Rock culture's date of birth, much like its trajectory, is not easily defined. Undisputed yet is its compelling spirit, a subject of fear, fascination and countless films like Help!, Almost Famous, Walk the Line and A Star is Born just to name a few. Even in the gilded age of blockbuster biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, lest we forget the special reverence maintained by music documentaries, bridging content and context in a more earnest, facts-over-frills fashion that leaves one feeling not only stimulated but also inspired and connected to the perilous stories behind chart-topping aspiration. Spanning the gamut from concert films to long-shot pop cultural anthologies, the genre's undisputed vanguard is Netflix with nearly one-hundred titles in its current roster poised to be made all the more enticing come June 12th with the arrival of Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. In anticipation of the major release (which just so happens to feature a watercolored reinterpretation of this iconic image by MHG photographer Ken Regan on its cover) and in no particular order, we've rounded up eleven must-see music docs now streaming on Netflix.
John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky
Much has been said about music's most captivating couple but perhaps never so wholeheartedly as director Michael Epstein who frames the widely-storied pair through the homespun lens of John Lennon's landmark 1971 album, Imagine. Juxtaposing candid archival footage from the writing/recording processes, familial life at their bucolic estate in upstate New York and outtakes from the title track's music video with recent interviews from Julian Lennon, Yoko Ono herself and those that worked most closely with the duo, Epstein's due diligence is palpable within the finished product. Unpacking romantic tropes and misplaced criticisms, Above Us Only Sky is a touching portrait of two lovers and collaborators whose acclaimed masterwork is outlived by the intimate projections of a metaphysical utopia heralded by bifocal introspection.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
In full consideration of overarching themes such as modern crime, gang culture and the far-reaching shadows of Americana's darker side, Scorsese's recent foray into music documentary filmmaking hardly signals a departure from the acclaimed director's oeuvre punctuated by films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street but rather the continued exploration of a grandiose thesis. More than a reminder that the director's forthcoming Rolling Thunder Revue is in fact his sophomore contribution to the genre, Living in the Material World showcases a storyteller's transcendent aptitude and the rise of a reverent music legend. Containing a wealth of previously unseen material, this Emmy award-winning doc investigates Harrison's time-honored impact on music history in dialogue with the urgent demands of consumer culture at large.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Like Living in the Material World, Morgan Neville's Under The Influence takes certain precedence as recommended precursory viewing. A captivating point of inquiry for those who've yet to attend Keith, Unfiltered. (on view through 6/22 at all three MHG locations) or intend to revisit the exhibition with greater context, this rockumentary celebrates the evolving legend and the wisdom of storied nights wasted not in vain. Highlights from the doc include but are not limited to those moments when Richards opens up about those that artists which proved most influential to his rise from childhood to universal icon.
HOMECOMING: A Film by Beyoncé
Hailed a master class in the future of pop performance, HOMECOMING hones in on the pop vanguard's iconic 2018 Coachella performance which has been aptly dubbed #Beychella. Co-directed by Beyoncé and Ed Burke, this concert doc deviates from those akin in its visually seamless ability to shed light on the artist not only as pop cultural conduit but also the human being the phenomenon in a refreshing, uptempo change of pace.
The midtown discotheque gave rise to an entire movement of velvet rope politics and league of pseudo-starlets but all that glitters isn't gold. Going beyond the glamour of avant garde indulgence and a high-class hedonism, director Matt Tyrnauer revisits the short-lived Arcadia in the interest of a more realized portrait shaped in a more authentic likeness while still maintaining just enough drama for the nostalgic bon vivant. Augmenting this gold mine of interviews and archival footage are intermittent photographs from our very own Allan Tannenbaum.
SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock
Also hitting close to home is Barnaby Clay's SHOT! which turns the lens on MHG photographer and music legend in his own right Mick Rock who sits down to not only reflects upon the heyday of iconic subjects like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Joan Jett but also revels in his own which is now over a half-century strong with no signs of slowing. An institution on par with those who have sat before his skilled lens, the aptly named Rock's stories of historic portrait sessions are certainly engaging yet proving more compelling yet is his own life, a case study in self-edification and autobiographical elevation.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Of triumphant liberation and tortured melancholy, the story of the late-great Nina Simone as sculpted by director Liz Garbus gives rise to what is arguably the greatest music documentary of the last decade. True to its subject--a once-in-a-lifetime is vignetted through recent interviews with family, friends and collaborators in addition to archival footage in which the artist and activist is seen delivering sage advice like, "I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"--, What Happened, Miss Simone? is both a transcendent celebration of an icon's vulnerability and stoicism and earnest investigation into the mortal behind the hauntingly talented anomaly.
Strike A Pose
Shining new light on Madonna's 1990 straight-to-VHS Truth or Dare, Strike A Pose co-directed by Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould revisits the controversial tour doc a quarter-century later from the vantage point of those most impacted by its problematic release. Now taking center stage are main characters and former backup dancers who--for the sake of solidarity and self-sustainability--retell the story in their own words with engaging hindsight.
When You're Strange: A Film About The Doors
The life and times of frontman Jim Morrison are shrouded in mystery, wonder and a wealth of scandal matched only by talent, making the Lizard King an immaculate sole subject for cinematic glory but Tom Dicillo's When You're Strange is not that film. Narrated by actor Johnny Depp whose connection to the carnivalesque cavaliers of the Swinging Sixties is presumably that of a contemporary perhaps, this music doc pans out to provide a more holistic glimpse into a truly great and dynamic musical group, the vanguards of a soul-searching generation and freewheeling offshoots of a tumultuous era. Though occasionally guilty of falling victim to tired pitfalls of counterculture cliché and the 27 club myths which sanctify the legend of Morrison, a wealth of previously unseen archival footage and familiar photographs from the likes of Henry Diltz augment an altogether compelling portrait.
27: Gone Too Soon
To say that life is full of paradox is to acknowledge that for same reasons which we may roll our eyes at certain moments within When You're Strange, we embrace Simon Napier-Bell's 27: Gone Too Soon. Indeed banal at best and at worst problematic is the macabre zeitgeist of "27 Club" lore in its romanticization of such themes as depression, addiction and the epochal tortured artist yet nevertheless enticing, this is one of those must-see music docs for the sheer sake of guilty pleasure. For all the trite metaphors that may be (and are) employed to eulogize the tragic deaths of artists like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, previously unseen footage and interviews with medical experts, music critics and collaborators of the late musicians offer a compelling, at-times more poignantly analytical glimpse into one of mythic rock's greatest conspiracy theories.
20 Feet From Stardom
Reminding us that great accompaniment is the backbone of any good act, we'd be remiss not to acknowledge the unsung heroes of rock history who take centerstage in Morgan Neville's 2013 doc, 20 Feet From Stardom. A compelling portrait of the oft anonymous backup singers behind some of the biggest names in music, this film is as much about the performers themselves as it is about the hits they helped make happen. Juxtaposing interviews from Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and other legends with backup singers like Darlene Love and Judith Hill, 20 Feet From Stardom is a long-overdue expose on what it means to perform to sold-out stadiums around the world by night, wake up in the morning to take the kids to school and still maintain a sense of balance and creative independence.