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The 10 best music documentaries from Amy to Whitney

With The Beach Boys set to get the rock doc treatment, we look at the very best in the genre

The rock docs on the Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse, and The Beatles are top of the pops. (Getty)
The rock docs on the Beastie Boys, Amy Winehouse, and The Beatles are top of the pops. (Getty)

Who would have thought, when pop and rock were in their infancy, that one day those rowdy upstarts would be awarded the kind of critical attention that was — back then anyway — afforded only to serious composers. In fact, we’re betting even The Beatles and the Stones would be surprised, more than half a century after their heyday, at the sheer number of music documentaries there are, not just about them, but other titans of pop.

This Friday, a new two-hour film about one of the 60s’ defining bands, The Beach Boys, drops on Disney+. To mark its release, we’ve sifted through the hundreds of music documentaries out there to compile a playlist of 10 of the best.

Whatever your taste, there’s something for you here…

English Rock and Pop musician and actor David Bowie (born David Jones, 1947 - 2016) performs on stage, Los Angeles, California, 1975. (Photo by Ellen Graham/Getty Images)
David Bowie performing on stage in 1975 during his US tour. (Ellen Graham/Getty Images)

In these days of hyper-varnished pop docs, Alan Yentob’s down and dirty portrait of David Bowie during his post-Ziggy Stardust period seems even more shocking. Filmed while the singer was battling cocaine addiction, it’s an occasionally challenging watch, but at the same time captures one of the decade’s most chameleonic artists at the height of his powers.

"I'd caught him at what was an intensely creative time, but it was also physically and emotionally gruelling,” Yentob said in 2013. “Our encounters tended to take place in hotel rooms in the early hours of the morning or in snatched conversations in the back of limousines. He was fragile and exhausted but also prepared to open up and talk in a way he had never really done before."

Brett Morgen's sensational 2002 documentary Moonage Daydream is also worth a mention as an audio-visual treat rather than a traditional rock doc.

The Beatles arrive at Speke airport, Liverpool on July 10, 1964, for the Liverpool premiere of their movie
The story of The Beatles (seen here in 1964) was told in the 1995 documentary series Antology. (AP Photo)

There aren’t many artists whose career justifies a six-part docu-series, but we’ll allow the indulgence for the greatest band of all time. Running at over 11 hours, The Beatles Anthology was released in 1995, to tie with the release of the group’s ‘reunion’ single, Free as a Bird, as featured on the supporting LP of rare studio recordings.

Featuring contributions from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr (John Lennon is represented through archive interview footage), as well as producer George Martin and Apple honcho Neil Aspinall, this is about as inside an account of the Fabs’ rise and fall as it’s possible to get. Interestingly, it’s never been released on Blu-ray or been made available for streaming, which has led to rumours that director Peter Jackson is planning a Get Back-style remastering of this landmark documentary.

John Lydon & Steve Jones Film: The Filth And The Fury (2000) Characters: Himself (as Johnny Rotten), Himself  Director: Julien Temple 25 January 2000   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of FILMFOUR and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To FILMFOUR is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
John Lydon and Steve Jones of Sex Pistols in a still from The Filth And The Fury (Alamy)

Julien Temple had previous with the Sex Pistols, having directed the Malcolm McLaren-centred Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle movie in 1980. The Filth & The Fury is a more honest, less spin-laden account of the Pistols’ rise, featuring contributions from all four surviving members (all filmed in silhouette).

John Lydon breaking down in tears as he recalls the death of his friend Sid Vicious is one of this lacerating documentary’s most memorable moments.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a seminal rock doc. (Alamy)
Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a seminal rock doc. (Alamy)

Heavy metal is a genre so ripe for parody that it’s been the subject of various spoofs over the years — This is Spinal Tap, Bad News et al — so much so that some might have mistaken this 2008 film from Sacha Gervasi as more of the same, so preposterous are the band’s members and so stodgily terrible is the group’s music.

But what looks at first like a savage satire turns out to be a sweet-natured and often heartbreaking portrait of a band who were forever in the proverbial gutter, staring at the stars. It’s still screamingly funny (frontman Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner’s dynamic is pure Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins), but Gervasi’s film is so affectionate, you can't help but love the band’s dogged determination to break big.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.

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CROSSFIRE HURRICANE 2012 documentaire de Brett Morgen affiche quad anglaise documentaire; documentary; the rolling stones Prod DB © Milkwood Films - T
Brett Morgen's Crossfire Hurricane charts the early years of the Stones up to 1981. (Alamy)

The Stones have been the subject of a host of docu-films over the years, including 1968’s Jean-Luc Godard-helmed Sympathy for the Devil and 1970’s Gimme Shelter, which documented the band’s ill-fated performance at Altamont in 1969.

Crossfire Hurricane, however, was the first official documentary to be made covering the band’s history, or rather their first 19 years (which, let’s face it, is the only era worth chronicling). Directed by Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Moonage Daydream) and released to mark the group’s golden anniversary, it unfolds almost as a visual and aural scrapbook, with Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie and Bill telling the story of the band’s early years in voiceover.

Asif Kapadia's Amy charted the life of Amy Winehouse, warts and all. (Alamy)

One of the biggest brickbats fired at Back to Black, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2024 biopic of Amy Winehouse, is that the singer’s story had already been told — and bettered — in director Asif Kapadia’s 2017 documentary, Amy.

Compiled from hours of personal video footage, most of it unseen during Winehouse’s lifetime, it’s an unusually intimate and non-judgemental portrait of one of the 00s’ most seismic names. It was critically acclaimed on its release and currently boasts a 95% rating on reviews aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Its Best Documentary BAFTA and Oscar wins were the icing on the cake.

Original film title: WHITNEY. English title: WHITNEY. Year: 2018. Director: KEVIN MCDONALD; KEVIN MACDONALD. Stars: WHITNEY HOUSTON. Credit: LIGHTBOX / Album
Kevin Macdonald's Whitney, released in 2018, came from the team behind Amy. (Alamy)

“I don’t understand why she ended the way she ended. I want you to make a documentary to help me find out.” That was the request from Whitney Houston’s long-standing agent, Nicole David, to this documentary’s director Kevin Macdonald. Whitney then doesn’t skim over the details of the singer’s chaotic final years, but rather seeks to understand why her descent into drink and drugs happened.

Being granted seemingly full access to family members and friends, Macdonald’s film skillfully avoids sensationalism and manages to paint a respectful picture of a talented, if fatally troubled artist. As Variety wrote, “The film captures the quality that made Whitney Houston magical, but more than that it puts together the warring sides of her soul."

Beastie Boys Story (2020)

A still from Spike Jonze's music video for Beastie Boys' Sabotage. (Apple TV+)
A still from Spike Jonze's music video for Beastie Boys' Sabotage. (Apple TV+)

When Beastie Boys’ Adam (‘MCA’) Yauch died of cancer in 2012, it put a final full stop on a band that had been in existence, in one form or another, since 1981. Thirty-nine years on from their formation, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze filmed the band’s surviving members, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz, onstage at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, for a frequently funny and, at its end, desperate sad history of one of the most innovative and maverick hip-hop bands of all time.

Beastie Boys Story is streaming on Apple TV+

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Gina Schock, from left, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine pose for a portrait to promote the film
Gina Schock, from left, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine promoting The Go-Go's at Sundance Film Festival, 2020. (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

The Go-Go’s story really is one of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, so much so that, if you didn’t know the band, you might think this documentary was made as some kind of music biz parody. From their formation in LA in 1978 to their ugly break-up in 1985 through to their friction-free reformation in the 00s, it’s a roller-coaster tale of unfettered hedonism and rock’n’roll ego. All members — including lead singer Belinda Carlisle — are interviewed and it’s clear that some memories, particularly of their split, are still red raw.

The Go-Go's is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.

Ron and Russell Mael are The Sparks Brothers. (Alamy)
Ron and Russell Mael are The Sparks Brothers. (Alamy)

“Your favourite band's favourite band,” went the tagline for The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar Wright’s Valentine to one of the quirkiest and industry-respected bands from the past half century. That brothers Ron and Russell Mael are such funny and whip-smart interviewees obviously helps, but Wright also points the camera at some of Sparks’ more famous fans, including Mark Gatiss, Mike Myers, Beck, Adam Buxton and Jason Schwartzman.

As exhaustive as the film is, it still manages to preserve the mystique of this most beguiling of pop bands.

The Beach Boys will stream on Disney+ from Friday, 24 May.

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