The 15 Best Music Documentaries
Yes, true crime documentaries can be satisfying. But an ILLmatic music documentary will inspire you to put down your phone and chase your dreams. Getting a behind-the-scenes peek into some of your favorite music projects or gaining a deeper understanding into an artist you admire is unmatched. But, not all of those stories are heartwarming. Particularly those that deal with the demise of a great talent can be painful to watch. We’ve compiled a list of riveting music documentaries, some will break your heart and others will make me feel like you can fly. Incredible films, however, are bound to leave a lasting impression on your spirit and perhaps give you that air of inspiration you’ve been searching for.
Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé (2019)
Starting this list is perhaps one of the greatest music documentaries/concert movies of all time, Homecoming. As the first Black woman to headline Coachella, Beyoncé made a statement by advocating the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Beychella was a cultural reset that we have the pleasure of viewing again and again…and again.
Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1959)
This concert showcasing performances from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is incredible. Originally premiering at the Venice Film Festival, and directed by legendary photographer Bert Stern, the film is full cool vibes. Over 60 years later, Jazz on a Summer’s Day remains as beautiful as ever. The film offers performances from a number of iconic jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Mahalia Jackson and more.
Just over 27 years ago, the world lost Kurt Cobain. But the skilled guitarist and songwriter has not been forgotten–partly because of incredible documentaries like Montage of Heck that memorialize the life and impact of the late Nirvana singer. A number of documentaries have been made detailing the life of Cobain and even conspiracy theories around his tragic death. But Montage of Heck this is the first to be supported by family and friends, including ex-wife Courtney Love. Through a series of archive materials, animated scenes and touching testimonies from those who knew him best, we see Cobain as we have never seen him before. The documentary gives us insight into his early battles with his mental health, his struggle with teenage homelessness and his drug use. Montage of Heck allows us to appreciate Cobain’s music and life on earth.
Not many have had the changes in public opinion that Taylor Swift has faced over the years. Throughout her 16-year career, Taylor has been the sweet girl next door, the psycho-ex, the popular girl and the B.I.T.C.H. She’s either embraced or fought against these titles through her music. But Miss Americana tells another story of Swift, one where she has shed her dependence on the opinion of the public and instead demanded happiness on her own terms.
Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
This Emmy award-winning documentary chronicles the life and career of one of the most famous families in music: The Bee Gees. The film, which was directed by Frank Marshall, includes several interviews with many notable names in music, including the last surviving member of The Bee Gees, Barry Gibb.
This A24 film on the life of the Amy Whinehouse is spectacular in its ability to tackle the enigma that was the late singer. The film is not an easy watch, as it bares all that was Whinehouse: from her difficult relationships to her struggles with self-harm, eating disorders and substance abuse. Amy is a heartbreaking watch about the life and demise of a talented singer. The film made quite the impact in its release, receiving several awards including the Grammy for Best Musical Film in 2015.
Questlove marked his film debut with this Oscar-winning documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. Despite tons of recorded footage and featured performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & The Pips and so many more, this festival was largely forgotten. Now, through this documentary years later, we all have the chance to be transported back to the summer of ’69 and celebrate the beauty and history of Black culture, music and fashion.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
This Martin Scorsese film chronicles the life and career of living American legend Bob Dylan all while showing viewers how he became, well… a living legend. The film, in which Scorsese won a Grammy for, is a collection of hundreds of hours of archival material, interviews with loved ones, fellow musicians and Dylan himself distilled into 208 minutes.
Jeen-Yus : A Kanye Trilogy (2022)
The three-part documentary by Coodie and Chike follows the life and rise of Kanye West from a small Chicago producer to global superstar and fashion mogul. Kanye West has remained a polarizing figure in pop culture in recent years, however, one uniting aspect in the opinions of West is that he an elite creative, one that has been plagued with personal tragedies and mental health struggles. Jeen-Yus is a heartbreaking retelling of how a starry-eyed young Kanye became the complicated, controversial Kanye we have all come to know.
Blackpink: Light Up The Sky (2020)
In the years since their debut, Blackpink have made the world their stage. The girl group has broken record after record, even in a market that wasn’t exactly welcoming to foreigners to begin with. Under it all, however, Blackpink is a sisterhood that started out with a dream and the hunger to succeed. Watching their rise to stardom and humility through it all in this Netflix film is refreshing.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell (2021)
In many ways the memory of Biggie has been overshadowed by his rivalry with Tupac. When you hear one name you may think of the other and vice versa. But, with this documentary a new side to the story of Biggie is unlocked. Featuring unseen archival footage and heartfelt interviews from those who knew him best, including the rapper’s mother, you finally begin to get to know not just Biggie, but also Christopher Wallace.
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (2021)
From blessing the world with “Ocean Eyes,” to becoming the youngest artist ever to sweep all four of the major Grammy categories, Billie Eilish saw all kinds of success at just 18-years-old. It’s safe to say her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go did more than just put her on the map, it changed the trajectory of her life entirely. This documentary is a behind-the- scenes creation process of Eilish’s rookie album. As her career continues to develop and progress, fans and Eilish alike will be able to look back at this documentary to see where it all began.
What Happened Miss Simone (2015)
This Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary directed by Liz Garbus is a nuanced tale of the tortured life of Nina Simone. The documentary includes unheard recordings, testimonials from family members and a voiceover from Simone herself to tell a story of all of the pain, ambition and grit that created the legendary musician and activist that we remember today as one of the greats.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2016)
Detailing the life and career of Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, Chasing Trane is a wonder of a documentary. The documentary is narrated by Denzel Washington and features several people who knew Coltrane. Through this Chasing Trane provides an inspiring, passionate and thought-provoking account of the saxophonist’s life.
Director One9 and writer Erik Parker joined forces with Nas to deliver the story behind Nas’s legendary 1994 debut album, ILLmatic as well as Nasir’s early life. The film also includes interviews with the likes of Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Alicia Keys and Pharrell Williams.
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