The 15 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

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The 15 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

Music documentaries can do two things (or some combination of the two): over-inflate the mythical nature of music’s most interesting stories, or shed a light on important truths about the music that has shaped our world, straight from the mouths of people who made it or who were in their inner circles. If you’re a fan of music or the documentary as an art form, you can delve into 15 of the best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix, listed below.

For more of Paste’s lists of best Netflix movies, check out our recently-updated lists of the 50 best documentaries and the 100 best movies currently available on Netflix.

Here are the 15 best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

george-harrison-scorsese-movie-poster.jpg 15. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary meticulously recounts George Harrison’s life story, from his birth in 1943 in a war-ravaged Liverpool, to the maelstrom that was the Beatles, to his solo artist years, to his later life until it ended way too soon when he died of cancer (although, as you’ll see when you watch the film, Harrison probably wouldn’t have believed that he died before his time). He was in many ways the most mysterious of the four Beatles, “the quiet one.” No one really had a clue what he was truly about until his amazing triple solo album, All Things Must Pass, was released in 1970. The interviews in the film (Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, George Martin, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Jackie Stewart and others) are stellar, as is the archival material, with a lot of rare clips that will delight any Beatles or Harrison fan. There are plenty of reveals that will keep the viewer enthralled. The Beatles were only a very small part of Harrison’s story and probably not what he considered the most important part at all. This is clearly evidenced by a 1969 diary entry we are shown where he writes casually that he woke up, rehearsed at Twickenham (the tension-filled Let it Be sessions) “and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident studio, had chips later.” One of the most important things any documentary about someone can give us is a totally new and unique look at a life—Living in the Material World is all that and more. —Holly Cara Price

ooo.jpg 14. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke
Year: 2019
Director: Kelly Duane de la Vega
The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is another installment of Netflix’s original music documentary series ReMastered. This documentary creates a more holistic portrait of American soul legend Sam Cooke—one that doesn’t carelessly glaze over his story because his crooner soul also appealed to white audiences. In an effort to save his “murdered legacy,” the film examines his early roots in black churches, the evolution of his music, his impressive business acumen and his political activism later in life, which is believed to have led to his eventual murder. It also addressed his record label’s concern that Cooke would never be able to satisfy both his white and black audiences. As Cooke became an increasingly influential cultural figure, his associations with other politically active black figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown posed a threat to the racial status quo. Cooke’s murder arises as an integral point of discussion in the film, and the details to this day are still muddy. Just as Cooke began writing politically-minded music—the sequence where “A Change is Gonna Come” plays in the background is breathtaking—his life was tragically cut short, and this film is a reminder of his unbelievable talent and his embrace of blackness that history largely forgot. —Lizzie Manno

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for large_justin_timberlake_and_the_tennessee_kids.jpg 13. 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

kurt-thumb-210x303-117169.jpg 12. Kurt & 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

80141782_hd1080_426x607.20190510.183645 (2).jpg 11. Hip-Hop Evolution
Year: 2016
Director: Darby Wheeler
The budding and eventual blossoming of hip-hop is a fascinating collection of word-of-mouth stories. The Emmy and Peabody Award-Winning Netflix docu-series Hip-Hop Evolution captures this word-of-mouth ethic and tracks the lineage of one of the most popular music genres ever. Through interviews with the influential MCs, DJs and other movers and shakers, viewers get a glimpse into the innovators who planted the genre’s seeds and the artists who put their own spin on hip-hop in each subsequent decade. The series is hosted by Shad Kabango, a Canadian MC who records under Shad and who studied hip-hop in university. The four-part season one starts in the basements of the Bronx in the 1970s with genre pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and concludes with the explosion of West Coast gangster rappers like Ice T. and N.W.A. Also four parts, season two covers everything from the Miami bass sound, rap’s pop crossover and UGK to Tupac Shakur, New York’s legendary Latin Quarter club and the wave of hardcore east coast rappers. Through his knowledge and appreciation of hip-hop, Kabango is able to get the giants of the genre to open up and make you feel like you’re intruding on a conversation between best friends or siblings. —Lizzie Manno

220px-Fyre_poster.jpg 10. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Year: 2019
Director: Chris Smith
The disastrous and fraudulent Fyre Festival has been a meme ever since it imploded in epic proportions in 2017 on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. The festival was marketed to well-to-do millennials and influencers as the most premium and luxurious music festival getaway, and folks bought into it in droves. When festival-goers showed up, it was apparent there wasn’t enough food, water and housing, and big-name artists began to pull out, resulting in its cancellation and the eventual stranding of attendees. The festival’s purported “mastermind” and yuppie narcissist Billy McFarland fraudulently acquired funds for the festival and has since been sentenced to six years in prison. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened pulls back the curtain on how A-listers like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Pusha T, Blink-182 and marketing giant FuckJerry were duped into associating themselves with and legitimizing this high-level scheme. In the documentary, Fyre employees and outside agencies hired to work on the festival share how a charismatic McFarland could charm investors and top-of-the-line industry professionals into buying his vision, despite a lack of detail on what the festival would actually look like. This film has everything from humor and ego to glamor and gross human negligence. It’s a case study on how bold ambitions can quickly overshadow logistics and completely mask reality. —Lizzie Manno

amy-poster.jpg 9. Amy
Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg

chasing-trane-poster.jpg 8. Chasing Trane
Year: 2016
Director: John Scheinfeld
Those old and new to John Coltrane will find something to appreciate in this vivid, albeit effusive, tribute to the jazz legend. Family members, former bandmates and famous fans (Kamasi Washington, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Bill Clinton) recount the genius of the sax player’s compositions and evolution of his talents, from his Charlie Parker-mimicking early work to his later, freeform experimentation. Devotees shouldn’t expect much of a deep dive here on any level; via home movies, archival footage and personal diaries read by Denzel Washington, the film takes a linear, survey-style approach to his North Carolina childhood and drug-addled twenties, two marriages, and quick succumbing to liver cancer in 1967 at only 40. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld dips in and out of the music—too much so, it turns out, and with too little insight into the specifics of his gifts. Still, the overarching salvation Trane found in music resonates with such joy. The sequence about his civil rights opus “Alabama,” which took its phrasing cues from the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a stirring illumination of his creative process. As Coltrane’s notes unfold atop King’s words, music and speech flow into and out of each other in a still urgent, impassioned release. Elsewhere, the doc looks at the transformative power of Coltrane’s faith, his relationships and his legacy with iconic works such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Midway through the film Dr. Cornel West describes Coltrane as a thermostat, not a thermometer, of the times, an instrument personified that adapted rather than just measured. In its best moments, Chasing Trane succeeds in that as well. —Amanda Schurr

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

oasisdoc.jpg 6. Supersonic
Year: 2016
Director: Mat Whitecross
The rise of Manchester Britpop giants Oasis was unimaginable. Liam and Noel Gallagher were the sons of working class Irish immigrants, and in just a few short years, they went from playing in clubs to playing in a field of 125,000 at Knebworth, where almost 3 million people applied for tickets. The two brothers were notoriously quarrelsome and drop-dead hilarious, and both qualities are showcased in this behind-the-scenes, rags-to-riches documentary. In addition to commentary from the band, the Gallaghers’ mother, Peggie, was interviewed and she called a young Liam “the devil” and talked about being driven mad by Noel’s constant guitar playing in his bedroom. It also delves into the drama of their physically abusive father with Noel commenting, “I guess he beat the talent into me,” and Peggie discussing the night they left him (“I left him a knife and a fork and spoon and I think I left him too much”). Viewers get a glimpse into Oasis’ Manchester rehearsal studio where they jammed Noel’s songs for the first time as well as the metaphorical, high-publicized headbutting between the two brothers that occurred as soon as the band started to skyrocket. Though Oasis didn’t split up until 2009, the film is bookended by their famous Knebworth performance in 1996, and the footage is just as goosebump-inducing as you might expect. —Lizzie Manno

homecoming-beyonce-movie-poster.jpg 5. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Year: 2019
Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges and Universities in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience—Coachella. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson

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

called-morgan-poster.jpg 3. I Called Him Morgan
Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson

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

20-feet-from-stardom_.jpg 1. 20 Feet From Stardom
Year: 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
“Da Doo Ron Ron.” Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Strip these classic anthems of their backup vocals, and they’re just not the same. In 20 Feet from Stardom, music documentarian Morgan Neville introduces talented women like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who, for one reason or another, lived mostly out of the spotlight. As Bruce Springsteen says in the movie’s opening interview, “That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.” 20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough document on the craft of backup singing, 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 of some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century. —Annlee Ellingson

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