The second pandemic year of 2021 featured a wide variety of fantastic music documentaries. Some were shown at film festivals, others on streaming services, and others even in reopened movie theaters. Some gave us better understandings of artists we’ve known for a long time, while others re-contextualized great performances in a new light.
Here, the 20 best music documentaries this year, the best of which both contained long-buried footage from 1969.
Under the Volcano
In this fascinating companion piece to Get Back, Gracie Otto‘s documentary tells the story of something George Martin got up to after the Beatles broke up: The establishment of AIR Montserrat, a recording studio Martin established in the West Indies in 1979.
In somewhat of a surprise, the studio was destroyed in 1989, not by an erupted volcano but rather a hurricane. But before that, it was the birthplace of some great music, as well as important events like the breakup of The Police.
This one is streaming on Hulu.
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
Yes, back in 2015 we got an authorized biopic of Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy, which was one of the best movies of its kind. Now we get the documentary version, also authorized, and featuring Wilson telling stories throughout his life, including plentiful archival footage.
There’s not a lot new here if you’re a Beach Boys fan of any vintage, but it’s still great to get a chance to spend some time with one of the greatest songwriters in history. He even sings a new song.
Long Promised Road is now on VOD.
Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres
A whole generation likely remembers Ben Fong-Torres as the guy in Almost Famous who was William’s editor, the guy who keeps calling to ask how the story’s going. But Suzanne Joe Kai‘s documentary, a Tribeca debut, delves further into the backstory of this one-of-a-kind rock writer.
Featuring plentiful interviews with the now-76-year-old Fong-Torres, we hear about his journalism career, as well as his family’s backstory, which entailed his Chinese father pretending to be Filipino. While it never quite questions narratives about the primacy of boomer rock music, it’s a fascinating exploration of a fascinating man.
Like a Rolling Stone has had occasional screenings of late.
Also a Tribeca debut, Douglas Tirola‘s Bernstein’s Wall looks at the life of Leonard Bernstein, pulling in the kitchen sink of footage from the late composer’s life.
While we wait for Bradley Cooper’s elaborate biopic of Bernstein — headed to Netflix in about two years, most likely — Tirola’s documentary offers an expansive look at the great 20th-century composer.
Bernstein’s Wall has not yet been released.
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil
This film, presented as a film at South by Southwest before it was released, as more of a web series on YouTube a few weeks later, this extremely raw documentary looked at all of the details of singer Demi Lovato‘s heroin overdose, and their subsequent recovery.
The fruit of a tour documentary that was abandoned after the overdose, the film also delves into past abuse and a broken relationship in the recent past. It’s the first documentary I’ve ever seen in which the protagonist comes out as gay, and it’s not even the biggest piece of news shared (Lovato would come out as nonbinary a few months later).
The Lovato film remains available on YouTube.
One of the films from HBO’s new Music Box series of music documentaries, this one looks at the life of Alanis Morissette, from the dawn of her career through the success of her landmark 1995 album Jagged Little Pill.
Morissette collaborated with the film, participated in interviews, and even shared that she had suffered from an eating disorder and was a victim of statutory rape. She shows herself a very self-aware interview subject, although, around the time of the film’s Toronto International Film Festival debut, Morissette disavowed it all together.
Jagged is available to stream on HBO Max.
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free
A South by Southwest debut, this film was a making-of doc about Tom Petty‘s great 1994 solo album Wildflowers, and provided an outstanding look at a great artist’s creative process. And it’s another 2021 documentary in which Rick Rubin plays a key part.
Among other things, it’ll make you want to go listen to Petty’s music again.
The documentary is available to watch in full on YouTube.
Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson
This year’s other big FX/Hulu/New York Times documentary is also about a female pop superstar who was severely mistreated around the turn of the millennium, with Justin Timberlake playing a key villain role.
This one looks at the “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in 2004, in which Janet Jackson‘s nipple was glimpsed for a second or two, not in close-up, and not in HD. It led to a culture war conflagration that makes some of today’s nonsense look like nothing. Jackson didn’t cooperate — she has her own doc on the way, that will presumably address the issue. But this is a fair rendering of that awful story.
Malfunction is streaming on Hulu.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
As she proves just about every time she gives an interview, Billie Eilish is much more fascinating than your typical teenage pop star. Documentarian R.J. Cutler takes home movie footage from throughout Eilish’s rise and combines it with access on the road, giving us a fascinating picture of the “Bad Guy” singer.
The highlight is undoubtedly when she meets Katy Perry and her husband, Orlando Bloom, and doesn’t put together until afterward that Bloom was the guy she grew up watching in Lord of the Rings.
The Eilish doc is on Apple TV+.
Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James
If you’re below a certain age, Rick James is the guy who showed up on Chappelle’s Show, telling the story about grindin’ his feet on Eddie’s couch alongside Charlie Murphy and calling cocaine a helluva drug. But this documentary from Sacha Jenkins makes the case that James was a lot more interesting and way more talented than you probably remember.
James’ biggest success may have been “Superfreak,” but the film makes the case that he did much better work than that. We also hear about his origin story, as he went to Canada to avoid the draft and ended up befriending Neil Young. The film, however, is honest about James’ drug addiction.
Bitchin’ is streaming now on Showtime.
Mr. Saturday Night
Another Music Box documentary, John Maggio‘s film looked at Robert Stigwood, the 1970s music and film impresario who, among other successes, produced Saturday Night Fever.
It’s a movie based on a magazine article — one that turned out to have been completely fabricated — but it’s a fascinating story about the waning days of disco, in which a genre that started out as Black and gay was co-opted by Hollywood into a story of Brooklyn Italian-Americans.
Mr. Saturday Night is streaming on streaming on HBO Max.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage
Summer of Soulwas a documentary filled with reverence for the music of a bygone era and the people who made it. This doc? Not so much. Garret Price‘s film, part of the Music Box series, looks at the infamous 1999 music festival, headlined by aggro-rock acts of the time like Limp Bizkit, and how it carried over into a weekend filled with mayhem.
It’s a fascinating snapshot of that era, filled with boorish sexism, aggressive violence commodified by MTV, and, let’s face it, some pretty terrible music.
Woodstock ’99 is streaming on HBO Max.
Framing Britney Spears
In what may be both the most-watched and a most-impactful documentary of the year, FX, Hulu, and the New York Times looked back on what happened to Britney Spears, how terribly she was treated by the culture, and how she ended up in a conservatorship. It also tells the story of the ultimately successful “Free Britney” movement.
The film was followed by a couple of other Britney docs, including a sequel from the same team. But it helped spread awareness- and it succeeded in “freeing” Britney.
Framing Britney Spears is streaming on Hulu.
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand
Rap giant Earl “DMX” Simmons died earlier this year at the age of 50, but two years before that, he gave a documentary crew up-close access to his 2019 comeback tour, following his release from prison. It came out this fall, once again as part of the Music Box series.
What emerges is a very honest portrayal that isn’t shy about depicting the rapper’s drug addiction or his complex entanglements with women. But the film’s final scene, featuring DMX and his family singing together to “The Way We Were,” is among the year’s most joyful.
The DMX documentary is streaming on HBO Max.
No, it wasn’t as elaborate as the other multi-part documentary from this year that featured Paul McCartney, nor did it get nearly as much attention. But this six-part series was much simply: It featured the latter-day Paul, in a room with Rick Rubin, talking about music and occasionally playing it.
Unlike many artists, Paul actually has some things to say about his work, and of course, we get to hear all of those great songs, from the Beatles, Wings, and his solo work.
McCartney 3,2,1 is streaming on Hulu.
We Are the Thousand
This documentary showed at South by Southwest, and I don’t know that any movie this year made me smile like it did. It’s the story of the Rockin’ 1000, a group of people in Italy who, once a year, gather in a large field and play a rock song together. In 2015, their rendition of the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” was part of a viral video.
The film is about those people, including their charismatic leader Fabio Zaffagnini, and their efforts to get Dave Grohl to attend their next performance. It’s all presented with just a massive amount of joy.
I’ve heard absolutely nothing about a release date for We Are the Thousand, but I highly recommend seeing it whenever it surfaces.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes takes an immersive approach to the seminal 1960s group, stitching together a huge amount of archival footage along with interviews with the surviving members.
The best part, though? The band’s great music is playing pretty much at all times. This is the only 2021 movie that I watched twice in one day.
The Velvet Underground is streaming on Apple TV+.
Listening to Kenny G
HBO Max’s Music Box series had some very good entries in its first year, as evidenced by how much of them are on this list. But the best of them was Penny Lane‘s examination of the popular saxophonist Kenny G. Yes, he’s the highest-selling instrumental musician in history and a man with a large fan base, but he’s also a widely despised cultural figure, loathed by jazz critics and serious musicians alike.
The documentary is fair to both sides of the argument, while also giving Kenny his say. And while the musician is probably more fascinating than you thought, he also emerges as much less likable.
Listening to Kenny G is streaming on HBO Max.
The Beatles: Get Back
Sure, it’s not technically a movie — much more of a TV mini-series — but Peter Jackson‘s eight-hour opus about the Beatles‘ famous “Get Back” sessions from 1969 provides a new and fascinating look at the Fab Four, near the end of their run.
First announced as a movie, one that, it was suspected, would give a more positive portrayal of those sessions than the long-missing Let It Be movie, Get Back ended up providing an honest look at this important band. Also, viewing it over Thanksgiving weekend was something of a communal experience that there were too few of this year.
Get Back is streaming on Disney+.
Summer of Soul
Musician Questlove‘s astonishing debut unearthed footage, from the series of 1969 concerts known as the Harlem Cultural Festival, that sat in a basement for nearly five decades. It’s assembled into an extremely watchable narrative, which also featured some pretty great musical performances.
A Sundance debut, Summer of Soul hit theaters and eventually Hulu in the summer, and inserted the film into the cultural canon, albeit about a half-century too late.