In its worst incarnation, the music documentary is a hagiographic cash-in, pandering to hot artists with supposedly all-access footage that’s in reality carefully managed and contains little in the way of insight into their subjects. At its best, it’s an artform, one in which Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme have made revelatory films about some of the greatest musicians that ever existed, in which top non-fiction filmmakers have uncovered compelling stories and undersung artists, and where filmmakers have tackled genres and musicians and exposed them to wider audiences.
In its early beginnings, The Playlist was a site particularly focused on the points where movies and music crossed over, and as such, we’ve always had a particular interest in the music documentary. The 21st century has been kind to us so far, with a number of killer non-fiction themes about bands, styles or artists that can stand with anything the form’s ever produced.
So, after picking out the best horror and animations since the year 2000 in recent weeks and months, we’ve selected the twenty-five best music documentaries of the 21st century so far. Take a look at the list below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
25. “Twenty Feet From Stardom” (2013)
A joyous and moving corrective to decades spent ceding the spotlight to “artists” who often boasted less raw talent, Morgan Neville‘s irresistible Oscar-winning documentary traces the lives and influence of several of the world’s greatest ever backing singers. Investigating not just how important their contributions were to some of the most famous songs ever made (the moment Mick Jagger hears Merry Clayton perform the stunning backing vocal to “Gimme Shelter,” shorn of his his own vocal and is visibly gobsmacked is an absolute treasure), but also why their often meteoric rise in the industry was abruptly curtailed as they reached the backup singer version of a glass ceiling, this is an inspiring and uplifting doc, not just for music lovers or for those tuning in to hear Jagger, Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder et al, but for anyone who’s ever had more ambition, talent and peer admiration in their chosen field than luck or fame.
24. “Shut Up And Play The Hits” (2012)
Only a fool would make a prediction like this, but it feels like music historians will look back on LCD Soundsystem as something of a defining band of the ’00s: led by super-producer James Murphy, the band united both aging Gen-Xers and millenials in dance, dropping three flawless albums before dissolving. “Shut Up And Play The Hits” (from Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, who were also behind the pretty good Blur doc “No Distance Left To Run”) documents LCD’s last stand, an epic, instantly legendary final show at Madison Square Garden. It’s gorgeously and viscerally shot in a way that few concert movies pull off, but the film manages to be for more than just fans by examining Murphy’s decision to go out on top and the uncertainty and comedown immediately following the greatest high of his career.
23. “Heima” (2006)
Not perhaps the most experimental or dramatic of the documentaries on this list, Sigur Ros‘ “Heima” might well be the most beautiful. Part concert doc, part travelogue and part meditation on homesickness and the changing relationship with the country of one’s birth over time, the film is undoubtedly mostly geared toward fans of the ethereal, elvish strains of the band’s music. But it’s also a humanizing portrait of Jonsi et al, who while often coming across as overly self-serious are here revealed to be warm, self-deprecating and kinda nerdy, and which is set against the backdrop of historical archive footage and some truly spectacular cinematography of Iceland’s stark landscapes. Finally, it builds to a lovely climax as the band plays a series of free gigs in their home country, and it becomes clear that the palpable love and gratitude they have for Iceland and its people is warmly, joyfully reciprocated.
22. “Nas: Time Is Illmatic” (2014)
We can’t think of all that many great films focused on a single record (Spike Lee’s “Bad 25” was good if a little disposable), but last year’s “Time Is Illmatic” managed to break the streak. In part, it’s because this doc focused on arguably the greatest hip-hop record of all time, Nas’ staggering debut “Illmatic”, with filmmakers Erik Parker and One9 taking advantage of incredible access to the rapper, his family and collaborators. But the film also uses the twentieth anniversary of the album to delve both into Nas and his background (his relationship with jazz trumpeter father Olu Dara is crucial), as well as the social and political issues that he tackled on his breakthrough record, which surrounded him as he grew up and which, as it’s clear as he returns to his old neighborhood, persist. It’s not the most formally inventive film on this list, but it’s as deep a dive as you could hope for on a truly seminal artist’s finest hour.
21. “Be Here To Love Me” (2004)
At its best, the music documentary doesn’t just celebrate and explore great artists, but is capable of reintroducing and rediscovering those who never got the credit they deserved in their time. “Be Here To Love Me” is one of the best examples as such. Margaret Brown’s excellent film focuses on Townes Van Zandt, a contemporary of and songwriter for the likes of Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, who lived a tumultuous rock-and-roll life that took in long-running alcohol abuse, early insulin-shock treatments, three marriages and an early death, all the while gaining a reputation as, as Kris Kristofferson puts it, “a songwriter’s songwriter” whose own recordings were known to mainly country music aesthetes until relatively recently. Released seven years after his death and eschewing talking heads in favor of predominately archive footage, Brown paints a complete and definitive portrait.