Some of history’s most legendary and adored musicians have been the inspiration and focus of riveting and intimately revealing great documentaries. Such iconic performers and bands have become immortalized in both the music industry and on the silver screen, with these intriguing pictures serving as time capsules for the creative geniuses. Rock, rap, pop, and countless other subgenres have influenced a wide array of dynamic and gifted filmmakers, treating audiences to behind-the-scenes looks at some of their favorite artists and entertainers. Regardless of what style of music you enjoy listening to, these documentaries are sure to captivate you with their authentic and insightful perspectives.
Undeniably one of the most famous music documentaries of all time, the 1967 Bob Dylan-centered film Don’t Look Back helped establish the future standards for the “rockumentary” genre, demonstrating the profound appeal of a musician-focused flick. Beloved singer and songwriter Dave Grohl released his directorial debut with the 2013 documentary Sound City, a fascinating glimpse into the background and importance of the famed recording studio and its impact on the world of rock music. These are some of the best music documentaries of all time.
Updated on August 11th, 2023, by Patricia Scheer-Erb: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
12 The Girls in the Band (2011)
Chronicling the untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their journeys from the late 1930s to the modern day, Judy Chaikin’s 2011 music documentary The Girls in the Band is an insightful and compelling picture that details the sexism, racism, and underwhelming opportunities these musicians faced for decades in the industry. The incredibly talented women fought back against unjust obstacles, continuing to persevere and inspire countless others to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
Chaikin herself was a gifted trumpet player and grew up in a family full of the musically inclined, but found the environment for a female artist less-than welcoming and ultimately quit. The esteemed director felt compelled to make the documentary in hopes of delivering a powerful message to women. “Eight years ago a friend told me about a 90-year-old woman who said she had been a big band drummer in the ‘40s. I didn’t believe it because I had never seen a woman play an instrument in a big band. I did a little research and discovered a hidden treasure of women musicians that no one ever talked about.”
11 Rhyme & Reason (1997)
Peter Spirer’s 1997 film Rhyme & Reason explores the fascinating history of hip-hop culture, how rap evolved into a cultural voice and a multi-billion dollar industry, and how the genre’s artists feel about its controversial images and overall reputation. Over 80 significant musicians were interviewed for the documentary, including rap and hip-hop greats like Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur, and The Notorious B.I.G. (less than four days before he was tragically murdered), who express their opinions of what the future holds for the rap movement.
The sharp and eye-opening documentary serves as a poignant time capsule that remains relevant and honest 25 years later, with Rolling Stone ranking Rhyme & Reason on their list of the “70 Greatest Music Documentaries of All Time.” Since its release, the film has been widely regarded as the definitive documentary on hip-hop and rap.
10 Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
Beyoncé, or Queen Bey, is one of the most famous artists in the world and has successfully created an entire empire. Ed Burke and Beyoncé’s music documentary Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé is regarded as the highest proof of her outstanding skills. Released in 2019, it follows the artist as she prepares for one of the biggest music festivals in the world, Coachella, and puts on an extraordinary performance. It comes as no surprise, considering that Beyoncé is anything but ordinary.
The documentary offers insights into show business and the strenuous work that comes with performing at Coachella. The expectations and requirements are beyond imagination, but the artist leads with strength and perseverance throughout the entire process and even receives advice from other icons in the music industry. Queen Bey has made herself a name not only thanks to her strength, amazing voice, and dancing skills but also because of her desire to use her fame as a form of cultural movement. She gives space to Black art in a wonderfully creative way and creates a historic experience full of empowerment.
9 The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
The critically-acclaimed 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization depicts the Los Angeles punk rock scene, offering an intriguing look at the punk culture of the late 1970s and early ‘80s that was widely ignored by the rock music press of the time. The riveting film includes concert footage of L.A.-based punk bands and member interviews, such as Black Flag, Germ X, and Alice Big Band, in addition to the publishers of Slash fanzine and their devoted audience.
Following its release, the LAPD Chief of Police Daryl Gates wrote a letter to director Penelope Spheeris, demanding that the documentary not be shown again in the city after punk music fans got into countless fights and caused a great deal of trouble after watching it. The Decline of Western Civilization is the opening act of a trilogy by Spheeris, depicting the various music scenes in Los Angeles during the late 20th century, all of which are some of the best movies about punk rock.
8 Sound City (2013)
Dynamic musician, producer, and Foo Fighters founder Dave Grohl made his directorial debut with the 2013 documentary Sound City, a delightfully entertaining deep dive into the history of the renowned Sound City Studios and the wide array of rock artists who have recorded there. The studio is famous for its signature sound due to the Neve 8028 analog mixing console, which Grohl purchased after the studio closed its doors in 2011.
Detailing the groundbreaking albums and talent that were recorded there, from its early days in 1969 to its eventual deterioration, Sound City is a must-see for music and rock lovers alike. The musician conducted interviews with artists associated with the studio, including legendary performers like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, and John Fogerty. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and currently holds an impressive 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
7 This Is It (2009)
Only four months after the tragic passing of one of the biggest icons in the music industry, Michael Jackson, Kenny Ortega’s music documentary This Is It was released. It offers a glimpse of what this legend had in store for his fans but was never able to actually perform in front of them. Prior to the devastating news, Ortega and Jackson’s intention was to document the hard work behind the planned concert series and offer behind the scene footage of rehearsals and conversations between Michael and his crew.
The documentary stands out with its raw interactions between basically anyone who was lucky enough to work with Michael and the artist himself. Conversations with dancers and other crew members show how they find a balance between being professional and star-struck. Respect fills the room when Michael Jackson enters, always prepared and well-dressed. While the content of the documentary should have turned into a live experience for millions of people, This Is It still manages to capture the incredible essence of the King of Pop in a remarkable way.
6 Summer of Soul (2021)
Chronicling the events of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson made his directorial debut with the 2021 smash hit documentary Summer of Soul, showcasing the empowering concerts which celebrated African-American music and promoted Black pride and unity. Featuring archival and restored footage from the festival’s performers like Steve Wonder, Nina Simone, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, the film skillfully interweaves the captivating live footage with honest interviews of both entertainment stars and the festival’s attendees.
Summer of Soul was the recipient of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and nabbed the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars; Empire Magazine commended the picture, writing, “Sonically flawless, authentically textured and deep-rooted in cultural significance, Summer of Soul succeeds magnificently in capturing the scale, spiritual resonance and, yes, soul of the Harlem’s Cultural Festival.”
5 Amy (2015)
Detailing British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse’s life and her struggle with substance abuse both prior to and during her skyrocket to fame, Asif Kapadia’s moving 2015 documentary Amy shines a light on the fallen artist’s tragic end and her enduring musical legacy. The filmmaker conducted over 100 interviews with Winehouse’s close friends and family, providing insight into whom the singer was behind closed doors and revealing extensive unseen footage and unheard tracks she recorded in the years before her death.
Winehouse herself narrates portions of the documentary, as she reflects on fame, family, love, depression, and her blossoming music career; Amy begins with a 1998 home movie depicting a 14-year-old Winehouse singing along with a friend at a birthday party and concludes with her heartbreaking death in 2011. The picture was met with widespread acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, winning both an Academy Award and Grammy.
Shadowing the iconic heavy metal band from 2001 to 2003 during a turbulent period in their history, the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster chronicles the production of the group’s chart-topping album St. Anger while shining a light on frontman James Hetfield’s battle with alcoholism and the departure of bassist Jason Newsted. The exciting behind-the-scenes glimpse at the adored band’s creative process and relationship both in and outside the studio is on full display.
Of course, so was their burdensome lawsuit against file-sharing service Napster, which led to a rift among members and backlash from fans. On appearing in the revealing and refreshingly raw documentary, Lars Ulrich revealed, “We were at a crossroads. We had been really good at being able to compartmentalize a lot of this stuff. Suppress it with drinking or extravagances. This was the first time we had to talk to each other, get to know each other, and work stuff out. The cameras were there catching it all.”
3 Amazing Grace (2018)
Allan Elliott’s Amazing Grace can be considered one of the purest music documentaries ever made. It captures the recording process of Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, which was realized in collaboration with the Southern California Community Choir. While Elliott brought this masterpiece to the masses, it was actually director Sydney Pollack, who filmed the entire out-of-this-world experience back in 1972. Even though the film was recorded a long time ago, people have only been able to admire it on screen since shortly after Aretha’s death in 2018.
The intimate setting at the New Temple Missionary Baptiste Church in Los Angeles is undoubtedly aligned with Franklin’s spiritual performance. Coming from a religious background, it is not surprising that Gospel is the foundation for the artist’s entire music career. Aretha Franklin’s absolute dedication to her craft and mesmerizing connection to the choir allows for a riveting performance, which can be admired in the documentary. Watching Amazing Grace equals watching sheer magic unfold, as Aretha Franklin’s incomparable voice touches souls within the very first second of her performance. Amazing Grace shows the Queen of Soul in her true element.
2 Gimme Shelter (1970)
The classic 1970 British-American film Gimme Shelter famously documents the last weeks of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 United States tour, which ended with the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert that was marred by violence and the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter. Brothers Albert and Maysles directed the picture along with Charlotte Zwerin, who were notable for their work in the Direct Cinema style, or cinéma vérité, an approach to filmmaking that involved reacting naturally to events as they unfold as opposed to investigating the subject matter.
The duo captured the altercation between attendee Hunter and a Hells Angel member, with the notorious outlaw club having been hired to provide security for the event. The focus of the documentary heavily centers on the counterculture rock concert at the Altamont Speedway and the brutality and vicious disorder associated with it; the concert was frequently compared to the Woodstock festival that represented “peace and love” while Altamont has been considered the end of the hippie culture.
1 Don’t Look Back (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker shadowed and documented legendary troubadour Bob Dylan as he embarked on his England tour of 1965 at just 23 years old, going behind the scenes and providing fans a glimpse into the creative process and personal life of the iconic songwriter.
The director shot the intimate picture in black-and-white with a handheld 16mm film camera and utilized direct sound, setting the precedent for the “rockumentary” film genre. Don’t Look Backfeatures Dylan’s lively concert appearances and personal hotel room conversations while delving into the musician’s relationship with folk artist Joan Baez, who accompanied him on tour but did not perform onstage.