2015's Best Music Documentaries

On December 17, 2015


As documentaries get cheaper and cheaper to produce, and expansive archives are digitized and pored over, revealing more and more “never before seen” revelatory audio and video, the breadth of topics has expanded and entire scenes can be covered with increasing granularity. We’re living in a golden age for music documentaries. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are loaded with hundreds of hours of some of the most esoteric accounts of music history for you to binge on at your leisure. Here are a handful of the best music documentaries that came out earlier this year, or at the very least premiered in some capacity and should be available shortly (if not already) that you should make time to sit down and watch, if only to count how many times Dave Grohl pops up.

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

https://youtu.be/PT2fHAnhM8k

Sure, there are still a ton of excellent brick and mortar record stores out there, managing to find ways to thrive in this post Napster day and age, but lord knows the past decade or so has seen some big shakeups in the industry. Directed by Colin Hanks, who you might know better as the bad dude from season 6 of Dexter or as Tom Hanks’ more talented son, All Things Must Pass tells the story of the rise and fall of monolithic music retailer Tower Records which went from having hundreds of stores in dozens of countries in the late 90s all the way to filing for bankruptcy in 2006. While you might think that an in depth look at the business end of things would get pretty boring, Hanks manages to elevate the story of Tower past the simple narrative that demonizes p2p downloading as the root cause of the collapse by focusing on the potent personalities who were found on both sides of the counter tell the story, including Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Questlove, and Chuck D, to name just a few.

Amy

https://youtu.be/Za3lZcrzzcM

The story of Amy Winehouse is one that is too often told in images lit by paparazzi flashbulbs, documenting her many low moments while she battled eating disorders, substance abuse problems, becoming too famous too fast, and generally surrounding herself with folks who were not looking out for her best interests. It’s perfectly fitting that the working title of the film, “Amy - The Girl Behind The Name,” immediately makes you think of creepy dudes holding cameras yelling those two sing-songy-syllables at her while she stumbles her way home after a night out. Described by ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer as “The best found-footage horror movie of the year,” at its core, this documentary isn’t so far off from Montage of Heck, and it’s no surprise that both have gotten so much attention from critics and viewers alike (96% fresh!). This should be out on DVD soon if it isn’t already.

Daft Punk Unchained

https://youtu.be/3I3maTRmiYU

There’s such a specific and well-honed air of mystery to pyramid-dwelling robots we all know as Daft Punk, so getting even the slightest peek behind the masks and into their process and creative lives is a huge deal. Honestly, even though this fascinating look into the music of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo goes a loooooong way to reveal tons of cool previously unknown stuff about them, it still leaves so many questions unanswered. Directed for the BBC by Hervé Martin-Delpierre, the film wrings enough revelatory details and historical anecdotes out of interviews with folks like Kanye West, Georgio Moroder, Michel Gondry, and Pharrell Williams, to make it required viewing, but you’re still left with the feeling that you’re never going to really get to know the men behind the robots which, it seems, is exactly the way they want it.

The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead

https://youtu.be/GVI8SOt3OvI

With the massive name cache of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, you’d think that The Damned, who put out both the first-ever punk 7” and the first punk full length album would be a little better known, but it’s sadly not the case. The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, directed by Wes Orshoski, working from a tremendous amount of access to the band as well as their archives, attempts to rectify that grave error. Shot over three years, the film doubles as a history lesson on the band (who were also the first punk band to break up AND the first to re-form), and catches up with where everyone landed 35 years after that first single, the Nick Lowe produced “New Rose.” The film ends up leaving you with two questions: “Why am I only finding out about these guys NOW?!” and “Why isn’t Fred Armisen in more music documentaries?!”

Fresh Dressed

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/freshdressed

There are four main elements of hip-hop culture: The MC, the DJ, the Breakdancer, and the graffiti artist. Some folks try and wedge beatboxing in there too, but those folks are out of their minds (no disrespect to The Fat Boys). You can find a half dozen documentaries examining the history of hip-hop through any of those filters (including beatboxing!), but Fresh Dressed is one of the first and best to present the evolution of the culture through the fashion and style of dress. As one of the founders of legendary rap magazine Ego Trip and the current creative editor of Mass Appeal, first time director Sacha Jenkins has some deep roots in the genre and he flexes his formidable knowledge to pick up the the vibrant trail all the way back in the cotton fields of the deep south and trace it up through the NY gangs of the 60s, the old school golden era when folks were fiending for shell-toe adidas, to the current era of rappers like Kanye designing their own high end fashion lines. You can rent this through the trailer embedded above.

Montage of Heck

https://youtu.be/7a4imrOhK-I

This is the one pretty much everyone’s already seen and has opinions and all the feelings about. It’s brought more former gen-x’ers to tears than the day they found out that Kim and Thurston split up. Lots of smart people will tell you that it’s really good. It’s also been called “90% bullshit” by Kurt’s childhood buddy (and Melvins frontman) King Buzzo. While the concerns Buzzo raises certainly call some of the journalistic integrity of the film into question, it’s hard to discount the unprecedented access that director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture) was given, and the inventive way he incorporated animation to accentuate the massive trove of audio recordings he was able to dig through. The most notable absence from the great many folks who were interviewed is Dave Grohl who apparently was not able to sit and be filmed until three weeks after the film was due to be completed, but shows up in interview footage from the bands heyday. Grohl, after turning the movie off after seeing ten minutes in the middle, pretty much nailed the film by saying “All the footage of him as a child, I think that might make me sad... and then the dark stuff at the end I think would bum me out.” It'd be a shame if that quote doesn’t end up stickered the DVD cover.

Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)

https://vimeo.com/107053757

Lots of places had great hardcore scenes in the 80s, but few, if any, matched the sheer quality of bands and managed to seamlessly mix in an unwavering and sincerely heartfelt political awareness, than The District of Columbia. From the blending of Rites of Spring and Minor Threat to form Fugazi, you have pretty much the story of old school emo, hardcore, and “post-hardcore”, and that’s just three bands. You haven't even gotten to the mighty Bad Brains, Void, The Faith, and so many other bands whose influence is still felt to this day. While this is director Scott Crawford’s first foray into film, as the founding editor of Harp magazine (2001 - 2008, RIP) and later Blurt, his credentials more than check out. Interviews include the holy triumvirate of living hardcore encyclopedia dudes Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, and Dave Grohl, as well as tons of other folks heaping praises on the good work that was going down in DC over the course of that decade. Make sure to grab your favorite ice cream treat before sitting down to watch this one.

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/stretchandbobbito

The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, starring Adrian Bartos (a/k/a Stretch Armstrong) and Bobbito García (duh), ran late at night from 1990 to 1998 on New York’s WKCR and was literally, as this archive proves, the stuff of rap legend. Hundred of rappers came in over the course of the run to shoot the shit with the hosts, pimp their mixtapes, and drop freestyles. With both Stretch and Bobbito getting producer credits, and the latter acting as full-on writer/director (he had previously made Doin’ It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC), this could come off as a puffy bit of film, blowing smoke up their collective butts, but the quality of the talking-head interviews (Common, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, Eminem, Talib Kweli, Nas, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One, and on and on and on) combined with the archival footage makes it an absolute can’t miss for anyone with a passing interest in the history of hip-hop. You can rent this through the trailer embedded above.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

https://youtu.be/moOQXZxriKY

So far as I can tell, while they're home to dozens of excellent music docs, this is the first one to be produced totally from the ground up by Netflix. Directed by documentarian Liz Garbus (Oscar nominated for The Farm: Angola, USA), What Happened, Miss Simone? brings the viewer in about as much as you can get to the iconoclastic and mercurial "High Priestess of Soul." Like Montage Of Heck, while the breadth of archival footage is profoundly valuable, there are some caveats to the film worth exploring, mainly that Simone’s physically and emotionally abusive husband gets waaaay too much screen time to tell his skewed side of her story, so much so that IndieWire went so far as to call the film outright “irresponsible.” All that said, the film does an excellent job of wrangling a number of other invaluable interviews and has a wealth of rarely if not totally new and unseen archival footage of her at so many triumphant highs and self-destructive lows of her career. Everyone’s got someone’s Netflix password by now, so there’s no excuse to not check this one out.

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Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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