Music documentaries on Netflix are particularly satisfying because they run the gamut from concert footage from established acts like Bob Marley, Biggie, Tupac, Justin Timberlake and Keith Richards, to more explorative films about unheralded musicians who have lived extraordinaire lives.
Whether you’re looking to be transported to far-flung venues – to pretend you were lucky enough to nab a ticket to a once in a lifetime event – or simply a fan of quality storytelling, we’ve compiled the best music documentaries on Netflix.
20 Feet From Stardom
Awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards, 20 Feet From Stardom chronicles the lives of the backup singers who have aided some of the most noteworthy vocalists in modern music history like Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ray Charles and more.
While living a life as a working musician is certainly noteworthy, the film excels in asking the question, did these singers want more?
Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory
Most people – regardless of the genre one prefers – often speak of the “power” of music. In Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the experiences of individuals around the country who have been seen their lives transformed, repaired and enriched through music’s healing powers.
Exploring individuals suffering from debilitating memory loss, to how the brain itself interprets songs from a neurological standpoint, the film was awarded the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Ballet 422 shines a light on the arduous, two-month process that goes into crafting a new work at the New York City Ballet during the troupe’s winter season of 2013.
Viewers are introduced to a young choreographer, Justin Peck, whose “Paz de la Jolla” piece has all the makings of a hit. But as expected, there are countless bumps along the way which ultimately finds everyone involved questioning if it’s all worth it.
Beware of Mr. Baker
Drummer, Ginger Baker, first entered the public consciousness for his percussive contributions to early albums for the likes of Cream, Blind Faith and Fela Kuti.
Over the course of his career, Baker has checked off all the major milestones that go along with becoming a living legend; including rampant drug usage, exotic pilgrimages, violence, broken relationships with family, and bankruptcy.
As director Jay Bulgar so eloquently put it, “This movie wasn’t about making people love him or hate him, it was about creating an argument within one’s conflicting resolution for this person, a walking contradiction. He’s undefinable. You can’t put him in a box, and you can’t put his music into a box.”
Biggie & Tupac
There are usually two roads to travel when examining the lives of Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur. The first, is usually more uplifting and examines how both men used hip-hop music to elevate both themselves and those around them. The second, attempts to finally answer the question; who are the people responsible for their murders?
In Biggie & Tupac, Nick Broomfield’s documentary falls into the latter category and points his finger at Death Row head honcho, Suge Knight, and subsequent police misconduct by the LAPD.
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
2007 proved to be an important year for the band, Journey. Not only was their song, “Don’t Stop Believin'” used in the final scene of The Sopranos, but they also set out to find a new lead singer to replace Steve Augeri.
While scouring YouTube, Journey guitarist, Neal Schon, discovered an untapped, but powerful voice he thought could carry the power ballads. The only problem; Arnel Pineda was a world away in the Philippines and they had no idea if he spoke English.
So began the unlikely story of Pineda’s journey to join Journey.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
With over 50 million records sold – resulting in a contribution to country music that many think catapulted the genre into the mainstream – Glen Campbell is perhaps second-to-none.
In Glen Campbell: Ill Be Me, the singer is forced to reckon with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and his desire for one last tour that will both satiate his fans, and that little voice inside his head which reminds him of the heights he reached as a musician.
I Called Him Morgan
Kasper Collin’s poignant documentary shines a light on the life of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan – who earned his musical stripes from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey – and was fatally shot by his common-law wife, Helen, inside of a Harlem nightclub in 1972.
Bouncing from a timeline that details how Helen helped Morgan pull himself up by his bootstraps, to revealing audio interviews with her after she was incarcerated and then released, the film is somber, impactful and mysterious.
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Before her untimely death at just 27 years old, singer/songwriter, Janis Joplin, endeared herself to people all around the world thanks to vocal qualities wholly unique to her.
Narrated by Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Janis: Little Girl Blue explores the life of the singer through interviews with her family, peers like the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and contemporary musicians who she had a profound impact on like Pink, Melissa Ethridge and Juliette Lewis.
Justin Timberlake and The Tennessee Kids
Unlike the other films compiled, Justin Timberlake and The Tennessee Kids eschews deep dives into the psyche of its subject in favor of a dazzling concert experience on the final night of a world tour which found the singer making 134 stops en route to a $231.6 million USD payday.
Keep On Keepin’ On
Despite being blind, Justin Kauflin became a certifiable piano prodigy. But in a cruel twist of fate, he was unable to share his gift because he was plagued by stage fright.
Enter, Clark Terry, a seasoned musician whose many accolades included being Quincy Jones’s first teacher, a mentor to Miles Davis, and the first African-American staff musician on The Tonight Show.
In Keep On Keepin’ On, the audience is treated to the unlikely bond which is forged between Kauflin and Terry as they prepare for an elite jazz competition – where they are forced to reconcile with the challenges bestowed upon them.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Keith Richards’s life is often pointed to as an example that longevity is often a tossup – as the hard partying rock star has outpaced many notable people who have lived a much cleaner lifestyle.
In Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet from Stardom) film, we get a glimpse into the life of the then 71-year-old Richards as he prepares to release his first solo project in 23 years, Crosseyed Heart.
Featuring commentary from musicians who knew him best – like Buddy Guy, Tom Waits and Steve Jordan – the film also explores other key aspects like the formation of The Rolling Stones and his relationship with his father.
Kurt & Courtney
Despite having been ruled a suicide, Nick Broomfield’s 1996 film, Kurt & Courtney, looks to poke holes into the cause of death of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain.
Citing a lack of fingerprints on the weapon, and a body so ravaged with drugs that Bloomfield alleges it would have been impossible for him to even pull the trigger, he goes so far as to paint Courtney Love as the chief suspect.
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As one of the most celebrated artists of all time, Kevin McDonald’s 2012 film looks to perfectly capture the life and career of Bob Marley.
Since it was officially authorized by his estate, viewers are treated to interviews with fans and colleagues alike – as well as unseen concert footage and previously unheard recordings from Tuff Gong.
Miss Sharon Jones!
Directed by Barbara Kopple – whose debut documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. earned her an Academy Award in 1976 – she continued her excellent 40-year career with an examination of the life of soul singer extraordinaire, Sharon Jones.
With the inciting incident involving a cancer diagnosis for Jones, the film focuses on the singer’s perseverance and her unflinching desire to keep on doing what she loves.
It may seem unlikely that a tiny recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama is as important to rock ‘n’ roll culture as any other – despite the existence of more established recording meccas like Nashville, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.
However, Fame Studios – in a town of 13,000 – has the distinction of being the home to esteemed recording artists like Aretha Franklin, The Allman Brothers, Jimmy Cliff, The Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and more, and individuals recordings like “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You,” “Mustang Sally,” “Tell Mama,” “Kodachrome,” and “Freebird.”
Founded by Rick Hall, his own personal journey into music was marked by countless tragedies which many think was channeled into the physical space in order to help artists achieve a sound that is unique to the studio situated on the banks of the Tennessee River.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
One of the longstanding hoaxes in the music business is that Elvis Presley is not actually dead. In Jeanie Finlay’s film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, she explores the life of Jimmy Ellis – an unknown singer thrust into the spotlight by Shelby Singleton, the producer who took over the Sun Records catalog of “The King” – as part of a crazy scheme that had him pretending to be Elvis back from the grave.
Sonita tells the story of Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghan teen, who began using rap as a vehicle to protest forced marriages – which was ignited by the murder of a 27-year-old who was publicly beaten and killed in the streets of Kabul in 2015 for refusing the nuptials thrust upon her.
The Wrecking Crew
While record producers in a contemporary context have a slew of recording tricks to aid in creating a hit record, those behind the boards in the 1960s and 1970s simply turned to a group of studio musicians – dubbed “The Wrecking Crew” – to create the music for bands like The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny & Cher, Elvis, The Monkees, Glen Campbell, Sam Cooke, Buffalo Springfield and many more.
Directed by Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew ringleader, Tommy Tedesco, the film was a labor of love which took over 10 years to make and which needed miracle after miracle to get clearance to use the hits that the studio musicians had helped create.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Even a feature-length film can’t quite encapsulate the legendary career of singer, Nina Simone, who is every bit as important as a crusader for Civil Rights and gender equality as she is a musical figure.
Filmmaker, Liz Garbus, took on the arduous task and does a noteworthy job at not only chronicling her life, but also giving her performances the room they need to breathe and exist on their own.