25 best documentaries about musicians

Published 6:00 am Saturday, January 22, 2022

Film 4

25 best documentaries about musicians

Musicians lead extraordinary lives filled with experiences most people can only dream of happening to them. They travel the world, fill concert halls and auditoriums with adoring fans, party with actors and other famous people, and often have immeasurable wealth. Not only is there interest in their music, but there also is an interest in their lives.

One of the best ways to find out about musicians is with the help of filmmakers who are as fascinated with them as everyone else. These artists turn their lens on the musicians who captivate audiences and bring their stories to life. The filmmakers focus on the musicians’ paths to fame, the relationships they forged and destroyed, their loves, and their histories.

Stacker looked at the most highly rated documentaries on Metacritic and ranked the top 25 music documentaries on the list. Initial ties are broken by the IMDb user rating, and further ties are broken by the number of reviews on Metacritic. To qualify, the film must be about musicians or music groups.

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There are tales about the female musicians who broke through the glass ceiling in both electronic music and jazz instrumentation. Another story takes audiences on a tour as a train travels with some of the greatest musicians. These films are uplifting, informative, entertaining, inspiring, and tragic. Each is a reminder of just how extraordinary these musicians are and how they have influenced our lives.

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Willow Glen Filma

#25. ‘Sisters With Transistors’ (2020)

– Director: Lisa Rovner
– Metascore: 82
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Runtime: 86 minutes

Filmmaker Lisa Rovner gives audiences an in-depth look at the female trailblazers of electronic music. She tells the story of several pioneers like “Doctor Who” theme co-writers Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos, who helped Robert Moog in the development of his synthesizer. Many pay tribute to these amazing and innovative female artists, like Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth.

Magnolia Pictures

#24. ‘Marley’ (2012)

– Director: Kevin Macdonald
– Metascore: 82
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Runtime: 144 minutes

This documentary is a primer on everything Marley. Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald looks back at reggae legend Bob Marley’s upbringing with his white father; how reggae evolved; and how both Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, both co-founders of the Wailers, made their exits from the band. From family members to surviving members of the Wailers to archival footage of Marley both on stage and in the studio, audiences get the lowdown on the charismatic reggae pioneer and legend.


#23. ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ (2008)

– Director: Sacha Gervasi
– Metascore: 82
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Runtime: 80 minutes

Anvil, a Canadian metal band, never became a major player though it influenced many hit bands including Slayer and Metallica. Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi documents band members and best friends Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow as they record a new album and documents the ups and downs of Anvil. Gervasi was an Anvil roadie in the band’s early days.

Filmpool Nord

#22. ‘My Name Is Albert Ayler’ (2005)

– Director: Kasper Collin
– Metascore: 83
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Runtime: 79 minutes

Albert Ayler, a tenor saxophonist set out to break jazz traditions with his music in the genre of free jazz. Filmmaker Kasper Collin documents Ayler’s life from the moment where he walked onstage at a John Coltrane performance and impressed Coltrane—who became a fan, to the last weeks of Ayler’s life when he went missing and was found in New York’s East River in 1970.

Room 5 Films

#21. ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ (2014)

– Director: Ethan Hawke
– Metascore: 83
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 84 minutes

Pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein is the focus of this film that Stephen Farber, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, called “very well crafted, tightly edited and elegantly photographed.” Ethan Hawke is inspired by Bernstein, whom he met at a dinner party, and appears onscreen in the film, though the filmmaker also incorporates interviews and piano lessons between Bernstein and his students. The filmmaker even gets the once concert pianist to give an intimate performance in New York at Steinway Hall before the film’s end.

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Corniche Media

#20. ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ (2014)

– Directors: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard
– Metascore: 83
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 97 minutes

This work of fiction is based on real-life musician Nick Cave, who documents the dramatized 24-hour cycle of his 20,000th day on the planet. “20,000 Days on Earth” features encounters with other artists like Kylie Minogue, rehearsals, and therapy sessions that culminate in a live performance. The film was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best documentary.

HBO Documentary Films

#19. ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015)

– Director: Brett Morgen
– Metascore: 83
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 145 minutes

Director Brett Morgen, who was also responsible for “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Chicago 10,” and “Crossfire Hurricane,” interweaves excerpts from interviews, concert clips, journal entries, drawings, home movies, and audio recordings to bring Kurt Cobain to life for the audience. This documentary is the first that Cobain’s estate authorized, and it marries the singer’s life and music in an unforgettable way.

Glimmer Films

#18. ‘Orion: The Man Who Would Be King’ (2015)

– Director: Jeanie Finlay
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 7
– Runtime: 86 minutes

The man in the mask was the Elvis fix that Presley’s fans needed after his death in 1977. Orion had a voice like Elvis and is the focus of this stranger-than-fiction documentary, which featured the singer masquerading as the King in an unbelievable scheme. It was inspired by the book “Orion” by Gail Brewer-Giorgio.

Miramax Films

#17. ‘Calle 54’ (2000)

– Director: Fernando Trueba
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Runtime: 105 minutes

Latin jazz is the focus of this documentary by Spanish director Fernando Trueba. Performers around the globe, including Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill, and father and son Bebo and Chucho Valdés, show their passion for Latin jazz both individually and together. The film won the audience award at The Miami Film Festival.


#16. ‘Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back’ (1967)

– Director: D.A. Pennebaker
– Metascore: 84
– IMDb user rating: 8
– Runtime: 96 minutes

This documentary follows the 1965 United Kingdom tour of one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the 1960s. With the use of his hand-held camera work, D.A. Pennebaker not only chronicles the rise of Dylan, but also captures life on the road. The film includes performances by Donovan and Joan Baez and an epic opening sequence, which would become the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video.

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Icarus Films

#15. ‘Mali Blues’ (2016)

– Director: Lutz Gregor
– Metascore: 85
– IMDb user rating: 6.9
– Runtime: 90 minutes

“Mali Blues” focuses on how important music is to the country’s culture and the threat musicians face from radical Islamists who have banned music. Malian musicians Ahmed Ag Kaedi, Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyaté, and Master Soumy are featured, as are interviews and cinematography that showcase the beauty of the country that claimed to birth the blues.

New Line Cinema

#14. ‘Festival Express’ (2003)

– Directors: Bob Smeaton, Frank Cvitanovich
– Metascore: 85
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 90 minutes

In 1970, major musicians like The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sha Na Na, and The Band rolled, via train, into Canada and played in major cities over the course of five days. “Festival Express” documents this legendary musical journey, which was more important for the captured footage of the artists on the train than for its financial success. The tour was actually a failure, with protestors boycotting the ticket prices.

Clinica Estetico

#13. ‘Neil Young: Heart of Gold’ (2006)

– Director: Jonathan Demme
– Metascore: 85
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Runtime: 103 minutes

Godfather of Grunge, Neil Young’s two-night performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is the focus of this Jonathan Demme documentary where Young played songs from his 2005 album “Prairie Wind” and some of his older hits. Singer Emmylou Harris and Young’s wife, singer Pegi Young, provide backup vocals. Writing for AV Club, Keith Phipps noted, “Casting his subject in an autumnal glow, Demme again eliminates the space between artist and audience, and Young responds by performing without a whit of self-consciousness.”

Film 4

#12. ‘Amy’ (2015)

– Director: Asif Kapadia
– Metascore: 85
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Runtime: 128 minutes

Asif Kapadia tells the story of one of popular music’s greatest and most tragic artists, Amy Winehouse, who got a publishing deal with EMI at 19 and was dead by 27 from alcohol poisoning. Kapadia uses previously unreleased archival footage and personal commentaries to give audiences a thorough portrait of the artist’s life and brief, but impressive, career. Winehouse’s father, Mitch, was not a fan of the Oscar-winning documentary because he believed it portrayed him in a bad light.

Little Bear Productions

#11. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988)

– Director: Bruce Weber
– Metascore: 85
– IMDb user rating: 7.9
– Runtime: 120 minutes

This documentary is a portrait of jazz great Chesney Henry Baker, better known as Chet Baker. Director Bruce Weber’s black-and-white film also features many other famous folks like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, model Lisa Marie, and Chris Isaak. Baker is shown from his glory days to the days when his addiction had aged him, making a wreck of not only him, but of his career.

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Grey Water Park Productions

#10. ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ (2019)

– Director: Martin Scorsese
– Metascore: 86
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Runtime: 142 minutes

Legendary director Martin Scorsese returns to his rock concert documentary roots with this amalgamation of fact and fiction surrounding the Rolling Thunder Revue tour where Bob Dylan went on “tour” in 1975. He played for the sheer love of art and music at some interesting venues with some musical friends including Joan Baez. Against the backdrop of archival footage from the tour, Scorsese interweaves fictional elements like Sharon Stone recounting a trip backstage as a teen and Michael Murphy showing up as his onscreen persona Jack Tanner from the HBO series “Tanner ’88.”

Motto Pictures

#9. ‘The Velvet Underground’ (2021)

– Director: Todd Haynes
– Metascore: 87
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Runtime: 121 minutes

Andy Warhol introduced the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, but eventually the band and the pop culture artist and icon stopped working together. In this documentary, Todd Haynes brings the little remaining archival footage of the band and combines it with commentary from living Velvet Underground members, John Cale and Maureen Tucker, while the voices of Lou Reed and Sterling Campbell, who both died, can be heard like ghosts from the past on the old footage.

United Artist Films

#8. ‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

– Director: Martin Scorsese
– Metascore: 88
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Runtime: 117 minutes

The Band’s swan song came on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 at its last show in San Francisco. “The Last Waltz” documents this day, which included performances by other legendary musicians like Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters and The Band collaborator Bob Dylan. Martin Scorsese also focused on interviews with members of The Band.

Beth Harrington Productions

#7. ‘The Winding Stream’ (2014)

– Director: Beth Harrington
– Metascore: 89
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Runtime: 90 minutes

A history of the Carter family, country music’s original first family, “The Winding Stream” explores the musical family’s beginnings with A.C. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle, straight through to the Carter Family Fold, a museum and performance venue. Filmmaker Beth Harrington includes interviews and archival footage to reveal the full story of these country musicians who went on to influence a host of artists in the industry, including Johnny Cash, who married June Carter and remained with her until their deaths within four months of each other in 2003.

Palm Pictures

#6. ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

– Director: Jonathan Demme
– Metascore: 89
– IMDb user rating: 8.6
– Runtime: 88 minutes

This Talking Heads concert film chronicled their album “Speaking in Tongues.” The film featured older hits as well like, “Once in a Lifetime,” and a version of “Psycho Killer” with David Byrne and a guitar and boom box. “Stop Making Sense” won the National Society of Film Critics award for best documentary.

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Kasper Collin Produktion

#5. ‘I Called Him Morgan’ (2016)

– Director: Kasper Collin
– Metascore: 90
– IMDb user rating: 7.3
– Runtime: 92 minutes

Helen Morgan helped her common-law husband, jazz musician Lee Morgan, through his heroin addiction, but later murdered him as he played onstage at Slugs’ Saloon, a Manhattan club. “I Called Him Morgan” examines Morgan’s music, their relationship, and it includes an audio interview with Helen from 1996.

Artist Tribe

#4. ‘The Girls in the Band’ (2011)

– Director: Judy Chaikin
– Metascore: 90
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Runtime: 81 minutes

“The Girls in the Band” focuses on the sexism and challenges faced by women who wanted to be instrumentalists in jazz and big bands. These roles often belonged to men, and women were relegated to the more feminine roles such as singer. The film also explores the history of the all-girl bands that formed in this male-dominated field.


#3. ‘One More Time With Feeling’ (2016)

– Director: Andrew Dominik
– Metascore: 92
– IMDb user rating: 8.3
– Runtime: 113 minutes

Andrew Dominik presents an extremely personal portrait of Australian singer Nick Cave and his creative process as he deals with a tragedy. Cave financed and commissioned the documentary, which also documents the recording of the album “Skeleton Tree” with the Bad Seeds. This was a way to avoid having to answer the inevitable onslaught of questions from the media surrounding his son Arthur’s death from an accidental fall taken after ingesting the drug LSD.

Spheeris Films

#2. ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981)

– Director: Penelope Spheeris
– Metascore: 93
– IMDb user rating: 7.6
– Runtime: 100 minutes

Penelope Spheeris decided to document the still unknown bands of the punk scene. Whether it’s Black Flag’s Ron Reyes $16-a-month sleeping accommodations in a falling-down church or Exene Cervenka from the Los Angeles band X figuring out how much is too much for a ticket to a show, the film features a raw look at a raw music genre.


#1. ‘Woodstock’ (1970)

– Director: Michael Wadleigh
– Metascore: 95
– IMDb user rating: 8.2
– Runtime: 184 minutes

Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary, covering the epic three-day love and music festival held in Bethel, New York, in 1969, features split-screen technology to show what was happening on stage while also revealing what was happening off, like traffic jams and sex. Legendary film director Martin Scorsese served as an editor and assistant director alongside editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to a decades-long collaboration with the director.

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