Discover the 7 best music documentaries of all time
There can be as many genres of musical documentaries as there are musical genres.
The last few years have brought a batch of vanity project concert films this year that include “Billie Eilish: The World Is A Little Blurry” and “Pink: All I Know So Far”. There are exceptions, such as Beyonce’s “Homecoming,” but these are usually the least interesting material, alternating between brilliant performance sequences and fan gushages.
Another recent trend is almost the opposite, a squeakier film series about anonymous musicians whose job it is to make superstars look good. The most acclaimed of these is the Oscar winning film “20 Feet From Stardom”. But “The Wrecking Crew,” a multi-year look at session musicians who seem to have played on all of the 1960s hits, and “Muscle Shoals,” on session musicians who seem to have played all of the 70s. hit, are also excellent.
Probably the most popular sub-genre, with audiences and award voters, is biographical portraits. The Oscars went to documentaries about piano maestro Arthur Rubinstein (“The Love of Life”), violinist Isaac Stern (“From Mao to Mozart”) and singer Amy Winehouse (“Amy”). Many more were nominated, including the group portrayal of the “Buena Vista Social Club”, Cuban musicians whose film rivaled two other musical docs at the Oscars in 2000 (they lost to the non-musical “One Day in September “). The truth is, like newspaper stories, the best music documentaries always focus on singular people with unexpected stories to tell – even if they aren’t specifically focused on those people.
Music documentaries are now in the air because a new one opened on July 2 and it is already finding its place among the best of all time. One of the best things about seeing Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” in a movie theater is that it reminds you of the difference a good sound system makes to any movie, but especially a movie to music. I saw “Soul” at home and in a multiplex and loved it both times, but the theatrical experience was superior because – like a title card at the start of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” urges – “This film should be played loudly!”