Like music itself, rock documentaries (or “rockumentaries”) serve to contextualize and archive a specific time and place. When these films center around musicians, however, it adds a new dimension to songs and exposes new sides to the lives and work of the people behind the music. Here’s a sampling of our favorite documentaries about some of the most fascinating people and events in music history.
1) Let It Be (1970)
Picked by: AJB
I’m one of a select group of Beatles fans that actually doesn’t demand a time refund after watching this documentary, shot in 1969 while the Fab Four were recording their last album of the same name. I actually love it, so much so that after seeing it for the first time, I was in tears. There’s something so raw, so real about every tense moment in the studio with these four artists who, by this time, were estranged and disparate. The absence of any interviews or audio commentary adds to that hollowness, where only a few years before was the hysteria and internal camaraderie of psuedo-documentary A Hard Day’s Night. For me, the biggest disappointment of the film is what was left on the cutting room floor (George Harrison quitting and rejoining the band) and the fact that it hasn’t seen a formal release in my lifetime. Let’s hope that one day it gets the proper treatment it deserves, instead of languishing on second-hand bootleg videos.
2) The Kids Are Alright (1979)
Picked by: Susan Ryan
One of the best rock docs ever made (in my humble opinion), this film was the work of Jeff Stein, an American super-fan of the Who, who convinced the band to allow him to make the movie despite the fact that he had no previous experience in film-making. Over a period of several years, he compiled film footage of the Who’s performances from 1965 to 1975, and also filmed performances of certain songs where no footage existed. The result was a perfect time capsule of the Who’s career — exciting enough to turn the heads of those who were already admirers, and to turn younger people (like me) into fans as well. The film also contains the last live performances of Keith Moon, who died during post-production, just days after seeing the rough cut. Subsequently, no changes were made for fear of turning the movie into a memorial for Moon, rather than celebrating his life and the life and times of the band.
Lots of film previously thought to be lost found its way into the documentary, including a performance of “A Quick One” from the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus that, until that time, had never seen the light of day, as well as never-before-seen footage from the London Coliseum (“Young Man Blues”) and a rare promotional film for the song “Happy Jack.” Overall, this film is still one of the best overviews of the career of any band, and it holds up to this day. In fact, so influential was this film for its time that if you watch parodies such as This is Spinal Tap, you can see little homages to The Kids Are Alright all over it. A great film for existing fans of the Who, or a great way to introduce people to their music and influence.
3) Stop Making Sense (1984)
Picked by: Jim Ryan
What puts this film on the list is its feat of recreating the live experience for the audience, giving you a “you are there!” experience that few concert films have managed. Having had a chance to catch the band on the road during this tour with a few friends, we had a chance to compare seeing the show live to the film, and found that Jonathan Demme captured the show we experienced perfectly. Had he not gone on years later to direct and win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, this would have been his crowning achievement.
4) Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
Picked by: Sally O’Rourke
Between shooting Stop Making Sense and a trilogy of Neil Young documentaries, director Jonathan Demme helmed another concert doc that’s less ambitious than his others, but no less pleasureable. Storefront Hitchcock has a simple premise: cult British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock performs an acoustic set in an empty shop before a small, mostly unseen audience. Hitchcock plays with his back to the store window, letting the ever-changing cityscape (and a few curious onlookers) add a touch of extra visual interest. After all, the vivid, surreal imagery packed into his lyrics is more than enough to stimulate the cerebral cortex.
Beyond getting a chance to watch Hitchcock perform a selection of terrific, but not overly familiar, songs — several of which don’t appear on any of his studio albums — Storefront Hitchcock also features a side of the musician that doesn’t usually appear on record. Hitchcock is the king of between-song banter, weaving abstract, wordplay-filled stories and oblique observations as original and fully-formed as the musical numbers surrounding them. By keeping the setup simple and avoiding the usual concert doc flash, Demme lets nothing interfere with his subject’s enigmatic, art-warped magnetism.
5) Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Picked by: Rick Simmons
A multiple-award winner, Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells the story of the often-unheralded Funk Brothers, the session musicians who played on all those great hits by the Supremes, Four Tops, Temptations, and many others between 1959 and 1972. As such, the documentary righted a wrong in that it did bring to the public’s attention how integral these musicians were to the Motown hit-making machine as it existed in the ’60s. Perhaps nowhere does the documentary do a better job than when post-Berry-Gordy’s-Motown performers sing classic Motown hits backed by the Funk Brothers, and a variety of individuals including Bootsy Collins, Gerald Levert, Chaka Khan and others quite capably perform their favorites.
I’ve chosen the clip of Joan Osborne singing Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted” to attach to this pick, and though I’ve always loved Ruffin’s version, watching Osborne do it is absolutely exhilarating — I get chills every time I watch it. Crank up the volume and give it a listen: the Funk Brothers’ perfect backing and Osborne’s clear love for the material makes watching her performances (her version of “Heatwave” is exceptional as well) an almost transcendent experience. The takeaway here is that the Funk Brothers were, before this rock doc, clearly the greatest band nobody outside of the industry ever heard of, but perhaps more important to the “Motown Sound” than the feature singers themselves. And the band sounds as good here as they did in their heyday in the 1960s.
6) Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind (2003)
Picked by: Lindsay Stamhuis
It’s so hard to write anything about Joni Mitchell using only words to capture feelings that shine best in haunting melodies and harmonies, in her so-called “chords of inquiry.” So I can’t imagine how difficult it was to make an entire documentary about her, her life, her music, and the incredible impact she had on so many who came after her. Woman of Heart and Mind does a beautiful job telling Mitchell’s story mostly through her own words using archival and modern interviews and TV appearances, but also through the words of the people who knew her during her days as a Calgary art student, a Greenwich Village folk singer, a lady of the Canyon, a jazz innovator, and now as one of the most important female musicians and artists of the 20th century.
This doc is worth it alone for these interviews and insights, footage from The Dick Cavett Show and the 1969 Celebration at Big Sur, and early recordings from nameless New York clubs to Carnegie Hall. But there’s also insight into just how much of a study in contradiction she is. Her birth and upbringing in 1940s Saskatchewan is both totally unremarkable and yet vitally important, the stuff of legend: polio and a picture window have never been so pregnant with meaning than they are in the context of her childhood, as told in this film. The adoption of her daughter, born out of wedlock, and her subsequent (awful) marriage is a far-too-common story for women of her time, and yet this particular story reaches a height of immense poignancy because of songs written about the experience, like “Little Green,” “I Had A King,” “Cactus Tree,” and “Chinese Cafe.”
People often wonder how someone can write a song like “The Circle Game” or “Both Sides Now” in the naiveté of their early-20s and yet manage to sound wiser than someone twice his or her age? She is, as mentioned in the film, both one of a million typical Beach Boys’ California girls and also a woman with a once-in-a-generation talent, truly a woman of heart and mind, of intense passion and intellect, who has been struggling to find a balance between the two her whole life and yet is somehow always able to exist above it all. I challenge you to watch the segment about how she wrote the song “Woodstock” without crying — because in all my viewings, I haven’t been able to.
7) Be Here To Love Me (2004)
Picked by: Sharon Lacey
When I first heard singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt about 10 years ago, I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe I had never heard his music before. It was so moving, so honest and heartfelt, I just felt punched in the gut by his sob-in-the-throat voice and poetic songwriting. My first port of call was a then-newly-released documentary all about this mysterious voice called Be Here To Love Me and what an incredible introduction to this enigmatic, yet troubled, man.
Filmmaker Margaret Brown chronicles his turbulent life, from the son of wealthy Fort Worth Family to a youth clouded by mental illness to his years as a wandering troubadour, much in the same way Van Zandt did in his own songs with an unflinching but poetic honesty. There’s no narration, rather she uses home movies, live performances, and interviews with those who knew him and were inspired by him, such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson, to tell the story of his tragic life in a touching, compassionate, and sometimes humorous way, although always tinged with sadness. “I think my life will run out before my work does,” Townes Van Zandt says in the opening voiceover. “I’ve designed it that way.” This documentary certainly shows that to be true.
8) Good Ol’ Freda (2013)
Picked by: Erika Abrams
Freda Kelly was once named “the most coveted girl in the world,” and with good reason. Kelly was the Beatles’ secretary and fan club manager, the liaison between the band and its fans for 11 years (1961–1972). She authored the official fan club magazine and personally corresponded with the thousands of girls hoping for an autograph or a lock of hair from their idols. Originally a fan herself, Kelly quickly became a trusted member of the Beatles’ circle, developing close relationships with Brian Epstein, the group, and their families.
After decades of silence, the shy secretary was finally persuaded to tell her unique story for posterity. But this is not a tell-all or gossip-fest; it’s a sweet tale of friendship and loyalty that just happens to be about the most famous band in the world. And though Kelly is still fiercely protective of the Beatles’ privacy, her stories give a fresh perspective on what it was like to be in the Beatles’ inner circle, especially as they grew and changed through the ’60s.
Of the countless Beatles documentaries out there — many of which repeat the same information ad nauseum — this one is a gem, offering a take that has never been heard before and will never be heard again. And the stories do not end with the film; unlike many documentary subjects, Freda Kelly is still maintaining her connection to fans as a frequent guest at film festivals and Beatles conventions.