While making of a list of the greatest music documentaries of all time would be an exercise in futility that would probably drive us insane, we can capably compile a list of six great documentaries made in the last five years. This list also includes a rash of great films made in the last two years, as we seem to be in sort of a golden age of the music doc.6. 20 Feet from Stardom
Morgan Neville's ode to backup singers just hit theaters and delves into the lives and careers of musicians who are almost universally overlooked, the backup singers. Touching on the importance of these singers, Neville paints a wide picture going into the depths of singers Darlene Love, who had to deal with an insane Phil Spector before breaking through, Lisa Fischer, who won the 1991 Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for her hit "How Can I Ease The Pain," and Judith Hill, who worked with Michael Jackson before his death. The film includes a breathtaking scene where Merry Clayton recounts the late night-session where she provided the backing vocal to "Gimme Shelter," and delves into the lives and careers of numerous other backup singers who left a lasting legacy in the world of music.
Availability: In theaters in most major markets.5. Searching for Sugar Man
The story of lost folk singer Sixto Rodriguez won the Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards back in February, and for those who have seen it there's little argument against the win. Though the documentary gets a little wonky with the facts in favor of a narrative of mystery, it does manage to capably tell the story of an artist who almost made it, disappeared, had his music make it overseas, finds an audience, was rediscovered and finally made it. It's a bit more complicated than that, but you really should watch it yourself. Look for a rather stunning animated segment to drive home why people are so nuts about this doc.
Availability: On demand, digital purchase, Netflix delivery, Redbox, and video stores where video stores still exist.4. How to Grow a Band
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A Kickstarter success story, How to Grow a Band tells the story of how ex-Nickel Creek member Chris Thile worked through a divorce and made creative leap by forming the quintet the Punch Brothers and aiming for musical perfection. Hey, it's a hell of a better coping mechanism then making Taken and Taken 2, and it ended up netting him a MacArthur Genius Grant when all was said and done.
Availability: Streaming on Netflix, on demand, digital purchase, Netflix delivery and video stores where video stores still exist.3. Oil City Confidential
Julien Temple is the the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of U.K. music films, having made every single important major documentary, or film about the U.K. music scene, and Earth Girls Are Easy. His most ambitious/insane/best/really WTF? work is 2009's Oil City Confidential, which tells the story of Canvey Island pub-rockers Dr. Feelgood through insightful interviews and footage from black and white crime thrillers. It's insane, insightful and really just fucking amazing.
Availability: Umm, good luck finding it ... though if you're a less then legal person (like myself) there's a site that starts with a V and ends with a .co that has it.2. Soul Power
Anyone who's sen the landmark documentary When We Were Kings, which tells the story of Muhammad Ali and George Forman's infamous Rumble in the Jungle bout, will remember the scene where at a pre-fight concert an energetic James Brown launches a Zaire crowd into dancing spasms while performing in crushing heat. This scene led to a documentary being made about the Zaire 74 festival where Brown was performing. Featuring performances by Bill Withers, B.B. King, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, The Spinners, Manu Dibango, and Brown, Soul Power serves as documentation of the moment American R&B, blues and soul returned to Africa to come together with the music of the continent of soul in solidarity for the strife of those one both sides of the Atlantic.
Availability: On demand, digital purchase, Netflix delivery, and video stores where video stores still exist.
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Determined to making something totally unique Paul Simon went to South Africa to record and work with musicians working under the harsh laws of apartheid, what was born was Graceland, arguably Simon's greatest work. In 2012, a 25th anniversary show was held and A&E films sent a crew to follow Simon as he reconnected with the musicians who helped him create such a masterpiece, and to discuss how turbulent a time the sessions were. Under African Skies is utterly captivating to those of us who were too young to experience a world where it was still OK to outright divide the races across stringent lines, with almost no consequence.
Availability: Hulu Plus and iTunes.