Apart from listening to an album, one of the most enjoyable ways to appreciate music is to learn about it through inspiring documentaries. In the last two decades, the film industry has produced a collection of unforgettable documentaries centered on musical evolution and individual musicians alike. Try watching any of the eight works listed below.
1. 20 Feet from Stardom
This Academy Award-winning film, directed by music documentarian Morgan Neville, focuses on the careers of the backup singers who loaned their voices to some of the most beloved songs of the 20th century. Featuring interviews with stars like Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, and Sting, 20 Feet from Stardom explores the professional triumphs and disappointments of the many backup singers who helped shape the sound of American pop music. From successful stars like Darlene Love, to lesser-known artists like Lisa Fisher and Merry Clayton, music fans of all generations will appreciate the power behind these women’s stories.
2. Searching for Sugar Man
Another Oscar winner, Searching for Sugar Man tells the tale of singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. The film details his brief professional ties to a Motown record label in the 1960s before he gave up his music career in the subsequent decade to perform manual labor and provide for his family.
What makes this story worthy of a documentary is the surprising revelation that Rodriguez’s music rose to iconic status a world away in the country of South Africa, unbeknownst to him, more than four decades later. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, Searching for Sugar Man is an incredible true story that incorporates elements of music, dreams, and mystery, all wrapped up with a modern-day fairytale ending.
3. Sound City
Sound City was directed by Foo Fighters front man and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. The title of the documentary pays homage to the name of a now-shuttered recording studio in Los Angeles, California, where some of the most iconic albums of the last 50 years were recorded.
Broken down into what can loosely be described as three acts, the film tells the soulful story of Sound City’s rise and fall, supplemented with stories and interviews from many of the classic artists who recorded there. Musicians who make an appearance in Sound City include Stevie Knicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood of the band Fleetwood Mac as well as Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Neil Young, and Paul McCartney.
4. Muscle Shoals
Muscle Shoals is a film about the way that a distinct style of 1960s and 70s music evolved in a small town in the Deep South. Over the course of an hour and 51 minutes, first-time director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier gives viewers an insight into the creative atmosphere of Muscle Shoals, Alabama that inspired the creation of such classic hits as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Freebird,” and “Mustang Sally.” The story is supported by interviews from music legends like Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Percy Sledge, and Bono.
5. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Released in 2015, What Happened, Miss Simone? details the life and musical career of jazz, blues, and soul musician Nina Simone, whose talent and passion for music was rivaled in scope only by her commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Director Liz Garbus takes the audience from Simone’s earliest years as a classically trained pianist through her eventual voluntary retirement from the entertainment industry. Throughout the film, friends and family of the “high priestess of soul” give interviews to help viewers understand Simone as both an artist and an activist.
Yet another music documentary that earned an Academy Award, Amy is a film directed by Asif Kapadia. It follows the musical growth of renowned singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 27. Through interviews with friends and home video footage of the artist herself, Amy focuses on the story of a musician with larger-than-life talent who struggled under the pressures of worldwide fame.
7. Runnin’ Down a Dream
Since he first formed the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in the mid-1970s, Tom Petty has consistently written and performed music that continues to inspire new generations. Runnin’ Down a Dream paints a picture of the successes, troubles, and times of one of America’s great classic rock and roll bands.
The film, directed by Peter Bogandovich, premiered during the closing weekend of the New York Film Festival in 2007. It received high reviews across the board from major sources such as the New York Times, Rotten Tomatoes, and Variety Magazine.
8. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, directed by visionary filmmaker Ron Howard, focuses on the story of one of the most influential rock and roll bands of all time. Instead of building a story solely on the major events that occurred during the Beatles’ unprecedented rise to stardom, Howard chooses to fill the documentary with the more nuanced details of the band’s touring life between 1962 and 1966.
The film’s narrative is buoyed by footage and archival interviews with the members of the band. Additionally, it never loses sight of the joy that all four musicians found in making music amid the cultural frenzy that took them farther than any band had gone before.