A couple of years ago, when I was writing a blog on Facebook for my close friends and former students, I tackled the topic of my favorite rock documentaries. Unfortunately, at the time, some of the people with whom I grew up decided they did not like the “largeness” of my definition of my rock umbrella and immediately quit reading that blog. Although I was was slow to act upon it, I recognized it was time to move my blog out to a broader audience. Unfortunately, I found it very humbling that so many people with whom I had grown up had such a narrow definition of what rock music was. So, with that being my impetus, I decided to move here and hope to find an audience with whom I shared a broad, some might say liberal, definition of rock music.
I love to learn about rock music and the talented people who have created my favorite music. As a teen, I took to Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines for my information. Eventually, I discovered Melody Maker and the NME from the UK, while also uncovering excellent books about The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Blondie. By the time the ’90s rolled around, books about rock history and various artists were being released, and I was devouring them. And, occasionally, a film was released to the theaters for consumption, like The Band’s Last Waltz and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Then, as the 21st century rolled around, rock documentaries and concerts were being released all the time on DVD and Blu ray. The “rock-doc” became something of an addiction.
So, with that said, here is an updated list of my Top 20 Favorite Rock Documentaries. Let the debates begin!
20. Sound City (2013). That studio was magical for the sound that various bands “found” at that particular studio that went on to become classic albums. Thanks to Foo Fighter Dave Grohl for such a touching document to a recording studio, and specifically the recording console.
19. Joy Division (2007). The definitive document about the life and times of a highly influential, yet short-lived band.
18. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009). This is Spinal Tap come to life. This film documents the brotherhood in metal of two men still chasing the rock dream they have held on to since they were teens.
17. Prince: Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987). So, in 1987, Prince decides to only tour Europe and release this doctored up concert film to his fans in the U.S. Instead of focusing on the powerful concert performance of his band, Prince decides to intertwine some kind of love story in and around the performances. Still, I don’t care, as long as Prince was kicking ass while performing his music.
16. The Secret to a Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive-By Truckers (2011). A great documentary about the best Southern rock band attempting to update the lyrical content about what it means to be a man from the South in the 21st Century. This documents the band’s best line-up as it was creatively peaking, just before two members left the band.
15. Amy (2015). This is a heartfelt document about the tragically short career and life of the troubled Amy Winehouse.
14. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988). This film does a great job of showing the true nihilism of the hair metal scene of Hollywood. This was the follow-up to the 1981 documentary about L.A.’s punk scene. To me, this shows the sad side of a rock scene, of missed dreams and how an emphasis on style over substance will never win out in the end.
13. History of the Eagles (2013). Okay, I am not a big fan of the Eagles, but this does a fantastic job of telling the story of the band and how they learned to write songs and push each other to become transcendent musicians all the while overcoming their insecurities.
12. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). There really is a thin line between greatness as a solo artists and those who make a comfortable living singing back-up. This film documents the back-up singers who possess wonderful pipes, but lacked whatever charisma, timing or songs to become the star.
11. Pearl Jam Twenty (2011). They have outlasted everyone from Seattle’s grunge scene to develop into what they were always destined to become – a great, transcendent rock band.
10. All Things Must Pass (2014). A wonderful, touching film about the heyday of Tower Records. To me, it documents a by-gone era of the large record store. Rock music really used to matter to two generations of teenagers.
9. Woodstock (1970). The granddaddy of all “rock-umentaries”. What else can I say about it that hasn’t been said before.
8. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010). What a great document to the greatest “cult” band of all time. This shows the humanity of the members of the band and how they push each other to greater heights.
7. Hip Hop Evolution (2016). This is a great four-episode documentary on Netflix about the early days of rap music. Well done!
6. Stop Making Sense (1983). This is the Talking Heads on what ends up to be their last tour. And, it do es not get much better than this.
5. Runnin’ Down a Dream (2008). Here we get to see how Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers grew up to become one of the greatest bands in the world.
4. R.E.M. by MTV (2015). Here is the first band of the Gen X-ers to hit the big time. And, it was all documented on cable TV as the medium and the band grew up together.
3. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Us (2012). This is power pop’s greatest band, that generally went undiscovered for over a decade to become a huge influence on many of the great bands of the late ’80s and ’90s alternative nation. Quite possibly this documentary might be one of the more successful Kickstarter campaigns of all-time.
2. The Last Waltz (1978). Here is my first in-theater documentary experience. And, it remains my favorite film to watch on Thanksgiving, since this concert occurred on Thanksgiving 1976. Long live The Band!
1. Standing in the Shadows (2002). This documentary is STILL my favorite! It’s all about the black AND white musicians who banded their talents together during the Detroit years to make the hits of Motown swing and the teens through the ages dance. This gives a face to the members of the studio band now forever known as the Funk Brothers.
Yes, I believe that Motown and rap music is every bit a part of the fabric of rock music, as much as my beloved Cheap Trick and Prince are. These documentaries represent a very small number of great documentaries that have been released over the years. I am certain that I have left off some of your favorites. Let me know your favorites! Tomorrow, I hope to tackle actual rock movies. Until then, peace be with you!