. A show where they have to reconnect with the excitement of the audience, something that hasn’t happened for them since 1966. All of their minds are elsewhere, except for Paul McCartney, who initiated this concept which no doubt originated in reality TV.

peter jackson documentary beatles get back
Fans may not have expected to find Peter Jackson at the helm of a musical documentary. However, the world of the Beatles is a perfect match for the director’s punctiliousness. – Copyright The Walt Disney Company France

Underlying this extraordinary moment, however, is the Beatles’ swan song (April 1970): Lennon, in particular, only has eyes for Yoko Ono. The Fab Four have never been so beautiful and brilliant, nor so close to collapse. A wonderful ambiguity that makes The Beatles: Get Back an exceptional and unsettling documentary, magnified by the superb shots captured by Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s camera.

Allociné: 4.1/5
Télérama: 5/5
iMDb: 9.2/10

Available on Disney+
Stereo formats, 16:9

Sugar Man, by Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Sugar Man takes its time to reveal the hero, and that’s what makes it so unique and unmissable. Constantly combining gray areas (anonymity of the main protagonist after decades of success) and suspense, documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul puts into perspective a dizzying and poignant story: that of an American rock and folk musician whose name you may know: Sixto Rodriguez.

Documentary Sugar Man poster
Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, who passed away suddenly in 2014, won the Oscar for best documentary film with Sugar Man in 2013.

Distancing himself from the standard musical documentary, the director sets the stage for a story rich in twists and turns. As the plot draws closer to him, the central protagonist becomes enigmatic, almost mythical. Did Sixto Rodriguez even exist? Part investigation, part social thriller, Sugar Man blurs the lines and amazes. Very politically active during the 1970s, the American singer is a legend in South Africa. Without knowing it, Sixto even became an anti-apartheid icon there, a true symbol for white liberals.

Image Sugar Man documentary Sixto Rodriguez Red Box Films
Rediscovered thanks to the documentary Sugar Man, Sixto Rodriguez, the eminent musician at the center of the film, was long considered missing or dead. – Copyright Red Box Films

You are not familiar with the central character in this film? All the more reason to watch it! Without any complacency and with an economy of means that is the essence of Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul combines emotion with extremely refined editing. The director’s enthusiasm is fully conveyed to the viewer, so much so that one will never listen to the hit “Sugar Man” in the same way again.

Allociné: 4.4/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 8.2/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, Canal VOD and UniversCiné.
Stereo formats, 16:9

Buena Vista Social Club, by Wim Wenders (1999)

What if cinema could change the history of music? Buena Vista Social Club, a cult documentary by German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas, etc.) proved it was possible. Thanks to the feature film released in 1999, a band of forgotten Cuban musicians in their eighties suddenly rose to fame: the “Super Abuelos” (super grandfathers), members of the “Buena Vista Social Club”, a legendary club of musicians in Cuba.

buena vista social club poster
In addition to presenting the recording of several pieces in Havana, Buena Vista Social Club also allows you to discover concert archives in Amsterdam and New York.

Thanks to Ry Cooder, the composer to whom he owes the music for his movies Paris, Texas and The End of Violence, Wim Wenders discovered a breathtaking recording by a Cuban group, the “Buena Vista Social Club”. He then decided to accompany the composer to meet the members of an old studio in Havana, who agreed to confide in him between sessions. The duo didn’t know it yet, but they were about to revive this band of salsa and guajira veterans. The result is a critically acclaimed documentary movie that not only shines a new light on Cuba, but also brings Cuban music back to the forefront.

Allociné: 4/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.6/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and on UniversCiné.
Stereo formats, 16:9

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (2004)

This movie shot during the genesis of Metallica’s album “St. Anger” is a departure from the classic documentary format. Which makes it all the more valuable and original.

metallica some kind of monster poster
The original poster for the documentary aptly sums up the torturous situation Metallica faced when recording St. Anger.

For two years, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky delve into the lives of the band and their demons. The members of the band were going through a difficult period, between turbulent family lives and demanding professional commitments. Worse still, the sudden departure of James Hetfield (singer and guitarist) from rehab weakened the delicate balance of the band. So much so that Metallica were forced to consult a therapist.

In addition to these intriguing moments, Some Kind of Monster also contains concert excerpts and numerous studio recordings, including the previously unreleased song “Temptation”. – Copyright Paramount

From then on, the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster takes a rather brilliant turn. A dynamic that reminds us of the counterpoint of a mafia series like the Sopranos, where the settling of scores tips over into neurosis. For example, drummer Lars Ulrich ends up confiding in us about the power struggle that haunts Metallica, more precisely about Hetfield’s need for permanent control. Some Kind of Monster is electrifying while inviting the fan or the curious onlooker to share a disturbing slice of reality.

Allociné: 4.4/5
Inrocks: 5/5
iMDb: 7.4/10

Available on Netflix, Some Kind of Monster was aired on Arte in 2008 under the title Metallica, dans l’intimité d’un monstre.
Also available on DVD and Blu-Ray
Stereo formats, 16:9

See also: A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, by Adam Dubin (1992)

Cobain: Montage of Heck, by Brett Morgen (2015)

Acclaimed at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, Cobain: Montage of Heck distances itself from the legendary aura of Nirvana’s frontman. Far from idolatry, the documentary chooses the thorny path of Kurt Cobain’s torments: his anxieties and his addiction to heroin, in particular.

kurt cobain montage of heck copyright arts alliance
The movie retraces the life of Kurt Cobain, from his birth to his death, as well as his overwhelming media exposure as a member of Nirvana. Testimonies of relatives punctuate the fate of the singer – Copyright Arts Alliance

In this sensitive yet oppressive piece – his daughter Frances Bean Cobain’s first steps did not take place in the safest of environments – the singer and guitarist presents a less monolithic and curiously more human portrait.

kurt cobain montage of heck father may 1966
The numerous archival images that punctuate the poetic montage of Cobain: Montage of Heck allow us to apprehend the legend of Kurt Cobain from a more personal perspective. Here the father of the singer in May 1966. – Copyright Universal Pictures Germany

Nirvana fans are still waiting for an answer to the riddle left by the band’s tragic fate. But Cobain: Montage of Heck sidesteps all these questions to better focus on the real, intimate and uncompromising. The iconic Kurt Cobain comes down from his pedestal to present his true self, surrounded by anger, love and addiction. Beautiful and disturbing, the archive scenes, often accompanied by Nirvana’s best songs, are also complemented by striking animated sequences. A must-see, whether or not you’re a fan of the illustrious band from Seattle.

Allociné: 4.2/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.5/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and on Canal VOD and UniversCiné
Stereo formats, 16:9

Cocksucker Blues, by Robert Frank (1972)

Sultry and unclassifiable, the Cocksucker Blues musical documentary truly is one of a kind. Remaining in obscurity until its rediscovery in 2008 (via bootlegs posted on YouTube), this film by Robert Frank features the Rolling Stones’ famous 1972 tour. Considered shocking because of its frankness, the film was the subject of much discussion when it was released, before being immediately censored.

cocksucker blues robert frank documentary poster
In addition to the many concert excerpts from this triumphant tour, Robert Frank’s camera focuses on the backstage scenes in Cocksucker Blues.

Besides the compromising images (drug taking, hotel ransacking, naked groupies…), an unexpected feeling emanates from the footage, mostly shot with a handheld camera. We sometimes see Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, often subject to boredom or fatigue, wandering aimlessly around cluttered hotel rooms. A disillusioning image in contrast to the glamour, far from the feeling of casualness and ardor which was given off by their stage performances. It is precisely this disruption that makes Cocksucker Blues such a unique and stunning movie.

Curiously, a certain poetry also occasionally appears throughout the debauchery of Cocksucker Blues. A few memorable moments show, for example, Keith Richards playing the blues on a piano. Others focus on drummer Charlie Watts, who mostly remains in the background. But beyond all the splendor and decadence of the Stones, the best scenes take place on stage. This is the case, for example, when the group performs the iconic “Midnight Rambler” and “Brown Sugar”. Raw, unhinged and disturbing, Cocksucker Blues illustrates the essence of the motto “sex drugs & rock’n roll” to the point of excess.

Allociné: 3.4/5
iMDb: 7/10
Inrocks: 4/5

Available on YouTube and many video platforms
Mono, 4/3

Also to be seen by fans of the Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter, by Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin and David Maysles.

Don’t Look Back, by D. A. Pennebaker (1965)

The legendary music documentary Don’t Look Back is iconic for both its avant-garde format and the counterculture figures that it features. In 1965, Bob Dylan met (or invited) musicians such as Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price, Marianne Faithfull, and even Beat Generation writer Allen Ginsberg on his mythical tour. Donn Alan Pennebaker, immense director of musical documentaries, captures these moments with passion and genius.

don't look back pennebaker documentary poster
More magnetic and elusive than ever in Don’t Look Back, Dylan is both charismatic and arroganant, always ready to seduce and seek confrontation.

Immersing himself on stage, the filmmaker succeeds in conveying the vibrancy of the concerts. A more spiritual atmosphere emerges when he films the artists in their private lives. More than just Dylan’s 1965 tour, the filmmaker also retraces an entire era and delivers a dazzling testimony to the history of rock. With its ardor and spontaneity, Don’t Look Back is certainly a cornerstone in the history of musical documentaries.

Allociné: 4.2/5
iMDb: 8/10

Available on DVD
Mono, 4/3

And also: No Direction Home and Rolling Thunder Revue, two amazing documentaries on Dylan by Martin Scorsese

Ne montre jamais ça à personne, by Clément Cotentin and Christophe Offenstein (2021)

This mini-series dedicated to Orelsan is an original take on the music documentary. Childlike yet sophisticated, its formula draws on the star’s hilarious personal archives. Cut into six short episodes, Montre jamais ça à personne traces the rapper’s 20-year career with sensitivity and humor.

orelsan never show that to anyone documentary series poster
With its thousands of hours of rushes spread over 20 years, Montre jamais ça à personne is a fascinating and touching portrait. It is also the story of a band of inseparable friends.

Clément Cotentin, Orelsan’s little brother, has filmed (sometimes surreptitiously) the journey of “Orel” since his early days. The result is a colossal and brilliant documentary database, which he edits here in collaboration with director Christophe Offenstein (co-director of Comment c’est loin in 2015 with Orelsan). From the drunken evenings with friends in his smoke-filled apartment in Caen to the prestigious Parisian concert halls, Orelsan’s journey appears colorful. With each episode, the impetuous teenager and Jackass fan gains wisdom. His writing becomes more mature. The mischievous spontaneity of the early days gives way to deeper musings, questioning and doubts.

Still from the documentary Montre jamais ça à personne Orelsan
By filming Orelsan for twenty years, his brother Clément Cotentin was probably one of the first to understand his talent, and the destiny that awaited him – Copyright FR_tmdb

From a DIY approach to craftsmanship, the expertise of Orelsan and his associates (Gringe, Ablaye, Skread, etc.) even ends up being genuinely professional – Skread’s influence seems to have a lot to do with it. A success story unlike any other, Montre jamais ça à personne then reveals with inspiration how an ordinary guy (or almost), by dint of hard work, ends up leaving his student sofa to achieve his dream: to make a place for himself in the world of rap. Of course, Clément Cotentin’s camera wobbles a bit and the live shots sometimes border on the amateurish. But all this makes it possible to create a fascinating atmosphere where the complicity of the two brothers emerges with tenderness. If only for this brotherly complicity, Montre jamais ça à personne is really worth a look.

Allociné: 4.5/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 8.5/10

Available on Amazon Prime
Stereo formats, 16:9

Dig!, by Ondi Timoner (2005)

It doesn’t matter if the viewer of Dig! is familiar or not with the world of American indie rock from the early 2000s. It really isn’t essential. Because director Ondi Timoner, awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Festival, succeeded in creating a superb piece of work (it is part of the collection of the MOMA in New York) with an enthralling narrative.

documentary poster dig ondi timoner dandy warhols, brian jonestown massacre
Special mention for the most fascinating figure in the documentary Dig! : the brilliant and self-destructive Anton Newcombe of the band Brian Jonestown Massacre.

In fact, Dig! dissects the trajectories of two groups from the American independent scene: the Brian Jonestown Massacre of San Francisco and the Dandy Warhols of Portland. The former will experience a dramatic descent into hell, the latter an eventful rise. Exploring these two more or less inverted curves, Ondi Timoner digs (Dig, it’s all in the title) to reveal all that makes the legend of rock history. Failed concerts, dismissed musicians, snorted lines of coke… the filmmaker’s camera captures a real odyssey over seven years, bordering passion and enmity. Funny, thrilling and touching, Dig! also benefits from an exceptional soundtrack.

Allociné: 4.3/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.8/10

Available on DVD
Stereo formats, 16:9

Marley, by Kevin Macdonald (2012)

A documentary with a runtime of 150 minutes, Marley is more of a best-of anthology than a deep dive into the reggae idol’s secrets and subtleties. Also, the most learned fans of Bob Marley may regret the film’s lack of grit. However, it would be wrong to perceive this documentary as a timid biography.

kevin macdonald documentary marley poster
Even though it flirts with idolatry due to its lack of nuance and academicism, Marley appears to be the best documentary on Bob Marley.

Rich in archival footage and extensive testimonials, Marley even contains a thorough and relentless investigation. Perhaps lacking in real surprises, Kevin Macdonald’s film shines with its insights into reggae, a genre full of echoes and offbeats.

archival image marley documentary concert
Electrifying, the documentary knows how to stay cool when dealing with the overwhelming legend that is Marley. So much so that we also discover the individual hiding under the dreadlocks. – Copyright Wild Side Films / The Pact

Never mind its academic rigor: Bob Marley’s almost mythological status emerges gradually over the course of the footage and it is captivating. The character’s political contradictions, his austerity, his infidelities… director Kevin Macdonald brilliantly puts each facet into perspective. The soundtrack is obviously vibrant and the restored images captivating.

Allociné: 4.3/5
Première: 4/5
iMDb: 7.9/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, Canal VOD and UniversCiné
Stereo formats, 16:9

Amy, by Asif Kapadia (2015)

With Amy, Asif Kapadia not only delivers an empathetic and informative portrait of the London soul diva, but also a tormented dive into the chaotic world of Amy Winehouse.

winehouse documentary amy poster
An intimate immersion, Amy also bears witness to the singer’s perpetual quest for intensity, troubled by boredom to the point of panic.

From the rebellious and determined teenager to her downward spiral and trip to rehab, Asif Kapadia does not polish the star’s rough edges. Amy therefore appears in some ways as a cruel immersion in the private life of the star. The documentary, however, also knows how to compensate for the tragedy with a vibrant energy. By turns amusing, touching, clever, the story dazzles by its multi-facetedness.

image from the documentary Amy, by Asif Kapadia
Amy is an exhilarating music documentary aimed at fans and the uninitiated alike – Copyright 2015 PROKINO Filmverleih GmbH

One of the most striking aspects of Amy is the pack of journalists who tracked the singer’s every move and bombarded her with camera flashes. Amy Winehouse was filmed almost incessantly during her short life. An obsession that unfortunately left its mark. This sad and fascinating story makes you want to listen to her two studio albums over and over again.

Allociné: 4.1/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.8/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, PremiereMax and UniversCiné
Stereo formats, 16:9

Janis, by Amy Berg (2016)

A few months after the music documentary Amy, Janis was also released. The coincidence appears all the more surprising as the destinies of the two women, who both died at the age of 27, are in many ways alike. Their decline and the circumstances of their death (an overdose), in particular. However, there is no opportunistic approach on the part of the director of Janis: the parallel is more of a coincidence.

janis amy berg documentary poster
Documentary filmmaker Amy Berg offers a fascinating portrait of Janis Joplin, looking back on her childhood, her ambitions for glory and her darker side.

Filmmaker Amy Berg’s production of this film is very well done, filled with live footage and interviews that sift through the trajectory of a whirlwind singer, sympathetic and powerless against her demons.

Frame from the documentary Janis, by Amy Berg. Janis Joplin
Watching the documentary Janis, it is difficult to remain unaffected by the energy of the singer’s concerts and the drama that was her life – Copyright Happiness Distribution

The documentary Janis alternates between the power of the singer’s powerful and joyful public performances and the tragic suffering that haunted her. A pain that her unique voice translated with emotion and brilliance. Also, Janis is a portrait of an era: that of psychedelic pop-rock, of which Janis Joplin was one of the most prominent symbols.

Première: 4/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.8/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, Canal VOD and UniversCiné
Stereo formats, 16:9

Spinal Tap, by Rob Reiner (1984)

Hilarious and very rigorous despite seeming like a total parody, Spinal Tap has all the ingredients that make a great musical documentary (rise to fame, success, decadence, questionable hair and clothing…). With one difference: this rockumentary isn’t what it seems. It is infact a mockumentary, but all the dialogues are totally improvised. Deliberately unclassifiable, Spinal Tap nevertheless earns its place in our selection thanks to its hair-raising spontaneity.

A hilarious caricature of 1970s and 1980s rock bands, the documentary follows the American tour of a fictional British band called Spinal Tap.

The first film by Rob Reiner (the man behind Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally and Misery), this totally absurd comedy explores all possible clichés, not without a certain genius. Multiplying incessant gags and improbable dialogues, Rob Reiner and his band certainly produced one of the funniest works of the 1980s. The strength of Rob Reiner, who plays the role of director Marty Di Bergi, consists in filming the most ridiculous situations with implacable seriousness (amplifier that goes up to 11, band that gets lost in the corridors leading to the stage, etc.).

Cult “documentary”, Spinal Tap sifts through all the clichés of rock-attitude, pointing out its contradictions and its pretensions. A must-see. – Copyright Embassy Pictures

Everything seems real, and yet, Spinal Tap lies tirelessly and it is brilliant. Underneath the humor lies an honest criticism of the star system’s outdated rules, be it heavy metal or not. For example, the movie pokes fun at Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) and The Edge (U2), without forgetting AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. Now a cult movie for many musicians, Spinal Tap resulted in a lot of merchandising and even a tour of the fake band Spinal Tap: when reality surpasses fiction!

The Inrocks: 4/5
Télérama: 4/5
iMDb: 7.9/10

Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and on UniversCiné and LaCinetek
Stereo formats, 16:9


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Après quelques années dans la presse ciné (La Septième Obsession, L’E.F.…), j’ai rejoint l’équipe de Son-Vidéo.com en 2021. Mordu de musique (rock, soul, jazz…) et de septième art (Herzog, Kubrick, P.T. Anderson…), je découvre l’univers de la hi-fi et du home-cinéma entre curiosité et fascination. En attendant de trouver la place pour profiter de mes vinyles (Zappa, Talking Heads…), je peux compter sur mes enceintes Sonos One. L’occasion d’explorer les plateformes de musique dématérialisée, à la croisée souvent de PJ Harvey et Coltrane.

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