Ten of the best music documentaries

As the hype grows for Oasis: Supersonic, Declan Burke offers a personal selection of its predecessors in the genre

Ten of the best music documentaries

10. Searching for Sugarman

Sixto Rodriguez (2012)

Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez was believed dead when two fans set out to discover what had become of a South African hero. Malik Bendjelloul’s film is a fascinating tale about how Rodriguez, whose three albums in the late ’60s sunk without trace in America, sold more records than Elvis in apartheid-era South Africa, where some of his songs became anti-apartheid anthems. Rodriguez’s accidental discovery of his fame in Africa, long after he had quit the business and worked for two decades as a construction worker, led to a triumphal tour of post-apartheid South Africa that would melt the hardest hearts of industry cynics.

9. Let It Be

The Beatles (1970)

Conceived as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of The Beatles at work on their latest album, Let It Be, evolved into a bittersweet account of the band in its final throes. Acrimony between George Harrison and Paul McCartney underpins the recording of ‘Two of Us’; John Lennon would later remember that the early recording sessions were “hell … the most miserable sessions on earth.” The film, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, concludes with The Beatles (and Billy Preston) playing a lunchtime rooftop gig, with the last word going to John Lennon: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!”

8. Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Anvil (2008)

The rags-to-rags tale of Canada’s Anvil, aka 50-somethings Steve Kudlow and Robb Reiner, a heavy metal band that once shared a 1984 bill in Japan with Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Scorpions. Sacha Gervasi’s film follows Anvil —day jobs include construction and meals-on-wheels — as they embark on an ill-fated European tour designed to kick-start their career, the band lurching from one disaster to the next as various talking heads — Lemmy, Slash, Lars Ulrich — pop up to confirm the influence Anvil had on them as musicians. Spinal Tap scripted by Beckett, basically.

7. History of the Eagles

The Eagles (2013)

Love ’em or hate ’em, The Eagles never did anything by halves. Alison Ellwood’s film is a musical treasure trove as it charts the evolution of The Eagles from California’s folk-rock-country scene of the late 1960s, then grows ever more compelling when internal divisions erupt as Glenn Frey and Don Henley establish an iron grip on the band. And then there’s the non-stop partying and epic substance abuse, the on-stage arguments leading to backstage brawls, and a near-pathological pursuit of success. You’ll never hear ‘Hotel California’ in quite the same way again.

6. Marley

Bob Marley (2012)

That one-word title says it all: Bob Marley wasn’t just reggae’s greatest star, but one of world music’s superstars, and he got the documentary he deserved in Kevin McDonald’s film.

The story is firmly rooted in Marley’s poverty-stricken youth in Jamaica, which provides the context for his ambition, his magpie-like approach to music, his politics and his Rastafarianism.

McDonald enjoyed what appears to be free access to those who knew Bob Marley best, with contributions from Rita and Ziggy Marley, Bunny Livingston, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Peter Tosh and Chris Blackwell. The result is a brilliant fusion of the man and the myth.

5. Woodstock

Various Artists (1970)

The high-water mark for the 1960s counter-culture movement, Woodstock is informally credited to a number of directors, including Michael Wadleigh, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. The juxtaposition of the flower-power ethic and the grim realism of mud-wallowing hippies makes for an absorbing commentary on the truth of the counter-culture, although Woodstock — released the year after the seminal concert took place at Bethel, New York — also doubles as one of the great concert movies of all time (along with The Band’s The Last Waltz (1978)), with participants including Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Who.

4. The Filth and the Fury

The Sex Pistols (2000)

Julien Temple had previously made The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (1980) about Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols, but The Filth and the Fury was his masterpiece. Conventional in structure (or as conventional as the punk ethic allows; the band members, for some reason, are filmed in silhouette) as it charts the band’s origins, the film is notable for its searing honesty as the surviving band members tell their side of the story. As a bonus, the raw footage of early gigs is so incendiary there’s a danger the celluloid will go up in flames.

3. Amy

Amy Winehouse (2015)

Asif Kapadia’s film is a celebration of Amy Winehouse’s phenomenal talent, as you might expect, but this is a truly heart-breaking tale of talent abused, in part by Winehouse herself, given her substance addictions, and partly by those she loved and trusted to save her from herself. It’s a frequently bleak journey into the dark truth that lies behind the myth of sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll, although the abiding images are those we glimpse when the mask slips and Amy’s child-like wonder at the pure joy of making music bursts through.

2. Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads (1984)

Essentially a concert film, with American new wave darlings Talking Heads taking to the stage, Stop Making Sense is much more than a straightforward recording of the band’s best-known songs. Lead singer David Byrne appears first, introducing ‘Psycho Killer’, and he’s gradually joined by other members of the band (Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison) for each successive song, the evolving sound charting the band’s own development. Ideally, Stop Making Sense should be enjoyed late at night, in a cinema, dancing in the aisles in a communal frenzy of appreciation.

1. Don’t Look Back

Bob Dylan (1967)

Shot in 1965 by DA Pennebaker, this fly-on-the-wall film of Bob Dylan’s England tour is the original of the species. The erudite champion of acoustic folk music was transforming into a fully-fledged, plugged-in icon of the 1960s, and Pennebaker’s film captures Dylan at his most charismatic, contrary and shy. Watched back-to-back with Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005), Don’t Look Back offers a penetrating portrait of popular music’s most influential singer-songwriter at a critical stage in his development.

  • Oasis: Supersonic, the documentary on the Gallagher brother’s band, goes on general release on October 14 

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