The 15 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

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The 15 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix

Music documentaries can do two things (or some combination of the two): over-inflate the mythical nature of music’s most interesting stories, or shed a light on important truths about the music that has shaped our world, straight from the mouths of people who made it or who were in their inner circles. If you’re a fan of music or the documentary as an art form, you can delve into 15 of the best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix, listed below.

For more of Paste’s lists of best Netflix movies, check out our recently-updated lists of the 50 best documentaries and the 100 best movies currently available on Netflix.

Here are the 15 best music documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

15. Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?

Year: 2019
Director: Nick Mead
Clarence Clemons spent 30 years on the road with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as a saxophone player. People call him “The Big Man,” and he is, in fact, a big man. You’ve seen the cover of Springsteen’s famous 1975 album Born to Run, but what you might not know is that Springsteen is leaning on Clemons, whose full figure is cropped out of the frame. Clemons’ bold, honking horn playing was a central part of the E Street Band’s live show for so many years. He lent personality and fire to Springsteen’s raw, heartland rock ‘n’ roll. But despite playing with Springsteen, Ringo Starr’s band and his own project, Clarence Clemons Temple of Soul, he found himself spiritually unsatisfied. He took a trip to China in 2005 and toured many sacred sites, and though the film doesn’t necessarily offer insight into how it affected him, you can tell that Clemons is a very contemplative person, and he sought the most meaning from life that he could possibly find. He enjoyed fishing, he healed himself through music, and he loved his friends more than anything. While you rediscover Clemons’ talent, you’ll also be struck by a man who lived several lives worth of love and pain. —Lizzie Manno

14. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke

Year: 2019
Director: Kelly Duane de la Vega
The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is another installment of Netflix’s original music documentary series ReMastered. This documentary creates a more holistic portrait of American soul legend Sam Cooke—one that doesn’t carelessly glaze over his story because his crooner soul also appealed to white audiences. In an effort to save his “murdered legacy,” the film examines his early roots in black churches, the evolution of his music, his impressive business acumen and his political activism later in life, which is believed to have led to his eventual murder. It also addressed his record label’s concern that Cooke would never be able to satisfy both his white and black audiences. As Cooke became an increasingly influential cultural figure, his associations with other politically active black figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown posed a threat to the racial status quo. Cooke’s murder arises as an integral point of discussion in the film, and the details to this day are still muddy. Just as Cooke began writing politically-minded music—the sequence where “A Change is Gonna Come” plays in the background is breathtaking—his life was tragically cut short, and this film is a reminder of his unbelievable talent and his embrace of blackness that history largely forgot. —Lizzie Manno

13. Searching For Sugar Man

Year: 2012
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road. But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve—that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past. —Michael Dunaway

12. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

Year: 2010
Director: Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen
Rush’s career-spanning documentary has perhaps the best and most goofy opening to a music documentary that I’ve ever seen. Members of Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Tenacious D and others each try to mimic the band’s incredible technical skills, but not with instruments—with their mouths, air drums and air guitars. “Rush is just one of those bands who has a deep reservoir of rocket sauce,” Jack Black says. Members of Metallica, Rage Against The Machine, KISS, Smashing Pumpkins and others each pile on additional praise and awe for a band that history has perhaps overlooked for a spot among the greatest bands of all time. Whether or not you’ve fallen in love with their unusual time signatures, Geddy Lee’s glaringly high voice or Neil Peart’s unfathomably skilled drumming, Beyond the Lighted Stage is a beautifully humanizing portrait of one of the most distinctive and influential bands ever. Rush are often viewed as lame, tame or not tuneful enough, but I challenge those who think that to test that theory by watching this thoughtful, warm-hearted documentary. —Lizzie Manno

11. Hip-Hop Evolution

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Year: 2016
Director: Darby Wheeler
The budding and eventual blossoming of hip-hop is a fascinating collection of word-of-mouth stories. The Emmy and Peabody Award-Winning Netflix docu-series Hip-Hop Evolution captures this word-of-mouth ethic and tracks the lineage of one of the most popular music genres ever. Through interviews with the influential MCs, DJs and other movers and shakers, viewers get a glimpse into the innovators who planted the genre’s seeds and the artists who put their own spin on hip-hop in each subsequent decade. The series is hosted by Shad Kabango, a Canadian MC who records under Shad and who studied hip-hop in university. The four-part season one starts in the basements of the Bronx in the 1970s with genre pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and concludes with the explosion of West Coast gangster rappers like Ice T. and N.W.A. Also four parts, season two covers everything from the Miami bass sound, rap’s pop crossover and UGK to Tupac Shakur, New York’s legendary Latin Quarter club and the wave of hardcore east coast rappers. Through his knowledge and appreciation of hip-hop, Kabango is able to get the giants of the genre to open up and make you feel like you’re intruding on a conversation between best friends or siblings. —Lizzie Manno

10. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

Year: 2019
Director: Chris Smith
The disastrous and fraudulent Fyre Festival has been a meme ever since it imploded in epic proportions in 2017 on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. The festival was marketed to well-to-do millennials and influencers as the most premium and luxurious music festival getaway, and folks bought into it in droves. When festival-goers showed up, it was apparent there wasn’t enough food, water and housing, and big-name artists began to pull out, resulting in its cancellation and the eventual stranding of attendees. The festival’s purported “mastermind” and yuppie narcissist Billy McFarland fraudulently acquired funds for the festival and has since been sentenced to six years in prison. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened pulls back the curtain on how A-listers like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Pusha T, Blink-182 and marketing giant FuckJerry were duped into associating themselves with and legitimizing this high-level scheme. In the documentary, Fyre employees and outside agencies hired to work on the festival share how a charismatic McFarland could charm investors and top-of-the-line industry professionals into buying his vision, despite a lack of detail on what the festival would actually look like. This film has everything from humor and ego to glamor and gross human negligence. It’s a case study on how bold ambitions can quickly overshadow logistics and completely mask reality. —Lizzie Manno

9. Amy

Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg

8. Chasing Trane

Year: 2016
Director: John Scheinfeld
Those old and new to John Coltrane will find something to appreciate in this vivid, albeit effusive, tribute to the jazz legend. Family members, former bandmates and famous fans (Kamasi Washington, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Bill Clinton) recount the genius of the sax player’s compositions and evolution of his talents, from his Charlie Parker-mimicking early work to his later, freeform experimentation. Devotees shouldn’t expect much of a deep dive here on any level; via home movies, archival footage and personal diaries read by Denzel Washington, the film takes a linear, survey-style approach to his North Carolina childhood and drug-addled twenties, two marriages, and quick succumbing to liver cancer in 1967 at only 40. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld dips in and out of the music—too much so, it turns out, and with too little insight into the specifics of his gifts. Still, the overarching salvation Trane found in music resonates with such joy. The sequence about his civil rights opus “Alabama,” which took its phrasing cues from the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a stirring illumination of his creative process. As Coltrane’s notes unfold atop King’s words, music and speech flow into and out of each other in a still urgent, impassioned release. Elsewhere, the doc looks at the transformative power of Coltrane’s faith, his relationships and his legacy with iconic works such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Midway through the film Dr. Cornel West describes Coltrane as a thermostat, not a thermometer, of the times, an instrument personified that adapted rather than just measured. In its best moments, Chasing Trane succeeds in that as well. —Amanda Schurr

7. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Year: 2004
Director: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
For metalheads, it doesn’t get much bigger than Metallica. When the thrash metal giants went in to record 2003’s St. Anger, their first album in six years, things were looking pretty dicey. They took the longest hiatus in their career thus far after their craziest year as a band, which featured massive tours, award shows and a high-profile copyright lawsuit with Napster. The band members had been butting heads for years, but it all came to a head when bassist Jason Newsted departed the band following failed mediations with a performance enhancement coach. Journalists speculated that the band was still skating on thin ice, and viewers get an inside look into that very skating rink. You see professional, creative and personal clashes within the band from early on in the album process, and frontman James Hetfield eventually enters rehab, resulting in a year-long break before they reentered the studio. At one point, the band has a meeting and questions whether they even want to proceed with the documentary. Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich are often at each other’s throats—at one point, Ulrich calls Hetfield “fucking self-absorbed” and tells him he’s not sure if he wants to continue. It’s touching, uncomfortable, funny and somehow by the end, Hetfield is actually sad that they’ve finally finished. It’s much more illuminating than your average in-studio documentary—you can feel that this is a watershed moment in their lives, not just their music career. —Lizzie Manno

6. Supersonic

Year: 2016
Director: Mat Whitecross
The rise of Manchester Britpop giants Oasis was unimaginable. Liam and Noel Gallagher were the sons of working class Irish immigrants, and in just a few short years, they went from playing in clubs to playing in a field of 125,000 at Knebworth, where almost 3 million people applied for tickets. The two brothers were notoriously quarrelsome and drop-dead hilarious, and both qualities are showcased in this behind-the-scenes, rags-to-riches documentary. In addition to commentary from the band, the Gallaghers’ mother, Peggie, was interviewed and she called a young Liam “the devil” and talked about being driven mad by Noel’s constant guitar playing in his bedroom. It also delves into the drama of their physically abusive father with Noel commenting, “I guess he beat the talent into me,” and Peggie discussing the night they left him (“I left him a knife and a fork and spoon and I think I left him too much”). Viewers get a glimpse into Oasis’ Manchester rehearsal studio where they jammed Noel’s songs for the first time as well as the metaphorical, high-publicized headbutting between the two brothers that occurred as soon as the band started to skyrocket. Though Oasis didn’t split up until 2009, the film is bookended by their famous Knebworth performance in 1996, and the footage is just as goosebump-inducing as you might expect. —Lizzie Manno

5. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

Year: 2019
Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges and Universities in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience—Coachella. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson

4. What Happened, Miss Simone?

Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure, they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham

3. I Called Him Morgan

Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson

2. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating. Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. More layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again. —Tim Grierson

1. 20 Feet From Stardom

Year: 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
“Da Doo Ron Ron.” Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Strip these classic anthems of their backup vocals, and they’re just not the same. In 20 Feet from Stardom, music documentarian Morgan Neville introduces talented women like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who, for one reason or another, lived mostly out of the spotlight. As Bruce Springsteen says in the movie’s opening interview, “That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.” 20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough document on the craft of backup singing, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack of some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century. —Annlee Ellingson