There’s something satisfying about a truly good documentary; not only are you entertained, but there’s an element of education to the whole affair that lets you feel as though you’re bettering yourself while sitting back and watching the tube. We here at Goliath absolutely love that feeling, which is why we’ve taken the time to suss out and detail the 10 best “Rockumentaries” of all time; that’s right, we’ve got rock documentaries on the table today, and good ones to boot. Trust us when we say leaving This is Spinal Tap (1984) off this list kills us, but we chose to focus on legitimate documentaries for this one (Don’t worry, Spinal Tap fans… that film made it onto another list).
10. Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
There’s something incredibly admirable about what James Murphy has done with LCD Soundsystem. Choosing to burn out rather than fade away, the much acclaimed band dissolved after three massively successful albums, with their last show documented in 2012’s Shut Up and Play the Hits. As front man Murphy explains the methodology behind the band and their decision to disband rather than continue to make music just for profit, Shut Up and Play the Hits follows LCD Soundsystem as they prepare for and deliver the final concert in the band’s history. A beautifully shot concert film that attempts to hone in and identify the line between commerce and art, and why that line is so often obscured or obfuscated, Shut Up and Play the Hits is worth watching if only for the dialogue between Murphy and pop culture author Chuck Klosterman, who conducts many of the film’s primary interviews.
9. A Band Called Death (2012)
“Before there was punk, there was… a band called Death.” So reads the tagline for Mark Christopher Covino and Mark Howlett’s 2012 rockumentary A Band Called Death, which investigates the origins and music of the titular band and their resurgent popularity decades after their heyday. Formed by three brothers in 1950s Detroit, Death dabble in proto-punk and rock/funk before morphing into a full-on punk outfit, one which would precede many of the previously established “forefathers” of punk, and thus cement themselves as both innovators and highly influential musicians who very rarely receive the musical accreditation of which they are deserving. Documenting the brothers’ rise, struggles and reformation, the film sees the band finally acknowledged at the film’s conclusion as the creative geniuses they were. Acclaimed by critics, this film is a must watch for anyone interested in punk or rock and roll, and we’re assuming you are since you’re reading this list. Go! Watch!
8. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007)
While on the subject of punk, we thought we should mention there’s another documentary worth watching that details the origins of a highly influential, game-changing musician, and the band that he took from the slums of England to the biggest concert arenas in the world. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten details the rise and fall of punk’s most enigmatic and charismatic front man as he and his band, the Clash, become the flag bearers for the wildly influential musical movement that shook the roots of the United Kingdom circa 1977. Following Strummer’s early career with the 101ers to his time with the Clash, and then on to his mid-life struggles and his triumphant return to the limelight as a solo artist, Julien Temple’s documentary does well not to canonize Strummer and rather chooses to examine the artist as a fully-fledged individual, one with both strengths and flaws of a titanic nature.
7. A Film About Jimi Hendrix (1973)
Sometimes labelled simply as Jimi Hendrix, this 1973 documentary is also called A Film About Jimi Hendrix. Detailing the meteoric rise of a generational talent, this documentary also examines Hendrix’s tragic end while asking important questions about the nature of artistry and fame in the 20th century. Featuring interviews from Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend (to name a few), A Film About Jimi Hendrix pays tribute to the legendary talent of Hendrix as rock star after rock star speaks in awe about the once-great musican’s prowess on the electric guitar. Eric Clapton, in particular, seems both impressed and upset by the overwhelmingly original sound Hendrix is able to produce, and it’s a treat to listen to the great artists of their time speak of someone most often held in such high regard. From his studio albums to his now-legendary performance at Woodstock, A Film About Jimi Hendrix shows the artist in all his glory and examines the sadness that occurs when that glory is cut too short.
6. Gimme Shelter (1970)
Drawing its title from the lead track of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, 1970’s Gimme Shelter is a chilling documentary which chronicles the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones Altamont Free Concert in 1969. The film, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, builds tension by following the Rolling Stones through their Madison Square Garden performances and the backstage deals which saw increased security at futures Stones shows. This increased security, provided at the Altamont Free Concert by notorious biker gang Hells Angels, was responsible for the stabbing death of Hunter in a turn of events which shocked concertgoers and music listeners worldwide. Also featuring a performance by Jefferson Airplane (who opened for the Stones at the fateful concert on which the film focuses), Gimme Shelter is a harrowing film which details what happens when a concert turns ugly.
5. Sound City (2013)
There’s few people in the world who care about rock and roll more than Dave Grohl, so it came as little surprise in 2013 when the drummer-turned-front-man announced his first feature film project, Sound City. Chronicling the legendary Sound City Recording Studios from its inception in the late 1960s through its unbridled success in the 1970s, to its near-bankruptcy in the 1980s and huge resurgence in the 1990s, Sound City is clearly a love letter of sorts from Grohl to the studio that helped make his career (Nirvana famously saved the studio from bankruptcy with the release of 1991’s Nevermind). Featuring an all-star cast of Rick Springfield, Fleetwood Mac (most members), Butch Vig, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney, Sound City delves deep into what it means to be an artist in the 21st century, and what place artistry has in a world where computers can do most of the heavy lifting associated with making music. A must-see for music fans everywhere.
4. Woodstock (1970)
The counterculture event of the century, the Woodstock festival (held in August of 1969) remains one of the most iconic musical events in history. As such, it seems fitting that any documentation of such an event should itself remain a watershed event, and Woodstock, the 1970 documentary which chronicles the three day festival in an intimate manner, is most certainly a watershed affair. Nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, and edited by a young Martin Scorsese (among others), Woodstock features live performances from artists as influential and varied as Canned Heat, The Who, Joan Barz and Jimi Hendrix. Since released with bonus footage in both the 25th Anniversary and 40th Anniversary editions, Woodstock remains a seminal concert film and a must-watch rockumentary almost half a century after its release.
3. The Filth and the Fury (2000)
There’s a reason Julien Temple has become the go-to documentarian for rock and roll related subjects; the man does a damn good job telling any story that involves guitar, drums and usually a good deal of badassery. For further evidence of this, take a gander at 2000’s The Filth and the Fury, a rockumentary which follows the fast rise and even faster fall of The Sex Pistols, punk’s most notorious rockers. Temple tells the story of the band from their viewpoint, and does well to humanize the band while juxtaposing their music against the harsh social and political landscape of 1970s England, which drove these young men to produce such ferocious and influential music. Featuring interviews from all of the original band members, including John Lyndon (Rotten) and Sid Vicious, The Filth and the Fury succeeds admirably in telling the story of a much-discussed and often misunderstood band whose position as the godfathers of punk is rightly deserved.
2. It Might Get Loud (2008)
It’s a mighty fine idea that sees Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge placed in one room to discuss the history, influence and technique of the electric guitar. Whoever had that idea, good on you; whoever made it happen, you’re a magic maker of epic proportions. 2008’s It Might Get Loud is a stellar documentary that sees the aforementioned artists explore both the history of the electric guitar and their own relationship with it, and it’s a worthwhile watch for anyone with a vague interest in rock and roll or musical history. Listening to Page and White discuss the wide ranging influence of the blues is just beautiful, while hearing how all of these now-famous artists began with humble roots is even moreso. With requisite jam sessions and plenty of passionate disagreements, It Might Get Loud is home to plenty of interesting tidbits and plenty of interesting guitar work. Check it out ASAP if you have a pulse.
1. Don’t Look Back (1965)
The pinnacle of the rockumentary, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1965) follows a young Bob Dylan, charismatic and mysterious, on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom. Frequently cited as one of the best documentaries of all time, Don’t Look Back details innumerable important moments in Dylan’s life, specifically his relationship with Joan Baez, his now-famous Royal Albert Hall performance and his musings on life, love, song writing and musicianship. Dylan, as one of music’s greatest performers and one of its most mercurial personalities, is fascinating to watch as the film unfolds. With a small cameo by renowned Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Don’t Look Back exists as the ultimate rock documentary experience.