15 of the best music documentaries to watch these holidays
13.12.2021

15 of the best music documentaries to watch these holidays

best music documentaries
(Image of Miles Davis: Dennis Stock/Magnum)
Words by Garry Seven

Our diverse list of some of the best documentaries on music and musicians to indulge in this silly season

The season’s upon us it’s that time of year, unironically. There’s bound to be some down time between the mass indulgence of food and grog and if you’re going to be stuck on the couch like most of us here at Mixdown while your social meter refills, you’ll need some entertainment.

If the celebrated ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ doco has sparked your interest in other great music documentaries, here’s a list of some well known (and should be well known) documentaries on music and musicians we think you might love!

The best bits:

  • Academy award-winning documentary ’20 Feet from Stardom’ chronicles the best backup singers in the world.
  • The Beatles’ most recent documentary is one of many about the band, catch the documentary on George Harrison to continue your fix for The Beatles!
  • We provide some of the best music documentaries on all your favourite streaming services.

Nina Simone: What Happened Miss Simone? (2015)

After being denied the chance to become a classical pianist because of the colour of her skin, Simone went on to achieve great success, spanning folk, soul, gospel, pop, classical, and jazz genres. Simone also wrote most of her music, championed civil rights, and courted controversy due to her erratic behaviour and personal demons.

Few performers have accomplished what Nina Simone has and Liz Garbus’ documentary is both a sad and sweet testament to one of the greatest artists of all time.    

Rammstein in Amerika (2015)

A live Rammstein show is truly a sight to behold. They shoot the audience with giant phallic props and literally set themselves on fire all while pumping out some of the loudest industrial metal might that these six German Neu Deutsche Hart musicians can muster.

Focusing on their 2010 US tour, the film delves back into the band’s history while you enjoy their dark and dry sense of humour along the way. Plus, there’s lots and lots of fireworks. What’s not to like?

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2014 Academy Awards, ’20 Feet from Stardom’ tells the story of the backup singer and those featured here are some of the best of all time. Ever wondered who sang on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, or sung backups for Elvis, Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, or The Beach Boys? They are all here.

The (mostly) women who make up the film’s subjects are amongst some of the greatest voices you’ve heard a million times but never knew who they were. ’20 Feet from Stardom’ helps you relive some of the finest songs of all time, all while getting to know the voices that made them possible!

Theory of Obscurity: A film about The Residents (2015)

Since 1974, The Residents have been merging avant-garde music with visual media to create something that is both simultaneously lo-fi and high art.  Encased in giant eyeballs and shrouded in mystery, there is nothing quite like the enigma that is The Residents.

Song of the South: Duane Allman and the birth of The Allman Brothers Band (2013)

Any list of the greatest guitar players of all time that doesn’t include Duane Allman near the top is a list not worth considering. This list about the best music documentaries shares the same thought as this is a must watch.

As if his mind-blowing guitar prowess with the godfathers of the Southern Rock genre, The Allman Brothers was not enough, Allman also recorded for Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, and Aretha Franklin. He also played lead and slide guitar on 11 of the 14 songs on Clapton’s classic Layla album with Derek & The Dominoes. All of this before his untimely death at just 24 years of age. Mind blowing stuff. 

Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah (2011)

Arkansas native Blaze Foley was an odd one indeed. He loved to perform but hated the music business that might have granted him success. He covered his clothes in duct tape. He lived in a treehouse for some time. Not your standard behaviour.

Duct Tape Messiah serves as a welcome to one of the great unknown voices in Alt Country. Merle Haggard, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson have all covered his songs whose subjects sway from heartbreakers and tearjerkers to hamburgers and good French fries. 

 

Tom Petty: Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007)

Famed filmmaker of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement of the 70s Peter Bogdanovich directs this story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that clocks in at just under four hours. Don’t let the long run time put you off as Petty’s story is rich in both tragedy and success.

Of particular note is his fight against music industry giants that paved the way for better conditions for many musicians that followed. Petty is central to the film and his warmth and humour make him the kind of guy you’d like to hang out and have a beer with. It’s a fine document to the legacy of one of music’s great artists gone too soon

George Harrison: Living in The Material World (2011)

Legendary director Martin Scorsese is at the helm for one of the most comprehensive and satisfying music documentaries ever made. All aboard the roller coaster that starts with The Beatles’ world domination, loops through his successful solo years, swings on to tricky relationships, court cases, and attempted murder, all underscored by a soundtrack of the truly astounding music he wrote along the way.

This documentary shows that there’s in fact a lot to say about ‘the quiet Beatle’.

ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

Going back to band leader Billy Gibbon’s roots in the 60s cult band The Moving Sidewalks through to almost the present day, That Little Ol’ Band from Texas is a refreshingly honest and at times laugh out loud account of the highs and lows of one of Southern Rock’s most loved bands.

There are superb live performances, mixed with archival footage which celebrates the rich history of the Texan trio’s 51 years together before bassist Dusty Hill’s recent passing in July 2021. 

Hip Hop Evolution (2016)

Produced by HBO Canada, the 16 episodes in the series covers everything you need to know about hip hop. All the main players (or should we say ‘playas’?) are featured including, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest, NWA, Public Enemy, Run DMC, The Wu Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, Lil’ Kim, Outkast, and TLC just to name a few.  

A comprehensive documentary about what is currently, the world’s most popular genre of music. 

Beyonce: Homecoming ( 2019)

When Destiny’s Child burst on the scene in 1998 someone said to me, ‘Beyonce Knowles will be the biggest music star in the world one day’ and right they were. This film shows you why. Enough said!

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (2019)

There’s a lot to pack in to the two-hour runtime of this film and at times, it gets a little busy, which is almost like the life of it’s subject. Many already know of Davis’ success and excess, his light and his darkness, his inspiration to others alongside his at times cruelty towards those close to him, and these clashing elements are what makes his life story so interesting.

A great introduction to someone who can rightly be called a kind of musical genius. 

6Ft Hick: Notes from the Underground (2010)

A pleasing home-grown Aussie documentary that follows Queensland brothers Geoff and Ben Corbett on their 2009 tour of Europe as dual front men of swamp rock/punk band Six Ft Hick.

Their live shows were legendary: exhausting, dangerous, loud, and tons of fun. This is a great documentary of a band that seemed to be focused on just one thing, putting on a show that, for better or worse, their audiences would never forget. 

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)

The film follows Canadian metal fan, anthropologist, and filmmaker Sam Dunn as he tours the world seeking the reasons why people love metal. This exceptionally well-made film documents everything you need to know about metal.

There are also interviews with many of the giants of the genre. It was followed up by a series called Metal Evolution that focusses on the many metal subgenres. This is, without question, the best documentary on metal ever made. 

Rowland S Howard: Autoluminescent (2011)

Howard was one of the founding members of the seminal post-punk Melbourne band The Birthday Party, fronted by the much-heralded Nick Cave. Howard knew his time was short and participated in interviews for the film. 

This beautifully made documentary follows Howard’s life through The Birthday Party years, on to his other projects and his solo career up until his passing in 2009. A singular, innovative guitarist and singer with a sound like no other. 

Check out our picks back in 2018, or our more recent picks on the best Australian music documentaries here.