From Johnny Cash to Dionne Warwick, 2023 is going to be a great year for music documentaries. But a great music documentary does more than just show you interesting footage — it gives you a sense of what kind of people wrote the songs you care about. You see it in Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana and Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back — there’s always a story in songwriters.
Ahead of some truly intriguing documentary subjects (including Paramore’s Hayley Williams!) here are a few music docs that do an admirable job of showing a beloved artist in a new light.
No Direction Home
Can you really capture Bob Dylan? No less a filmmaker than Martin Scorsese gave it his best effort with No Direction Home, and the answer appears to be “no.” Scorsese makes his subject’s unknowability a feature instead of a bug, interrogating the myth as much as the man himself.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic
Illmatic is one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever, so it’s a credit to the documentary about its release that the story never gets lost in its own myth. Instead, the movie is interested in exploring Nas himself — a quiet, thoughtful artist who put everything he had into an album that deservedly changed the course of American rap.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’ documentary about the infamous underground art rock band pulls off the very difficult trick of making you feel like you’re hearing this band for the first time, in the full context of Andy Warhol’s art scene that was so vital to their enduring legacy. In that sense, it’s not just the story of a band, but a portrait of a New York City scene and an examination of the long shadow it’s cast over culture ever since.
20 Feet From Stardom
Morgan Neville finds a novel way to explore songs you already know well: by talking to the backup singers who made them come alive. From the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” Neville tries to figure out why some of the most iconic voices in pop music belong to people whose names you’ve never heard, and why it’s so hard for women — women of color, especially — to break out of “backup singer” status and become stars themselves.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston spent his life wrestling mightily with his mental health, something which occasionally endangered his family and loved ones. He also wrote a lot of beautiful, sad, strange music. Director Jeff Feuerzeig tries to reconcile the two sides to the wonderful talent and complex legacy of this singer/songwriter that does honor to his story and interrogates the American love of “crazy genius” artists.
You think you know the story of Amy Winehouse, the self-destructive young raconteur with the voice of angel. But Asia Kapadia’s documentary shows a different side of Winehouse — funny, insecure, clever, ambitious and complicated in a way the tabloids refused to acknowledge. Kapadia’s story makes it clear that her sad fate was not a foregone conclusion of a bad girl gone worse, but the result of a culture who refused to heed its own role in a young woman’s living nightmare.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
In addition to being one of our biggest stars, Beyoncé is also one of our most elusive. Part of her celebrity stems from the mystery of how little we know about her life. Homecoming might be the closest we ever get to seeing what goes into crafting this narrative, which surprisingly intimate footage of the weeks of toil, sweat and determination it takes to pull off something as mesmerizing as her 2018 Coachella performance.
Sydney Pollack’s 1972 film of Aretha Franklin’s two-night live recording session for Amazing Grace spent decades as one of popular music’s great white whales, withheld from the viewing public for a variety of reasons both technical and legal. It finally landed a few months before Franklin passed away and, if anything, turned out to be better than the hype. It’s a film of a singer whose talent simply defies description at the height of her power, transporting a crowd, a film crew and her own backup Gospel choir to glory.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
When Q-Tip, Phife, Ali and Jarobi were at their peak, there was nothing else quite like them in music. Beats, Rhyme & Life gets at the wild amount of energy around A Tribe Called Quest in their heyday, but great concert footage can be found anywhere. Where the documentary really shines is in how brutally honest the four men were about the pressures not just of fame, but of being a public person with something important to say and an unforgettable way of saying it.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
An incredibly moving portrait of the finest artists in American history, What Happened, Miss Simone? is unflinching in its portrayal of Nina Simone as an activist, a genius and a woman beset by demons both personal and structural. Like any good music documentary, it also has tons of footage from Simone’s live performance, which are as rapturous as any film you could ever lay your eyes on.