Six iconic music documentaries about women

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Six iconic music documentaries about women

Music documentaries about women
Words by Mixdown Staff

In celebration of International Women's Day, we're spotlighting eight fantastic music documentaries with women at the forefront.

When scouring the internet for listicles ranking the best music documentaries of all time, one can’t help but notice that the widely agreed upon all-time faves tend to focus either solely, or predominantly, on men. Moreover, men in capital R rock bands.

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While there’s no denying the valor of these films within the music-cinema canon, or the thrills to be found in revisiting the nostalgia inducing brilliance of The Last Waltz or the catatonic beef between Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols in Dig, in honour of International Women’s Day, we’re shining a light on some of the best music docs with women at the forefront. Featuring pioneering industry icons who broke boundaries, the tragic stories of the women who fell victim to the trappings of a predatory industry and pop icons the height of their game – these important and meaningful stories deserve to be heard. Happy watching!

Sisters With Transistors (2020)

Sisters With Transistors tells the extraordinary, previously untold, story of electronic music’s female pioneers, the composers who embraced machines in all of their liberating technological glory, irrevocably influencing the ways in which we produce and listen to music today.

The film unearths a long-dormant facet of electronic music history, re-establishing the canon through the visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music, including Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel.

As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”

1991: The Year that Punk Broke (1992)

Released in 1992, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, is a tour documentary directed by Dave Markey, focused predominantly around American alternative rock icons Sonic Youth on tour in Europe in the year 1991. While Sonic Youth is the main focus of the documentary, the film also spends time with Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball and The Ramones. This film earns its spot on the list in honour of the inimitable Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth’s co-front woman. The film begins with footage of Kim’s then-husband/bandmate Thurston Moore free-styling a bad slam poem, while she and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain do a windmill dance on a railroad track. The intimate tour diary, interweaved with history-in-the-making cameos on the precipice of punk and grunge’s mainstream takeover, is a fantastic watch to this day. For Kim’s fiercely feminist telling of her journey through the music industry from the 90s onwards, check out her memoir Girl in a Band.

Directed by Steve Loveridge, this film spans 22 years in rapper and musician M.I.A’s life. Real name Mathangi Arulpragasam, and Maya to her friends, the film follows the trailblazing artist from her arrival at a London council estate from Sri Lanka as a refugee aged eight with her mother and two siblings, to her rise to fame, and her experience of the controversies sparked over by her music, public appearances and political activism. The film is a rare and unfiltered look at an unapologetic artist thrust into the mainstream, particularly in the age of the high-artifice, manufactured pop persona.

The Nowhere Inn (2020)

This film initially positions itself as St. Vincent setting out to make a documentary about her music. However, notions of reality, identity, authenticity, as well as the line between fact and fiction, begin to warp and distort, and are called in to question – due to the fact that she’s enlisted close friend Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Portlandia fame to direct the doc. Blurring the lines between the rock and mockumentary, this is a fascinating dissection of the public persona versus the private self, and cleverly examines the distance between the artist and the art.

Amy (2015)

Archival footage and personal testimonials present an intimate portrait of the life and career of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse in this critically acclaimed documentary. As is the case with a handful of other films on this list, this documentary’s subject is one that is tragically often remembered through the cruel fracturing her image was subjected to in the early to mid 2000s tabloid press. Thus, the undeniable reminders of Amy’s singular talent and charisma that brought her to such a level of fame, particularly through the scenes that follow Amy through her early career, are the true highlight of the film.

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

This documentary follows the original avant-pop diva Madonna’s controversial 1990 “Blonde Ambition” international tour, beginning in Japan during its drizzly season, then traveling to North America with notable stops in Los Angeles, Detroit, Toronto, and New York. The film offers a peek behind the curtain at Madonna’s relationships with her dancers and crew, her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty, and her family and friends. It’s an intimate glimpse into a revolutionary icon and cultural symbol’s tenacity and fierce individuality.

Learn more about Sisters with Transistors here.