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The 10 Best Music Documentaries of 2013

December 27, 2013  |  10:49am
The 10 Best Music Documentaries of 2013

We at Paste are partial to the music documentary—it combines two of our deepest passions, music and film. And this was a great year for the genre. In fact, it was the first year that our favorite overall documentary was a music doc. The music varies from the legendary (The Beatles) to the historic (Muscle Shoals) to…well…at least the tale was fascinating (One Direction). And really, it doesn’t matter if the music is amazing if the story doesn’t reel us in. These are the 10 music docs we enjoyed most in 2013.

10. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Director: Ramona S. Diaz
Everyone loves a story in which a likable underdog triumphs and finds success; it’s a formula that’s been proven to be a hit with film audiences over and over again. The latest example of this is the story of Arnel Pineda, who was plucked out of obscurity from his life playing in cover bands in the Philippines to become the new frontman of Journey. Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, offers an engaging, sweeping overview of Pineda’s story, which is buoyed by the cheesy but classic sounds of Journey and Pineda’s soft-spoken, humble charm. Throughout it all, he comes across as a pretty grounded guy, but also like he is in a dream from which he doesn’t want to wake. The band seems to really love him, and when the film follows them back to the Philippines for a triumphant hometown concert, this really becomes apparent. Don’t Stop Believin’ is more than just a rock documentary. It is, like the subtitle says, a story of an average Joe making good in a way he could never have imagined, and that’s endlessly entertaining.—Jonah Flicker

9. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Directors: Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Outside of the Velvet Underground, Big Star are probably the one American band whose towering influence stands in such stark contrast to their meager commercial success. Over the course of three albums in the early-to-mid 1970s, this Memphis group helped give birth to power-pop. Whether you’re discussing Big Star’s poignant music or the fate of some of the band’s members, sadness suffuses their story, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me has a melancholy tinge to it. Directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori follow a pretty typical rock-doc structure—oral-history biography mixed with rare footage and testimonials from high-profile fans—but what’s striking is how few highs there are in comparison to the many lows. With a breezy confidence, the documentary lays out all the important information about Big Star early on. Unfortunately, Nothing Can Hurt Me suffers because it features little of either man’s voice in the movie. (Bell died in 1978, while Chilton passed away in 2010.) But, in a way, Bell and Chilton’s absence works for a portrait of a band whose lack of popularity in their era always made them seem somewhat invisible. And it adds to their bittersweet mystique: Even now, when Big Star are rightly celebrated, their creative architects aren’t here to fully appreciate it.—Tim Grierson

8. One Direction: This is Us
Director: Morgan Spurlock
The appeal of One Direction seems to be that they sing what their rapturous fans want to hear. Like, literally. “They say what I want to hear,” one teen gushes about the boy band. “I know they love me,” insists another. The Morgan Spurlock-directed concert doc One Direction: This Is Us does nothing to dissuade these girls about their superstar crushes, following Liam, Louis, Niall, Zayn and Harry—oh, Harry! (don’t judge: every girl’s got a favorite)—on their 2012-13 Take Me Home Tour across Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. The hysteria is Beatlesque, drawing hordes of screaming, crying fans not only to their concerts but to the hotels, airports and streets they pass through—except, that is, when they’re in Jackass-inspired disguises.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

7. Good Ol’ Freda
Director: Ryan White
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney promised their fans anything they wanted “with love from me to you,” Freda Kelly was the one who would send it along. Having co-founded the world’s first Beatles fan club with a friend (who quit as soon as she got a boyfriend), Kelly was the logical choice when Beatles manager Brian Epstein needed a secretary for the band. He chose Kelly just weeks before they blew up—before they went on to define the ‘60s and much of the world we live in today. By staying true to the joy and wonder of those early years, Kelly and director Ryan White present a world in which all things are possible. A world where four guys can go from being a favorite lunchtime band to an iconic musical group that that changes the world—bringing a gushing 17-year-old along for the ride.—Brent Dey (review here)

6. Sound City
Director: Dave Grohl
Sound City is about more than a piece of recording equipment. It’s the story of Fleetwood Mac. It’s the story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s the story of drum tones and ’80s hair metal and Nevermind and Johnny Cash’s recordings with Rick Rubin. It’s a sprawling documentary that laments what’s been lost in analog recording without ignoring the benefits of technology. And as the legendary board leaves its original home and lands in Grohl’s studio, the documentary shifts to a celebration of studio magic. Grohl invites musicians like Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks and Paul McCartney to join him in the studio and make new music. In one of the best moments of any film I saw at Sundance, Grohl and McCartney are in the midst of a particularly great jam, and Grohl turns to Sir Paul saying “Don’t you wish it was always this easy?” Macca looks at him and says, “It is.”—Josh Jackson (review here)

5. The Punk Singer
Director: Siri Anderson
Kathleen Hanna often found herself at the forefront of ideological shifts in music. She came onto the scene as the laid-bare singer of Bikini Kill in the early ’90s, which led to her being the de-facto spokesperson for the entire riot grrrl movement and contemporary feminism. As Sini Anderson’s invaluable rock documentary shows, Hanna’s role as feminist icon was often unwitting. The Punk Singer contextualizes Hanna within rock history, but also works as a character study of an endlessly fascinating and complex person, chronicling the singer’s ostensibly paradoxical marriage to Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz and recent battle with late stage Lyme disease. Hanna’s insights easily carry Anderson’s plainly composed homage; a distinction altogether deserved.—John Oursler

4. A Band Called Death
Directors: Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino
More than just being a standard music documentary, A Band Called Death explores the relationships between a tight-knit family, interconnected through their passions and through their loyalty to one another. Bobby and Dannis display the kind of sincerity that can only come from true selflessness. It’s not for the cameras; it’s how they live their lives and have raised their own families. Even if you didn’t know a thing about the band and you don’t even typically listen to the kind of music they play, you’re going to find yourself thankful that the Hackney brothers are now in your life.—Matt Shiverdecker (review here)

3. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Directors: Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin
How Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer plays into the group’s imprisonment is rather understated. The audience is seated on the sidelines of packed court hearings that bounce from chaos to stunned silence in the face of the absurdity of the situation. For a charge of disturbing the peace, the three bandmates faced years in prison. Never mind their suffering families left outside, like Alyokhina’s daughter. Each set of parents was interviewed—some were proud of their daughters, others were ashamed. A few outsiders offer their opinions, but for most of the movie the camera is a fly on the wall, eyeing the women fielding reporter’s questions from behind plexiglass holding cells. The camera never gets close enough.—Monica Castillo (review here)

2. 20 Feet From Stardom
Director: Morgan Neville
20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough—to the point of feeling a bit long—document on the craft, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the civil rights movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century.—Annlee Ellingson (review here)

1. Muscle Shoals
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock’n’roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs, and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. It’s thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not.—Michael Dunaway (review here)

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