FEATURE: Songs in Slow Motion: The Best Music Documentaries Ever



Songs in Slow Motion: 


IN THIS PHOTO: Janis Joplin (the focal point of Janis: Little Girl Blue)

The Best Music Documentaries Ever


WE often concentrate on the musician…


IN THIS PHOTO: Tupac Shakur (who featured in the documentary, Biggie & Tupac)

without considering where they came from and what makes them special. The music documentary allows rare insight into an artist’s life and what goes into the music. The best and most tasteful documentaries are never exploitative and crude: they are deal affectionately with the subject and feel no need to obscure the truth.

I have been thinking about the best music documentaries through the years and have assembled, what I feel, are the finest examples of the breed.

(Thanks to Wikipedia for supplying the information about each documentary)


Amy (2015)


Subject: Amy Winehouse

Director: Asif Kapadia


Amy is a 2015 British documentary film about the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. Directed by Asif Kapadiaand produced by James Gay-Rees, George Pank, and Paul Bell and co-produced by Krishwerkz Entertainment, On The Corner Films, Playmaker Films, and Universal Music, in association with Film 4. The film covers Winehouse's life and her struggle with substance abuse, both before and after her career blossomed, and which eventually caused her death.

In February 2015, a teaser trailer based on the life of Winehouse debuted at the pre-Grammy event in the build-up to the 2015 Grammy AwardsDavid Joseph, CEO of Universal Music UK, announced that the documentary entitled simply Amy would be released later that year. He further stated: "About two years ago we decided to make a movie about her—her career and her life. It's a very complicated and tender movie. It tackles lots of things about family and media, fame, addiction, but most importantly, it captures the very heart of what she was about, which is an amazing person and a true musical genius."[4] The film was shown in the Midnight Screenings section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival[5] and received its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.[6]


Subject: Oasis

Director: Mat Whitecross


Oasis: Supersonic[2] is a 2016 British music documentary directed by Mat Whitecross. Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, already awarded with an Oscar for the film Amy, worked on this film respectively as executive producer and film producer.[3][4][5] The Production Companies associated with the film are Mint Pictures, Nemperor and On The Corner Films and is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One and Lorton Distribution.[6]

The film details the history of the Britpop band Oasis during their formative years and the height of their success in the 1990s, featuring off-screen interviews with members of the band and people associated with them, set to archive video of concerts, contemporaneous interviews and backstage footage.


Subject: Kurt Cobain

Director: Brett Morgen


Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (also billed as Cobain: Montage of Heck)[1] is a 2015 documentary film about Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain. The film was directed by Brett Morgen and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It received a limited theatrical release worldwide and premiered on television in the United States on HBO on April 24, 2015. The documentary chronicles the life of Kurt Cobain from his birth in Aberdeen, Washington in 1967, through his troubled early family life and teenage years and rise to fame as front man of Nirvana, up to his death in April 1994 in Seattle at the age of 27.

The film includes artwork by Cobain as well as music and sound collages composed by him. Much of music and sound collages were released on the film's soundtrack, Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings. A companion book was also released containing animation stills from the film as well as transcripts of interviews, photographs, and Cobain's artwork that were not featured in the film.


Subject: Daniel Johnston

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig


The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a 2005 documentary film about the noted American musician Daniel Johnston. It chronicles Johnston's life from childhood up to the present, with an emphasis on his experiences with bipolar disorder, and how it manifested itself in demonic self-obsession. The film was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and produced by Henry S. Rosenthal.[1]


Subject: Bob Dylan

Director: D.A. Pennebaker


Dont Look Back is a 1967 American documentary film by D. A. Pennebaker that covers Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour in England.

In 1998 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In a 2014 Sight & Sound poll, film critics voted Dont Look Back the joint ninth best documentary film of all time.[1]


Subject: Janis Jopiln

Director: Amy J. Berg


Janis: Little Girl Blue is a 2015 American documentary film directed by Amy J. Berg, about the American singer-songwriter Janis Joplin. It was shown in the TIFF Docs section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.[3]


Subject: ‘Rodriguez

Director: Malik Bendjelloul


Searching for Sugar Man is a 2012 Swedish–British documentary film of a South African cultural phenomenon directed and written by Malik Bendjelloul which details the efforts in the late 1990s of two Cape Town fans, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out whether the rumoured death of American musician Sixto Rodriguez was true, and if not, to discover what had become of him. Rodriguez's music, which had never achieved success in the United States, had become very popular in South Africa although little was known about him in that country.

On 10 February 2013, the film won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary at the 66th British Academy Film Awards in London,[2] and two weeks later it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood.[3][4]


Subject: Sex Pistols

Director: Julien Temple


The Filth and the Fury is the second movie Julien Temple made about The Sex Pistols. His first effort was The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, which was released in British cinemas on 15 May 1980. This earlier effort was heavily criticised for being too skewed towards the Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren's version of events about the band.[citation neededThe Filth and the Fury tells the story from the viewpoint of the band members themselves (albeit in silhouette during their contemporary interviews).

The title of the film is a reference to a headline that appeared in the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror on 2 December 1976 after an interview on ITV's Today presented by Bill Grundy. The title of The Daily Mirror article was itself inspired by William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury which was in turn taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Temple's documentary charts the rise, decline and fall of the Sex Pistols from their humble beginnings in London's Shepherd's Bush to their disintegration at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Temple puts the band into historical context with Britain's social situation in the 1970s through archival footage from the period. This film was seen in some ways as an opportunity for the Pistols to tell their side of the story, mostly through interviews with the surviving members of the group, footage shot during the era, and outtakes from The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.


Subject: Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders


Buena Vista Social Club is a 1999 documentary film directed by Wim Wenders about the music of Cuba. It is named for a danzón that became the title piece of the album Buena Vista Social Club. The film is an international co-production of Germanythe United Statesthe United KingdomFrance, and Cuba.

The film documents how Ry Cooder, long-time friend of Wenders, brought together the ensemble of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album (also called Buena Vista Social Club) and to perform two times with a full line-up: in April 1998 in Amsterdam (two nights) and the 1st of July 1998 in the United States (at the Carnegie HallNew York City). Although they are geographically close, travel between Cuba and the United States is restricted due to the political tension between the two countries, so many of the artists were travelling there for the first time. The film shows their reactions to this experience, as well as including footage of the resultant sell-out concert. It also includes interviews with each of the main performers.


Subjects: Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White

Director: Davis Guggenheim


The film documents the varied playing and recording styles of guitarists Jimmy PageThe Edge, and Jack White.

Page's history with guitar traces back to his childhood when he played in a skiffle band. After desiring to do more than play pop music, Page "retires" from guitar playing to attend art school. He later revives his music career as a session guitarist, only to be discouraged by the realization that he is playing others' music and stifling his own creativity. At that point, Page begins to write and perform in the bands The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. Page discusses the skiffle and blues music that influenced him at the time. For many of Page's scenes, he is seen visiting Headley Grange, where several songs from Led Zeppelin IV were recorded, and in one scene, explains how the distinctive drum sound from "When the Levee Breaks" was achieved from the acoustics of the house in which it was recorded.

The Edge's history with guitar traces back to building a guitar with his brother Dik and learning to play. In the film, he visits Mount Temple Comprehensive School and recalls forming U2 in his childhood. He also demonstrates his playing technique, in how he eliminates certain strings from chords, as well as his use of echo and delay effects to "fill in notes that aren't there". He also discusses his purchase of his signature guitar, the Gibson Explorer, in New York City and the punk music that influenced him. In other scenes, he plays early demo tapes of "Where the Streets Have No Name", discusses his inspiration for "Sunday Bloody Sunday", and spends time experimenting with guitar effects for the riffs to "Get on Your Boots".

Jack White traces his musical background to his childhood in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit. Living with two drum sets and a guitar occupying his room and sleeping on a piece of foam due to taking out his bed for more room for his music, White struggled to find a musical identity, as it was "uncool" to play an instrument and his nine siblings all shared a musical propensity. His strong interest in blues and roots music opposed the hip hop and house music popular in the predominantly Latino south Detroit neighbourhood at the time. White eventually finds a niche in a garage rock band called The Upholsterers while working as an upholsterer, which paves the way for his future bands The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. White's philosophy is to limit and challenge himself in various ways to force creative approaches to recording and playing.

The touchstone of the film is a meeting of the three guitarists dubbed "The Summit". In these scenes, the three guitarists not only converse about their influences and techniques, but they also play each other's songs together, showing each other how to play "I Will Follow", "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", and "In My Time of Dying". The film concludes with the men playing an impromptu cover version of The Band's "The Weight" on acoustic guitars.


Subject: The Band

Director: Martin Scorsese


The Last Waltz was a concert by the Canadian-American rock group The Band, held on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San FranciscoThe Last Waltz was advertised as The Band's "farewell concert appearance",[2] and the concert saw The Band joined by more than a dozen special guests, including Eric ClaptonRingo StarrBob DylanRonnie WoodMuddy WatersNeil YoungNeil DiamondVan MorrisonBobby CharlesDr. JohnPaul ButterfieldEmmylou HarrisRonnie HawkinsJoni Mitchell and, The Staple Singers. The musical director for the concert was The Band's original record producer, John Simon.

The event was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and made into a documentary of the same name, released in 1978. Jonathan Taplin, who was The Band's tour manager from 1969 to 1972 and later produced Scorsese's film Mean Streets, suggested that Scorsese would be the ideal director for the project and introduced Robbie Robertson and Scorsese. Taplin served as executive producer. The film features concert performances, intermittent song renditions shot on a studio soundstage, and interviews by Scorsese with members of The Band. A triple-LP soundtrack recording, produced by Simon and Rob Fraboni, was issued in 1978. The film was released on DVD in 2002 as was a four-CD box set of the concert and related studio recordings.

The Last Waltz is hailed as one of the greatest concert films ever made,[3] although it has been criticized for its focus on Robertson.[4]


Subject: Hip-Hop D.J.s

Director: Doug Pray


Scratch is a 2001 documentary film, directed and edited by Doug Pray.[1] The film explores the world of the hip-hop DJ from the birth of hip-hop when pioneering DJs began extending breaks on records, to the invention of scratching and beat juggling, to the more recent explosion of turntablism. Throughout the documentary, many artists explain how they were introduced to hip-hop while providing stories of their personal experiences.[2]


Subject: Woodstock Festival (1969)

Director: Michael Wadleigh


Woodstock is a 1970 documentary film of the watershed counterculture Woodstock Festival which took place in August 1969 near BethelNew YorkEntertainment Weekly called this film the benchmark of concert movies and one of the most entertaining documentaries ever made.[3]

The film was directed by Michael Wadleigh. Seven editors are credited, including Thelma SchoonmakerMartin Scorsese, and Wadleigh. Woodstock was a great commercial and critical success. It received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Schoonmaker was nominated for the Academy Award for Film Editing, a rare distinction for a documentary.[4] Dan Wallin and L. A. Johnson were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound.[5][6] The film was screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, but wasn't entered into the main competition.[7]

The 1970 theatrical release of the film ran 185 minutes. A director's cut spanning 225 minutes was released in 1994. Both cuts take liberties with the timeline of the festival. However, the opening and closing acts are the same in the film as in real life; Richie Havens opens the show and Jimi Hendrix closes it.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock was also released separately on DVD and Blu-ray.

In 1996, Woodstock was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". An expanded 40th Anniversary Edition of Woodstock, released on June 9, 2009 in Blu-ray and DVD formats, features additional performances not before seen in the film, and also includes lengthened versions of existing performances featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival and others.[8]


Subject: Madonna

Director: Alex Keshishian

Madonna: Truth or Dare (known as In Bed with Madonna outside of North America) is a 1991 American documentary film chronicling the life of American singer and songwriter Madonna during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. The film was generally well received by critics and was successful at the box office with a worldwide gross of $29,012,935 (an estimated $50.99 million in 2016 dollars[1]). It remained the highest-grossing documentary of all time, until Bowling for Columbine surpassed it in 2002.[2] It was screened out of competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.[3]

In 2005, Madonna produced another documentary, I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, which followed her 2004 Re-Invention World Tour. It was filmed and narrated in the same style as Truth or Dare, with stage performances filmed in colour and behind-the-scenes in black and white. Truth or Dare was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress for Madonna as herself, which she lost to Sean Young for A Kiss Before Dying.[4] It holds an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[5]


Subject: Bob Marley

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Marley is a 2012 documentary-biographical film directed by Kevin Macdonald documenting the life of Bob Marley.[4] It was released in theaters on April 20, 2012 to wide critical acclaim.[1][2][5] The film was also released on demand on the same day, a "day and date" release.[6] The film features archival footage and interviews.

The content spans the life and musical career of Bob Marley, mainly as seen through the eyes of those who knew him and contributed to the documentary, including Bunny WailerRita MarleyLee "Scratch" Perry and many others.

Although Marley was enthusiastic about music from a very young age, he had disappointing record sales as a solo artist with his first singles, “Judge Not” and “One Cup of Coffee”. He then decided to collaborate with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer to create “The Wailers.” This group later became known as “Bob Marley and the Wailers” and achieved international fame. The group made Bob Marley a household name and brought worldwide attention to Jamaican cultureReggae music and the Rastafari movement.

Throughout the documentary, much of the content deals with Marley’s struggle with racial identity and acceptance. Marley’s widow, Rita Marley stated “they saw Bob as an outcast, because he didn’t really belong to anyone. You’re in-between. You’re black and white; so you’re not even black.” Livingston also comments that Marley was harassed in school for being mixed race. On his race, Marley stated:

"I don't have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don't deh pon nobody's side. Me don't deh pon the black man's side nor the white man's side. Me deh pon God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white."


Subject: Nina Simone

Director: Liz Garbus


What Happened, Miss Simone? is a 2015 biographical documentary film about Nina Simone directed by Liz Garbus. The film opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The screening was followed by a tribute performance by John Legend.[1] The film was released by Netflix on June 26, 2015. The documentary combines previously unreleased archival footage and interviews with Simone's daughter and friends. The title of the film was taken from a Maya Angelou quote.[2]


Subject: Muscle Shores Sound Studio

Director: Greg 'Freddy' Camalier

Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary film about FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The film was released by Magnolia Pictures on September 27, 2013.[2]


Subjects: ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ and 2Pac

Director: Nick Broomfield

Biggie & Tupac is a 2002 feature-length documentary film about murdered rappers Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace and Tupac "2Pac" Shakur by Nick Broomfield.

Broomfield suggests the two murders were planned by Suge Knight, head of Death Row Records. Collusion by the LAPD is also implied.[1] While the film remains inconclusive, when asked "Who killed Tupac?" in a BBC Radio interview dated March 7, 2005, Broomfield stated (quoting Snoop Dogg) "The big guy next to him in the car... Suge Knight."

Broomfield's low-budget documentary was as the New York Times[2] described it, a "largely speculative" and "circumstantial"[2]account relying on flimsy evidence, failing to "present counter-evidence" or "question sources." The movie alleged that Knight had Tupac killed before he could part ways with Knight's Death Row label and conspired to kill Biggie to divert attention from himself in the Tupac murder.[3]