Music and film share a synchronistic relationship, well established over the past century, and nothing showcases that connection better than music documentaries.
These films often take artistic liberties this formulaic genre doesn’t usually allow.
What’s more, truly great ones incorporate the music of their subjects, which make them enjoyable even if other documentaries tend to bore you to tears.
Watch these enduring music documentaries, and you run the risk of becoming both thoroughly heartbroken and entertained.
Don’t Look Back (1967)
Legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker is a staple in countercultural filmmaking. He is well known for documenting high-profile, unconventional musical artists in films like Monterey Pop, as well as debates like in Town Bloody Hall.
However, none of his films are more iconic than Don’t Look Back.
The historical music doc covers Bob Dylan‘s summer tour of England in 1965. Those two months would prove pivotal for the singer-songwriter and popular music alike.
A Portrait of an Untouchable Artist
This film takes place after the release of Dylan’s fifth LP, the half-acoustic, half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, and two months before “Like A Rolling Stone”—the six-minute single that gutted a generation. The world could not seem to catch up with the artist.
What’s more, Dylan performed plenty of songs from Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth album.
In it, he exchanged his clear-cut “protest music” for a deeper dive into poetry, surrealism, and Beatles-style pop.
The result: mind-melding and heart-writhing music…which alienated half his hipster audience. They were not ready for his old stuff, let alone the new.
It was impossible to define Dylan’s creative output, nor limit his potential, during this era.
The live performances in Don’t Look Back are electrifying, despite being acoustic sets. Impromptu hotel room performances are just as impressive.
For many, the radical un-answerability and unknowability in Dylan’s artistry are what make him a songwriter’s songwriter. And it’s what makes Don’t Look Back such a timeless, fascinating standout among other music documentaries.
Oasis: Supersonic (2016)
Supersonic does not simply detail the rise and fall of Oasis. It demonstrates why their following remains so dedicated, heartbroken, and confused over the band to this very day.
The feisty Manchester band—led by brothers Noel and Liam, who never shared the helm with others—navigated the troubled waters of the ’90s Britpop invasion to forge a path of their own.
Despite the public hostility between the Gallagher brothers, the two share a bafflingly impenetrable bond. This film shows this, rather than telling, to which any musician and sibling can relate.
A Love Letter to 1990s Rock
Supersonic shows constant self-awareness and proves endlessly fascinating. One gets the impression that the band remains both in awe of their destiny, and apathetic towards their fame.
It flies in the face of overnight success, a troubled career, and hiatus running on over a decade long. Additionally, this film provides necessary cultural and musical context, and an electrifying reason to revisit the band’s discography.
Still today, there is no denying their first two albums, Definitely, Maybe and What’s The Story (Morning Glory), deserve their acclaim and then some.
Ultimately, the film’s takeaway is that intangible, palpable spirit that Oasis represents. And yes, it extends far beyond “Wonderwall.”
Their vision is not merely a bold working-class statement. Instead, it is a code of recklessness and angst to live and die by. It’s not a recipe for success, but it’s a strong argument for the positive relationship between tumultuousness and bangers.
Supersonic offers brutally honest insight into the adventures of Noel, Liam, the flaky bassist, and their two drummers. It will have you yearning for the 90s all over again, even if you were barely there.
Heartworn Highways (1981)
Heartworn Highways is a film for anyone who knows country music goes beyond caterwauling to tractors and trucks. It is also a deeply accessible film for anyone who needs to become learned on that front.
The pivotal outlaw country movement that flourished in the mid-1970s is an essential chapter in the American Songbook.
And besides, Townes Van Zandt is reason enough to watch this film.
An Underrated Poet
Van Zandt, an outlaw country genius, was born in Texas. He never rose to commercial success in his time, nor is he commonly known today.
Nevertheless, Van Zandt retains an ever-evolving, devoted fan base and cult status.
His audience loves and remembers him for his finger-picking guitar style, melancholy lyrics, and contemplative voice. And in this film, fans and strangers alike get a glimpse into his artistry.
His performance of “Waiting Around To Die” proves particularly staggering. The singer begins by calling it the first song he ever wrote, then continues by confirming the raw universality of his appeal.
It makes sense, then, that Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson would want to cover one of his songs.
That 1983 cover, “Pancho and Lefty,” is a song about betrayal and bandits—and it was a huge success. What’s more, it greatly expanded Van Zandt’s reach and influence, albeit subtly.
Seeing the artist smiling, acting silly, and being contemplative is a nice contrast to his lyrics. Simply put, Townes was a poet, and a sad one. His lyrics reflect a life spent with little income, much drugging and drinking, star-crossed heartbreaks, and the realities of life.
In effect, he was a master storyteller and musician. And, as the film demonstrates, whenever the man played for his friends, Townes put on no airs.
Several other talented artists round out the film. Thanks to innovators from both Texas and Tennessee, the world saw that country music could be timeless. From Steve Earle to Guy Clark, a new era of singer-songwriters was changing the world one southern dive bar at a time.
When crafted well, music documentaries offer a deeper connection to artists you’ve grown to know and love over the years.
What’s more, you rarely approach their music in quite the same way, once you know the story behind an album’s creation.
If you’re looking to deepen your musical study, be sure to look over some of the best guitarists in history or iconic classic rock bands. As a bonus you can add them into your Spotify playlist next to the hottest albums of 2020.