Today: June 20, 2024

The Best Music Documentaries … Ever?

In the upcoming documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, director Liz Garbus gives audiences an intimate glimpse into the world of Nina Simone. Filled with rare archival interviews and interviews that span the course of three decades, the private layers of the iconic chanteuse are stripped away as Simone personally recounts the details of her own travails and triumphs. Beyond the genius of her music, however, lies the spirit of a fighter – which manifested itself in Simone’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the artist sang of a need for revolution, unafraid to address the racial inequalities that plagued the era. This sense of fearlessness and electricity radiates throughout the film; a fiery undercurrent that perfectly reflects the inherent soulfulness and spirit of this one-of-a-kind legend.

With What Happened, Miss Simone? premiering on Netflix on Friday, we felt it was time to pay tribute to the countless others who have head-banged, crooned, or strummed their way onto documentary screens.  From the front-liners whose tunes have carried you through your darkest hours to the little-known superstars of foreign lands, there are plenty of music documentaries ready to further enlighten and ignite your musical appreciation. Below are some of recent years’ best:

Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck (2014) Among the slew of Cobain-Nirvana documentaries is this shining star which, unlike its predecessors, lends an impressive degree of humanity to the musician. Previous docs have focused solely on Cobain’s status as a generational icon rather than acknowledge his more private roles as husband, father, and friend that he was behind closed doors. A 2015 Sundance hit, Montage Of Heck contains a wealth of riches for those who seek to further understand these unexplored facets of the Nirvana singer – with notable access to his family archives. Director Brett Morgan worked closely with Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, to create a unique portrait of the artist through the inclusion of personal journals, songbooks, home videos, and unheard songs/recordings.

Searching For Sugar Man (2012) This Oscar-winning documentary received universal praise in 2012 for its look at the relatively obscure artist, Sixto Rodriguez. The film follows two South African fans as they investigate the sudden disappearance and supposed death of the Mexican-American folk singer. Though Rodriguez never found stateside fame, he amassed somewhat of a cult following in South Africa, where a bootleg copy of his album, Cold Fact, landed in the hands of white liberals. Through some unknown chance of fate, the artist then achieved a level of superstardom that, according to natives, rivalled even that of the Beatles. As a result, Cold Fact essentially became a musical soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement, giving voice to those misrepresented by social history on the basis of their race.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) Taken from a line in his hit Like A Rolling Stone, No Direction Home focuses on the six year period between Dylan’s ascension to fame and tragic retirement. The documentary delves into Dylan’s world and psyche, though its interviewees reminds us that Dylan himself had always defied the concept of “definition” – a sentiment epitomised in his controversial transition from folk to rock. Martin Scorsese manages to paint a sympathetic and honest portrait of the artist while respecting this same inherent sense of mysticism so commonly associated with the man. The film has interviews with Dylan’s friends and acquaintances while also showing footage of the legend himself in all his aloof and melancholic glory.

Amy (2015) The upcoming British film, Amy, details the life of the late and great Amy Winehouse from her humble beginnings to death. The singer herself appears throughout the documentary, speaking sincerely on the subjects of love and music, and seen performing onstage in unseen archival footage. There is further exploration into her career – a road routinely plagued by a flurry of addiction-induced controversy – as director Asif Kapadia highlights Winehouse’s substance abuse and toxic relationships. Present, too, are interviews with her friends and family, and additional unreleased tracks recorded prior to her 2011 death. The film is a remarkable examination of an equally remarkable woman whose brilliance and talent should not be shadowed by the vices that claimed her.

Music By Prudence (2010) Music By Prudence is an Academy Award-winning music documentary that captured the hearts of thousands with its inspirational tale of love and triumph five years ago. Its subject, Prudence Mabhena, is a singer-songwriter hailing from Zimbabwe, where the stigma of disability carries connotations of evilness and witchcraft. In the face of such scorn and discrimination, Prudence finds refuge amongst the musical community as she and her fellow disabled band mates thwart these adversities through song. Hailed as a “Must See” by countless critics, Music By Prudence is a testament to the strength of music – and its power to unite and conquer.

20 Feet From Stardom (2013) Produced by industry insider Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom studies the lives of those often overlooked by the spotlight. Music legends like Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen lend their own opinions on the subject, speaking of the importance of giving credit where it’s due. The backup singers themselves – some having performed with musical heavyweights such as Frank Sinatra or Doris Day – regale audiences with their tales of finding fame (or lack thereof) amongst the shadows. What is fascinating, too is the realisations that, often the tracks we know and love would be very different without the back-up singers?” Audience members will find that an overwhelming number many of the classics are, in fact, bolstered by the presence of back-up vocals. Winner of the 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary, the film sheds light on the unheralded sacrifices made by those “twenty feet from stardom”.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is available on Netflix from June 26.

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