What Is The Greatest Music Documentary of All Time?

Rockumentary Music DVD Music documentary

What is the greatest music documentary ever made? The best ever film about music? The finest rock doc / rockumentary / biopic / live in-concert video / DVD or whatever else you want to call it?

Yesterday’s announcement that (Don’t Look Back Director) DA Pennebaker will receive a lifetime achievement Oscar, plus the forthcoming release of Magical Mystery Tour, the Rolling Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane and ahem, my own modest contribution to a BBC music documentary (did I mention that previously? I’m going to be on TV you know. What’s that? Only about ten times? Oh, OK I’ll shut up about it) has lead me to ask the question what are the greatest Music Documentaries of All Time? Or perhaps (given that The Magical Mystery Tour is hardly a documentary) what are the best music DVDs / films?

It seems that hardly a week goes by without the release of a new documentary. Bands now appear to be regularly plagued by marauding film crews swarming round them, recording their most intimate moments for the enjoyment of all, to varying degrees of success. Fans can thrill to the sight of Dave Grohl relaxing with his family, laugh at Ozzy clearing up dog faeces and gasp at the sight of Bob Dylan picking his feet*. This is a good thing for music fans like me, although admittedly not every film is a nailed-on classic. Indeed some look like they may have all the visual appeal of the Oxford University Dungeons and Dragons team. And they’re not pretty – believe me.

When it comes to picking the good ones, it is easier than picking the right book, and you don’t have to invest as much time. Thanks to BBC4 and Sky Arts they also appear on TV far more than they used to. It is fair to say that if you are a fan of a band, then you are likely to enjoy seeing the band on film.

I remember buying Journey: Frontiers and Beyond on VHS when I was younger. It was partly an on-the-road documentary following the road crew around and partly an in-concert movie. It was great for a Journey fan to see backstage footage, but I suspect the film is of limited interest to anyone else, unless you like to see footage of roadies driving trucks (and who doesn’t?) or seeing their reaction to Neal Schon catching a pair of knickers thrown from the crowd with his guitar. (Spoiler: it’s comfortably the best thing they see during the tour – which reaffirms how dull a roadie’s life might be most of the time).

Radiohead’s Meeting People Is Easy is okay if you are a fan, but it is somewhat haphazard, featuring a collage of a bemused band on tour, but is far from a comprehensive document of what it is like to be in Radiohead (and to be fair, isn’t meant to be).

I wrote about the Kiss Exposed! Video and its appropriation of the Playboy Mansion in a previous post

The Kings of Leon‘s Talahina Sky is great for fans – lots of footage of the band surrounded by their family and neighbours in scenes resembling the Dukes of Hazard, only without the cars. But it doesn’t rival The Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth, which has more structure and is far more revealing about the band, including the time when Dave Grohl recorded over his drummer’s parts because he thought he could do better. Which to be fair, he probably could. If you’re a drummer, and the lead singer in your band used to be The Drummer In Nirvana, that’s pretty intimidating I would say. To take a Shakespearean analogy, you’d probably feel the same way Scar felt about Simba in The Lion King.

The best documentaries however, can take a band that perhaps you are less familiar with and bring them to life.

The number one documentary on my list, MC5: A True Confessional is one of those films. I knew The MC5 principally from their song Kick Out The Jams, which distils everything that’s great about rock n roll in three minutes. But that was about it. It so happens that the band were at the forefront of a movement that was considered such a threat to the US Government that we see in-concert footage of the band sourced from none other than FBI surveillance tapes. Which says more about the paranoia of the US Government in the sixties that any actual threat the band posed.

Sadly the film is difficult to get hold of (I found my copy on eBay) due to a dispute between the band and the film makers over money (what else?). Hopefully they will work things out and the film will reach the audience it deserves.

Let it Be is another film on the list without an official release, presumably because it documents a difficult time in the life of the band. That is, of course, the very thing that makes it interesting. Seeing George Harrison getting narky with Paul McCartney (“I’ll play it any way you want me to. Or not play it”) whilst recording the album is uncomfortable viewing. Again, eBay, record fairs or file sharing sites are the only ways to see this film.

You can see the full list on a permanent page on the Every Record Tells A Story site or by clicking through this link to The Top 25 Music Documentaries of All Time.

Have I missed any? Do add your favourites in the comments section…

* I may have made this up

Record #88: Spinal Tap – Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight

Categories: Music

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21 replies

  1. I really enjoy The Who’s ‘The Kids Are Alright’
    You have a great list! Oh…Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’!


  2. I really rate the Maysles documentary on The Beatles’ arrival in America (released by Apple as ‘The First U.S.Visit’ on DVD a few years back.


  3. The Kids are Alright about The Who will always have a special place in my heart. I also adored The Filth and The Fury, End of the Century, and Festival Express.


  4. My #1 depends on what day it is, as I go back and forth. One of the ones that’s in the mix is Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, about the legendary producer.


    In addition to his work as a producer (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Booker T. & the MG’s, Cream, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, along with many others), he is responsible for a number of innovations in the technology of recording music. My favorite part is the story of how he introduced Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, and then produced Layla. That part of the film is in this video:


  5. Glad you included Harrison’s “I’ll play it any way you want me to. Or not play it” (truly uncomfortable at times to watch “Let It Be”).
    I also enjoyed Michael Apted’s “Bring on the Night.”


  6. Sorry for being some three years late to the party.
    This is the very first “Best of List” I can remember in my life grateful to be in agreement with the choice for #1. Without any shadow of a doubt “The MC5:A True Testimonial” is numero uno simply because it captures the best live band in the history of western civilization to ever strafe an audience with a sonically harmonic assault of Rock N’ Roll. You had to be there live in the flesh to get it, but this opus comes close. Folks today hungering for the real deal, dumbed down by auto-tune and a veritable sea of no-talent posers would do well to scour cyberspace for this testimonial about the Motor City Five.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Talk about late, just saw this post! I know this might be a little obvious and/or commercial, but I’d like to mention the movie Woodstock. Not only great footage of legendary artists, but a snapshot of 1960’s society. Also, thank you all for some great ideas for future purchases!

    Liked by 1 person

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