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70 Greatest Music Documentaries of All Time

Burning guitars, big suits, meeting the Beatles — the concert films, rockumentaries and artist portraits that stand head and shoulders above the rest

Photo Illustration by @photoeditorjoe. Images used in illustration: Kevin Estrada/MediaPunch/IPx/AP Images; Parkwood Entertainment/NETFLIX; Chris Walter/WireImage; Matt Dunham/AP Images; Val Wilmer/Redferns; David Lee/HBO; Amazing Grace LLC.

The movies have always loved giving actors the chance to play rock star or impersonate an iconic musician/singer, recreating those famous “Eureka!” studio moments and greatest-hits shows for any number of music biopics. When it comes to historical musical moments, however, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. A number of documentarians saw the advantage of capturing a number of legendary artists and bands in their heyday and/or once-in-a-lifetime performances — partially for posterity, partially for plain old reportage and partially for the second-hand high of it all. And thanks to new access to archives and updated technology, a whole generation of filmmakers have come up learning the art of docu-portraits and genre breakdowns that run the gamut from sub-subgenres to broad stem-to-stern histories of rock, jazz and country-and-western. It’s never been easier to make a music documentary these days. Not all of them, of course, are created equal.

So in honor of Peter Jackson’s Get Back — a new six-episode look back at the Beatles putting together the album Let It Be even as they were beginning to fall apart — we’ve compiled a list of the 70 greatest music documentaries of all time: the concert films, fly-on-the-wall tour chronicles, punk and hip-hop and jazz time capsules, and career assessments of everyone from Amy Winehouse to the Who that have set the standard and stood the test of time. The last time we did this was in 2014, and to say that the form has produced a number of classics since then would be an understatement. Play this list loud.

From Rolling Stone US


‘Long Strange Trip’ (2017)

From psychedelic experimentalists to neo-Americana troubadours, San Francisco cult band to Rock Inc. touring entity — the free-form jam cosmonauts known as the Grateful Dead turned the Sixties notion of tuning in, turning on and dropping out into both a musical ideology and a decade-long business model. Amir Bar-Lev’s marathon-length look back (it’s nearly four hours or, to put it in Deadhead parlance, about six versions of “Dark Star”) at Jerry Garcia & Co. dives into the Dead’s history and unearths some deep cuts about their lives, their career and their demise after the frontman’s passing. It more than earns its title. —D.F.


‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ (1959)

Years before Dylan made the Newport Folk Festival famous by going electric, photographer Bert Stern traveled up to the Rhode Island city for its equally lauded jazz festival, and managed to capture a murderer’s row of musicians — Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day (whose 120mph rendition of “Tea For Two” breaks landspeed records in terms of song covers) — thrilling an outdoor audience of hipsters, hepcats, jazzbos and curious locals. Co-directed by Stern and editor Aram Avakian, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is a hell of a late ’50s time capsule. But it’s also a prototype for the modern concert film, alternating between performances, audience reactions and the ambience of the setting in an attempt to capture not just songs and sets but an entire experience. Invaluable. —D.F.


‘Hype!’ (1996)

This history of Seattle grunge might be the best portrait ever of the rock and roll boom-and-bust cycle, following the rise of the city’s indigenous rock scene from hopeful nascence in the form of bands like Green River, the Melvins, Tad and Seven Year Bitch, to the Nevermind-engorged corporate/mass media feeding frenzy that came later, as well as the confused, tragic fallout. The music still sounds violently alive, and the conflicted kvetching about selling out — expressed by stars like Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayill — now has an almost prelapsarian quaintness about it (one local talks about People magazine coming to town they way one might discuss a cancer diagnosis). Few rock docs do such a good job of capturing not just the music, but the ethos behind it. —J.D.

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‘Meeting People Is Easy’ (1998)

The perfect visual embodiment of alternative rock’s “success = sucks eggs” mantra, Grant Gee’s Radiohead doc turns arena stardom into a psychological horror movie. Covering the band’s whirlwind OK Computer tour, director Grant Gee offers an impressionistic snapshot of the group (especially singer Thom Yorke) slowly losing their shit as interviews, shows, traveling and tedium wear them down. Many concert films come across as non-threatening fan items; this one is as jagged and honest about its alienation as the album that spawned it. —T.G.

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‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ (2012)

This farewell to LCD Soundsystem — via capturing their final live show at Madison Square Garden in 2011 — is an excellent primer on the band’s witty, transcendent dance music. But Shut Up and Play the Hits also works as an exploration of one of pop music’s greatest challenges: knowing when it’s time to call it quits. Burly, self-deprecating singer/LCD braintrust James Murphy was always an unlikely rock star, but his thoughts on aging and fame prove that he may also be one of our sanest. —T.G.

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‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ (2002)

Band records seminal album; a film captures the behind-the-scenes proceedings; everybody ends up happy. Well, two out of three ain’t bad: Wilco’s lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the group’s bestselling album and artistic highmark, but video director Sam Jones’ movie illustrates how hard it was for Jeff Tweedy to reach the finish line. Feuding with bandmate Jay Bennett and battling label executives who didn’t like Wilco’s sonic curveball, Tweedy became an indie-rock hero, albeit one whose frequent migraines made his life hell. —T.G.


‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ (2011)

Martin Scorsese and his team spent over five years creating this look back at the life of “the Quiet Beatle” — quite a feat, considering that Harrison lived the least public life of any of the four Beatles, by a wide margin. It proved to be a monumental task that involved combing through stacks of private photos and countless hours of unseen film from his personal archives, as well as interviewing everyone from Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton to Eric Idle, Tom Petty, and even Phil Spector. That result, however, was wroth it: This two-part, 208-minute epic doesn’t just the story of the Beatles from Harrison’s vantage point — it also covers his long spiritual journey, his solo career, his home life at the British estate Friar Park, the story behind his pioneering benefit concert for Bangladesh, the evolution of Monty Python’s film career and the 1999 home invasion attack that nearly killed him. It may be too much for a casual fan, but hardcore Beatlemaniacs rightfully recognize this as the best account of Harrison’s life. —A.G.

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‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ (2005)

An embarrassment of musical riches, Michel Gondry’s chronicle of Dave Chappelle’s “surprise” get-together in Brooklyn watches as the TV star uses his clout to coax acts like Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and a reunited Fugees to perform. It’s also a nonchalant portrait of a gifted comedian on the cusp of reaching a career-defining crossroads (he would abandon his influential Chappelle’s Show the following year), but in terms of a hip-hop/neo-soul revue circa 2004, this documentary is damn near peerless. Six words: Kanye West and a marching band. —T.G.


‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1999)

The Ry Cooder-produced 1997 album “Buena Vista Social Club” was an unexpected international sensation, introducing millions of listeners to Cuban music. Two years later, German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ appropriately (and uncharacteristically) straightforward film documented Cooder’s subsequent trip to Havana to record an album by 72-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer, as well as several Buena Vista Social Club concerts in New York and Amsterdam. The movie is politically hands off, letting images of a decaying Havana speak for themselves, while unpretentiously capturing wonderful performances by a multi-generational group of musicians — most memorably 77 year-old pianist Ruben Gonzales, who was playing as an accompaniment to ballet classes when Cooder found him. —J.D.

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‘Sign ‘o’ the Times’ (1987)

If you’ve ever fast-forwarded past the familial psychodrama bits of Purple Rain to get to the performance footage, then this Prince concert film — directed by the mono-monikered man himself — is a dream come true. There are a few offstage scenes to buffer the musical numbers (a word-game contest between prostitutes and a john here, a writhing around a back alley there), but mostly, it’s simply the artist doing what he does best: ripping through numbers off the titular album that synthesize Hendrix’s guitar heroics, James Brown’s dance moves and Sly Stone’s social commentary into one white-hot funk-up. This is what a Prince show looked like in 1987, complete with lingerie-chic outfits, urban-blight set decor, cameos from Sheena Easton and a post-Revolution band that includes Sheila E. treating her drum set like it owed her money. —D.F.

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‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years’ (1988)

Director Penelope Spheeris’ first Decline of Western Civilization captured the ragged desperation and willful poverty of L.A.’s hardcore bands in 1981, but The Metal Years showed what happens when the same types of musicians got a little money, a lot of drugs and gallons of hairspray. W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes steals the show by drunkenly floating in a swimming pool while arguing with his mom, but jaw-dropping scenes of Ozzy Osbourne cooking breakfast in a leopard-print robe and Kiss’ Paul Stanley flanked in bed with scantly clad women also help the film live up to its Decline title. —K.G.


‘I Called Him Morgan’ (2016)

With this portrait of the late trumpeter Lee Morgan, Swedish director Kasper Collin spliced two genres that shouldn’t make any kind of sense together — true crime and jazz documentary — and ended up with a moody, sui generis triumph. At the film’s heart is a haunting retelling of the 1972 shooting of Morgan at New York club Slugs’ Saloon by his common-law wife, Helen. Collin fleshes out that account with intimate recollections from his subject’s musical peers and a revelatory 1996 audio interview with Helen herself, crafting an impressively shaded story of how the woman who ultimately took his life had previously saved him from the throes of addiction. The film expertly captures the eerie pull that that night at Slugs’ still has for everyone in the Morgans’ orbit — and why the tragedy of the shooting runs deeper than the loss of one musical giant. —H.S.

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‘Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage’ (2010)

Few bands have had such a divide between critical praise and fan adulation as Rush. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s straightforward doc chronicles the Canadian group from its beginnings as a high school band to the arena-filling prog behemoths they would become. Trent Reznor, Les Claypool, Jack Black, Kirk Hammett, Gene Simmons and Billy Corgan all appear to laud the group’s music and influence, but this one makes the list for the treasure trove of archival footage geared toward the Rush completist (including a teen Alex Lifeson fighting with his parents about not finishing school). When the film was released, the self-described “world’s most popular cult band” were still three years away from their Hall of Fame induction, but Stage functions as the cinematic accompaniment to that cherry-on-top honor. —J.N.

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‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ (1966)

On December 11th, 1968, Mick Jagger — tired of conventional concert performances — assembled the Who, Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, Mitch Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull and Yoko Ono inside an replicated big top, combining actual circus performers with one-off collaborations. Despite the historical importance — it was Brian Jones’ last public performance and the only time Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi performed with Tull — the footage was shelved for nearly 30 years, reportedly due to the Stones’ unhappiness with their own set (and by being upstaged by Pete Townshend and Co.). Gimme Shelter and Shine a Light are better documents of the band, but nothing compares to the sheer lunacy and singularity of this doc that literalized the metaphorical circus that was both the Stones in 1968 and Swinging London. —J.N.


‘Marley’ (2012)

The best doc on reggae music’s No. 1 prophet touches on nearly everything you’d want from such a thorough look back at the gone-too-soon legend. With the help of just about every then-surviving Wailer and family member, we see and hear about: Marley’s upbringing (and his white father), his early recordings and brief period in Delaware (growing tall weed!), the evolution of reggae, the acrimonious departures of Wailers co-founders Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the 1976 assassination attempt, and his final days as he struggled to beat melanoma. Ample footage of him on stage and in the studio — Marley fully in thrall to his music — also captures his undeniable, simmering charisma. (The many smitten women in his life also attest to how potent that was too.) —D.B.

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‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ (1973)

Doc legend D.A. Pennebaker knew little about David Bowie’s music before he captured what would be his last performance as glam god Ziggy Stardust — but he certainly knew a star when he saw one. Bathed in a red spotlight, and voguing via scarlet hair, dark raccoon eyes, and an assortment of feathers, knee highs, black mesh and bangles, the Thin White Duke’s a shimmering, intergalactic Dietrich. Pennebaker sticks to the stage to present a near-complete record of the show, witnessing several mind-melting solos by sideman Mick Ronson, not to mention Bowie’s formidably bare thighs. EH


‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ (2019)

No, Sharon Stone wasn’t a teenage groupie on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975/76. Congressman Jack Tanner — from Robert Altman’s 1988 campaign mockumentary Tanner ’88 — didn’t materialize from the fictional universe to attend a show in Niagara Falls. And Dylan wasn’t inspired to wear white makeup onstage after seeing a Kiss concert in Queens. Adding these fake elements into an otherwise straight account of the tour (which draws from a lot of previously-unseen outtakes from Renaldo and Clara) is a typically perverse Dylan move that adds an element of mischief and confusion to the project. It’s also an acknowledgment that Napoleon was right when he said that history is a “set of lies that people have agreed upon.” In this case, the lies are quite entertaining. More importantly, the concert footage captures Dylan at one of his peaks as a live performer. —A.G.

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‘Rhyme & Reason’ (1997)

Peter Spirer’s ambitious doc stands out both for its breadth of testimonials and skill in placing hip-hop as part of a broader contextual musical continuum. Eschewing flash for substance, the film interviews more than 80 rappers — including Chuck D, Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy and Dr. Dre — to provide the most widespread examination of the form’s culture circa 1997 as well as its history. Anyone can find archival footage of a Bronx block party in the Seventies. It takes skill, though, to tie the genre back to its jazz and gospel roots without sounding didactic. —J.N.

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‘Year of the Horse’ (1997)

While there’s no scarcity of films about or featuring Neil Young (he’s even directed a few, including the genuinely batshit Human Highway), none capture his collaboration with longtime backing band Crazy Horse as uncannily as Jim Jarmusch’s 1996 tour diary. The director gets roasted on the bus for attempting to discover the essence of the Horse (“It’s gonna be some cutesy stuff like you’d use in some artsy film and make everybody think he’s cool,” Frank “Poncho” Sampredro predicts), but he comes damn close to embodying it through the movie’s lo-fi look and feel, which is a mash-up of fuzzed-out analog film and video, and thunderous, amp-blasting sound. EH

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‘Soul Power’ (2008)

Quite possibly the greatest outtakes-fueled rockumentary ever, Soul Power chronicles “Zaire ’74,” the largely forgotten concert that coincided with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s championship bout (a.k.a. the Rumble in the Jungle) in Kinshasa, Zaire. The fight formed the basis for the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, and 12 years later director Jeff Levy-Hinte compiled dynamite archival sets from the likes of the Spinners and Bill Withers. Spoiler alert: James Brown closes the film — and steals the show. —T.G.


‘Style Wars’ (1983)

In the early Eighties, before hip hop even had much of a national profile (let alone the global dominance it would eventually attain), this PBS-produced film chronicled the emergent culture in its infancy. Style Wars focused on the battle between graffiti writers and city officials, each side fighting to see who would determine the literal look of New York at the time. The city itself appears as an almost mythically gritty character in the film; its heroes are the young black and Latino kids trying to create their own identity while giving the drab urban spaces color and life; its villain is mayor Ed Koch, glibly patting himself on the back not giving these kids the death penalty. And the music on hand gives you a taste of the art form’s early landmarks, from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” to the Fearless Four’s “Rockin’ It.” —J.D.

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‘Dig!’ (2004)

A real-life This Is Spinal Tap for the indie-rock generation, Dig! proved that, at least among musicians, douchey self-delusion knows no bounds. Captured over seven years and culled from thousands of hours of footage, Ondi Timoner’s Sundance winner tracked the diverging paths of retro-Sixties singers and frenemies Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. While the pragmatic, preening Taylor finds some measure of success, the gifted but toxic Newcombe is a hot mess, battling addiction, mental illness, and everyone in his path. Following an onstage brawl, he even has a “these go to 11” moment, snarling “You fuckin’ broke my sitar, fucker,” without a trace of irony. —E.H.

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‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ (2005)

Both a celebration and a cautionary tale, Jeff Feuerzeig’s portrait of the legendary outsider artist captures the heartbreaking simplicity of his songs without downplaying his mental-health issues — or glibly equating the two. The movie doesn’t condemn fans who take Johnston’s illness as proof of his authenticity, but neither does it spare exploring just how difficult it can make his life, or how much anguish it causes his loving and supportive parents. You’ll never hear “Speeding Motorcycle” the same way again. —S.A.

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‘Urgh! A Music War’ (1981)

Capturing a song apiece from nearly three dozen acts, this scattershot doc’s lineup might have been chosen by throwing a handful of darts into the nearest college radio station. But if nothing holds its subjects together beyond a vague allegiance to the New Wave and the fact that they were touring in 1980, Urgh! is full of jaw-dropping performances from otherwise undocumented bands like the Au Pairs, whose “Come Again” dramatizes a man’s attempt to pleasure a female lover with uncomfortable hilarity — as well as ringers like the Police, the Go-Go’s and Devo. SA

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‘Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival’ (1997)

It’s a concise encapsulation of Age-of-Aquarius contradictions: An overhead shot of some 600,000 festivalgoers filling up the grounds of the East Afton Farm on England’s Isle of Wight — which immediately cuts to the festival’s M.C., Rikki Farr, telling the audience that they can go to hell for ruining a chance at rock & roll bliss. The community-versus-commerce argument over rock-fest admission fees runs throughout Murray Lerner’s doc on the ill-fated 1970 endeavor, in which disillusioned organizers and artists tussle with hippie entitlement (“We want the world, and we want it now!”), and both iron fences and utopian hopes come crashing down. In addition to 20/20 hindsight, however, Message also brims with amazing performance footage of the period: a blistering number from The Who; Hendrix, less than three weeks from shuffling off this mortal coil, doing “Voodoo Chile”; the Doors tearing into ‘The End”; a Bitches Brew era Miles Davis Group; and Joni Mitchell, playing (ironically) “Woodstock” and almost being attacked by a dead ringer for Charles Manson. —D.F.


‘No Direction Home’ (2005)

Bob Dylan’s life has been studied and analyzed more than almost any other artist of the 20th Century. But Martin Scorsese still managed to create a revelatory documentary about his early days by fusing together never-before-seen footage from the Dylan vault along with new interviews with Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Liam Clancy, Pete Seeger, Mavis Staples, Suze Rotolo, Dave Van Ronk, and many other key figures from his past. Dylan himself even sat for a rare on-camera interview. “I had ambitions to set out and find…like an odyssey, going home somewhere,” Dylan says near at the beginning. “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.” The centerpiece of the film is thrilling footage from the 1966 tour with the Hawks where Dylan was booed most nights for playing electric music, including the fabled moment in Birmingham, England where a furious fan calls him “Judas.” —A.G.

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‘Wattstax’ (1973)

In its first incarnation, Stax Records was a tribute to the creative force of racial integration, but after Martin Luther King’s murder rocked Memphis to its core, new co-owner Al Bell pushed the label to pursue African-American uplift. The culmination of his vision was a celebratory concert timed to the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, featuring Jesse Jackson and Richard Pryor alongside Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers. For all its inspirational moments, the show is stolen by prankster Rufus Thomas, who masters an unruly crowd with his rendition of “Do the Funky Chicken.” SA

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‘The Filth and the Fury’ (2000)

Two decades after director Julien Temple cut his teeth by making The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, the surrealistic and sarcastic Sex Pistols mockumentary guided by their former manager, he returned to his original subject, letting the band members tell the story of the punk revolution from their perspective. The band members are all shrouded in shadows – head agitator Johnny Rotten is just an orange paintbrush of hair rising from the dark – adding emphasis to gritty, never-before-seen Seventies-era footage of the band members and their peers. The best part was Temple had the good sense to cut the story before the band’s mid-Nineties Filthy Lucre reunion. —K.G.

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‘Elvis: That’s the Way It Is’ (1970)

Like his 1968 comeback special, this record of the preparations for Elvis Presley’s first tour in 13 years is a tale of two Elvises. There’s the cocky country boy, whose studio performances with his crack band tap the primal energy of his best performances; and the stage entertainer, swaddled in foot-long fringe and buttressed by a small army of backing singers. (At one point, he jokes to the Vegas crowd that he’s filming a movie called “Elvis Loses His Excess.”) The 2001 recut, just released on Blu-ray, strips away footage of fans to provide more of the King in his domain. —S.A.

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‘Depeche Mode 101’ (1989)

The gents from Essex may be a gloomy bunch on record, but this film about the final leg of the band’s 1988 American tour is positively buoyant. Rather than a straightforward concert film like his previous Ziggy Stardust, D.A. Pennebaker (along with partner Chris Hegedus) brings their fly-on-the-wall approach to the entire traveling circus — from nimble lighting technicians to giddy number-crunchers, and from pinball-obsessed Dave Gahan to equally charismatic fans en route to see the finale at the Rose Bowl. For once, rock & roll isn’t presented as a spectacle of Dionysian excess, but of good — if not entirely clean — fun. —E.H.

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‘The T.A.M.I. Show’ (1964)

Justly celebrated for its incandescent performances by James Brown and the Rolling Stones — who chose, unwisely, to play after him — The T.A.M.I. Show‘s overview of “teenage music” circa 1964 serves as a primer in the tensions that would shortly rip the culture wide open. The variety-show staging and the goofy intros by emcees Jan and Dean act as a security blanket for anxious parents, assuring them that this rock & roll madness won’t get too out of hand. But by the time Brown and the Stones have worked their will on the crowd, you can feel a riot coming on. SA

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‘Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!’ (2006)

Sure, the Beastie Boys could have hired D.A. Pennebaker or Jonathan Demme to film their Madison Square Garden concert on October 9th, 2004 — or they could just give 50 attendees digital cameras, let them shoot the show and then see what comes back. Subtitled “an authorized bootleg,” this crowd-sourced performance movie technically lists Nathaniel Hornblower (a.k.a. the lederhosen-wearing alter ego of baritoned Beastie Adam Yauch) as the director — but it really is a fans-eye view of a great show and the ultimate testament of the trio’s belief in D.I.Y. empowerment. Plus you get to see the Beastie Boys at the Garden, cold-kickin’ it live. Rest in peace, MCA. —D.F.