The death of musician Sixto Rodriguez, the star of the 2012 film Searching for Sugar Man, aged 81, has brought new focus on that most vexed of film genres: the rock doc.
Love them – or consider them insufferable hagiographic tosh – our appetite for music films is apparently insatiable, whether they are fond tributes or damning depictions of pettiness and squalor. In our list, we’ve largely tacked away from straight concert documentaries, in favour of those films which get under the skin of a performer or band. Nonetheless, there’s one or two concert films that are so unmissable, we couldn’t resist.
31. Wham! (2023)
Director: Chris Smith
Glitter! Blonde bouffants! The triumph of naffness over chic, camp energy over icy cool… travel back to the glory days of the Eighties with this Netflix doc. Oddly, the film skates over perhaps the most interesting aspects of the Wham! story – not least, George Michael’s death in 2016, and the post-band life of Andrew Ridgeley after their split in 1986.
Nonetheless, the heady fervour of their four years in the limelight is well evoked, as is Michael’s paradoxical everyday star quality. And, of course, the songs still bang.
32. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Director: Wim Wenders
Ry Cooder’s rediscovery of ageing Cuban musicians, and the resulting concert at Carnegie Hall, became a global phenomenon on its release in 1999.
Wenders’s cinematography is gorgeous, especially when he’s filming in Cuba, and the roguish octogenarians are hugely likeable, but the relentless presence of Cooder and his son proves contentious in the long run. Still essential viewing.
30. The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (2015)
Director: Wes Orshoski
Following Lemmy, his unexpectedly revealing paean to Motörhead’s frontman, director Wes Orshoski’s next film unravels the messy saga of The Damned, resilient punk reprobates who, like most real bands, never achieved the success that initially seemed theirs for the taking.
Convoluted, funny, and occasionally bitter, his film reveals a career just out of reach of the easy life.
29. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Director: Michael Rapaport
Eighties/Nineties New York hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest were part of a rap generation that wanted to erase genre stereotypes, building something funky and positive.
The film digs deep into this but also illustrates, with unhappy precision, how the group’s personalities, background and the vagaries of the music business interfere with the mission.
28. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)
Director: Denis Sanders
Although it’s partly a concert film, shot around Presley’s Las Vegas residency in August 1970, there’s plenty of backstage footage and reportage to elevate this film from the ordinary.
Elvis is in the jumpsuit-clad phase of his career, but he’s still sexy and far from bloated, and the film perfectly juxtaposes the energy of rock’n’roll with the decadence of showbiz (Presley’s coterie of yes-men, the “Memphis Mafia”, is in evidence).
27. When the Road Bends… Tales of a Gypsy Caravan (2006)
Director: Jasmine Dellal
A wonderful, vivacious doc about a US tour taken by a group of global Roma artists – two Balkan brass bands, a brightly costumed Rajasthani ensemble, a Spanish flamenco unit, and the sexagenarian “queen of the gypsies” Esma Redžepova.
Travelling also to their home villages and revelling in their fervent personalities, the film illuminates the rustic romance of a wild celebratory folk music. It acquired an especial poignancy after Redžepova’s death in 2016
26. Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Director: Paul Justman
You don’t have to be a Motown fan to appreciate the Funk Brothers. As the label’s in-house band, they played on more hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.
Led by the outstanding bassist James Jamerson, these often uncredited musicians helped define the sound of Sixties pop. This is an apt tribute to forgotten heroes.
25. 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)
Director: Dave Markey
There’s tendency to focus retrospectively on Kurt Cobain in particular and grunge music more generally as deeply serious, laced with tragedy. But this doc, shot on the fly during a 1991 European tour by Sonic Youth and Nirvana, with performances by key early players such as Dinosaur Jr, relishes what a goofy, punk blast the whole thing really was.
24. Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt (2004)
Director: Margaret Brown
“Many of my songs, they aren’t sad, they’re hopeless,” this film’s subject explains at one point.
Townes Van Zandt’s biography, unfolded with rigour and emotional heft, and featuring a Who’s Who of country music, reveals the underdog Texan singer-songwriter as charming, captivating and brilliant, but with a truly dangerous edge to him.
23. In Bed with Madonna (1991)
Director: Alex Keshishian
A curio from another era, presented at the time as a candid warts and all window into Madonna’s world. Shot on 1990’s Blonde Ambition tour, at the peak of her success, it reveals a vapid, catty, kitsch, ego-raddled netherworld that’s weirdly engrossing.
Features diva-ish interactions with Warren Beatty and Antonio Banderas, and a notorious cameo from Kevin Costner. She famously brushed him off, sticking her tongue out at him angrily, after he damned one of her shows backstage as “neat”. You know what they say about a Madonna scorned…
22. Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire (1974)
Director: Tony Palmer
Shot on Cohen’s 1972 tour of Europe, this film was shelved after one showing when the singer objected to it, only reappearing in 2010, in time for his later career renaissance.
Cohen had a reputation for miserablism and does, indeed, break down at one point, but, mostly, it hums with his vibrancy and artistry amid a world in fallout from the Sixties. And, after Cohen’s death in 2016, it’s grown all the more vital as a portrait of an irrepressible artist.
21. Style Wars (1983)
Directors: Tony Silver & Henry Chalfant
Ostensibly only peripherally about music, and not strictly a rock documentary, as it concerns itself mostly with graffiti, this TV doc engages with the roots of hip hop, before bling and gangsta posing.
It showcases a dynamic, creative and unpolished New York street culture of which rapping is only one facet, alongside DJing, breakdancing and urban art.
20. Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (2008)
Director: Sacha Gervasi
An ode to the ridiculousness of the rock’n’roll life. Canadian band Anvil were Eighties metal also-rans; this film follows the band’s sibling-like central duo on a comically shabby contemporary European tour.
While their saga is eminently comic, even Spinal Tap-like, it’s also unexpectedly touching.
19. Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Director: Bruce Weber
Fashion photographer Weber’s black-and-white biog of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, released a month after the musician’s drug-addled death at 58, looks stunning.
Baker was once a pin-up and his older self, wizened by heroin, retains an edgy, wily charisma. The film rambles with equal charm, cushioned in delicious laid-back West Coast jazz.
18. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
This Oscar-winner proved that, however obscure the subject, a good story is a good story. US folk-rocker Sixto Rodriguez recorded two albums at the dawn of the Seventies to little acclaim, then disappeared. His music, however, became hugely popular in South Africa, where all his fans believed he was dead.
This documentary is a clever, involving mystery tale which segues into a triumphal celebration of an eventual career resurgence. The death of Bendjelloul, and now that of his subject, adds a moving, unresolved coda to this extraordinary story.
17. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994)
Director: Steven M Martin
There are few decent docs about electronic music and, unbelievably, none on decades of rave culture. But travel back a little further in history, and you get to the life of Leon Theremin, Russian inventor of the original electronic instrument, circa 1919.
His story makes for surprisingly moving viewing, touched with the tragedy of Stalin; it’s interweaved here with the life and haunting skill of theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore. As this doc captures, it remains an otherworldly instrument: a glimpse into the future, despite being more than a century old.
16. Don’t Look Back (1967)
Director: DA Pennebaker
Fifty years on it may be difficult to comprehend why grizzled old Bob Dylan is still regarded as a key figure in pop history.
Pennebaker’s film of his 1965 visit to the UK is the nearest filmic insight there is, presenting him as a mercurial, razor-sharp 23 year-old. Also includes the seminal video for Subterranean Homesick Blues. That the titanic singer-songwriter is still going strong aged 82 is testament to the vitality captured here.
15. Glastonbury (2006)
Director: Julien Temple
Rather than follow an obvious chronological narrative, Temple lays out the history of the world’s greatest festival in a format that imitates the event itself, from packing to camping to leaving, sated.
It works exhilaratingly, interspersing the utopian hippy past with today’s wild, hedonistic gigantism, and includes great performances by Pulp, David Bowie, and many more.
14. DiG! (2004)
Dir: Ondi Timoner
Ondi Timoner’s film charts the career paths of two bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but the latter’s singer, Anton Newcombe, is the focal point. His vision and talent are in epic, drug-addled conflict with ideas about integrity, while the Dandy Warhols temper themselves somewhat to the market.
This conflict is manically, entertainingly played out and captured, nailing the contradiction of rock’n’roll authenticity in the process.
13. The Beatles: Get Back (2021)
Director: Peter Jackson
Epic, exhaustive and quite possibly exhausting – Peter Jackson’s maximalist tribute to the Fab Four culls more than 200 hours of footage recorded during the making of their Abbey Road album, Let It Be, in 1970. He transmutes this haul into an exhilarating, three-part series, told over close to eight hours.
For completionists only? Perhaps: there’s plenty of incidental minutia captured here. But arguably that’s the point – this film shows some of the most famous faces on earth, rendered in human, believable shades.
12. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s Beatles tribute (see below), may be longer. But, at well over three hours, Scorsese’s examination of “the quiet one” from the Beatles is exhaustive.
There is, of course, a contemporaneous Fab Four doc, Let It Be (1970), but where that captured a moment in time, this offers a comprehensive portrait of a man who, while spiritual, relished the everyday.
11. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Successful bands live with each other, recording and touring over decades. The only comparable relationship is marriage. How does their chemistry keep going?
This candid encapsulation of two years with Metallica offers a rare attempt at an answer, which proves to be: with difficulty. Featuring screaming matches, ugly egos, rehab, and a preposterous band therapist, it makes for compulsive viewing.
10. Bros: After the Screaming Stops (2021)
Director: Joe Pearlman, David Soutar
“We created mayhew and mania wherever we went – but there was no learning curve,” says Matt Goss in this intimate portrait of life after fame. Matt and his twin, Luke, became the youngest ever musicians to sell out Wembley in 1980, riding a helium gasp of fame which crashed to earth barely six months later, splitting the band and the brothers apart.
This doc follows their reunion 28 years’ on. It’s touching, of course, to see the effects of age on both men – but it’s their fumbling attempts to meld their familial bond which is most moving.
9. Marley (2012)
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Kevin Macdonald had already hit gold with 2003’s mountain-climbing doc, Touching the Void. His two-and-a-half-hour tribute to Bob Marley is a very different creature, an in-depth appreciation of reggae’s break-out star constructed in traditional documentary style.
While unafraid to critique, Marley is essentially a heartfelt eulogy that gradually becomes enormously involving. Be sure to catch it before Kingsley Ben-Adir’s biopic, Bob Marley: One Love, is released next year.
8. Summer of Soul (2021)
1969 is known for one, epochal festival – Woodstock. But, as this glorious, spirit-raising doc shows, it should also be recognised for another. The Harlem Culture Festival, which took place over six weekends in New York, drew together some of the luminaries of black music, such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and B B King.
Yet the footage was buried for half a century. Thanks to Questlove’s delving, though, its technicolour excitement is brought back to life as he contextualises the festival as a seismic, lane-shifting moment for black culture and music.
7. Gimme Shelter (1970)
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Gimme Shelter is a portal into the past as another country, where countercultural ideals rule but calling women “chicks” is fine. The Rolling Stones’ notorious Altamont concert, which ended in the death of a man at the hands of a Hells Angel security guard, is often referred to as “the death of the Sixties”.
The film as a whole is less pointed, instead documenting a wider hippy utopianism crashing messily into commercial realities.
6. The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Director: Julien Temple
Temple is king of the music doc: this Sex Pistols opus is almost matched by his Dr Feelgood film, Oil City Confidential (2010).
However for this earlier film, Temple had unique insight and access to the Pistols, and he lays out a magnificent and definitive history of punk rock’s firestarters. Famously features John Lydon shedding a tear for the late Sid Vicious – a crack of fellow feeling for his bandmates which, recent interviews suggest, is all-too-rare.
5. Miss Americana (2020)
Director: Lana Wilson
Taylor Swift seems to hold an unshakeable place in popular culture – one of those rare artists with enough clout to rock entire industries, such as when she spoke out against Ticketmaster for scalping tickets for her Eras tour.
Yet the genius of Lana Wilson’s doc is the chill of loneliness which pervades proceedings. It finds Swift isolated as she attempts to carve out a more jagged public image – and, against the wishes of her twitchy management, to be more politically active. She emerges as a charming, resilient figure.
4. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Worth the price of entry for the scene in which WASP guitarist Chris Holmes floats about a swimming pool drinking vodka while his mum berates him.
A hilarious celebration of LA hair metal’s moronic glory years, featuring many a now-forgotten poodle-head boasting expansively.
3. Peter Green: Man of the World (2009)
Director: Steve Graham
A rounded, tragic and hugely engrossing BBC4 biography of guitar prodigy and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, a generous-hearted virtuoso whose life became derailed as he drifted into the extreme fringes of 1960s psychedelic culture.
It’s essential viewing whether you’re interested in the subject matter or not: surely the mark of a sterling production.
2. The Last Waltz (1978)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Is it the greatest live performance ever filmed? Certainly, this final concert by American-Canadian rockers The Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, still inspires chills more than 40 years on. It’s proved hugely influential. Many music tastes were forged after seeing The Band giving it their all with guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
It’s no surprise that this is Scorsese’s second appearance on this list. He was suggested as the ideal director by Jonathan Taplin, who also served as his producer on Mean Streets. And he proves his worth: filmed with a subtle, unintrusive hand, it never forgets he is there to serve the music, not the other way around.
1. Moonage Daydream (2022)
Director: Brett Morgen
How much David Bowie is it possible to pack into one feature documentary? Morgen stuffs his wildly creative tribute to the gunnels, setting the bar sky-high as cinematic fan service and managing to tip his hat to everything that that most mercurial of musicians achieved in four-and-a-half decades.
Taking in around 45 of Bowie’s songs – including an irresistible live performance featuring a young Mick Jagger in the crowd – it’s a hypnotic, magpie vision of a restless, magpie artist.