BySean Gallen, writer at
The pen is mightier than the sword but is ultimately useless in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Filmmaker, filmlover, MP staff writer.
Sean Gallen

How do you capture what sound looks like? How do you send the audience back into the past and put them in the crowd of a Bob Dylan concert or Woodstock festival? A good music documentary can make these impossible dreams a reality. Jim Jarmusch's latest project, Gimme Danger, is a caustic, visceral documentary on the Godfathers of punk, The Stooges. Jarmusch goes on a trip back to the '60s and, with the masterful marriage of raw footage and anecdotes, faithfully recreates the sensation of seeing Iggy Pop, spitting and thrashing on stage, for the first time.

Check out the fiery trailer below:

Gimme Danger will be hitting screens on October 28th but to get you in the mood we've decided to compile a list of essential music documentaries. Each entry provides an insightful window into an artist's life as they are approaching a pivotal moment in their career and each one puts you right in the front row.

See also:

1. Don't Look Back

  • Artist on display: Bob Dylan
  • Director: D.A. Pennebaker
  • Year of Release: 1967

D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back is a no-holds-barred look at the iconic songwriter during his pivotal phase from cult folk-hero to legendary innovator. A masterpiece in Cinéma vérité, the film has no structure or agenda, it merely follows Dylan as he argues with journalists, as he dances with Allen Ginsberg in hotel rooms and as he presents his radical, new sound to a world wasn't quite ready for it.

2. Dig!

  • Artists on display: The Brian Jonestown Massacre & The Dandy Warhols
  • Director: Ondi Timoner
  • Year of release: 2004

Don't Look Back taught us the importance of showing the audience a true picture of the artist, warts and all. Dig! shows us an even truer picture of two bands and its warts — not much else! The two musical visionaries, Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor are on the brink of breaking through to success but their biggest obstacles are themselves. Dig! uncovers all the unlawful behavior and the bewildering megalomania of two of the last great rockstars.

3. Buena Vista Social Club

  • Artists on display: Buena Vista Social Club
  • Director: Wim Wenders
  • Year of release: 1997

This warm love letter to Cuban music is a seductive introduction to the island and was the first time many of us heard the magical fusion of musical styles. Director Wim Wenders dedicates a separate chapter to introducing each musician in the group, following them through the charming streets of Havana and building up to a sumptuous performance of the eclectic legends. This poignant testament to Cuban music turned the Buena Vista Social Club into a household name and had thousands of people dancing in their living rooms to the soundtrack.

4. Stop Making Sense

  • Artist on display: Talking Heads
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Year of release: 1984

When Jonathan Demme got together with the Talking Heads and decided to film a concert, they wanted to do more than just plop a camera in front of the band to capture the proceedings. They wanted the audience to witness the process behind performance and the transformation it allows the artists. The concert begins with David Byrne alone with an acoustic guitar and a boom box, playing "Pyscho Killer," immediately creating a sense of intimacy in the cavernous Pantages Theater. As the set starts to bloom, more members of the band are added and by the final song and the set hits its transcendental crescendo.

5. Searching For Sugar Man

  • Artist on display: Sixto Rodriguez
  • Director: Malik Bendjelloul
  • Year of release: 2012

By revisiting the past, documentaries can sometimes discover treasure buried under the sands of time. Searching For Sugar Man recounts the wistful story of Rodriguez, a folk singer from the '70s who fell into obscurity after a handful of records flopped in the US. He garnered a huge cult following in South Africa and became the soundtrack to the fight against Apartheid. This powerful documentary corrects the past and give Rodriguez the glory he's due.

6. Woodstock

  • Artists on display: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, Joan Baez
  • Director: Michael Wadleigh
  • Year of release: 1970

When the Woodstock festival first started, it was a small gathering of like-minded free spirits who gathered in a field to take drugs and listen to amazing music. The documentary navigates the political revolt, the incredible acts and the hordes of hippies at a time when the festival took off and became a counter culture. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana are immortalized by the iconic footage and even to this day, most festivals try and create the atmosphere of Woodstock '69.

7. The Decline Of Western Civilization

  • Artists on display: X, Black Flag, The Germs, Fear, Circle Jerks
  • Director: Penelope Spheeris
  • Year of release: 1981

The total antithesis to the Woodstock movement, The Decline of Western Civilization documents the burgeoning punk scene in 1980s LA. Penelope Spheeris's camera drops you into the heart of the mosh pit; all the swelling rage and joy of the disillusioned youth is filtered through her lens. The greatest music documentaries offer a window into scenes before they become scenes and an insight into bands before they became legends. The Decline of Western Civilization brings you so close to bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and X that you can almost feel the spit and beer flying around.

8. No Direction Home

  • Artist on display: Bob Dylan (again)
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Year of release: 2005

If Don't Look Back offered audiences a window into the world of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home opened the door to his house and allowed us to spend the afternoon with him. Martin Scorsese and Bob Dylan himself trace the steps of a small-town bum from Montana becoming the figurehead in the NYC folk scene and follows his rise to the dizzying heights of his transition into rock music. Bob opens up and dissects his actions and words to reveal a closer, more introspective look at the life of a legend.

9. Spinal Tap

  • Artists on display: Spinal Tap
  • Director: Rob Reiner
  • Year of release: 1984

Spinal Tap was made in the height of hair metal, 1984, but remains hilarious and insightful to this day. The original mockumentary breathlessly witnesses the final tour of British metal legends Spinal Tap as they are crumbling into obsolescence. Spinal Tap spoofed every band from Zeppelin to Metallica and is a loving middle finger to all the metal heads who take themselves a little too seriously.

10. Time Is Illmatic

  • Artist on display: Nas
  • Director: One9
  • Year of release: 2014

At the risk of sounding like an old-head, Hip Hop has become so mainstream these days, that it's easy to forget the long struggle it has taken to reach this success. Nas's 1994 album Illmatic is arguably the most important Hip Hop album ever because it elevated a juvenile genre and turned it into art, laying the blueprint for generations to come. Time Is Illmatic guides the audience through the turmoil behind the album. We walk through the projects where Nas dwelled, we see the friends he loses to crime and drugs and we witness a young man at a crossroads in his life.

Do you think there's anything missing from the list? What would you add?


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