The 20 best music documentaries – ranked!

We rate the best films on the music scene down the decades, from Bob Dylan to Blur, Anvil to Amy Winehouse

20. Big Fun in the Big Town (1986)

Charming Belgian TV presenter Marcel Vanthilt tries to get to grips with the New York rap scene. Interviewees include LL Cool J and Schoolly D, but this featurette is as alert to social nuances as musical ones.

19. Starshaped (1993)

This catches Blur on the brink of the Britpop explosion, looking keen but confused, and often the worse for wear. Car-crash highlights include Damon Albarn falling off a speaker and John Peel expressing amusing indifference to their music.

18. Oil City Confidential (2009)

Canvey Island pub-rock combo Dr Feelgood get the movie treatment from The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle director Julien Temple.

17. Amy (2015)

Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning film about Amy Winehouse expertly stitches together everything from home movies brimming with hope to end-of-the-line concert appearances when the jig was truly up.

16. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

20 Feet From Stardom.
20 Feet From Stardom. Photograph: Graham Willoughby/Gil Friesen Prods/Tremolo Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The unsung voices behind the stars finally get their due in this story of backup singers including Darlene Love and Judith Hill.

15. Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Wim Wenders has always been drawn to misfits, from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley in The American Friend to Harry Dean Stanton as the eternal wanderer in Paris, Texas. He brought his taste for the outsider experience to this film about the Cuban ensemble making its first trip to America.

14. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)

Turmoil is a gift to the music documentary. Wilco were up to their eyes in it soon after the photographer Sam Jones started filming them: they shed two of their members and got dropped by their label. Out of the chaos, a great album (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and a revealing film emerged.

13. The Road to God Knows Where (1990)

The recent Nick Cave documentaries One More Time with Feeling and 20,000 Days on Earth showcase a mature and reflective artist. For unsparing grit and grime, there’s Uli M Schueppel’s black-and-white film of the Bad Seeds’ 1989 US tour, heavy on the boredom and frustrations of life on the road.

12. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

Michel Gondry documents the on-and-off-stage sights of a 2004 Bed-Stuy bash thrown by Chappelle, who bussed in members of the public from his home town of Dayton, Ohio. Performers include Kanye West and Lauryn Hill; the political commentary is low-frequency but consistent, with Fred Hampton Jr, son of a murdered Black Panther and chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee, telling the crowd: “Hands up, eyes open, fists clenched.”

11. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

The wild creativity of the folk musician Daniel Johnston turns out to be inseparable from his woes as he struggles with bipolar disorder. He sings! He preaches! He attacks his manager with a lead pipe! Through it all, the director Jeff Feuerzeig maintains a sympathetic eye.

10. Rude Boy (1980)

Part-documentary, part-staged reality (a technique that the film’s co-director, Jack Hazan, had pioneered in his David Hockney doc A Bigger Splash), this inserts a fictional roadie into the real world of The Clash on tour. A scorching and often ugly portrait of a band at a full pelt and a country in decline.

9. Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter: best of the Rolling Stones documentaries.
Gimme Shelter: best of the Rolling Stones documentaries. Photograph: Allstar/Maysles Films

There is no shortage of Rolling Stones documentaries, from Godard’s One Plus One aka Sympathy For the Devil and Robert Frank’s little-seen Cocksucker Blues to Martin Scorsese’s more recent Shine a Light. But the cream of the crop, the absolute Exile on Main Street of the bunch, is the Maysles brothers’ account of the band before, during and after the horror of Altamont.

8. Lawrence of Belgravia (2011)

Lyrical filmmaker Paul Kelly finds Lawrence, lead singer of indie gods Felt, glam pasticheurs Denim and Casio-pop pioneers Go-Kart Mozart, somewhat on his uppers. He faces eviction from his council flat as he records a new album. Yet in his refusal to sell out, Lawrence is an enduring symbol of artistic purity. Explaining his resilience, he says: “No one else has got this far, and failed.”

7. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Alongside Some Kind of Monster and DiG!, this is another slice of cringingly frank mid-noughties verité, the key difference being that the group in question, a Canadian metal outfit, came within sniffing distance of fame without ever quite making it big. A reunion tour provides a near-as-dammit real-life equivalent to Spinal Tap.

6. The Decline of Western Civilization Part I (1981)

Penelope Spheeris directed the first film about the American response to punk, with interviews and performances from Circle Jerks, X, Black Flag and Germs, the menace of the latter tempered by dumpy frontman Darby Crash, known to cover himself with peanut butter and dive through broken glass to disguise the fact that his band couldn’t play. Quality control stayed high for Spheeris’s follow-ups, Parts II (about metal) and III (homeless punks).

5. DOA: A Rite of Passage (1980)

This film diary of the Sex Pistols’ fateful 1978 US tour zig-zags between the Stateside vaudeville and interviews from back home with establishment figures closing their ears to the yelps of punk (“I’m not going to listen to what they say until they learn to enunciate clearly and speak properly in the Queen’s English”). A grimly compelling highlight is the footage of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen lolling in bed like the anti-John-and-Yoko.

4. DiG! (2004)

Dig!: a study of luck and self-sabotage.
Dig!: a study of luck and self-sabotage. Photograph: Interloper/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Two bands for the price of one: The Dandy Warhols take the fast train to fame and adulation while their brothers-in-psychedelia, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, languish in semi-obscurity, their integrity intact, their sanity perhaps less so. Ondi Timoner boiled down a staggering 1,500 hours of footage to create this study of luck and self-sabotage in rock’n’roll.

3. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

Metal behemoths Metallica quietly fall apart in this long but spellbinding documentary which finds them plagued by indecision and uncertainty as they grapple with their incomparable success. With one band member gone and another entering rehab, the band members submit to a “performance enhancement coach” who insinuates himself creepily into the creative process.

2. Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)

DA Pennebaker’s fingerprints are all over music cinema (Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). But his masterpiece follows a restless, searching Bob Dylan as he tours Britain in 1965, confronting journalists, holding court among some peers (Joan Baez, Alan Price), sneering at others (sorry, Donovan) and, with the Subterranean Homesick Blues cue-cards sequence, helping to invent the pop promo.

1. In Bed with Madonna (aka Madonna: Truth or Dare) (1991)

In Bed With Madonna: a thrilling film.
In Bed With Madonna: a thrilling film. Photograph: De Laurentiis/Propaganda/Boy Toy/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Part of the alchemy of a great music documentary is catching the subject at exactly the right moment, and Alek Keshishian couldn’t have trained his cameras on Madonna at a better time. In the midst of the inventive and influential Blonde Ambition tour, he finds a self-possessed genius who is a magnet for controversy, as well as for other stars: Warren Beatty announces that Madonna “doesn’t want to live off-camera”, Antonio Banderas resists her advances, Kevin Costner gets roundly insulted. But this thrilling film, split between black-and-white for off-stage and colour for on, gives the lion’s share of screen time to the squabbling, excitable dancers who comprise the singer’s extended family.


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• This story was amended on 21 September 2018 to correct a reference to Darby Crash, who sang with Germs not Black Flag.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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