The 10 Best Rock Music Documentaries
All the documentaries on this list go to 11.
This Is Spinal Tap, 1984
The summer blockbuster season is already underway, another unbearably hot couple months filled with the worst escapist dreck Hollywood can pump out. We're looking at you, Star Trek and X-Men.
But just in case you want to skip the long lines, expensive ticket prices, and $20 buckets of fat-covered popcorn, here is a list of movies ready for you, the music lover, to watch in the comfort of your own home.
As far as movie genres go, you can't do much better than the rockumentary. You get the educational value of a documentary combined with your favorite subject: rock music.
It's difficult to pick 10 films in this category to put on a "best of" list. There are arguably a lot of other movies that many will feel should have been included on the list. That said, these ones are definitely the best.
10. American Hardcore
Hardcore punk is probably best experienced in a small club with a shitty sound system and cheap beer. But if you're more of a homebody, an acceptable substitute is this documentary which examines the early-'80s hardcore punk scene. Punk fans will enjoy the rare concert footage and killer soundtrack.
9. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
From the hardcore scene to one of punk's originals. Probably the most complete look at the history of the seminal punk quartet as heard from the band itself. Particularly interesting and horrifying at the same time are the stories of the Ramones' recording sessions with producer Phil Spector. The film was luckily completed just before the passing of Dee Dee Ramone.
8. The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter
While Gimme Shelter was originally meant to be about the Rolling Stones' 1969 American tour, there is usually only one concert on that tour people are ever really interested hearing about. When the Stones decided to throw a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, some 300,000 fans showed up and the Hell's Angels were hired to do security. The result would be one of the most infamous concerts in rock history.
There's nothing easy about Amy, the heartbreaking documentary chronicling the tragically short life of Amy Winehouse. Told through a series of interviews and home videos, the film provides a startlingly intimate look into the life of a singer so many had written off by the time of her early death. This humanizing look at one of pop culture's most haunted singers will sear itself into your mind, and you won't view Amy Winehouse the same again.
6. The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years
Perhaps the lasting legacy of the hair-metal era will not be the music, but the decadence and excess. Nowhere is this better documented than in this film, in particular, the scene where W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes is shown lying in a pool next to his mom, fully clothed and completely wasted, downing a whole bottle of vodka.
5. This Is Spinal Tap
Okay, sure, technically speaking this isn't a true documentary, since Spinal Tap isn't a real band. But while the film is intended as satire, it is also incredibly accurate. Everyone from Jimmy Page to Glenn Danzig have said that many of the events parodied in the film, such as getting lost in the backstage area at concerts, have all happened to them.
4. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco
The story of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is almost too strange to be true. After finishing what is arguably their best album to date, their then-record-label Reprise refused to release the record for fear that it wouldn't sell. Eventually, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would be released by another record label to both enormous critical and commercial success. An interesting subplot of the film includes the internal conflict between Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and former guitarist Jay Bennett.
3. The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Sometimes the most interesting musicians are just a little off. Case in point: singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. Gaining a cult-like status in the '80s with homemade cassettes like Hi, How Are You, this film documents Johnston's struggle with his musical genius and mental illness.
2. Kurt Cobain About A Son
Of all of the films on this list, Kurt Cobain About a Son takes the most unusual approach to its subject. The film combines audio interviews of Cobain along with film of various locations where Cobain lived, but never actually shows the late Nirvana singer. The unique approach totally works, and the audio provides an intimate portrait of Cobain, making this a must-see for Nirvana fans.
1. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
If there is one thing people love, it's an underdog story. And there is no better underdog story than Anvil. The moderately successful metal band may not have been blessed with success, but they make up for it in optimism. And the best part is that their story has a happy ending. After the release of this film, the band scored a record deal, became overnight celebrities, and even had a few of their songs included in Guitar Hero.
Editor's note: This article first published on May 4, 2010, and was updated for re-publication on August 1, 2016.
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