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Must See Music Documentaries

Riot grrrls, flannel, Harlem, and punk rockers are all explored in this list of must see music documentaries.

Music documentaries, now more than ever, are making an impact on the music industry like never before. With experimental and intimate pieces, some of the most popular documentaries are helping the world to form new opinions on some of the most iconic bands to hit the stage. These documentaries shine a light on raw portraits, background characters, and some of the most iconic bands around. They explore all genres from hip hop, grunge, to folk and paints a picture of music evolution and generations of change. Consider these must see music documentaries an intro guide to the music world.

Punk Singer

Kathleen Hanna is one of the most visible leaders of the fabled riot grrrl genre. As the front singer of the band Bikini Kill, she has undertaken roles of activism and fighting the patriarchy. But the film Punk Singer goes so much more beyond that. It forms a narrative of the punk singer’s life, starting in childhood and ending with her little known health problems that prevented her from taking the stage in later life. Punk Singer documents everything and celebrates a woman who changed the music industry and bands we have today. The film doesn’t just stop at Hanna’s most iconic band, Bikini Kill, but makes a point of also exploring her side projects Tigre and the Julie Ruin, forcing the point that this riot grrrl is a woman who is not done making her mark on the world. After overcoming health struggles, Hanna is back in action and creating music again.

Hip Hop Evolution

This Netflix original series goes back and tells the story of the original founding of the hip hop movement. It’s the untold story of kids in Harlem and Bronx making beats for fun and parties in 70s. Told in four parts, it exposes hip hop’s humble beginnings as a conduit to police violence and poverty in New York City and follows it all the way to the powerhouse genre that has taken over the media today. This must-see documentary features artists like Run DMC, The Sugar Hill Gang, N.W.A., and the MC’s that created the movement and brought it to the youths that would showcase it to the world. Hip Hop Evolution treats the style as less of a genres and more as a street art form meant to celebrate the voices of the disenfranchised. 

It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is a documentary that follows the different philosophies of three iconic guitarists in a conversation between U2’s the Edge, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and the White Stripes’ Jack White. The musicians discuss form and style, occasionally demonstrating their craft for the camera. The film exposes the guitarists’ almost magical abilities as plights of hard effort and ingenuity. In ways, it pulls back the curtain on their success and shows the three rock stars as just men who worked really hard to perfect a craft that anyone could perfect. These guitarists devoted their lives to creating seamless cords and rifts for music that would inspire and awe the world. This documentary shines a light on their successes, their failures, and everything in between. 

From the Back of the Room

This must see documentary archives the little known narrative of women as background characters in the punk movement. The rarely spoken about stories of the female contribution in the messy punk world are shown in discussions with over 30 women who experienced the chaotic movement firsthand. Their unsung origins as music photographers and the spark they created that ultimately formed the college experimentations that created the riot grrrl movement are all featured in this film. But the main focus in this documentary about young women who left their modest imprint on the music world is their sexuality, activism, and gender, giving a broader representation of how these uncelebrated women partook and influenced punk. 

Bob Dylan and The Band: Down in The Flood

This film focuses on Bob Dylan’s collaborative years with The Band. Bob Dylan and The Band: Down in The Flood contains previously unseen performances and interviews with The Band, creating a retrospective account of the pivotal 10 years that The Band made music with the iconic folk musician. The reclusive singer joined up with The Band in his early years of touring. The close up documentary follows Bob Dylan and The Band’s first incarnation as The Hawks on the folk singer’s first nationwide tour and continues all the way up to the project’s final performance in a concert in 1976. This must-see documentary tells a story of collaboration and a love of music that forced some of the most influential musicians to join hands. 

Punk's Not Dead

Punk's Not Dead is a dirty, messy, hardcore documentary of the world’s most raucous music genre. It’s an up close account of the formless rock that has had the biggest influence on rock to this day. The film zeroes in on the grungy basement bars and underground scene that molded the genre. Punk was made in alleyways, garage shows, college campuses, and rank clubs. Though many disregard the movement as a dirty thing of the past that has little to do with the pristine rock we have today, it marches on. It lives on and continues to form music as we know it. Pop-punk bands have carried it on to the mainstream music world on platforms like MTV, garage bands continue to thrive, and young musicians continue to tamper with punks raw and edgy sound.

The Original Fleetwood Mac: The Early Years

This is a definitely must-see documentary if you’ve ever been a fan of 60s folk and blues. This film follows one of the most well-known bands that has ever lived in their original incarnation. This exceptional documentary focuses on Peter Greene, on the one of the iconic guitarist to take the stage, and Fleetwood Mac. The members of the original band consisted of Peter Greene, Jeremy Spencer, John McVie, Mick Fleedwood, Danny Kirwin, and Bob Brunning. The documentary on them features interviews, live performances, and never before seen materials about the band. The Original Fleetwood Mac: The Early Years is an intimate look at a group of musicians that came together for a limited time in the British blues era to create music that would be celebrated to this day. 

Shut Up and Play the Hits

This unsettling film focuses on LCD Soundsystem’s final live performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Famous for their synthesized sound, LCD Soundsystem left its mark on the music industry. It’s not a concert film or interview based. Instead it’s a strange cross cut between the concert and James Murphy’s daily life, before and after the last show. There is a sprinkling of interviews within the documentary that serve as quiet eulogy to the dance rock band but the focus of Shut Up and Play the Hits is the routine of the act. The footage shown of the farewell show mashes the James Murphy’s robust performance and energy of the devoted LCD Soundsystem fans that creates a final symbiotic relationship between the performer and his audience. This must see documentary is an vital portrait of modern dance music. 

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Montage of Heck is truly one of the most startling documentaries about Kurt Cobain to date. It contains rare footage and strange illustrations to paint a picture of the young singer’s life. Whilst many filmmakers have attempted to eulogize the late grunge star’s life, few have done his tragic life justice. The lead singer of Nirvana led an arduous existence, struggling with the pressure of fame and his own mental illness, he ultimately took his own life and devastated the music world. Most films on the rock martyr’s life focus solely on his experience in Nirvana and with fame. This brand new look at his life goes beyond that. Montage of Heck tells a fully fleshed out story about a teenager who struggled with social pressures, his love of the Pacific Northwest, and his combining of those two things to create great music. 

Pearl Jam 20

Directly rivaling Nirvana, Pearl Jam was another Pacific Northwest grunge act. Though not as notorious, Pearl Jam managed to form its own iconic image from of the Pacific Northwest and the rock music it was famous for. The band found more mainstream success in the music world and has held onto it to this day, still touring the nation and the world. This documentary contains raw interviews with Eddie Vedder and the rest of the band as they tell the story of how they came together and the progression of the band into recent years. This film is a celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary and the influence they’ve had on modern rock. Watch this superb documentary for the revelations, the origins, and the insight into the band’s attitude. 

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