The 10 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

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The 10 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 10 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 40 best documentaries and the 100 best movies currently available on Netflix.

Here are the 10 best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

1. No Direction Home

no-direction-home.jpg Year: 2005
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 208 minutes

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When Bob Dylan hit the snowy streets of New York in the winter of 1961, it seemed cameras were waiting for him, as if there’d been news of his coming. In No Direction Home, director Martin Scorsese digs up early home-movie footage of Dylan clowning like Chaplin. The fresh-faced 20-year-old looks incredibly innocent; there’s no indication that within a year he’ll reinvent the Greenwich Village folk scene, or go on to blur forever the line between poetry and songwriting. Scorsese is confident and unobtrusive. He paints Dylan as a streetwise waif who could’ve been a character in one of his own songs: the Jack of Hearts, maybe, or Renaldo in his film Renaldo and Clara. Even this early, his past was already fading and a more fitting one was being invented—Dylan the hard traveler who’d worked carnivals, hoboed freight trains and jammed with bluesmen like Manse Lipscomb. In no time, he knew Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and was sleeping on Dave Van Ronk’s couch.

For his film, Scorsese had endless footage to choose from, including archival reels from the Newport Folk Festivals and D.A. Pennebaker’s tour documentaries Don’t Look Back and the unreleased Eat The Document. Outtakes were also juxtaposed with recent interviews by Dylan manager Jeff Rosen with Village stalwarts who had a ground’s-eye view of the Dylan phenomenon. After 40 years, emotions still run high—mostly awe, as if these aging folkies were groping for words to describe the coming of a prophet. But No Direction Home makes clear that Dylan was uncomfortable with torches of any persuasion, and a little disquieted by how many folks were following him. He never wanted to be the leader of anything, he says; he just wanted to sing certain songs that didn’t exist and in order for them to exist he had to write them.

Scorsese’s main concern is the music. He uses snippets of the acoustic “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” from Dylan’s first album layered with excerpts from the barnstorming electric version he performed with The Band to show Dylan morphing from chambray-clad proletariat to Carnaby Street rocker. And with a 1964 performance of “Chimes of Freedom” we see the lyrics changing, too, more concerned with Dylan’s interior landscape than social upheaval. When Dylan plugged in with the Butterfield Blues Band at Newport 1965 and kicked into a raucous “Maggie’s Farm,” the director provides a Rashoman take on Dylan’s perceived betrayal. Dylan and the Band are playing take-no-prisoners rock in the face of hostile guerilla skirmishes threatening to erupt into full-scale warfare. By the end of the ’66 tour (and Scorsese’s movie), Dylan looks frail, wasted and weary. In four years he’s started the folk revival, killed it, inherited the mantle of the Beat Generation and reinvented rock ’n’ roll, and he looks like the culture-imposed burden is about to crack his spine. But onstage he’s transcendent, as if the electricity is coursing through his body. “Judas!” a heckler yells. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan says. “You’re a liar.” He turns to guitarist Robertson. “Play fucking loud.” The snare drum kickstarts “Like A Rolling Stone” and a wall of sound blasts from the speakers. Dylan’s face goes from defiance to triumph. How does it feel? From Dylan’s expression, just fine. —William Gay


2. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

rolling-thunder-revue-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: NR
Runtime: 142 minutes

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Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating. Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. The documentary’s full title should also be a disclaimer: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Early on, the movie features a contemporary interview from Dylan confessing that he doesn’t quite remember what prompted Rolling Thunder or what his ambitions were. “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” he says, another example of obscuration and seduction. The movie is a “story,” which means some parts might be invented or exaggerated, and because it’s “by Martin Scorsese,” the whole film is filtered through one artist’s perspective on another. Scorsese is after something grander than mere documentation—more layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again. —Tim Grierson


3. Homecoming

homecoming-beyonce-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Rating: NR
Runtime: 137 minutes

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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 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. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson


4. Miss Americana

miss-americana.jpg Year: 2020
Director: Lana Wilson
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 85 minutes

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I remember the first time I heard a Taylor Swift song, and if you’re also a millennial or Gen Z-er, chances are you do, too. I was 10, maybe 11, hanging at my friend Erin’s house, which was two doors down from mine. She whipped out a fluorescent blue iPod Nano before passing me an earbud and cranking up “Our Song. ” Taylor Swift is a tall memory in many of our childhoods. In Swift’s 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana, she recognizes, with an almost maternal gesture, this relationship to her listeners. “There is an element to my fan base where we feel like we grew up together,” Swift says about a few minutes into Lana Wilson’s excellent movie, streaming now on Netflix. “I’ll be going through something, write the album about it and then it’ll come out, and sometimes it’ll just coincide with what they’re going through, kind of like they’re reading my diary.” Swift’s diary has been broadcasted across the world for the better part of two decades, and that means normalcy has been hard to come by. Miss Americana doesn’t strain to convey the opposite. It’s not a “the-stars, they’re-just-like-us!” event. Throughout its 85 minutes, Swift is greeted by masses of screaming fans as she exits her NYC apartment, flies in a private jet with her mom and her giant Great Dane “Kitty” and is met with millions of lovers and haters in equal portions. Where the film really proves that Swift actually could be just like us is in her internal ethical struggles—and her innate desire to be liked by other people. These conflicts are just on a much grander scale than yours or mine. Swift’s drive for approval isn’t just a desire—it’s her livelihood. —Ellen Johnson


5. I Called Him Morgan

called-morgan-poster.jpg Director: Kasper Collin
Rating: NR
Runtime: 89 minutes

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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


6. The Sparks Brothers

the-sparks-brothers-poster.jpg Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Edgar Wright
Rating: R
Runtime: 135 minutes

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The Sparks Brothers is a thorough and charming assessment and appreciation of an idiosyncratic band, and the highest praise you could give it is that it shares a sensibility with its inimitable musicians. Not an easy task when it comes to Ron and Russell Mael. The Californian brothers have been running Sparks since the late ‘60s (yeah, the ‘60s), blistering through genres as quickly as their lyrics make and discard jokes. Glam rock, disco, electronic pioneering—and even when they dip into the most experimental and orchestral corners of their musical interests, they maintain a steady power-pop genius bolstered by Russell’s fluty pipes and Ron’s catchy keys. It’s here, in Sparks’ incredible range yet solidified personality, that you quickly start to understand that The Sparks Brothers is the marriage of two perfect subjects that share a mission. Experts in one art form that are interested in each others’, Ron and Russell bond with director Edgar Wright over a wry desire to have their fun-poking and make it art too. One made a trilogy of parodies that stands atop its individual genres (zombie, cop, sci-fi movies). The others made subversive songs like “Music That You Can Dance To” that manage to match (and often overtake) the very bops they razz. Their powers combined, The Sparks Brothers becomes a music doc that’s self-aware and deeply earnest. Slapstick, with a wide range of old film clips delivering the punches and pratfalls, and visual gags take the piss out of its impressive talking heads whenever they drop a groaner music doc cliché. “Pushing the envelope?” Expect to see a postal tug-of-war between the Maels. This sense of humor, appreciating the dumbest low-hanging fruit and the highest brow reference, comes from the brothers’ admiration of seriously unserious French filmmakers like Jacques Tati (with whom Sparks almost made a film; remember, they love movies) and of a particularly formative affinity for British music. It doesn’t entirely tear down facades, as even Wright’s most personal works still emote through a protective shell of physical comedy and references, but you get a sense of the Maels as workers, brothers, artists and humans on terms that they’re comfortable with. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour film is an epic, there’s no denying that. You won’t need another Sparks film after this one. Yet it’s less an end-all-be-all biography than an invitation, beckoning newcomers and longtime listeners alike through its complete understanding of and adoration for its subjects.—Jacob Oller


7. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids

Thumbnail image for large_justin_timberlake_and_the_tennessee_kids.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

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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, intuiting that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision; here he seemed 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 and given plenty of time throughout) to make sure the whole show is a seamless 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 are skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


8. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke

ooo.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Kelly Duane de la Vega
Rating: NR
Runtime: 74 minutes

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The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is another installment of Netflix’s original music documentary series ReMastered, attempting to create a holistic portrait of American soul legend Sam Cooke—one that doesn’t carelessly whitewash his story just 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. 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


9. What Happened, Miss Simone?

43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 102 minutes

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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


10. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

220px-Fyre_poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Chris Smith
Rating: TV-MA
Runtime: 97 minutes

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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