The art of the rock documentary is a delicate one. A good rockumentary strikes a balance between moving concert footage and revealing backstage confessions, telling a story while illuminating the band's impact on both fans and the cultural zeitgeist. Because they capture a broad swath of culture from such a unique perspective, they are often compelling films, which makes it hard to pick only 10 to call “the best.” Excluding those that are concert films (sorry, Scorcese, but The Last Waltz
falls in this category, as well as Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense
), here are the definitive top 10 rock documentaries of all time:
1. Don’t Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
As Dylan docs go, this one is a jewel. Between giving snarky press conferences and evading hordes of fans, we see the 23-year-old songwriter at the crux of his career, mid-transition from an acoustic to an electric sound. Key moments include the notorious opening scene where Dylan shuffles signs to “Subterranean Homesick Blues," and his random-encounter-turned-jam-session with a boyish Donovan Leitch, whom Dylan sharply criticizes earlier in the film.
2. Dig! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
Chronicling seven years of the turbulent, fast-paced career of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dig! reveals the gritty, messy details of the '90s rock scene and complicated friendships and ambitions that formed it. The film goes beyond footage of sex and drugs to tell the urgent and compelling story of two bands seeking fame and radical musical revolution. Plus, the whole thing is available to view for free at Hulu.com.
3. Westway To The World (Don Letts, 2000)
They were young, they were eager, and they made it up as they went along. This is the comprehensive story of The Clash, how the four members synced their separate influences to become one of the most electrifying, significant acts of their (or any other) time.
4. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
A haunting profile of a man obsessed with the devil and plagued by mental illness, and the transcendent music he made throughout his life. Daniel Johnston captured the hearts of critics and fans while being shuffled in and out of mental hospitals, burdened by his demons and liberated by his piano keys.
5. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, 1970)
If nothing else, the sight of Mick Jagger radiating power and confidence as he gyrates on stage in a skintight leotard will remind you how impressive it is that the Stones are still around. Gimme Shelter is more than just the story of Altamont and the Hells Angels incidents that occurred there; it paints a picture of the tense and weird American landscape in the 1960s at the intersection of the British Invasion, the hippie movement and the birth of the free outdoor concert.
6. End of the Century (Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, 2003)
The Ramones have a loaded personal story behind their rise, and it is that, exposed in talking-head interviews and thick Queens accents, which sets this documentary apart. The behind-the-scenes struggles of Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey rise to the forefront, interspersed between the dizzying chord changes and fuzzy drum fills that made them famous.
7. Fearless Freaks (Bradley Beesley, 2005)
Wayne Coyne is nothing short of dynamic as he recounts his early days in Oklahoma, the formation of The Flaming Lips, and his family life and community. The rest of the band appears as well (in addition to Jack and Meg White), but the film is definitely focused on the band’s frontman.
8. Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)
You don’t have to be a Metallica fan to get drawn in by the chaos and calamity consuming the heavy-metal legends as they bicker and fight like toddlers. The film peaks when the band’s two lead guitarists confront each other, and Dave Mustaine makes Lars Ulrich weep.
9. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (Sam Jones, 2002)
Focused on the dramatic, problematic release of Wilco’s fourth studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the film chronicles the escalating fame of a band who is arguably still on the rise, perhaps only now reaching their peak. The opening scene is enough to hook you—gorgeous scenes of the Chicago skyline filter through an open car window, with Jeff Tweedy himself behind the wheel as an early demo of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” plays.
10. The Kids Are Alright (Jeff Stein, 1979)
Something about the British Invasion must lend itself to being the subject of band documentaries, because this list is riddled with those bands. Jeff Stein’s tongue-in-cheek take on The Who is revealing, amusing, and loaded with Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing.
11. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
What else could make it to number 11 on our top 10 list? This is satire at its best, as “the world’s loudest band” tours the country with outrageous songs, even more outrageous leather pants, and amps that go just a little bit higher. Christopher Guest plays the misguided lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, and his biting comedic timing carries the film. It’s a must-see for music fans of any genre.