Travel to Woodstock and Party With Beyoncé: 10 Must-Watch Music Documentaries
Music is intrinsic to societies all over the world. It is so ingrained in our culture that certain artistes have become iconic historical figures, and music events can go down in history with major cultural significance.
Music documentaries show us the ways in which these events and people have impacted society as a whole, giving us insights into the vital role that it plays in our culture.
Documentaries are also a wonderful way for music fans to feel closer to their favourite artistes. They can give an intimate insight into the lives and work of musicians, showing us their personalities and detailing what factors led to successes (or failures) throughout their careers.
From festivals that caused cultural change to biographical films about some of the world’s biggest stars, here are the ten best music documentaries that any music fan needs to watch:
'WOODSTOCK' (1970), DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WADLEIGH
Woodstock was a 1969 three-day celebration of peace and music that took place in New York. It has gone down in history as a pivotal moment in music history, and a turning point in counterculture.
The documentary of the same name from director Michael Wadleigh captures the emotions and triumphs of the festival. It received international acclaim upon its release in 1970 – and even got an Academy Award for "Best Documentary".
'DIG!' (2004), DIRECTED BY ONDI TIMONER
Credit: Interloper Films
Shot over seven years from 1995 to 2002, Dig! follows the highs and lows of indie rock bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It also shines a spotlight on the friendship-turned-rivalry of respective founders Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor.
As The Dandy Warhols rise in their commercial success, The Brian Jonestown Massacre attempt to cling to their artistic integrity; this leads to two diverging stories which are spurred on by large personalities and egoistic conflicts.
This glimpse into the very different journeys of the two bands is a fascinating and sometimes outrageous ride.
'BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB' (1999), DIRECTED BY WIM WENDERS
Buena Vista Social Club follows guitarist Ry Cooder as he brings together an ensemble of Cuba’s finest musicians.
It is a story of how the group recorded a groundbreaking album (also titled Buena Vista Social Club), then later travelled to both Amsterdam and New York City to perform it.
These musicians were somewhat forgotten on the world stage after Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, and this documentary charts their journey of creating incredible music and gaining the popularity that they deserve.
A truly engrossing documentary, complete with interviews from the musicians and live concert footage.
'QUEEN: DAYS OF OUR LIVES' (2011), DIRECTED BY MATT O'CASEY
This documentary film tells the story of one of the world’s biggest rock bands – Queen – who had unparalleled success throughout their music career, with 26 albums and over 300 million records sold.
Featuring interviews with the band and management, behind-the-scenes clips, and footage from concerts, the film begins by detailing the band’s background and rise to fame. It goes on to focus on the many ups and downs of their careers, which eventually led them to become as renowned as they are today.
Insightful and fascinating, Queen: Days Of Our Lives will intrigue both casual and diehard fans.
'WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?' (2015), DIRECTED BY LIZ GARBUS
What Happened, Miss Simone? gives viewers an interesting insight into the life of renowned gospel singer Nina Simone, from her childhood growing up in North Carolina to her self-made exile in Liberia later in life.
Using archival footage along with interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends, the viewer gets a unique and sometimes harrowing look at the singer's musical career, personal life, and her work in civil rights activism in the 1960s.
'AMY' (2015), DIRECTED BY ASIF KAPADIA
This 2015 documentary from Asif Kapadia is a powerful film covering the life of singer Amy Winehouse.
The film focuses on Winehouse’s struggle with substance abuse, both before and after her rise to fame, which tragically led to her untimely death at the age of just 27. But, more than that, the film details Winehouse’s incredible musical career which crossed genres including soul, rhythm, blues and jazz.
Amy is a celebration of her life, and the extraordinary legacy she left behind.
'THE BEATLES: GET BACK' (2021), DIRECTED BY PETER JACKSON
Credit: Linda McCartney. 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved
This three-part documentary series from director Peter Jackson follows the making of the Beatles’ 1970 album Let It Be. The documentary follows the band’s journey through the creation of the album, showing the viewer previously unused studio footage.
While previous public thought alluded that there had been some tensions between the band members while recording this album, the documentary gives the audience a positive and intimate glimpse into the process.
It’s a wonderful insight for fans of the Beatles, but general music fans will also find this an interesting dive into the making of an album.
As an added bonus, the documentary culminates in an entire 40-minute rooftop performance of the album.
'AMAZING GRACE' (2018), DIRECTED BY SYDNEY POLLACK
Not a traditional documentary, Amazing Grace is instead a live concert film, featuring Aretha Franklin’s 1972 performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
Filmed by Sydney Pollack, the footage remained unseen for decades due to technical issues. But with improved technologies, Alan Elliot (who gets a "realised and produced" credit) was able to finally make the concert watchable.
While Franklin barely speaks for the duration of the concert, so much emotion is conveyed through her incredible performance.
It has the intimacy and awe of a church service while showcasing Franklin’s amazing talent and emphasising the power that music can have.
'HOMECOMING' (2019), DIRECTED BY BEYONCÉ AND ED BURKE
Credit: Parkwood Entertainment
Homecoming is a concert film covering Beyoncé’s two-night stint headlining the Coachella festival in 2018.
The performance was one to remember, with Beyoncé’s focus on bringing African American culture to the fore and the addition of a solely Black band and dancers.
While her performance will go down in the history of the renowned festival, there is so much more to this film than just that.
Shots of the performance are interspersed with flashbacks to the eight-month-long rehearsal, during which we get a glimpse into Beyoncé’s fascinating creative process.
It is an intimate and engaging exploration of one of the world’s biggest pop stars preparing for the show of her lifetime.
'SUMMER OF SOUL' (2021), DIRECTED BY QUESTLOVE
Summer Of Soul is an acclaimed 2021 documentary from debut director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.
It details the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which took place on six Sundays between June and August of that year.
The festival took place at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the US as a celebration of African American culture and history. Its purpose was to remind attendees of the healing and connective power that music can have.
Questlove combines footage of the festival (which had been left unused for over fifty years when no network took it on) with interviews from modern-day commentators to create a beautiful tribute – to not only the musicians but also the audience of this one-of-a-kind event.
For more televsion shows and documentaries on music, read:
- Elvis Presley: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of The King
- Biopics Coming Out in 2022/2023
- Hit That Note: Inspiring Music Biopics With Equally Stellar Tunes
Immerse yourself in these music documentaries at home with KEF
Writer | Tríona Marshall
Tríona is a writer from Dublin, Ireland, who specialises in travel, languages, arts, and culture. When not writing, Tríona can be found reading, trying out new local restaurants, or booking her next trip. @trionawrites