What was an overall strong year for movies was especially strong when it came to documentaries about music, musicians and music history. And most of them are currently available to stream right now, unless otherwise noted, for $3.99 on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play and iTunes. Here are the 20 best:
The Black Godfather
Another big documentary about a big character, Reginald Hudlin‘s film looks at Clarence Avant, an unheralded character who has exercised a strong hand in the worlds of music and politics, while remaining nearly completely unknown to the general public. Now streaming on Netflix.
Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke
This Netflix doc from director Kelly Duane told the fascinating story of Sam Cooke, the famed soul singer who was murdered in 1964 at the age of 33. The film goes into both Cooke’s music, and his civil rights activism. Now streaming on Netflix.
The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story
The boy band craze of the late 1960s is explored through the wild story of Lou Pearlman, the svengali who brought the world both ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Pearlman, though, was robbing his artists blind, along with many others, as he ended up going to prison for running a Ponzi scheme and dying there. We hear from just about everyone from the groups, with the noted exception of Justin Timberlake. Now streaming on YouTube.
Joel Van Haren‘s film, which played festivals this year, told the story of the theft in Milwaukee a few years ago of the priceless Lipinski Stradivarius violin. That’s only the beginning of this hair-raising story, which looks into the stories of the men who stole the instrument, while even zooming out and making us wonder why, in the same city the same year where several children lost their lives to gun violence, we’re supposed to care about a violin in the first place. Not streaming yet.
Echo in the Canyon
David Crosby and Linda Ronstadt both had their own documentaries this year but they also both figured in this documentary about the Laurel Canyon scene in the ’60s, which also included The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, and many others. Andrew Slater‘s film, beyond the stories, featuring a lot of great music. Now streaming on Netflix and on-demand channels.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
This documentary, about another late musical legend, does things the nontraditional way, as it pairs newly discovered archival footage with interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and others. Now streaming free on YouTube.
Clarence Clemons: Who Do You Think I Am?
Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sideman also got a documentary this year, as documentarian Nick Mead followed Clemons on a tour of China, a few years before his death in 2011. Now streaming on Netflix.
Mystify: Michael Hutchence
Another music doc from Tribeca, Mystify goes through the life of the INXS frontman. Hutchence led one of the most important bands of the 1980s, but suffered brain damage in a bar fight that launched him into a downward arc similar to CTE-plagued NFL players, leading to his suicide in 1996. It’s heartbreaking stuff, but gives one of the most charismatic frontmen of my lifetime his due. This one is getting a Fathom Events release in January.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
While not entirely about music, this film looks all the way through Hollywood history and shows just how important music, foley work, and other aspects of sound have been more important to the movies than you’ve ever thought. Not streaming yet.
Last year, the Netflix version of Bruce Springsteen‘s Broadway one man show was one of the best things I watched all year. Now, Bruce (who turned 70 this fall!) has returned for a concert film tied to his new album. If you can get past that it’s essentially a commercial for the album – and that he doesn’t play any of the classics – he’s still one of the world’s greatest performers. Available to stream on December 19.
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony: S&M2
In 1999, Metallica teamed up with their hometown’s Symphony for a concert and an album, and this summer they reunited, for a concert at San Francisco’s new Chase Center. A film of the performance was released for one night only, and on it, Metallica showed that they can still rock live, even if they’re all now in their late 50s, and James Hetfield headed to rehab shortly afterward. Not streaming yet.
All I Can Say
Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon wasn’t nearly as good or important a singer as his fellow late grunge singer Kurt Cobain, but his found-footage documentary was much better. This film, which showed at the Tribeca Film Festival back in the spring and is still awaiting distribution, goes through the band’s whole rise in the early 1990s – including the time Chris Farley dressed as the Bee Girl on Saturday Night Live – using Hoon’s own footage leading right up to his death in 1995. The film has four credited directors, one of which is Hoon himself. Not streaming yet.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
If you’re at the age where you’re too young to remember Linda Ronstadt‘s heyday, this film is especially a treat, as it follows the singer’s career, which sadly ended when she lost her ability to sing due to Parkinson’s. Now streaming on on-demand channels.
This film about Aretha Franklin, which had sat on the shelf since 1972, was finally completed and released this year, and features the late Queen of Soul in all her glory, singing in a Los Angeles church. Enjoying it, however, must be reconciled with the knowledge that the film was released, literally, over the singer’s dead body. Now streaming on Hulu, as well as on on-demand channels.
Homecoming: A Film By Beyonce
Beyonce‘s film executes the concert film formula to near-perfection, depicting the beloved singer’s 2018 Coachella performance from all angles, while also paying tribute to HBCU musical traditions. Now streaming on Netflix.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Scorsese‘s other Netflix movie this year looks back at the tour Dylan took around North America in 1975 and ’76, along with a cast of oddballs that included Allen Ginsburg. Sure, the film included enough cheekily false details that one could question whether it can be considered a documentary at all. But what stands out is just how hilarious Dylan is, especially in his modern-day interviews. Now streaming on Netflix.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles
Max Lewkowicz looks back at the history of the popular Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, which took something so specific and somehow made it completely universal. On top of tracing the history of the musical and its many versions, the film shares the astonishing fact that Fiddler has been performed every single day, somewhere in the world, since 1964. Now streaming on on-demand channels.
Carmine Street Guitars
On the other end of Manhattan is this gorgeous slice of life documentary from Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann, following a couple of weeks in the life of a guitar store in Greenwich Village that’s surrounded by encroaching gentrification. Famous people drop by, including Jim Jarmusch and Wilco’s Nels Cline, but the true star is proprietor Rick Kelly, who builds guitars only with unclaimed New York City wood. This film made me want to hang out there myself, and have a guitar made. Not currently on streaming channels, though a friend said he watched it on a plane.
Director Roger Ross Williams looks back on the history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, which hosted virtually every major black musical act of consequence in the 20th century. The film, in addition to lots of wonderful musical performances, is also honest about how the venue has waxed and waned in importance over the years. Available to stream on HBO Go and Now.
David Crosby: Remember My Name
Some documentaries about music luminaries are self-serving and white-washed. Not this one! Remember My Name, directed by A.J. Eaton, shows us the 77-year-old Crosby looking back with regret, largely about the many relationships he’s blown over the years with his famous musical collaborators. Also of note, Cameron Crowe, the film’s producer and interviewer, who does his best work in a long time. Now available on on-demand channels.