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The 20 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

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The 20 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

There’s nothing quite like a great music documentary. Some offer fly-on-the-wall looks at our favorite artists, while others shine lights on the lesser-known musicians behind some classic hits. The stories behind the music are often just as worth savoring as the songs themselves, and these 20 documentaries currently streaming on Netflix are some of the very best.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, particularly the 50 Best Documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.

Here are the 20 best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

Thumbnail image for large_justin_timberlake_and_the_tennessee_kids.jpg 20. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids
Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
It becomes clear after only one song that Jonathan Demme was the perfect person to direct this ebullient performance doc. In Stop Making Sense Demme iconized David Byrne in the Big Suit and demonstrated that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision, and he seems to understand not only what kind of performer Justin Timberlake is, but why. Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is so finely tuned, one might be hard pressed to pinch an ounce of fat on this thing, Demme obviously knowing that Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble (introduced briefly at the beginning of the film) to make sure the whole show is a seamless, clockwork-like amalgam of moving parts. Consummate professionals in thrall to consummate professionals: Each frame, whether it hugs Timberlake’s glowing face close or expands to display the intimidating breadth of the band, breathes with love—for the music, for the audience, for each other. But that doesn’t even touch how flawlessly Demme can capture the essence of each section/song, how during “My Love” the camera is positioned at stage level, condensing our perspective so that the whole stage is layered like a two-dimensional side-scrolling videogame or a diorama of paper dolls, emphasizing the celestial geometry of Timberlake and his pop-and-locking dancers. Later, during “Only When I Walk Away,” Demme has the camera behind the band, facing the audience lit with lasers and lighters, shooting Timberlake as an opaque silhouette, like dark matter amidst a flurry of constellations. Even later, a macroscopic view of the whole stage, set against some retro computer graphics, pans slightly down to reveal a piano, and next to that emerges a much larger Timberlake, perspectives skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


83970403-59de-47bc-a7d8-8d8dac9af98a.jpg 19. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Year: 2014
Director: James Keach
The legendary Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease has been absolutely devastating; just this week, his wife Kim revealed that he is now in Stage 7 of the disease, can no longer play guitar and has lost the ability to speak and comprehend language. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is an inspiring, heartbreaking look at the rhinestone cowboy’s 2011 diagnosis and subsequent farewell to fans and final tour as the disease progressed and permanently sidelined him. There’s unimaginable dignity and grace in Campbell as he confronts the inevitable, and through it all, Kim never leaves his side, patiently identifying relatives he can no longer recognize as they watch home movies, cracking jokes and maintaining as positive an attitude as she can in the face of such a tragic disease. Perhaps most remarkable is how long Campbell was able to keep writing and performing, and you’ll need to keep some tissues at the ready when he records his final song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” an absolute gut-punch about Kim and his fight with Alzheimer’s in which he sings, “I’m still here, but yet I’m gone / I don’t play guitar or sing my songs” and “You’re the last face I will recall, and best of all, I’m not gonna miss you.” —Bonnie Stiernberg


The_Wrecking_Crew_(2008)_Poster.jpg 18. The Wrecking Crew
Year: 2008
Director: Denny Tedesco
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, a cadre of studio musicians in Los Angeles made a healthy chunk of change playing—often anonymously—on pretty much every infamous pop song to come out of California at the time. Though they’d later solidify as Phil Spector’s orchestra (behind the man’s era-defining Wall of Sound), the group paired technical mastery with experimental conception of what pop music had evolved into, helping Brian Wilson capture the elusive melodies of Pet Sounds he heard in his head, or ready in a pinch to back up the Mamas & the Papas, the Sinatras, The Monkees and Sonny & Cher. The Wrecking Crew, titled after the derogatory nickname the group was given for their lack of adherence to the methods and traditions of an older guard of studio musicians, is directed by the son of Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, the story of these underappreciated geniuses rendered in pretty straightforward talking heads interviews and archival footage. Still, Tedesco is thorough, all but ready to admit that the film is the work of a filmmaking amateur who just wanted to give the world something it didn’t really have: the names and personalities of some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. —Dom Sinacola


dontstoppackshot.jpg 17. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Year: 2013
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, offers an engaging, sweeping overview of Pineda’s story that’s buoyed by the cheesy-yet-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


kurt.jpg 16. Kurt and Courtney
Year: 1998
Director: Nick Broomfield
With equal parts conspiracy theory and Courtney Love perspective, Broomfield’s documentary is an aggressive look into one of the most famous relationships in alternative music since Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. The doc kicks off with media coverage surrounding Cobain’s untimely demise, and explores the possibility of Love’s involvement in the singer’s death. Not all the sources seem credible (like El Duce), but it’s enough to satisfy any conspiracy theorist’s itch. The doc shifts gears and becomes more about an assertion that Love is in favor of suppressing free speech. It’s a quick watch and very entertaining. Well worth the time for any fans interested in a ’90s take on what happened to grunge’s reluctant poster child. —Shawn Christ


baker.jpg 15. Beware of Mr. Baker
Year: 2012
Director: Jay Bulger
This documentary of Ginger Baker, one of greatest drummers of the past century, has pretty much everything one could want. We get seemingly unfettered access to the still-living subject (whose surliness seems undiminished) and his family. We hear interviews with a host of fellow musicians, most of them legends themselves, weighing in on the man and his music. We see copious footage and musical tracks of Baker on and off stage. Plus, there’s clever, but not overwrought, usage of animation and other techniques to accompany transitions and voice-over that would otherwise just call for a Ken Burns-ian succession of stills. As a result, Jay Bulger manages to convey a portrait of the irascible Baker that is both entertaining, unsparing and, yet, sympathetic toward a man whose compulsions have made him both a legend and a pariah. —Michael Burgin


e443c97e6a5760cb13714c8dc684bccd.jpg 14. The Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane
Year: 2012
Director: Brett Morgan
Oscar-nominated documentarian Brett Morgan (On the Ropes) interviewed The Rolling Stones on the eve of the band’s 50th anniversary. “No cameras were allowed in the room,” he lets us know at the beginning of Crossfire Hurricane. But immediately we’re taken back to one of the band’s earliest tours of America, where they reigned as the bad boys to The Beatles’ cleaner image. With tons of concert clips, interview footage and backstage moments—much of which was previously unreleased—it’s an entertaining story about natural entertainers. Courtney Love liked it enough to invite Morgan to helm the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck. —Shawn Christ


product_1931.jpg 13. Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
Year: 2010
Director: Jacob Hatley
From Levon Helm’s days as the drummer for one of the most influential musical groups in American history, The Band, to his late-period Grammy-winning albums, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist made a lasting impact. But bankruptcy, drug abuse and throat cancer are just some of the demons exposed in this enthralling documentary. Director Jacob Hatley followed Helm on the road, on the farm, in his home and to the doctor, where he eventually learned that his vocal cords were in dire straits. (Cancer would eventually take Helm’s life in 2012.) Hatley allows us to bear witness to Helm’s life, while at the same time inserting just enough backstory to serve as a foundation to that life. Others, like current and ex wives, fill in the blanks where Helm was reluctant to speak, as in regards to his feud with ex-Band member Robbie Robertson. —Tim Basham


young_at_heart.jpg 12. Young@Heart
Year: 2014
Directors: Stephen Walker, Sally George
The “Charmer” award goes to Young@Heart. Directors Stephen Walker and Sally George documented the rehearsals, performances and personal lives of the Young at Heart Chorus, a group of senior citizens from New England who sing some very un-senior songs like The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good” plus tunes from Coldplay, Sonic Youth, The Ramones and others. Their relationship with chorus leader Bob Cilian is hugely entertaining, but the serious medical problems that befall some of the members give the film its true heart. —Tim Basham


Alive-Inside-Film-Poster-2014.jpg 11. Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory
Year: 2014
Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett?
While somewhat flawed, Alive Inside is an incredibly moving film. Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, the documentary covers a range of subjects—dementia, the restorative powers of music, our culture’s reliance on overmedication and, most of all, the flawed way America views old age. The film begins in the middle of an interview with an elderly African-American woman, who can’t recall details about her childhood. The interviewer invites the woman to do a little experiment with him. He proffers a set of earphones and an iPod stocked with songs from the ’30’s. He asks her to listen to them to see if the music prompts any sort of memory. She hesitantly puts the ear buds into her ears. “It’s Louis Armstrong,” she says. After a few minutes her memories slowly start coming back. She’s able to remember sneaking off as a teenager to listen to Armstrong’s concerts. She remembers odd jobs she had when she was young. She remembers when her son’s birthday is—what started as a slow trickle becomes a raging river of recollection, “I didn’t know I could talk so much” she says, laughing. This first moment serves as the film’s thesis: music can be an effective tool in the treatment of dementia. The music and flashbacks are a tad emotionally manipulative but also helpful in illustrating what a large and mostly silent class of people are going through. Dementia is not a particularly sensational subject. In our 24-hour news cycle, it often gets overlooked. However the people we encounter in this film are quiet reminders that neither old age nor mental illness should be swept under the rug. —Leland Montgomery


239_Orion_Movie_Poster_2015.jpg 10. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Year: 2015
Director: Jeanie Finlay
If you can’t beat the Elvis comparisons, exploit them. Such was the thinking of Shelby Singleton, the Machiavellian Sun Records mogul who saw a nation left reeling by Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 and seized the opportunity to unveil a Vertigo-like doppelgänger. Blessed with a high baritone practically indistinguishable from the King’s, Jimmy Ellis also possessed enough of a passing resemblance to Presley that, when adorned in a sequined eye mask, mourners could convince themselves that perhaps their icon had faked his death and adopted a new guise. Consequently, Ellis’ record contract stipulated that he never appear in public unmasked. Sun Records also saw fit to add fuel to the delusional fire by opting for some rising-from-the-grave imagery for the album cover of Orion Reborn. While certainly outrageous, such dubious gimmickry doesn’t seem particularly uncharacteristic in an industry where images and identities often seem to come courtesy of an assembly line and knockoffs are always in fashion. That said, this stranger-than-fiction documentary from Jeanie Finlay (who previously profiled Scotsmen masquerading as California rappers in 2013’s The Great Hip Hop Hoax) poignantly reminds us that it’s also an industry fueled by emotion—be it an artist’s intense need for self-expression or a listener’s desire to discover a song that speaks to them. —Curtis Woloschuk


marley.jpg 9. Marley
Year: 2012
Director: Kevin Macdonald
It’s not entirely clear why director Kevin Macdonald decided to make a documentary about the musician Bob Marley, a cultural icon whose life has been recounted countless times through a variety of mediums. Macdonald claims it’s because he wants to understand why Marley continues to speak to legions of fans around the world. Whatever his reasons, he’s clearly up to the task. Marley offers an expansive and at times fascinating perspective on the man through interviews with former Wailers, his family, and childhood friends. The film is fairly detailed concerning Marley’s songwriting and musicianship from his early ska days up through the release of Catch a Fire. After this, however, it skips through his catalogue, choosing to focus more on his personal life, conversion to Rastafarianism, the tumultuous state of Jamaican politics, and his prolific womanizing—all of which are important elements of the artist’s character. —Jonah Flicker


janis.jpg 8. Janis: Little Girl Blue
Year: 2015
Director: Amy Berg
Capturing the life, career, persona and phenomenon that was Janis Joplin in the space of a less-than-two-hours-long documentary is a daunting task. Amy Berg makes a crucially important decision in Janis: Little Girl Blue, opting to let the performances speak for themselves. There’s not a lot of talking head analysis of Janis’ music; Berg instead gives us a few well-chosen, extended clips of that otherworldly voice in action (as well as a good many selections backgrounded in the mix). Berg also focuses on Janis’ inner life, and boy, does that pay off. With the full cooperation of the estate and interviews with many of Janis’ intimates, including her two siblings, the marvelous Dick Cavett, and the one man with whom, in another universe, she surely found lifelong happiness, Berg is able to dig deep into who Janis actually was behind the raucous stage persona. Most effective of all is Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), reading from Janis’ diaries and letters with the simple delivery of a born performer. It’s as if Janis is narrating her own life story, and it’s pure magic. —Michael Dunaway


miss-sharon-jones-poster.jpg 7. Miss Sharon Jones!
Year: 2016
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-book opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10 or more people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick. But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknonwst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy, Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —Dom Sinacola


44-Netflix-Docs_2015-keepin-on.jpg 6. Keep On Keepin’ On
Year: 2014
Director: Alan Hicks
Shot over the course of almost five years by debut director Alan Hicks, Keep On Keepin’ On pitches a genuinely heartwarming tale about positivity in the face of adversity, and the many divides—racial, cultural, generational—that music can help bridge. It’s ostensibly a biopic of legendary, 93-year-old jazz trumpeter Clark Terry told via his mentorship of an affable, mid-20s piano prodigy stricken with debilitating nerves and near-complete blindness, but it quietly reveals itself to be so much more—an affectionate valentine to the tenacity of the human spirit which never once dips over into the maudlin. —Brent Simon


1466724910248.jpeg 5. Sonita
Year: 2015
Director: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
Sonita is a documentary of projected moments focusing on 18-year-old Afghani refugee Sonita—an aspiring rapper who finds that everything she loves is against the law in her new Tehranian home. But when Sonita turns the camera on its filmmaker, detailing Maghami’s decision to spend the money required to keep Sonita in Iran when her family decides to return to war-torn Afghanistan, the film becomes so much more than a portrait: Like last year’s The Look of Silence, Sonita emerges as a testament to the responsibility of seeing. In a world like ours, there is no longer any such thing as an impartial observer. —Dom Sinacola


43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg 4. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


27-Netflix-Docs_2015-black-power-mixtape.jpg 3. The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975
Year: 2011
Director: Göran Olsson
There are numerous layers to Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975. There are his rich, captivating edits of period source material, filmed by Swedish television crews in the late-1960s and early-1970s, that focus on various Black Power activists, including Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. There is the apparent period tension between black American interviewees and white Swedish film crews. There is Olsson’s attempt to complicate those tensions and continue those conversations by, over 30 years later, employing people like Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu to provide commentary on the original footage. The resulting film is impressionistic—too impressionistic, perhaps, for somebody looking for an introduction to Black Power, since there’s no real attempt to provide comprehensive context or history here. But as a deliberate meditation on race and race relations in the United States in a specific historical period, Mixtape is incredibly evocative. —Mark Abraham


24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg 2. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. Somehow, he’s able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations. It’s nearly incomprehensible until you realize that, to some extent, all of Broomfield’s weirdness probably makes him seem non-threatening to the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural, but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film arguably justify the means (at least in this case) because the last 10 minutes of the film feature an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) that reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


muscle-shoals.jpg 1. Muscle Shoals
Year: 2013
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and then the heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock’n’roll forever. First-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller, but there’s so much more to the doc than promise—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 than just a 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. Not to mention that the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. Muscle Shoals is thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring, it’s epic—whether you’re a music lover or not. —Michael Dunaway

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