In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of everything, including movie theaters. This pushed moviegoing inside, with streaming services forming a greater percentage of most viewers’ entertainment consumption.
A lot of that time was taken up with documentaries, whether the festival of craziness that was Tiger King or the numerous lengthy true-crime documentary series about cults, unsolved murders, or schemes to rip off McDonald’s.
There was another thing that the subject of a lot of documentaries in 2020: Music. Specifically, there were many movies made about music legends, especially those whose primary careers took place in the 1980s or earlier. A continuing theme was older stars, reflecting on the past with the benefit of hindsight.
I’m in my early 40s and like to think I know a lot about the popular music of the past, but, I acknowledge that the majority of the important parts of the careers of The Bee Gees, Dolly Parton, Frank Zappa, Tiny Tim, and Harry Chapin took place before I was born.
The best music documentaries of 2020:
Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You
Yes, this Apple TV+ making-of documentary was a thinly veiled commercial for Bruce’s new album, also called Letter to You. But the beautifully photographed film, directed by Thom Zimny, captured the E Street Band recording the album in a house in New Jersey winter, while Bruce and the others reflected on the past. The now-71-year-old Boss has some fantastic perspective on his life and his work at this stage of his life. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is streaming on Apple TV+
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Spike Lee directed this fantastic filmed version of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway stage show, featuring music both from the early and late phases of the singer’s career. The production used the same performance-capture technology as the movie version of Hamilton and amounted to nothing less than an evening of pure joy. David Byrne’s American Utopia is streaming on HBO Max.
Beastie Boys Story
The Beastie Boys ceased to exist as an active group when Adam “MCA” Yauch died of cancer in 2012. But in 2019, the two surviving Boys reconvened for a pair of stage shows, in which they didn’t perform but instead told stories about their songs, their fame, and their reflections on their beloved bandmate. And yes, Ad Rock and Mike D acknowledge that they were tremendous assholes back in the day, and weren’t so great to women, either. The film, shot (where else?) in Brooklyn and directed by their longtime collaborator Spike Jonze, finds the Beastie Boys acting like men. Beastie Boys Story is streaming on Apple TV+.
Crock of Gold: A Round With Shane MacGowan
Directed by veteran punk rock chronicler Julien Temple, Crock of Gold looks back through the career of longtime Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, a man just as well known for prodigious drinking, slurred speech, and crooked teeth as he was for famous anthems like “Fairytale of New York” and “Body of An American.” It’s a delight, whether you’re a Pogues diehard or someone who thinks all their songs sound like every other. Crock of Gold is available as a VOD rental.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
You might know the Bee Gees primarily for their run of disco hits in the late ’70s, especially the songs featured in Saturday Night Fever. But this documentary, directed by Frank Marshall, shows not only that the “Staying Alive” era was just one phase in the band’s decades-long history, which also included rock and pop phases. The group has also faced many tragedies, with Barry Gibb being the lone surviving Gibb brother. There’s also a long disquisition about Disco Demolition Night, and the racist and homophobic undertones associated with it, which probably could have been its own movie. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is available to stream on HBO Max.
Dolly Parton: Here I Am
At some point in the past couple of years, it was determined that Dolly Parton is perhaps the only universally beloved American celebrity, someone loved by those from all walks of life. This Netflix documentary fills in Dolly’s entire story, including the backstories of all of her major hits, and the weird fact that her husband has been a mysterious recluse for decades. If you’re young or otherwise new to Dolly, Here I Am shows just what all the hype was about. Dolly Parton: Here I Am is streaming on Netflix.
Frank Zappa is well known as one of the kings of weirdo ’70s culture, and Zappa — directed by actor Alex Winter — fills in Zappa’s backstory, from his music to his many political causes, as well as his children, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Moon Unit. This one is especially worthwhile for those new to the Zappa experience and made me wish for a full-on biopic. Zappa is streaming as a VOD rental.
No Ordinary Man
Billy Tipton may be the least well-known musician on this list, but he had the wildest backstory. Tipton was a relatively obscure bandleader and performer, who made one album and is shown in no existing video footage. But he made headlines upon his death in 1989 when it was revealed that Tipton was in fact a trans man – a secret he had kept from his wife and adopted children. The film, directed by Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee, is told by a group of trans actors, interpreting Tipton’s story in their own way, while Tipton’s son also appears. No Ordinary Man has appeared at festivals but does not yet have distribution.
Tiny Tim: King For a Day
This documentary looks back at the folk singer and cultural curiosity Tiny Tim, who was hugely famous for many years between the 1960s and 1980s. The film, directed by Johan von Sydow, interviews those who were close with the late singer, and also includes entries from his diary, read by “Weird Al” Yankovic. The film ultimately concludes that Tiny Tim’s persona was likely the real man and not an act. Tiny Tim: King For a Day showed at festivals in the summer and fall and is awaiting distribution.
Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something
Some documentaries about rock stars of the past look back on the man’s controversies, his notorious love affairs, and his feuds with his various contemporaries. This documentary, about the popular ’70s folk singer, has none of that, and mostly concludes that the man who wrote and sang “Cats in the Cradle” was a great guy who was respected by pretty much everyone. The film does, however, feature lots of Chapin’s fantastic story songs.
Honorable mentions:Mystery: Michael Hutchence, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine; The Go-Gos; Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind; All I Can Say.