Home Movies Movie Lists

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

Play video

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images


‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’ (1991)

Impossibly beautiful, incredibly smart, surprisingly candid and fiendishly calculating, the Madonna of Truth or Dare is adept at soaking up every inch of the spotlight. Director Alek Keshishian’s documentary about the singer’s Blond Ambition Tour purports to offer a closer look at the Material Girl, but her media sophistication is too formidable, making us always question who’s the “real” Madonna: the savvy businesswoman or the needy brat. What’s not in dispute, however, is that her eye-popping, ear-candy concert performances slay. —T.G.

Play video

Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘Woodstock’ (1970)

Far more people claim to have attended Woodstock than was feasibly possible, and it’s likely Michael Wadleigh’s watershed, kaleidoscopic documentary is to blame. The film captures the three-day festival over three immersive hours (a 1994 re-release pushed it to close to four), often employing split-screen to accommodate spectacles both onstage (blistering sets by Hendrix, the Who, and Richie Havens) and off (traffic jams, overtaxed Port-a-Potties, and open-air sex). An Oscar winner and box office smash in 1970, Woodstock also launched the still thriving collaboration between co-director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Just as crucially, it’s warned several generations away from the brown acid. EH

Play video

Annamaria Disanto/Radical Media/Third Eye Motion Picture Co/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’ (2004)

If Metallica had a love of the absurd, you could accuse them of staging their sessions with band therapist Phil Towle as an attempt to make their own This Is Spinal Tap. But when Lars Ulrich starts fielding grievances from his longtime bandmates with couples-therapy mirroring — “What I hear you saying is…” — it’s no longer clear who the joke is on. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were only tapped for a making-of featurette, but when it became clear that one of the world’s biggest rock bands was in the midst of a collective existential crisis, they stuck around and captured an indelible record of the live-wire dynamics that make any creative enterprise work, and often doom them to failure. How good is Some Kind of Monster? It almost makes you want to listen to St. Anger again. —S.A.


‘Homecoming’ (2019)

From the moment Beyoncé Knowles, dressed as a modern-day Nefertiti, strutted down a catwalk at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the first of two headlining sets, you knew these would be historic shows — that year’s edition didn’t end up being dubbed “Beychella” for nothing. Had Homecoming been nothing but raw footage of her iconic performances over those consecutive weekends, we’d still consider it one of the best music docs of the past decades. But this peek at the creation of those epic concerts, so-directed by Beyoncé herself, also gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how much hard work she put into this mix of marching bands, dancers and revised renditions of her greatest hits together, and the way she used her moment in the festival spotlight to shout out Civil Rights leaders, HBCU’s and black culture of the past and present. All hail the Queen B. —D.F.

Play video

Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


‘Monterey Pop’ (1968)

You can never discount the importance to documentary filmmaking of being in the right place at the right time, and from June 16-18, 1967, that place was the Monterey County Fairgrounds. With his cameras roaming through the crowd in the hands of Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, director D.A. Pennebaker captured not only the musical performances — from the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and many others, most of which were phenomenal — but the flower-power culture that sustained them. Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar alight is Monterey Pop‘s iconic image, but Otis Redding bringing Southern soul to the hippie nation was no less revolutionary. —S.A.


‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015)

A multimedia mix of Kurt Cobain’s home movies, journal entries, drawings, notebook scrawlings and audio recordings (buffered, naturally, by vintage interview excerpts and concert clips), Brett Morgen’s documentary is more than just a must-see for Nirvana fans. It’s a collective labor of love that offers an unfiltered peek into the singer-songwriter’s mindset, from the first creative stirrings to the spiral downward. By the time it ends with Cobain thanking his Unplugged audience, you feel as if you know the man himself.  —D.F.

Play video

Spheeris Inc/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981)

Music documentaries tend to focus on the already-famous — why devote two hours to some band you never heard of? — but Penelope Spheeris’ document of the Los Angeles punk scene caught its subjects when they were still on the ground: At one point, X’s Exene Cervenka worries about the backlash that would ensue if they started charging $6 a ticket. (Black Flag’s Ron Reyes proudly shows off the sleeping quarters he paid $16 a month for: a utility closet in a crumbling deconsecrated church.) Although the songs are literally subtitled for the punk-impaired, Decline makes few concessions to delicate sensibilities: the movie dives into the mosh pit and lets you fend for yourself. —S.A.


‘Amazing Grace’ (2018)

It only took 46 years to see it, but this legendary concert film chronicling Aretha Franklin’s two-night stand at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church — the same 1972 shows that gave us Franklin’s classic live gospel album — was more than worth the wait. Sydney Pollack’s movie isn’t a document of a performance so much as a visual extension of the ecstasy that the singer, her collaborators and the crowd experienced; no matter how many times you’ve heard her interpretations of “Wholy Holy” or “Never Grow Old,” the sight of Franklin, eyes closed and head bowed, working her way through those numbers feels like a revelation. (Watching the choir jump up and egg Aretha on as she testifies during the title track is capable of reducing an entire theater to nothing but goosebumps and teardrops.) Witness the Queen of Soul do those stellar runs and work the audience, from everyday churchgoers to Mick Jagger, into a divine frenzy, and you’ll feel as if you’ve seen the face of God. —D.F.

Play video

Cinecom Int'/Island Alive/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

What was Talking Heads’ strategy for their euphoric, propulsive 1984 concert film? “We didn’t want any of the bullshit,” drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone. “We didn’t want the clichés.” Eschewing pandering audience shots and focusing instead on evocative lighting and imaginative set design, Jonathan Demme captures the band at their creative peak, rolling through songs from their then-latest LP, Speaking in Tongues, while brilliantly reimagining old favorites like “Once in a Lifetime” and a solo-David-Byrne-with-boom-box version of “Psycho Killer.” It’s 88 minutes of endless up — a joyous marriage of New Wave, funk and Byrne’s inspired, demented stagecraft. —T.G.

Play video

Maysles/20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘Gimme Shelter’ (1970)

The beauty of the Rolling Stones came from their hedonistic embrace of rock’s sex-and-danger ethos. The horror of this documentary comes from its clear-eyed view of the band’s kinetic live power, which could be both hypnotic and terrifying in its intensity. Gimme Shelter is best remembered for its chilling finale — the death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter at the Stones’ free 1969 show at Altamont — but throughout, directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin craft a spellbinding sense of the band’s dark energy, which suggested liberation and nihilism. And Mick Jagger’s final reaction shot is haunting. —T.G.

Play video

United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock


‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

When the Band decided to hang it up with one last show in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, they threw a wake rather than a funeral. Directed by Martin Scorsese right before he dove into Raging Bull, this concert film is, first and foremost, a celebration of the American-Canadian quintet who helped bring our nation’s musical past into the present. But it’s also a salute to their inspirations and peers, with performances from Neil Young and Muddy Waters intercut with interviews of individual Band members reminiscing about the sights they’ve seen and the lessons learned. Sure, The Last Waltz is nostalgic, but the richness of the music and the overpoweringly elegiac tone give the film a timelessness that’s transporting. Even Neil Diamond kills. —T.G.

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


‘Don’t Look Back’ (1967)

Even if you’ve never seen Don’t Look Back, you know it by heart. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opener — nicked by everyone from INXS to Bob Roberts — is the most obvious cultural reference point, but in a larger sense this documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour is the permanent blueprint for the public’s image of mid-Sixties rock & roll. The glories and agonies of the road, the exuberance of a quicksilver new talent setting the world on fire, the clueless journalists: Director D.A. Pennebaker’s handheld camera captured it all. In the process, he made Dylan an icon, galvanized a generation and helped transform a singular moment in the evolution of “youth music” into riveting, indelible drama. —T.G.