The Top 25 Greatest Music Documentaries…

"Best music DVDs" Top Rock documentary

What is the best music documentary ever made?

Documentaries, like science, cricket, or Lana Del Ray, seem to grow more interesting the older you get.

As a young lad my heart would sink when a documentary would appear on TV in place of the Two Ronnies or the snooker. It was an occupational hazard when watching Blue Peter. The quid pro quo for watching John Noakes climb the monument or getting his foot stepped on by a baby elephant was that there would be a slightly dull bit when Leslie Judd talked about King Henry III whilst the camera panned over an uninteresting oil painting someone found in a church.

Alas, I still rather glaze over when even the most worthy and excellent episode of say, Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation is repeated on the History Channel. But the BBC (and Sky Arts) do come up with an excellent number of Rock Documentaries, and these are far more interesting.

The Rock Documentary appears to be hitting a Golden Age, at least as far as volume is concerned, with barely a week going by without the announcement of another one being released, usually straight to DVD. So where to start?

In my view the best Rock Documentaries combine an interesting subject matter with an interesting event, and film it in an interesting way. The very best will still be entertaining whether you are a fan of the band in question or not.

Whilst I don’t want to give the misleading impression that I spend most of my time watching these things (I’m too busy watching my Glee box sets…) I have quite a few under my belt, so thought it might be worthwhile to add to the many lists out there…

So here’s a list of The Top Twenty Five Rock Documentaries of All Time:

  1. A True Testimonial – The MC5: “This amazing story of the MC5 includes concert footage taken by…The FBI – such was the perceived threat of rock n roll to the establishment in 1960′s Detroit… Possibly the greatest Rock Documentary ever made.”
  2. The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter [DVD]: “The documentary-maker’s perfect storm: An historic band at an historic moment. See Jagger and co watch freeze-framed images of Meredith Hunter being stabbed by a Hells Angel…”
  3. The Fearless Freaks – The Flaming Lips: “We see Steven Drozd preparing a heroin fix, and fall into a daze. We also learn of the crazy career of The Flaming Lips.
  4. Oil City Confidential – Dr Feelgood: “One of those documentaries that is good whether you know Dr Feelgood or not. The combination of Wilko Johnson with a career high from film-maker Julien Temple (see also The Filth and The Fury and The Future Is Unwritten) makes for a truly memorable experience.” See my Wilko Johnson post here…Wilco Johnson Dr Feelgood
  5. Beyond The Lighted Stage – Rush: “A film that does absolute justice to this great once-kimono-wearing rock band”Geddy Lee
  6. Bob Dylan – Don’t Look Back – D.A Pennebaker : “D.A Pennebaker followed Dylan on his UK Tour in 1965. This ground breaking film was the fascinating result. Watch Dylan deal with the press in his own inimitable way…”
  7. The Beatles Anthology: “The greatest story of rock history is lavishly covered in this box-set over eight discs, with the co-operation of The Beatles themselves. It’s therefore an “official” version of events, but extraordinary nevertheless.”
  8. Jimi Hendrix [1973]: “Made in 1973, this is a good film that attempted to cover the story of Jimi’s life. It is a story worth telling and this is the best document there is.”
  9. Live Forever: “Highly entertaining overview of Britpop made memorable by Noel Gallagher‘s wit throughout.”
  10. The Beatles – Let it Be: “The film they don’t want you to see…? Another historic band at an historic moment. In hindsight we are watching the break up of the Beatles. McCartney and Harrison argue, Billy Preston comes in to put everyone on their best behaviour and the roof-top performance caps things off. Surely a DVD release will happen one day?”
  11. Dig! – The Dandy Warhols: “A curious tale of how two contemporaries’ careers took different turns. The Dandy Warhols found success, The Brian Jonestown Massacre found obscurity. The film shows why…”
  12. The Last Waltz – The Band: “This is a beautifully made film and features a stellar guest list: The Band, Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young… Great stuff.”
  13. David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: “Whilst Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor shows a fascinating picture of Bowie, this is the definitive live performance when Ziggy played guitar, and then announced his retirement onstage. Much, it should be said, to the surprise of his band.”
  14. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town Documentary – Bruce Springsteen: “A terrific and fascinating look at one of the most interesting periods of Springsteen’s life: the making of a record that didn’t see the light of day for 35 years”. See my post on Bruce Springsteen here…
  15. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Runnin’ Down a Dream – A Film by Peter Bogdanovich: “Tom Petty’s story: bankruptcy, band dissent – all over four hours. Superb.” See my post on Tom Petty here…
  16. Led Zeppelin: “Not a documentary, but forget The Song Remains The Same: this is the definitive document of Led Zeppelin. Superbly restored footage in 5.1 sound of classic performances at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970, Earls Court in 1975 and Knebworth in 1979. This made me realise just how great Bonzo was…”
  17. No Direction Home (Bob Dylan): “Dylan’s life story is worth telling and here we have a great storyteller in Martin Scorsese. The first part might drag a little unless you love clips of old folk artists….”
  18. It Might Get Loud – Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge: “Interesting because it brings together three very different guitar players and examines what makes them special… Nice to see the grin appear on Jack White’s face when Page plays Whole Lotta Love…”Jack White Edge Jimmy Page
  19. Back and Forth – Foo Fighters: “A fascinating look back at Dave Grohl’s life: a man who once wiped his drummer’s tracks and re-did them all himself!”
  20. No Distance Left To Run – Blur: “A comprehensive and emotional look at the story of Blur. See Damon Albarn tear up at the Band’s Glastonbury reunion….”
  21. AC/DC: Let There Be Rock! : “One of the first concert films I owned. Classic footage of AC/DC on stage and off. Angus still has the ability to amaze with his high octane performance, filmed in France in the ’70s.”
  22. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night: “To see stage invasions and hordes of screaming girls you can either watch the otherwise slightly dull Stones documentary “Charlie Is My Darling” or see this highly fun and entertaining feature: The Beatles’ first full length film and a minor classic (and much better than Help!)”
  23. Lemmy: “Best Metal doc? Some Kind of Monster? Anvil? Spinal Tap? Decline of Western Civilisation? Flight 666? All good, but no: it’s this portrait of a legend…”
  24. Judas Priest: Dream Deceivers: “The Story of the Trial of Judas Priest – a made for TV documentary that recorded an historic moment when the suicide and attempted suicide of two boys resulted in the band being brought to trial. See my post on this documentary here.
  25. The Rolling Stones – C-Sucker Blues: A film by Robert Frank which cannot be legally shown without the director being present. You can, however, download it from the internet if you know where to look. You will see a Pennebaker-style film with much reportage of the band and hangers-on including drug use and groupies…

Impossible to include every great documentary of course. There’s the new George Harrison one (Living In The Material World), there’s Stop Making Sense, Under Great White Northern Lights, Talahina Sky, Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, and so on….

Have I missed any? Let me know if there’s one you think I should see below…

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Further comment on the top music documentaries is here

30 replies

  1. I definitely agree that The Last Waltz, The Beatles Anthology and the two Dylan docs are wonderful. A favorite I highly recommend is Brian Wilson Presents Smile, which is a filmed concert but also a documentary about its creation.

  2. born to boogie starring marc bolan and t.rex was t.rex was the best film documentary directed by ringo starr worth checking out it has film footage of the famous wembley concerts of 1972 when t.rex where at the peak of their popularity

  3. My favorite rock doc factoid of all time – about ‘The Last Waltz’ (#12 on the above list):
    “When Young came onstage to sing “Helpless” for Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary of the Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, he had a visible chunk of cocaine hanging from his left nostril. So visible, in fact, that Band guitarist and co-producer of the film, Robbie Robertson had to pay several thousand dollars to have it Rotoscoped out of the final cut. “The most expensive cocaine I’ve ever bought,” Robertson quipped.”
    (courtesy of ‘complex.com’)

    -Ed

  4. Yes you must watch the film its also on you tube there were 2 seerate concerts on the day it’s a must see you can also get a double DVD of it on amazon with 5hrs of classic footage

  5. What about ‘The Kids Are Alright’? That one sums up, in my opinion, all that you ever need to know about The Who. The fact that it does that with nothing except interviews of the members and live performances only makes it much more impressive.

  6. Grateful Dead Movie
    Wilco – Ashes of American Flags

  7. When I first saw Cracked Actor I was just a Bowie fan. Probably about 12 and just pleased to be seeing my hero on tv. That my hero was paranoid and skeletal, possibly due to drug use, went over my naive head. Now it really is a better doc than Ziggy Stardust because of the non-concert footage.

  8. Pink Floyd – Live At Pompeii
    Decline of Western Civilization Part 2
    Hail, Hail Rock and Roll

    Oh and honorable mention: Bad News Tour

  9. I think it’s the Wish You Were hear documentary where Nick Mason says, Of Syd Barrets’ deterioration and drug taking “Someone almost said something (to Syd)….but we didn’t”. Its’ one of the most poignant things I’ve ever heard.

  10. “It Might Get Loud” is my favorite of these.

  11. hi we are dressed to kiss a kiss tribute band from italy we have just received the overdubbed in english version of the documentary dedicated to the band celebrating 20 years could you be intrested in taking a look it’s a pretty cool story check it out let us know what you think….?! thanks for you time cheers!!

  12. One that’s certainly near the top of my list and although it’s marred somewhat but also is a great compliment to the disappearance of what some say was a spiritual place, was the documentary Last Play at Shea, highlighting bits and peaces of Billy Joel’s Life. He’s certainly underrated in my books. And Billy being Billy, he probably doesn’t think he’s worthy of the recognition. But if you take the time to listen to his albums according the times they were released, you’ll begin to hear a story, the story of Billy Joel. It’s certainly a beautiful way to tell a tale.

  13. “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” !!!!!! Great Scott, this is an amazing film about an amazing musician.Exec Prod by D. Bowie too – one of the best ever.

  14. Just finished watching “beware of mr baker” : awesome

    And of course “searching for sugarman ” is a documentary for the ages”

  15. He missed out the Doors film. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doors_(film)

    It is very good !

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