Whether you're a jazzhead, a punk, a folkie or a hip-hop connoisseur, music documentaries have always been a vital part of fanhood. They serve as a peek behind the mysterious curtain to give mere mortals a glimpse into the candid moments that happen to our favorite musicians. It's hard to judge what separates a great documentary from another, since most will give you inside access, through in some exclusive footage and of course, kickass concert clips. We're focusing here not so much on the concert film, which is an entirely different category in itself, but on what makes a documentary so important to understanding a particular band, what makes an artist who he or she is or why a scene happens. And if there's some unintentional comedy along the way, then great. While there's been a number of unforgettable music docs made over the years, we've given ourselves the daunting task of narrowing down our 10 essentials that you should check out before you, ya know, check out.
10. George Harrison: Living in the Material World, 2011
First and foremost, anything directed by ace music documentarian Martin Scorsese (music credits: The Last Waltz, Shine A Light, No Direction Home) gets bonus points. Though this comes nine years after the quiet Beatle's death, it confirms every thing you would imagine he stood for and further showed that while he may not have been the most vocal musician, he was certainly one of the most the interesting.
9. Hype!, 1996
An insider's look in the grunge explosion of the early 1990s, this documentary shows rare performances by bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney, candid interviews and yes, the stupidity of record labels signing fifth-rate bands simply because they were from the Emerald City. This is an insider's look at one of the most important American music scenes of the last century.
8. It Might Get Loud, 2009
What happens when you put guitar heroes Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White in a room together? If you guessed it might get loud, then bingo... you're a genius. Learning about the three, very different guitar players' background is interesting, but seeing them in a room together learning how to play each other's songs is makes this documentary a must-own for any rock fan.
7. Crossfire Hurricane, 2012
Director Brett Morgen doesn't get the Stones (who are the undisputed kings of the rock doc) on-screen, but he gets their voices and splices together some amazing old footage of the band, who take fans on a comprehensive journey of their 50-year career. There are highlights aplenty; like seeing Mick and Keith get busted for possession and almost having to do life and jail, and hearing them acknowledge that without their iconic guitarist, the Stones would cease to exist and the entity they're known as. If you have HBO and are a music fan, you need to check this out stat.
6. PJ 20, 2011
As part of their 20th anniversary, the Seattle grunge survivors Pearl Jam allowed long time pal Cameron Crowe to cull from both his and their extensive library of archival footage. The end was result was a love letter to the band that traced their rising from the ashes of Mother Love Bone to their first show to candid moments, like the first version of "Daughter" that was written in the back of a van on the New Jersey Turnpike. Despite it being heavy on early history, it moved briskly and serves as the definitive timeline of one of rock's most enduring bands.
5. Tupac: Resurrection, 2003
Yes, there are people who think that the rapper is behind this documentary and still alive since he 'narrated' the entire, and if he is alive then Tupac, it should be noted that you did a hell of a job. Seeing some of the home movies was definitely a highlight.
4. Madonna: Truth or Dare, 1991
Remember when Madonna was hot AND edgy? This documentary takes a look at her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour and all of the trials and tribulations that went along with it. Oh, and it also established her not only as a cultural icon, but as a force that was going to last beyond the 15 minutes of fame that most critics predicted when she first arrived on the scene. There are a ton of celeb sightings as well, so if you want to see the likes of Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Olivia Newton-John and others not actually acting, then pop this in your DVD player pronto.
3. Some Kind of Monster, 2004
When Metallica let the cameras roll during the making of St. Anger; they could have anticipated the massive changes they would undergo. First, longtime bassist Jason Newsted left the band, and then singer James Hetfield went to rehab and drummer Lars Ulrich seemed cold and calculating. Add to that a cameo from original bassist Dave Mustaine, the courtship of a new bass player and a doctor with an ugly sweater who costs $40k per week, you got yourself a hell of a documentary.
2. Gimme Shelter, 1970
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The song has been used a zillion times in other trailers and films, but this documentary for better or worse, showed the end of the Flower Power culture. Capturing the final two weeks of the Rolling Stones 1969 U.S. tour, this caught the Stones as they were still rising and not quite the icons they are today. That's not to say they weren't already major rock stars, but after seeing them at Muscle Shoals, MSG and yes, Altamont, things would never be the same for the band. And you get to see it all in 91 minutes.
1. Don't Look Back, 1967: The granddaddy of all rock documentaries remains it's best. Directed by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, this film gives fans amazing insight to the original artist shrouded in mystery, Bob Dylan. Watching the transformation from Dylan the folkie to Dylan the rock star is fascinating, as is his legendary freak out in a hotel room. Don't Look Back gives a little bit of clarity to one of the most private figures in rock history, which nearly 50 years later, remains the closest you'll ever get to understanding what makes Dylan tick.