What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964) – A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.
Don’t Look Back (1967) – Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, “Don’t Look Back” helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician’s infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.
Gimme Shelter (1970) – The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” can send up the current scene just like “This Is Spinal Tap!” did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”
Woodstock (1970) – The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) – Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London’s Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.
What Happened, Miss Simone? – Nina Simone is one of the most mysterious, ethereal singers of all time. Her music has an almost spiritual quality, especially some of the early 1960s recordings like “Sinnerman” and “Strange Fruit.” As talented as she was, Simone was also beset by demons that left her alienated from friends and family as she moved from America to Europe while also battling an abusive spouse and the crackdown against African-Americans in America in the face of the civil rights movement. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a film that captures a full portrait of this one-of-a-kind woman.
The History of the Eagles – This might just be the greatest music documentary of all time. Directed by Alison Ellwood, “The History of the Eagles” tells the full story of the most commercially successful American rock band in history. The documentary is broken up into two parts with the first and far more interesting half dedicated to their heady rise and inevitable combustion, and the second recounting their solo years before ultimately reuniting. It’s a story like no other told in the frankest terms possible.
20 Feet from Stardom – As the name suggests, “20 Feet from Stardom” tells the story of the people onstage who make the rest of the band look incredible. I’m talking of course about the backup singers. Directed by Morgan Neville, this film, which took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards, profiles the lives and trials of those figures we hear but rarely ever pay attention to onstage.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – A portrait of one of the true titans of country music, Glen Campbell, as he embarked on one final tour after discovering he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a tough watch for anyone who knows someone who’s been afflicted with this catastrophic disease, but Campbell handles it with the same grace, humor, and grit that endeared him to millions of people around the world throughout his lengthy career.
Gaga: Five Foot Two – Documentaries about pop stars that go beyond fan service propaganda are exceedingly rare. It’s one of the reasons that “Gaga: Five Foot Two” is so compelling. Rarely do we ever really get to see the physical and mental toll it takes to roll out a new album and prepare to perform in front of more than 100 million people at the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Lady Gaga allowed the cameras to film her every move as she did just that for an unflinching and uncompromising look at what it’s really like to be an artist of the highest level in the 21st century.
See the 15 other best music documentaries on Netflix at Uproxx.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) – Spotlighting a lesser-known tale of the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008, this unapologetically Capra-esque film presents the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only financial institution to face criminal charges, rather than a bailout, for its involvement in the subprime mortgage debacle. Easily taken for granted because it’s not a broader or more hard-hitting work, “Abacus” grapples with systemic racism and other grander issues in America and its judicial system. It’s also primarily just a portrait of a single family coming together against goliath government prosecutors looking to make an example out of their business, a pillar of New York’s Chinatown community.
Cartel Land (2015) – Produced by “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow, this cinematic documentary is like a real-life “Sicario.” Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embedded himself with both a group of Arizona border-control vigilantes and a band of Mexican autodefensas, armed with only a camera and his instincts. The run-and-gun style and Heineman’s jaw-dropping access will keep your heart pounding through this examination of the current War on Drugs.
The Force (2017) – After embedding us in an emergency room in his last film, Peter Nicks now drops us into the Oakland, California Police Department for a two-year stretch as it continues to make improvements in conduct while under oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice. We go on ride-alongs, sit in on police academy lectures about changes that need to be made to win the trust of the citizens, and go outside the station and encounter those citizens during community meetings and protests. This isn’t just an observational experience of the day to day routine of urban cops. Instead, brutal reality keeps rearing its ugly head in the forms of shootings and scandals as “The Force” becomes a Sisyphean tale about the struggle to overcome systemic problems.
The Hunting Ground (2015) – Kirby Dick followed his powerful, policy-changing film “The Invisible War,” about sexual abuse and rape in the US military, with this equally important documentary about sexual abuse and rape on American college campuses. Featuring testimonials from victims, convicted perpetrators, and educators, “The Hunting Ground” presents personal stories mixed with a plethora of statistics, combining emotional and factual rhetoric for tremendous effect. The film received an Oscar nomination for Lady Gaga’s haunting original song, “Til It Happens to You.”
Welcome to Leith (2015) – If you’re at all surprised by the sudden prevalence of white nationalist groups in America today, their gradual rise is briefly explained in this complex and compelling documentary about a political leader who tried in 2012 to turn an entire town in North Dakota into a hub for neo-Nazis and their families. With relative neutrality, directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker covered the attempted takeover firsthand.
Man With a Movie Camera (1929) – Directed by Dziga Vertov, “Man With a Movie Camera” depicts a city in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It tracks the dynamism, spectacle, and industry of the city from morning until night and features some of the most recognizable shots in cinema.
The Up Series (1964–Present) – This documentary series is a longitudinal study that follows the lives of 14 British children from 1964, when they were aged seven, to present day. Every seven years there is a new addition to the series which checks in with the original subjects, who are now in their sixties and preparing to film the latest installment, “63 Up.”
Grey Gardens (1976) – Directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, “Grey Gardens” is an extraordinary documentary depicting the lives of reclusive Bouvier cousins Edith Bouvier Beale, called “Big Edie,” and her daughter and namesake, who is known as “Little Edie,” in their ramshackle East Hampton mansion.
Harlan County, USA (1976) – This Oscar-winning documentary was produced and directed by Barbara Kopple. The film examines workers’ rights in the coal-mining industry during a 1973 strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, which lasted 13 months and was rife with tensions, conflict, and violence.
Gates of Heaven (1978) – Told entirely through interviews, Errol Morris’ first feature explores the pet burial business, the questions and emotions inherent in it, the people who participate, and what happens when one burial business fails.
Burden of Dreams (1982) – This Les Blank-directed documentary chronicles the making of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo,” a process that involved managing perils of production including hauling a steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon.
Stop Making Sense (1984) – A concert film directed by Jonathan Demme and featuring the Talking Heads and lead singer David Byrne, this documentary was filmed over the course of three live shows that took place at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in 1983.
Shoah (1985) – Over nine hours, Claude Lanzmann’s moving 1985 documentary examines the Holocaust through visits to Poland, testimonies from survivors and bystanders, and interviews with perpetrators. The film is considered to the most ambitious and important documentary about the Holocaust ever made.
The term “Girl Power” is overplayed, sure, but Girlgaze’s short documentary film series is one area where it applies.
Girlgaze is a photography group founded by Amanda De Cadenet that supports young female photographers and filmmakers.
In their new series, sponsored by Levi’s, they tapped four women to make short films about other women who have changed the world around them.
She’s Revolutionary – Director Brittany “B.Monét” Fennell explores the relationship between #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and her gender non-conforming, activist child Kaia Burke.
Drum As You Are – Switching coasts from NYC to L.A., this documentary short tells the story of a woman who created a school of rock for young girls.
# 6 – Young athlete Sam Gordon started out playing tackle football with the boys, then created her own league for girls. Now 15, she’s the first woman to be honored by the NFL with the Game Changer award and is telling her story to director Molly Fisher.
Jasilyn: Activist of the Land – This short film by Lina Plioplyte tells the uplifting story of Jasilyn Charger. Charger, a Native American teen, made headlines after rallying young people around the Dakota access pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
Bobby Kennedy for President – Technically a docuseries, filmmaker Dawn Porter uses archival footage and interviews to build the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s life, presidential run, and assassination. The series’ most interesting episode is the fourth, which examines the aftermath of the assassination and the difficulty of serving justice in a case with such national prominence. The entire series is available now on Netflix.
RBG – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, has also of late become something of an icon, particularly to young, progressive women who see her as a hero. “RBG” is a romping biographical documentary about her, outlining her life’s history, her long and fruitful marriage, her career, and her reputation as a dissenter with a bit of an attitude. RBG herself appears in the film to talk about her life — and does a mean plank at the gym.
Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat – “Boom For Real” brings to life the early years of legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, using interviews with his friends and mostly previously unseen archival footage. Director Sara Driver knew Basquiat, which means there’s an unusually personal touch to the film; it works best as a tribute to the artist from his friends, one that illuminates the time before he became an art-world icon.
Filmworker – Leon Vitali had a promising acting career of his own, but he gave it up to become Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man — a choice that shaped his life and the history of cinema in innumerable ways. “Filmworker” is Vitali’s story, and besides being a fascinating look into his life, it helps show how Kubrick, infamous for his exacting, perfectionist filmmaking, put together his own work.
Pope Francis — A Man of His Word – Veteran director Wim Wenders worked directly with the Vatican to make this documentary about Pope Francis which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film follows the Pope as he travels and answers questions from around the world about matters of justice, the environment, immigration, and more. Though the Vatican’s involvement in the production virtually guarantees it won’t be a critical take, it will likely be a very illuminating one.