In the late 1960s, music documentaries started making their way onto the scene as the rock movement took off across both the United States and the world at large. Those first documentaries were a testament to their time: with light editing, scratchy film, and an overall more loose feel compared to the documentaries of today. Ever since then, the genre has rocketed up over the years with almost too many new and innovative films to catch up on. These next 35 music documentaries include the staple originals as well as newcomers who have taken the art into a completely new direction.
The 35 Best Music Documentaries That You Need to Watch ASAP
1. Gimme Shelter (1970)
An absolute classic rock documentary, Gimme Shelter follows The Rolling Stones on the last leg of their United States tour in 1969. There's also footage from the infamous Altamont Free Concert, which resulted in four deaths, including one brutal stabbing by a member of the Hells Angels.
2. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is probably one of the most well-executed and thorough music documentaries ever created. The film combines rare footage of Cobain's life with interviews from members of Nirvana, close family, and other friends, all tied together by a seamless, racing montage of Cobain's artwork animated to life. On top of the perfect music choices and timing, it focuses on the deep complexities of Cobain's mind, creating a precious, clear-yet-tangled look inside the musician.
3. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)
In Madonna: Truth or Dare, we witness Madonna at arguably the height of her fame during the Blond Ambition Tour, which has long been deemed one of the best concert tours to have ever occurred. The documentary flips from concert footage to behind-the-scenes video, which sometimes acts as a confessional diary as Madonna narrates certain portions of the film.
4. Summer of Soul (2021)
Directed by Questlove of The Roots, Summer of Soul documents the Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week festival that took place in 1969. At Marcus Garvey Park in Manhattan, a few of the many performers included Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone. Despite this, there was practically no mention of the festival within music history, which makes things all the more puzzling. The documentary dives into that question among many other topics, on top of screening footage of the events, a rare feat given the lack of coverage over the years.
5. Amy (2015)
Chronicling the journey leading up to her success, Amy shows the trajectory of Amy Winehouse's career, from the cheerful beginnings to the rough part of her fame. A specific moment that sticks out: in a room full of studio executives at Island Records, Winehouse is sitting down, playing the acoustic guitar, and singing "I Heard Love Is Blind." Just her and her guitar. The room quietly watches on and the man next to her smiles, probably realizing the gem that he's just stumbled upon.
6. Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
Whereas Gimme Shelter centered around a specific part of their 1969 tour, Crossfire Hurricane tells the early story of the Rolling Stones from the very beginning through 1981. The film places a big emphasis on the time leading right up to and after Brian Jones' death and how tremendously it affected the group. Tying in the Hyde Park show with Mick Taylor in the group, the documentary gives a feeling of hope to the band, which radiates through the rest of the film.
7. Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)
Janis: Little Girl Blue gives a thorough look into the life of Janis Joplin, who—in only a very short amount of time—was able to create a lasting mark on the rock scene with her distinctive voice. You're really able to get to know her personality and the way she walked through life, which was in a carefree way but always with a purpose.
8. John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018)
Using archival footage from the early '70s, this documentary offers a rare look into the creation of John Lennon's album, Imagine. It's at times a very quiet process, but then suddenly, there's a ton of people crowded in the kitchen, like George Harrison who had stopped by to play both slide and electric guitar on quite a few tracks.
9. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Focusing more so on the ins and outs of the group, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest explores the dynamic of one of the most influential music groups of all time. Consisting of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, the group had a number of differing personalities that played off each other both positively and negatively over the years, affecting both the music and overall vibe of the group.
10. Monterey Pop (1968)
Monterey Pop documents the music festival of the same name, including some backstage and crowd footage, on top of the filming of the festival itself. Helping launch Janis Joplin into the music stratosphere as she performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the festival had an incomparable roster of performers, including The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Mamas, and the Papas, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane.
11. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)
A lengthy documentary clocking in at 3.5 hours, George Harrison: Living in the Material World gives a deeper look into the musician's life, from his early life, time with The Beatles, and musical endeavors following that time. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film went on to win two Emmy Awards.
12. Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
Less so a story about her life pre-Gaga, Gaga: Five Foot Two documents the creation of Lady Gaga's 2016 album, Joanne, as well as the time-consuming process leading up to her 2017 Super Bowl Halftime Show. Alongside producer Mark Ronson, Gaga methodically creates an album of a completely different sound than her fans are used to. The film also shows her sometimes-debilitating struggle with chronic pain, stemming from a broken hip on her tour, the Born This Way Ball.
13. Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson (2021)
This docuseries focuses on a different aspect of the music-making process on each episode: auto-tune, sampling, and reverb are three of the six parts Mark Ronson walks us through. Ronson brings in musicians and experts who have a great deal to say about each aspect, most of the time tying the part of music into a specific song or album that they created in the past. Just a few of the many guests he brings on are Paul McCartney, Charli XCX, Questlove, Beastie Boys, and King Princess.
14. Bad Reputation (2018)
The story of Joan Jett's success was quite an uphill battle and Bad Reputation documents it all. Songs that would later become her biggest hits, like "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "Bad Reputation"—as well as herself as an artist, were all dismissed by the largest record companies. It was only when she and her manager began to put out their own records that she achieved commercial success.
15. Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time (2020)
The setting for some of the hugest bands and songs in 1970s, California's Laurel Canyon, is covered in great detail through this two-part documentary. Featuring artists like Michelle Phillips, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the area brought in tons of musicians all around the same period in time, creating both an exciting and inspiring atmosphere.
16. Don't Look Back (1967)
Don't Look Back chronicles Bob Dylan's 1965 tour in England with behind-the-scenes footage of Dylan, along with Joan Baez, Alan Price, and other close friends at the time. This film was one of the first mainstream music documentaries that achieved such success—it was even later selected to be added to the Library of Congress for its significance.
17. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a mostly hilarious yet occasionally sad documentary about Elaine Stritch, one of the largest icons in Broadway history. The film centers around Stritch's new show at The Carlyle, where she resides, as she deals with a few medical and age-related issues, all the while considering leaving the industry for good. At 86, she's still in fine form as she rehearses for her show, though you can tell that the production as a whole is taking a bit of a toll on her. The documentary is very no-frills, offering a very honest look into the actress' life.
18. David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)
Playing off his song, "Five Years," this documentary focuses specifically on the last five years of David Bowie's life, especially on the production of his final two albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, and the off-Broadway production, Lazarus, of which he created the music for. With previously unseen footage of Bowie as well as interviews with the band he worked with on Blackstar, the documentary is a slightly somber look at a musician who was trying to use every last bit of his time to work.
19. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (2020)
Having written some of the biggest hits of all time, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart tracks Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb in their journey from just brothers to becoming a real force of nature on the music scene. Its release in 2020 was a massive hit among viewers, and understandably so, as the film hits a good balance between depicting them at their height, but also on the flip side, in showing them receiving backlash about disco music.
20. Whitney (2018)
Nominated for Best Music Film at the Grammys, Whitney takes a deep look into the life of one of the greatest voices of all time. Whitney Houston was both a tough and complex woman, and with interviews from close family and friends paired with rare footage, Whitney shows us the artist up-close, allowing us to see her as she was.
21. Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
With archival backstage and concert footage paired with interviews, Oasis: Supersonic paints a full picture of the '90s band, Oasis, along with the main force driving the band, brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher.
22. Keith Richards: Under the Influence (2015)
It almost feels weird focusing on Keith Richards without lumping him in with the rest of The Rolling Stones, but this documentary does a wonderful job of portraying Richards as his own entity. In Keith Richards: Under the Influence, he discusses his life, music influences, and work both within The Rolling Stones and the side projects he pursues outside of that.
23. Beastie Boys Story (2020)
Filmed at the King's Theatre in Brooklyn, this film is a part-live show, a part-classic documentary, with the surviving members, Michael Diamond ("Mike D") and Adam Horovitz ("Ad-Rock") introducing and narrating parts of the documentary on stage.
24. Tina (2021)
Telling the life of Tina Turner, Tina begins with her early days in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, the duo she created with her husband, Ike. After the pair divorced in the late '70s, Turner forged ahead with a solo career, quickly establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with on the rock 'n' roll scene.
25. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019)
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice follows the singer through her early life and career beginnings in Laurel Canyon, where she. In addition, the documentary also touches on her leaving of the music industry as a result of her diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease.
26. McCartney 3, 2, 1 (2021)
In this Hulu Original docuseries, Rick Rubin and Paul McCartney talk through a number of songs by The Beatles and Wings, breaking down how they arrived at certain chords, lyrics, and the overall sound. At one point, McCartney mentions that the idea of Sgt. Pepper arrived when he misheard one of the roadies ask him, "Can you pass the salt and pepper?" while eating lunch. Mistaking him for saying, "Sergeant Pepper," McCartney thought it sounded like a cool type of character, so he made it into an album and song.
27. When You're Strange (2009)
When You're Strange documents The Doors' early days, but especially focuses on the band's frontman, Jim Morrison, and his drug and alcohol use over his years in the band. The film shows up-close, rare footage of The Doors in their daily lives, rehearsal, and on stage—even video of Morrison's on-stage arrest. Overall, the documentary creates a feeling that matches that of the band's: one that's well-executed and a bit unpredictable.
28. Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry (2021)
In this close-up documentary, we hang out in Billie Eilish's brother's bedroom as the pair create and record Eilish's multi-Grammy-winning album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? With her brother, FINNEAS, slightly leading the pack with producing and writing, Eilish is able to put out a thoroughly original album, one that will end up changing the trajectory of her career forever. Outside of the music aspect is the very emotional side of Eilish: how she mentally deals with the level of fame she's reached as well as the physically demanding part of her job.
29. Miss Americana (2020)
Combining backstage and concert footage from her Reputation Tour, Miss Americana follows Taylor Swift, offering a rare look into the singer-songwriter's inner thoughts and emotions. The film shows the unwarranted media attacks brought upon Swift and how she actually dealt with that kind of attention and abuse over the years. Swift really dives into the mental aspect of her journey and the beliefs she had to let go of to become the woman she is now.
30. What Drives Us (2021)
Directed by Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, What Drives Us is an examination of the "rite of passage" aspect of being a touring musician, an idea that came to Grohl in thinking about the van life of touring. Just a few of the musicians who were interviewed in the film include Steven Tyler, St. Vincent, and Ringo Starr.
31. Billie (2019)
The result of over 200 hours of interviews is this documentary about Billie Holiday's life. After Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a journalist, decided that she wanted to write a biography of the singer's life, she was able to record and compile tons of interviews with Holiday's friends and family, as well as other musicians. However, when Kuehl never finished the book, those 200 hours of interviews ended up just sitting around until this documentary was put into production.
32. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (2019)
Probably the most iconic event in music history, Woodstock was the defining moment at a pivotal point in American culture. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation explores the scene at the festival just prior to beginning, the festival itself, and the lasting impact of Woodstock over the years.
33. The Velvet Underground (2021)
Fairly new to Apple TV Plus, The Velvet Underground follows the band's first beginnings in New York as a lesser-known group to the level of recognition and fame that it would eventually reach. Andy Warhol plays a fairly prominent role in the film, as he was one of the main believers and sponsors of The Velvet Underground prior to their mainstream success.
34. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (2021)
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything offers a mostly comprehensive gathering of the most influential music of that specific year in time, although quite a few of the larger bands were left out, including Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band. Despite this, the docuseries does a great job of tying everything together and explaining the reasoning behind why this was such an influential year in music.
35. The Beatles: Get Back (2021)
In this upcoming three-part docuseries by Peter Jackson, The Beatles: Get Back documents the creation of their final album, Let It Be, using never-before-seen archival footage. The series is set to premiere on Disney Plus on November 25.