“The times they are a-changin’.”
In his 1964 folk anthem, Bob Dylan penned perhaps more than he really knew. The simple stanza of self-reflection was more than just a personal assessment of the then-current setting in the world at the time. Dylan’s generation did have its fair share of national catastrophes. This was the same baby boomer generation, after all, which had just grown up under threat of the bomb only to come of age with the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War.
Perhaps, in today’s times of uncertainty, we will find that there’s more one can take away from poetry and music than even their writers intended. The only downside to testing this theory, unfortunately, is that there’s no longer live music here in New York City—or in most parts of the country, for that matter.
Live entertainment has come to a stand-still, and people no longer have access to the joys of communal dancing and shared experience to ease the tensions wound by everyday life. More so than ever, now is the time to turn to the music itself, to immerse ourselves in it through listening, watching, learning. While live music remains crippled by the novel coronavirus, music’s emotional healing powers are no less powerful in isolation.
With countless hours of stay-at-home plans now on everyone’s schedule, there’s no shortage of great music documentaries on all the major streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime) to keep fans happy and surrounded by therapeutic melodies to ease the national anxiety in the weeks to come.
So, here’s a mix of music documentaries currently available to stream to help rock your soul as we navigate this new but necessary crossroads of change. Fans cannot go out and enjoy live music, but the music can still very much come to us from the safety of our homes. Oh the times, they certainly are a-changin’.
1. Long Strange Trip (Amazon Prime)
Did you really think we weren’t going to start out with the best documentary on the country’s most famous jam band to get this list going? Amir Bar Lev‘s four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead pulls fans out of the stressful muck of 2020 and back to a time when following the Dead across America for a little taste of adventure was all the rage for anyone who had the spirit in them to do so. In this film, fans can visit old friends who are no longer with us like Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, John Perry Barlow, and more while reliving the memories and fellowships shared by the Deadhead community thanks to the years spent on the road going from show to show together. We could all use a little adventure right about now.
Long Strange Trip – Official Trailer
[Video: Amazon Prime Video]
2. Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge (HBO)
Jan Wenner‘s lifelong journey of successfully bridging his two passions—journalism and rock n’ roll—is highlighted in this two-part film, which explores the triumphs of the counterculture-era media company that grew into an industry-leading publication of pop culture by the turn of the century. The storyline covers some of the highs in Rolling Stone‘s journalistic successes (like its inside coverage of the Patty Hearst kidnapping) to the since-retracted “A Rape on Campus” 2014 piece which led to the company getting sued bigtime by students from the University of Virginia.
From its roots as an independent venture in 1960s San Francisco by Jan and Jane Wenner and veteran jazz critic Ralph Gleason to attempt to explore the power of contemporary rock music to its coverage of Presidential elections over the years and modern-day events like the Iraq War, this documentary leaves no [Rolling] stone unturned. Jan isn’t the main subject of the two-part documentary, but he does help lead the viewer through the story thanks to additional interviews by many of his longtime colleagues including Ben Fong-Torres, Annie Leibovitz, and Jon Landau, along with archival footage of writers like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge – Official Trailer
[Video: Transmission Films]
3. Amy (Netflix)
In an industry in which the turnover of female pop singers can sometimes be too fast for fans to keep up, Amy is a wonderful but heartbreaking slowdown look at the person behind the famous name and hit songs with real emotions, human imperfections, and world-class talent. Amy Winehouse‘s life and passing in July 2011 is explored with graceful subjectivity in Asif Kapadia‘s 2015 film, which would go on to take home a Grammy Award for “Best Music Film” and an Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature.” Amy will inspire you, and it will evoke your emotions in sympathy for a talented young girl pulled out of the party well before her time.
Amy – Official Trailer
4. Jazz (Amazon Prime)
Ken Burns‘ in-depth exploration of jazz in his 10-part docuseries shines an abundance of light on “America’s Music” like never before. The improvisational style of music which developed out of cities like New Orleans and New York in the early part of the 20th century would set the foundation for the modern jam scene as we know it. Burns and his award-winning team take viewers deep into the genre as they explore the music and performances of names like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and many more. The collective bodies of work are all explored and explained with wonderful research and detail, as Ken Burns’ films are famously known to do so well. Explore the original style of jamming as you’ve never heard before.
Jazz – Official Trailer
[Video: PBS America]
5. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (Netflix)
Last year, acclaimed filmmaker and classic rock connaisseur Martin Scorsese delivered a unique retelling of Bob Dylan’s 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour to Netflix. The infamous run of shows featured an impressive roster of guest musicians including Joan Baez, David Mansfield, T-Bone Burnett, Beatnik icon and poet Allen Ginsberg, Mick Ronson, and many more. It’s a bit frustrating at times—because the concert footage is so great that it makes you want more. At the same time, the film also features fictional interviews of real actors like Sharon Stone who portray characters who were not actually involved in the tour, making for a fresh twist on the rock-doc genre. Check out footage of the Dylan band performing “Hard Rain” as featured in the film.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese – Official Trailer
6. Springsteen on Broadway (Netflix)
Bruce Springsteen‘s 236-show Broadway run at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre is packed into a 153-minute Netflix concert film showcasing his storytelling-via-rock ‘n roll abilities at their best. Springsteen, who last year announced plans to tour with the E Street Band in 2020 pending the health status of the country, delivers a mix of songs from his vast catalog of material on both guitar and piano which are all prefaced by the personal stories and meanings behind each. Songs including “My Hometown”, “My Father’s House”, “Thunder Road”, “Born in the U.S.A.”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, “Born to Run”, and more all make appearances throughout the film, which comes with an excellent soundtrack, as well.
Springsteen on Broadway [Official Trailer]
7. Gimme Danger: Story of The Stooges (Amazon Prime)
Jim Jarmusch‘s 2016 documentary about the wild band out of Michigan known as The Stooges and their equally famous frontman, Iggy Pop, tells their story as proto-punk pioneers. The film includes original interviews with the surviving members of the group and unleashes the energy and attitude fitting of a band like The Stooges. The amount of archival footage of the band’s early years is as good as it gets for even the most diehard fans, and truly explores Pop’s desire to become something more on stage than just a name in the classic rock bin at the record store.
Gimme Danger [Official Trailer]
[Video: Movieclips Indie]
8. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (Hulu)
Too much has been said and written about The Beatles at this point, but Ron Howard focuses on the section from the band’s all-too-short tenure during which they actually performed live music. Members of The Beatles were different musicians when they were still performing in front of live audiences than the ones they evolved into as studio masters by the latter half of the 1960s. The first six years of their journey are chronicled with new interviews from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who tell the tales of how their love for exploring American blues music and rockabilly led to turning pop culture upside down while taking them into uncharted—and, eventually, untenable—territories of celebrity and superstardom.
The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years [Official Trailer]
9. The Grateful Dead Movie (Amazon Prime)
Many Deadheads know The Grateful Dead Movie, the 1977 concert film co-directed by Jerry Garcia and Leon Gast which chronicled the Grateful Dead‘s final performances of 1974 leading up to their cease in touring for two years. These captured farewell shows at the Winterland Area showcased the band at the peak of their initial, “Primal Dead” era, with performances of early-70s staples like “One More Saturday Night”, “Truckin'”, “China Cat Sunflower” / “I Know You Rider”, “Casey Jones”, “Morning Dew”, and more. From the pre-show soundcheck hangouts to private interviews, the film gave fans a rare glimpse behind the Grateful Dead machine in their creative prime.
Grateful Dead – “China Cat Sunflower > “I Know You Rider” – 10/17/74
[Video: Grateful Dead]
10. Quincy (Netflix)
There’s really no one who has embarked on a professional and personal journey quite to the levels of Quincy Jones, whose life and massive body of work is chronicled in the 2018 documentary which was co-directed by his daughter and actor Rashida Jones. The veteran songwriter stands as an inspiration to many of the Netflix film’s notable guest stars, including Tony Bennett, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar, but never tries to sell anything more than an inspirational life story of a jazz musician who found himself behind the music heard by millions around the world.
Quincy [Official Trailer]
11. Stop Making Sense (Amazon Prime)
Few concert films over the years have helped in retaining a band’s performance credibility the way 1984’s Stop Making Sense has done for the Talking Heads. Director Jonathan Demme‘s snapshot of the band’s run at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater features performances of”Psycho Killer”, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, and more while doing a fine job of introducing the eclectic rock band to anyone experiencing their music for the first time. From big suits to big solos, David Byrne and company keep viewers engaged at full capacity from start to finish. A concert classic.
Talking Heads – “Crosseyed and Painless”
[Video: Talking Heads]
12. Janis: Little Girl Blue (Hulu)
This 2015 documentary about Janis Joplin takes fans back to the late 1960s, when the soulful rock singer from Port Arthur, TX became an icon to baby boomer generation following Big Brother and the Holding Company‘s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. There was much more to Joplin’s journey, however, as the film wonderfully explores with the help of interviews with Dick Cavett, Clive Davis, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Weir, Country Joe McDonald, and more.
Janis: Little Girl Blue [Official Trailer]
13. Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (Netflix)
Rush re-entered music headlines earlier this year for all the wrong reasons. Drummer Neil Peart, the timekeeper of the band’s complex and very carefully orchestrated compositions died from supposed brain cancer at the age of 67, leaving the band, which had already retired from performing, to close the book on one of the best runs in the history of rock. Beyond The Lighted Stage–pulled from a lyric penned by Peart–offers a wonderful history of the band which never fit into the corporate structure of arena rock in the 1970s and 80s, yet went on to carve their own path with eclectic lyrical motifs and instrumental mastery from all three members. Dive into the world of Rush with this film that was made at a time when the band was still very much a force to be reckoned with.
Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage [Official Trailer]
14. The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Netflix)
The 2014 Netflix documentary which acted as a precursor to 2017’s Long Strange Trip puts the spotlight on the other guitarist in the Grateful Dead with everyone’s favorite short-shorts-wearing workout guru Bobby Weir. Weir’s journey from a rebellious youth in Palo Alto to forming the band and “Running off with the circus,” as he puts it in the film, is highlighted with even more video and photo footage that wasn’t featured in Long Strange Trip. The man who has maintained a somewhat private life in contrast to his globally-famous former bandmate opens up on topics from his thoughts on Deadheads to his complex relationship with Jerry Garcia to his role as the heartthrob of the Grateful Dead to his lifelong journey as an adopted child, and more.
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir [Official Trailer]
15. The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America (Netflix)
Wish you were traveling the world rather than stuck inside? Head to South America with Mick Jagger and the boys in this concert film and travelogue which pulls highlights from various stops on the band’s 2016 tour of Latin America. Director Paul Dugdale takes fans behind the scenes of the inner workings of arguably the biggest rock band on the planet with footage of Mick Jagger on the phone with management discussing how they’re going to pull off a concert in Cuba right around the same time President Barack Obama was planning his historic visit to the country, to Keith Richards welcoming cameras into his own Presidential-worthy hotel suite. The Rolling Stones remain one of the most captivating live acts in music today, and this film is right there to capture it all.
Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America [Official Trailer]
[Video: TIFF Trailers]
16. The Last Waltz (Amazon Prime)
Another classic concert film and documentary from Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz and The Band itself remain such an inspiration to musicians today that artists ranging from Warren Haynes to Don Was still go on tour in celebration of the 1976 farewell performance. The star-studded film includes the famous sit-in performances from Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Neil Young, and more. The dramatic rise and peak of Bob Dylan‘s former backing band take center stage in what should be a staple in fans’ concert film collections.
The Last Waltz [Official Trailer]
17. The Apollo (HBO)
One could make the argument that no music venue has played a bigger role in the evolution of American music than Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The New York City venue launched the careers of artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Smokey Robinson to Aretha Franklin and still hosts big-time concerts while maintaining a prominent role in the Harlem community with a range of different events. The 2019 HBO documentary educates younger audiences with numerous stories and accounts from nights inside the historical venue, which has helped to inspire and lift the city’s African-American community to new heights over the decades. The Apollo isn’t just a music venue in Harlem, it’s a representation of what can be achieved by those who put their heart and soul into making a moment come alive.
The Apollo [Official Trailer]
18. IT (YouTube)
PBS’ 2004 documentary chronicles Phish’s two-day IT festival on August 2nd-3rd, 2003, and it’s arguably the best Phish documentary ever. IT marked the beginning of Phish pushing through to a new era after taking some off time to find themselves following their mind-blowing Millennium-opening performance at 1999’s Big Cypress. The event was the rock band’s first festival in the ‘2.0’ era—and the band’s 6th festival overall—and the doc combines pro-shot video of select songs from the festival with interview footage and more.
IT [Full Film]
19. Mavis! (HBO)
Mavis Staples is a treasure and highlight name on America’s list of is most beloved performers. In this 2015 documentary, Staples’ contemporaries ranging from Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan to Prince sound off on the impact her music has had on others over the years. It’s no wonder so many talented artists wanted to partake in her 80th birthday tribute concerts put on by Newport Folk Festival in 2019. Take in the music, words, and stories from of the last remaining artists from a bygone era as she charges into the latter half of her 70s in this wonderful and uplifting film.
Mavis! [Official Trailer]
[Video: Madman Films]
20. ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (Netflix)
If you only know Sam Cooke for his immaculate singing voice, you’re missing out on all the most interesting parts of his story. This incredible documentary follows the singer from his rise as a gospel crooner to his crossover to R&B to his rise to global superstardom. But far more interesting than the story of Sam Cooke the musician is the story of Sam Cooke the man. He repeatedly broke racial barriers with defiance, formed intellectual alliances with some of the biggest Black figures of his time (like Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali), and led historic drives for racial equality in the record industry and beyond. He was a role model on a global scale. Then, he got murdered in a motel room at the age of 33 under highly suspicious circumstances. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke paints a vivid picture of this fascinating and world-changing human being and his still-puzzling death.
Note: The whole ReMastered series on Netflix is worth watching for some wild, true stories about Bob Marley, Robert Johnson, Jam Master Jay, and more.
ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke [Official Trailer]
21. Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, Ret. (Qello Stingray, Amazon rental)
Col Bruce Hampton Ret. was a mystical being. Beyond his myriad contributions to what we now know as the “jam band scene,” Bruce had an instant, powerful impact on every person he met. In this 2012 documentary, a slew of Bruce’s mentees—from Dave Matthews to Mike Gordon to Derek Trucks to Chuck Leavell to Billy Bob Thornton to Bill Kreutzmann and beyond—speak with reverence about the man that taught them how to think, play, and live with intent. It’s a powerful depiction of a powerful person—and it doesn’t even include his stranger-than-fiction, couldn’t-make-this-up death onstage at his 70th birthday show in 2017.
Basically Frightened [Official Trailer]
22. Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix)
This expertly-crafted documentary series chronicles the growth of hip-hop from the parks of the Bronx to the top of the entertainment world. By casting the crucial players in the genre’s history as characters in a comic book-style origin story alongside interviews with the heroes themselves, Hip-Hop Evolution is thoroughly entertaining for both hip-hop novices and diehard heads. From originators like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa to The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, and East Coast/West Coast feud to superproducers like The Neptunes and J Dilla and everything in between, this is the definitive hip-hop documentary out today—and there are four seasons to work through.
Hip-Hop Evolution [Season 2 Trailer]
23. Searching For Sugar Man (Netflix)
We can’t really give too much away about this one. It’s one of those that you have to watch for yourself. Searching For Sugar Man follows two fans’ attempts to find out what happened to Sixto Rodriguez, a relatively obscure American singer/guitarist whose music inspired a cultural phenomenon in South Africa—where nobody knew anything about him. This quest turns up some mind-boggling results, and the whole documentary will have you sitting on the edge of your couch. It’s probably good for you to get up and stretch a little at this point, anyway.
Searching For Sugar Man [Official Trailer]
[Video: Movieclips Trailers]
24. The Defiant Ones (HBO)
This captivating, multi-part documentary from 2017 follows the parallel and, eventually, intersecting paths of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, two entirely different men who would wind up coming together to change the direction of the music and entertainment industries. By juxtaposing the very different backgrounds of Jimmy and Dre, The Defiant Ones lays bare the fateful mix of qualities that made them unlikely industry disruptors.
The Defiant Ones [Official Trailer]
25. Echo in the Canyon (Netflix)
California in the 1960s could certainly have been considered a “Legendary paradise,” as Tom Petty puts it within the opening seconds of the film’s trailer. While San Francisco undoubtedly had its own significant role in moving rock and pop music forward in the 1960s, it was down in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles where artists like The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and The Mamas and the Papas were spreading the ease of Southern California across the country. The film allows fans to re-emerge themselves with the magical trademark vibes of the classic “California Sound” that helped shape a generation. It’s also worth mentioning that Echo in the Canyon features the final filmed interviews from Tom Petty before his death in 2017.
Echo in the Canyon [Official Trailer]
[Video: Movieclips Indie]