Music has always been inextricably linked to the cinema. Even during the silent era, many films used live music as an added feature, helping to spur on the action or deepen the emotional impact. It is no surprise then that a major subset of documentaries profile musicians at work. The documentary form allows for a wide variety of topics and styles, and this is no different when just considering rock docs. Concert films have an obvious appeal and a profile of the greatest artists, no matter the field, will always work. The complicated and tumultuous music business, however, adds another more dramatically charged subset of documentaries, including Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Besides the five more recent documentary releases, Netflix boasts a pretty good variety of music documentaries, including Jonathan Demme-Neil Young collaboration Heart of Gold, the conspiratorial Kurt & Courtney, Kevin Macdonald’s epic profile Marley, and many others.
The Wrecking Crew! [Denny Tedesco, 2008]
Available on Netflix
Though you may have never heard of them, The Wrecking Crew have long been considered among the most respected musicians working. Denny Tedesco, whose father was a longtime guitarist for the studio band, brings the underheralded group to light with this engaging documentary. The Wrecking Crew came to industry prominence in the early 1960s with their collaborations with producers Phil Spector, Lou Adler, Sonny Bono, and others, ultimately securing their legacy as the recorded band on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The documentary is full of fantastic insider stories from former members of the group and, of course, full of fantastic rock-n-roll music. There is always something great about watching masters at the top of their game, and The Wrecking Crew is even more impressive for its subjects’ relative invisibility in the public eye. Like another music doc, 20 Feet from Stardom [available for digital rental], The Wrecking Crew does an amazing job at introducing a group of incredibly influential artists that should be as well known as the musicians they helped make superstars. For a dramatized look at The Wrecking Crew, you should check out Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, which features the making of Pet Sounds in an incredible sequence.
Lemmy [Greg Olliver & Wes Orshoski, 2010]
Available on Netflix
Unlike The Wrecking Crew, no serious music fan hasn’t heard of hard rock legend Lemmy Kilmaster. His band Motörhead has long been one of the most influential musical acts, regardless of genre, since they debuted in the U.K. in the mid-1970s. Lemmy serves as a history of the charismatic, gravelly voiced singer’s rise as well as an intimate profile of his life in Los Angeles. Simply spending time with Lemmy is a lot of fun, including a tour of his incredible collection of Nazi regalia [OK, that is a little weird] and strange wingman-like relationship with his long-estranged son [OK, that is a little weird, too]. As an artist, seeing a wide breadth of music legends, from Dave Grohl to Ice-T, speak on their love for Lemmy really showcases his crossover appeal and forever lasting influence. Sadly, Lemmy Kilmaster passed away only a few years after the release of Lemmy, but the film can forever stand as a loving tribute to the gruff, controversial, brilliant man.
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! [Andrew Horn, 2014]
Available on Netflix
As heavy metal acts go, none are quite like Twisted Sister. The New Jersey-based band, famous for their flamboyant cross-dressing persona, is chronicled in Andrew Horn’s documentary. For those who only know the band for their mega hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the film is a surprisingly deep profile of their early years as a cover band and eventual regional starring act. We Are Twisted Fucking Sister is absolutely one of the best docs about a talented band struggling for success, with honest testimonials from the band members on their process to break through. Frontman Dee Snider is obviously front-and-center in terms of the documentary, too, but the film does a great job of giving adequate time to the lesser-known members—especially guitarist Jay Jay French, who proves to be a pretty interesting and intelligent guy. The film focuses much less on their period of mainstream popularity, which is probably a good call, but that also includes their high profile in the Tipper Gore sanctioned Senate hearings on inappropriate lyrics in music.
Mad Tiger [Michael Haertlein & Jonathan Yi, 2015]
Available on Netflix
One of the craziest music documentaries, Mad Tiger shares more with a film like The King of Kong than any of the other films on this list. The film follows the stranger-than-fiction members of whacked out Japanese performance art punk-pop band Peelander-Z on the verge of breaking up. With their crazy color-coordinated outfits and hairstyles and over-the-top live productions, the band is immediately infectious, even if their music is difficult to comprehend. The major thrust of the film involves the relationship between the two founding members of the Peelander-Z, Peelander-Yellow and Peelander-Red, whose long friendship is compromised when Red decided to quit. Their onstage antics are matched by their real-life personalities, but Mad Tiger surprisingly reveals a serious heart at its core. Despite the childish personas and frivolous antics, the real people under the flashy costumes experience real turmoil, ego struggles, and emotional lives. Unlike the other doc recommendations, Mad Tiger has a contained narrative thrust. It undoubtedly belongs on any list of rock docs, however, for its unusual music profile and emotional relationships that can only exist in the music biz.
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years [Ron Howard, 2016]
Available on Hulu
A surprising documentary release from noted narrative filmmaker Ron Howard, Eight Days a Week covers [as the title suggests] the period between 1963 and 1966 where the Fab Four toured the world. The film’s major appeal is the wall-to-wall archival footage of the band performing their music—there may not be much deep insight for any Beatles fan, but you can’t argue with stuffing the film with live music. Though there are filmed talking head interviews with famous Beatles fans [and watch out for Sigourney Weaver as a pre-teen among a shrieking audience], a majority of the film is made of on-the-road footage and old interviews with the quick pace and humor of one of the group’s amazing feature films. Ultimately, I don’t know if Eight Days a Week shows off a second career for Ron Howard as a documentarian, but even as a great compilation of copyrighted footage it should be appealing enough to casual Beatles fans.