Here's the thing about music documentaries: there's something for everyone. Maybe you're looking to delve into tense studio environments with Metallica's 'Some Kind of Monster' or The Beatles' 'Let It Be'. You might be interested in hearing the stories of musicians who were in danger of being forgotten as seen in 'A Band Called Death' and 'Searching For Sugarman'. Of course, there's always the chance you've simply landed on a documentary because you love the band it focuses on, and now you have a feature-length production to commit to memory that can change (or strengthen) your entire perspective on the band itself. Whatever the case, you can never go wrong with a good music documentary, and we've put together a list of our favourites for you to watch, admire, and watch again.
Name: Eddy Lim
Documentary: Funky Monks (1991)
As you can probably gather from the title, Funky Monks revolves around the creation of one of the most pivotal funk rock albums of the ‘90s, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Filmed in black and white by Flea’s brother-in-law, the video sees plenty of the Peppers’ quirky and comedic antics amongst interviews, candid scenes and live recording footage. The entire album was recorded in “The Mansion”, a ten-bedroom mansion that Harry Houdini was rumoured to have stayed in. The band has been documented as saying the venue is haunted, with each member reporting supernatural sightings and unnatural occurrences; drummer Chad Smith even refused to spend a single night in the mansion. One of my favourite moments from the documentary has to be frontman Anthony Kiedis discussing the creation of ‘Under The Bridge’, one of their most renowned ballads. It’s an extremely transparent recollection about his history with substance abuse, addiction and loneliness, and really makes one appreciate how far the band has come after all these years.
Name: Luke Shields
Documentary: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)
One of the most mystical and exquisite feelings in the world is when you thought you’d imagined something beautiful, only to find out it exists in reality. For years I thought I’d imagined the movie Tron on a day off sick from school only to find out as an adult that it is not only a real film, but has an enormous cult following the world over. I had a similar experience with I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco by American documentarian Sam Jones.
The first time I saw it I was bored out of my mind at a family birthday party. Flicking impatiently through thousands of channels, I paused a brief moment on some grainy, black-and-white footage of five or six conjurers huddled over their respective instruments whipping up all kinds of frenzied, Beatlesque caterwaul in a rustic loft somewhere in the snowy North East of America. This was long before I explored the band’s oeuvre and the fact that I chanced upon the flick long after its introduction, combined with various interruptions by petulant, over-stimulated children, meant that I missed the telltale nomenclature of the band under the microscope. That image, however, changed the way I thought about music and creativity in general forever. No longer was I content to hammer away at power chords until a dirge came out; I wanted that alchemical reaction. To be the type of life force that can create something, tear it down and start all over again, essentially turning lead into gold the way that Wilco do in their infamous Chicago Loft studio, remains to me the creative ideal. Equally, the profoundly humanistic way that Jones pays tribute to his heroes has kept the DVD copy I permanently borrowed off my brother in high rotation ever since.
Name: David James Young
Documentary: Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (2011)
He's one of the most divisive artists in the history of Australian pop music. Fans adore him, critics despise him. Whatever your take, it's hard to deny the humanity of Ben Lee. A child star in the mid-90s thrust into the spotlight, Lee more or less grew up in public. He could have turned out cynical and washed-up, but he turned his life around and came into a spectacular second act. Catch My Disease is a look at Lee's entire life and career in and out of music. Even if you're not a fan, observing his trajectory is utterly fascinating. You start to see Lee less as a precocious miscreant and more as an underdog, a quiet rebel who rewrote his own history and lived to tell the tale. Revealing, intimate, heartwarming.
Name: Nicholas Simonsen
Documentary: Luminaeries (2016)
I’ve always been a sucker for studio documentaries. It’s so inspiring to see the process that goes into making a record, to feel like a fly on the wall as a band creates a new body of work. Norma Jean’s 2016 record Polar Similar absolutely blew me away and has been in constant rotation since its release. Luminaeries is the documentary showing the making of the record, and it’s a doozy.
The record was tracked at Pachyderm Studios, where Nirvana recorded In Utero and live recorded Throwing Copper. It’s very cool to get an inside look on such an iconic studio and see the band work on what I think is their greatest work to date. I guess I’m a nerd who just loves finding out how all the weird things I hear on records happened. I definitely felt inspired to pick up my guitar and write some riffs the moment the film was done.
Documentary: The Defiant Ones (2017)
I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Dr Dre, but never had a lot of insight into all of the things he’s done throughout his career. In comes The Defiant Ones, a documentary showing the timeline of Dre’s career as well as his Beats business partner Jimmy Iovine.
It’s like the perfect example of six degrees of separation, starting with Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, moving along to N.W.A, No Doubt and Nine Inch Nails, then all culminating in the birth of the Beats enterprise. It’s a great rollercoaster ride from start to finish, shedding light on so many overlooked aspects of the music industry. I couldn’t turn it off.
Name: Jessica Over
Documentary: That's The Way It Is (1970)
That’s The Way It Is provides an essential insight into Elvis Presley’s world, one which portrays him in an accurate light and shows the depth of his musicality. Behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals offers a glimpse of the mutual respect between Elvis and his band, showing his charisma and musicianship in his ability to switch seamlessly between cracking jokes and fine-tuning each song for the stage. Live vision is equally revealing in its effort to capture a snapshot of Elvis through a career-spanning setlist on a night most people can only dream to have attended. For a musician who is too often reduced to his image rather than his musicianship, Elvis is shown to be more than his critics would suggest in That’s The Way It Is by showing Elvis exactly the way he was.