The past decade has been a golden age for music documentaries. With films like Summer of Soul, Amy, 20 Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man all winning Oscars, and heavy-hitters like Martin Scorsese, Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson all making feature-length love letters to favorite artists, the quality of music filmmaking has never been higher. And thanks to the multiplicity of streaming services, it's never been easier to access a wealth of music docs either. But therein lies the problem. With such a glut of worthwhile music films, it's easy for some real gems to get lost in the shuffle. With that in mind, Q staff have assembled 15 standout music documentaries from the last ten years that you might have missed.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (2013) — Offering a vivid glimpse at the ins-and-outs of running a scrappy independent label, this portrait of L.A.’s Stones Throw Records is also a snapshot of ‘00s underground hip-hop at its most colorful and inventive. Founded by Peanut Butter Wolf when he was an aspiring DJ mourning the murder of his childhood friend and bandmate, Stones Throw was initially intended to be a temporary outlet for their own unreleased music, though he soon decided to keep the label going by simply “signing whatever I personally like.” Sometimes that meant releasing legendary hip-hop masterpieces like Madvillain’s Madvillainy and J Dilla’s Donuts, and sometimes it meant exploring the furthest fringes of the commercially unviable avant-garde, and both sides are given equal time here. Come for the home movies of MF DOOM and Madlib in the studio, stay for the delightfully deranged interview with super-fan Kanye West (back when his derangement could still be delightful). — Andrew Barker
The Possibilities Are Endless (2014) — An examination of Scottish singer-songwriter/former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins in the wake of his 2005 stroke, and how he fought his way back from the brink of death and returned to his music career. It must be said that it’s one of the artsier docs you’ll likely to find, with the first 20 minutes offering a blend of video and audio that attempts to mirror how confused Collins’ mind was in the wake of his stroke, but it definitely serves to set the stage for the viewer for just what kind of a struggle it was for Collins in that initial post-stroke period. Even if you aren’t overly familiar with Collins’ career, filmmakers James Hall and Edward Lovelace make it easy for you by acknowledging that he got his start with Orange Juice and then underlining the biggest hit of Collins’ career (“A Girl Like You”), after which the focus turns almost exclusively to the process of getting back into the studio and, eventually, back onstage. Yes, that first part of the film can be off-putting, but it’s worth it to take the journey with Collins. — Will Harris
A Poem Is a Naked Person (2015) — Filmed in 1974, idiosyncratic filmmaker Les Blank’s study of Leon Russell went unreleased until 2015, blocked from view by its subject, who was none too pleased when he watched a rough cut. And it’s not hard to see why: shot when the hitmaking piano man was at the height of his fame, the film seems palpably bored with Russell, constantly cutting away from his meandering interviews and (brilliantly captured) concerts to focus on unrelated people and phenomena that the director just happened to notice on the periphery. For every scene of Russell working on songs or jamming with George Jones and Willie Nelson, we get just as many interviews with passing carnival performers, long shots of the scenery from an Alabama riverboat, and close-up sequences of a snake eating a bird. Equal parts tedious, inscrutable, and profoundly beautiful, there’s nothing else quite like it. — A.B.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (2015) - The first UK punk band ever to tour the US finally gets a documentary that explores their entire career while also following the schism in the band and the two portions of the lineup that tour independently of each other, one as The Damned and one not. Directed by Wes Orshoki (Lemmy), the film was shot over the course of a three-year period, following Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible on the road with The Damned while also focusing in on Rat Scabies and Brian James, who play together and perform many of the same songs in their sets as Vanian and Sensible. Interspersed between these “storylines” are talking heads with a plethora of fans and friends of the band, including Mick Jones of the Clash, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Chris Stein and Clem Burke of Blondie, Chrissie Hynde, Jello Biafra, and Jon Moss of Culture Club, among others. We don’t want to spoil the experience of viewing the film, but once you’ve watched it (and absolutely not until then), you’ll find yourself wondering how things ultimately turned out for the band’s two warring factions, at which point you’ll want to click here...but not yet!!! — W.H.
808 (2015) — We’ve gotten countless tributes to the impact and cultural significance of iconic guitars like the Fender Statocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, but it’s possible that just as many indelible hits came courtesy of the less-photogenic Roland TR-808 drum machine, which was the weapon of choice for everything from early hip-hop and electronic dance music to ‘80s synth pop and R&B. Unabashedly geeky and at times exhaustingly thorough, Alexander Dunn’s documentary tribute to the 808 features interviews with everyone from the Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin to Phil Collins and Pharrell Williams. Yet the real headliner here is Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, captured on-camera months before his death at the age of 87, who still can’t believe an invention he initially considered a failure had such wide-ranging impact. — A.B.
Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be? (2015) — A fun look at the career of a guy who’s probably spent more time on the cusp of superstardom than just about any rocker in the business, with a lot of notable names serving as talking heads, including John Taylor, Gabriel Byrne, Don Johnson, Steve Jones, and his ex-wife, Pamela, among others. Yes, that’s a diverse cast of characters, to say the least, but they all play a part in Des Barres’ journey in show business. First he was a child actor, then he was a teen actor (you may remember him from To Sir With Love), then he became a proper rock ‘n’ roll star, one who had his ups and downs both in his career as well as life in general. Sometimes he’s been in a band – most notably, he replaced Robert Palmer in The Power Station and ended up playing Live Aid as a result – and sometimes he’s been a solo artist; he’s made guest appearances on TV series from WKRP in Cincinnati and MacGyver to Melrose Place and ALF; he’s done films with Clint Eastwood (Pink Cadillac) and Steven Seagal (Under Siege). Still can’t place him? Then it’s time you tuned in to this flick. — W.H.
The Man From Mo’Wax (2016) — A voyage inside the mind of a man who heard the myth of Icarus and thought, “I could have flown way higher,” this documentary about Mo’Wax founder and 1990s electronic music Zelig James Lavelle is a ludicrously entertaining rise-and-fall. A wunderkind DJ and tireless scenester who signed DJ Shadow, collaborated with a who’s-who of rock royalty, and crashed the British pop charts with his UNKLE creative project, Lavelle turned himself into a wealthy star tastemaker through sheer force of personality, only to systematically dismantle all his accomplishments and alienate all his friends. A cautionary tale, of sorts, though one gets the impression that if he could do it all over again, Lavelle wouldn’t change a thing. — A.B.
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie (2017) —If you’ve never heard of this music doc, well, it’s not all that surprisingly, frankly, since you probably also haven’t heard of the band it’s about, either. After all, Magic Music never released an album, and until this documentary entered production, they hadn’t played together in 40 years. In fact, it’s easily arguable that they might never have played together again if it hadn’t been for comedy writer Lee Aronsohn (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory), who attended college at University of Colorado Boulder, became a Magic Music fan while he was there, and still had one of their songs stuck firmly enough in his head nearly four decades later that he was singing it to his daughter. As such, he decided to embark on a quest to find the members of the band and get them back together, and while doing so, he also decided to make a documentary about the band, their history, and his efforts to convince Magic Music to get back in the business of making magic music again, if only for just one more night. It’s a great film, but it also serves as a reminder to musicians everywhere how many bands never make it big but still manage to make a major impact on the lives of the people who’ve heard them. — W.H.
All I Can Say (2019) — The late Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon may mostly be remembered today for the band’s time-capsule ‘90s hit “No Rain,” but he gets a chance to narrate his own posthumous autobiography in this unusual rock doc. Turns out, Hoon was a compulsive video-diarist long before the term “vlogger” was coined, lugging his camcorder everywhere and filming himself at virtually every step of his brief journey into MTV stardom, up to and including the day of his death. Drawing on this footage (with Hoon himself given an honorary director credit), All I Can Say offers the most thoroughly immersive warts-and-all dive into the daily life of an alt-rock star that you’re likely to ever find. — A.B.
As It Was (2019) — Although not the definitive examination of lead singer Liam Gallagher’s life and career, this documentary has some of the same whiplash speed of the band’s Supersonic film from 2016. Loaded with video footage, the format lends itself to Gallagher's swagger and cocksure personality as he’s showcased hop-scotching from one endeavor to another, looking for his place in life post-Oasis. Several friends and family speak to his super-charged way of living and how the band’s implosion cost him his self-worth. In that sense, it’s a sympathetic portrayal in lieu of the "Noel broke up the band and now what do I do?" narrative. — Amy Hughes
Everybody’s Everything (2019) — The short life of SoundCloud rapper Lil Peep gets an unexpectedly artful, elegiac treatment in this documentary, released just a year after his death from overdose at age 21. Tracing the rapper’s breakneck journey from a shy, middle-class Long Island boy to a feverishly productive bedroom musician, and finally to a barely coherent, self-destructive budding star, the film elicits a rather startling degree of empathy for its subject, as well as providing a first-hand look into a chaotic music scene that might have previously seemed impenetrable to anyone over 30. (If you’ve ever wondered what punk rock must have looked like to a WWII vet in the late-’70s, this film will take you pretty close.) — A.B.
In a Silent Way: A Talk Talk Documentary (2020) — A Belgian filmmaker heads to the UK to tell the story of Mark Hollis and his completely counterintuitive plans for Talk Talk in the wake of their commercial success. If your only knowledge of Talk Talk is for their hit singles from the ‘80s, then you’ll be flabbergasted at how he pointedly followed his muse into a fascinating and gorgeous musical realm, one which took his albums down a path that virtually none of the band’s original fans could be bothered to follow. One unique thing about this documentary is that – although one may well exist – it’s certainly not easy to find a version that offers subtitles for the filmmaker’s narration. (Q watched it on two different streaming services, and neither of them offered subtitles for those segments of the film.) Fortunately, all of the talking heads are in English, and all of his questions to the interviewees are in English, so it works even without knowing what he’s saying in the other bits. — W.H.
Mean Man: The Story of Chris Holmes (2021) — A low-budget but interesting look at the life of the former W.A.S.P. guitarist who by all rights should’ve been dead before the end of filming on The Decline of Western Civilization, Pt. 2: The Metal Years. Yes, in case you’ve forgotten, he’s the guy who spends that classic Penelope Spheeris doc floating in a pool, drinking an ungodly amount of vodka and talking out of his head. These days, Holmes is solo, but he’s happily married and doing his best to make a name for himself as a solo artist, something which – as we see in the film – he’s able to do with a certain amount of success overseas. In addition to proving that Holmes has made a concerted effort to turn things around for himself, it also provides a look into the life of an artist after his glory days are mostly behind him, the struggles of a musician to get the royalties he deserves for the work he’s done, and how supportive the fans of such an artist continue to be even after it’s clear that his most popular years are behind him. — W.H.
Look at Me (2022) — After making her name with the Black Lives Matter documentary Whose Streets?, director Sabaah Folayan took on what must have seemed like a poison pill for a follow-up, signing on to direct a fully estate-approved documentary about the late rapper XXXTentacion, whose charisma and precocious talent were matched only by his capacity to commit some truly ghastly acts of domestic violence. Incredibly, Folayan manages to balance a real compassion for the troubled rapper and an appreciation for his gifts with an unflinching, unhedged acknowledgement of the people he hurt along the way. Her commitment to do right by everyone involved in the story gives this film real integrity, and it lands with unquestionable emotional force. — A.B.
Wham! (2023) – Not exactly the most obscure entry here, but on the off chance you’ve pretended to be too cool to see it, you need to amend that asap. Lovingly pieced together through archive interviews and footage, it’s essentially the story of how two best friends conquered the music world… and somehow still remained best friends afterwards. — Dominic Utton