I feel like I should preface this post by saying there will be no Beyoncé or T.Swift Netflix documentaries referenced here. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and admire both of those women as artists, but this post is about the deep underbelly of the music world. These documentaries are for true music nerds; people who not only listen and obsess over a variety of musical styles, but also crave the history and nuances behind the artist themselves. How did Chuck Berry’s style influence some of the most acclaimed Beatles albums of all time? How did ragtime music in the 1890s lay the foundation for the most prolific hip-hop artists of the 2oth century and beyond? These are nerdy questions that require deep exploration. So if you consider yourself a true music aficionado, you’ll need to check these documentaries off your list.
“Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt” (2004)
I know many people reading this will think, “Who the F is Townes Van Zandt?” and I’m not surprised. Townes wasn’t widely known throughout his career, but this late Texan troubadour was arguably one of the greatest country-folk singer-songwriters of all time. But he was also a tormented soul. Compiled from intimate home movies, old TV performances and detailed interviews with contemporaries such as Steve Earle and Guy Clark, director Margaret Brown’s “Be Here To Love Me” paints a sympathetic portrait of a sensitive artist who would count superstars such as Willie Nelson among his fans, despite the fact that his poetic, fatalistic songs often sprang from his lifelong struggles with drink, drugs and bipolar disorder.
“Punk In Africa” (2012)
I love documentaries that explore other countries and cultures’ impact on the music we know and love. Punk appealed to intelligent, forward-thinking kids in South Africa just as much as it did in the UK, but due to the nation’s repressive political regime, the revolution was only finally televised when Deon Maas and Keith Jones’s “Punk In Africa” premiered worldwide in 2012. Revealing how angry, courageous outfits such as Wild Youth and National Wake formed after the 1976 Soweto Riots and later handed the baton to the next generation of refuseniks in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the film tells the captivating story of the original artists against Apartheid.
Amy Winehouse died way too soon, leaving behind one of the best albums of the 2000s (Back to Black) and lingering questions about what might’ve been. This documentary celebrates Winehouse’s talent and her ability to make old-school R&B relevant today. By examining the singer’s drug abuse — coupled with the intense demands that the media and the music business make on young stars — the film asks whether this particular tragedy was the result of a perfect storm of sickness, on both sides of the microphone. What’s most heartbreaking about Amy is that all its previously unseen footage shows a complex young woman that the public never really got to know.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015)
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” delves into the life and times of the pioneering, genre-straddling singer-songwriter and civil-rights activist Nina Simone. Pulling in archival footage and contemporary interviews with Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and close friends, this insightful film was later nominated for an Oscar and six Emmy Awards.
“David Bowie: The Last Five Years” (2019)
The second installment of a trilogy of David Bowie documentaries, “The Last Five Years” is an intimate portrait of the iconic musician’s remarkable late burst of creativity which resulted in the critically acclaimed albums “The Next Day” and “★,” and the play Lazarus. The film includes every key member of Bowie’s “The Next Day” and “★” bands, and those who worked with Bowie on Lazarus, plus a wealth of unseen and rare archival footage.
“Miles Davis: The Birth Of The Cool” (2019)
Ugh, this documentary is so damn good. One of the most highly anticipated feature-length music documentaries in recent years, “Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool” was directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson who was granted unique access to the Miles Davis Estate. Consequently, the film boasts never-before-seen footage including recording outtakes from studio sessions and new interviews with musicians Davis inspired.
“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999)
I’ll never forget watching “Buena Vista Social Club” for the first time in my Jazz History course during my undergrad. When it was over, I felt a bit in awe of what I had just watched. When the U.S. cut off most of its cultural and economic exchange with Cuba in the early 1960s, many Cuban entertainers lost the international audience they’d enjoyed during the heyday of Havana nightlife. American guitarist and roots-music aficionado Ry Cooder brought some of those musicians into the studio to record an album, and then over to Europe and the U.S. for a few concerts — all caught on film by accomplished German director Wim Wenders. The resulting Oscar-nominated documentary reveals a lot about life in Cuba under Castro, showing how being isolated from the global community led these artists to hone their craft while remaining beguilingly stuck in time.
“Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser” (1988)
This documentary is one of those history-packed stories that just elevates your overall appreciation for the evolution of music thanks to certain individuals. Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was deeply admired by his peers in large part because his sophisticated melodic sense and his feel for improvisation seemed inexplicable, given how foggy the man could be when he was away from his instrument. Through vintage film, old photos and interviews with the pianist’s family and colleagues, the movie tries to get to the bottom of how someone who seemed so lost so much of the time could make music so on-target. Jazz musicians tend to inspire stories about inspiration, addiction and eccentricity; but it’s rare to get such an intimate look at a troubled genius.
“Cracked Actor” (1975)
The key scene comes early in the film: David Bowie, coked out of his gourd in the back of a limo, wonders if he hears a cop as his vehicle courses through a Los Angeles night. Ever the philosopher-passenger, Bowie rightfully notes “an underlying unease” masked by a “superficial charm.” Shot by the BBC in 1974, the documentary opens with footage of Bowie retiring his Ziggy Stardust character and segueing into his Diamond Dogs phase. In this intimate doc, Bowie plays plenty of roles: Master Thespian, Burroughs-influenced cut-up king and theater historian. There’s never been a better film made about him.
“Rock My Religion” (1984)
This is definitely a dense DIY documentary. It traces a history of rock ‘n’ roll in which Patti Smith is, to quote the film itself, “the Mary Magdalene to the fallen rock idols of the ’60s.” Graham primarily draws a line between the ecstatic trances of 18th-century Shakers to the performative primitivism of art-punk (via Patti and Sonic Youth) and the ascendant circle-pit culture of hardcore bands Black Flag and Minor Threat. In the film’s second half, however, he branches out to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the hippie counterculture and even Jerry Lee Lewis as part of a mesmerizing thesis on rock as embodied belief system. The VHS aesthetics and crude editing take a second to get used to (they’re raw even by 1984’s tape-to-tape standards), but it’s all appropriately punk — collaged together with the seams showing.
Samantha Welker is the business manager at Glitter Guide. She has an Master's in Corporate Finance & Sustainability from Harvard Business School but prefers working in the creative industry. She also hosts a weekly business podcast for creative women called Pretty Okay Podcast. She loves spending time with her husband and her son, Rocky, in sunny San Diego. Follow along on Instagram ♡