Netflix Has Some Great Music Documentaries. Here Are 11 of Them.
Netflix Has Some Great Music Documentaries. Here Are 11 of Them.
Pop, rock and R&B fans will find a decent assortment of top-shelf concert films on Netflix, including “Springsteen on Broadway,” Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” and “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.” But performances alone don’t tell the fuller story of a musical act or a cultural movement. For that, you need a good documentary, combining exciting old footage with probing new interviews, and putting an artist into proper context.
During her short, turbulent career, Amy Winehouse sang phenomenally catchy neo-soul songs, giving classic R&B the sonic oomph of 21st-century pop. She also became a tabloid staple, plagued by drug addiction and persistent personal drama. Asif Kapadia’s documentary isn’t always easy to watch, given that the phenomenally talented Winehouse fell so far and so fast. But the film is remarkably comprehensive, detailing its subject’s rise from a working class background to international superstardom. And it’s filled with insight into how the intense public scrutiny that comes with celebrity may set some stars up for catastrophic failure. (Stream it here.)
‘Chasing Trane’ (2016)
The saxophonist John Coltrane began his career as a sideman to some of the legends of jazz; and then from the late 1950s to his 1967 death, he had a remarkable musical run as the leader of multiple classic combos. From the pop melodicism of his early solo albums to the transcendent abstractions of his later work, Coltrane kept obsessively searching for ways to capture the fragile beauty and spiritual yearning of the human experience. The director John Scheinfeld gathers meaningful observations from famous Coltrane colleagues and admirers, who help demystify his incredibly complicated compositions and improvisations. (Stream it here.)
‘Echo in the Canyon’ (2019)
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Byrds’ seminal folk-rock version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Jakob Dylan assembled musicians from his own generation who had been inspired by the sounds of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The younger Dylan interviews surviving members of the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and the Mamas and the Papas; and he sings alongside the likes of Fiona Apple, Beck and Regina Spektor. This short, sunny documentary is an entertaining rock history lesson, detailing the shared influences and enduring inspiration of some of the ’60s biggest hitmakers. (Stream it here.)
‘Hip-Hop Evolution’ (2016-20)
You’ll need to carve out some time in your schedule to watch all of “Hip-Hop Evolution,” a 16-part series that’s been spread across four seasons. But this project is worth the effort. Each episode has a theme and purpose: whether it’s describing a subgenre or covering a key moment in the history of rap. A lot of the feature documentaries about hip-hop remain stuck in the ’80s and ’90s; but “Hip-Hop Evolution” presses on into the 2000s, making room for the “Dirty South” sound, the experiments of the Neptunes crew, the controversies surrounding the mixtape revolution and more. (Stream it here.)
‘Miss Americana’ (2020)
Taylor Swift comes from a generation of pop stars who’ve never had much of an “offstage” component to their careers. They expose themselves constantly, on social media and in their songs. Yet “Miss Americana” is still genuinely revealing. Lana Wilson spent a few years with Swift, during a time when she was moving into new phases with her sound and public persona. This film is about an idol trying to figure out how to use her influence wisely; but it’s also about the difficulties of wielding a strong voice in an era when fans and haters alike gather on the internet to dissect and question everything. (Stream it here.)
‘No Direction Home’ (2005)
Martin Scorsese directed this lengthy look back at one of Bob Dylan’s most fruitful creative periods: between 1961 and 1966, when he rose to prominence in the Greenwich Village folk scene, before leaving the New York traditionalists behind to embrace oblique literary expression and raw rock ’n’ roll. Not just a doc about Dylan, “No Direction Home” is also about the changes sweeping through American culture in the first half of the 1960s, and how the artists who survived and thrived were the ones who could steal from the past while keeping an eye on the future. (Stream it here.)
Who better to make a documentary about Quincy Jones than his own daughter: the actress, writer and producer Rashida Jones? “Quincy” was shot over the course of several years by Jones and Alan Hicks. Their film combines a detailed and admiring biography of an EGOT-winning musician with more down-to-earth scenes of the man’s daily life in the present day, coping with increasingly poor health and heavy demands on his time. What emerges is an intimate portrait of a towering cultural figure. (Stream it here.)
‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (2012)
Success in the music business requires opportunity as well as skill; and sometimes extenuating circumstances can sideline a potentially great artist. That’s the theme of director Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” about a 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who became an improbable cult hero in apartheid-era South Africa, even though his fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. Bendjelloul turns a real-life investigation into Rodriguez’s past into a touching and tuneful look at how great music, no matter how obscure, can connect people. (Stream it here.)
‘20 Feet from Stardom’ (2013)
Here’s another Oscar winner, about the lives and aspirations of successful backup singers. Director Morgan Neville raises some good questions about why his subjects — mostly black, mostly women — have had to settle for filling in the backgrounds of Rolling Stones and David Bowie songs, rather than becoming stars themselves. But “20 Feet from Stardom” is ultimately more of a celebration than a lament, offering a fairly in-depth examination of how the personality and artistry of supporting musicians fits into the larger history of popular music. (Stream it here.)
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ (2015)
The jazz and R&B singer Nina Simone had a complicated relationship with the press, the music business and her own friends and family — in part because of mental illness, and in part because she was politically outspoken and confrontational. Liz Garbus’s documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” includes interviews from people who knew Simone, which supplement extended performance footage, in which Simone stares down her audiences while singing some of the most thrilling American popular music of the 1960s. (Stream it here.)
‘ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas’ (2019)
During ZZ Top’s rise to chart success in the 1970s and ’80s, the Texas trio cultivated a certain mystique, taking on larger-than-life stage personas while mostly ignoring a rock press that didn’t seem to understand or respect what they were doing. Because of all that, the documentary “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas” tells a story that even ZZ Top fans may not fully know: about three gifted mavericks who channeled their shared love of the blues, acid rock and garage bands into weird, witty and danceable songs. (Stream it here.)