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40 Greatest Rock Documentaries

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

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The movies started flirting with what would be called “rock & roll” from the very beginning, slapping Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” onto a scene in the juvenile-delinquent drama The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and co-opting Elvis Presley’s proto-punk pout for the big screen as soon as they could. But there’s nothing like the real thing when it comes to seeing those historical musical moments, which is where documentaries come in: A number of nonfiction filmmakers saw the advantage of capturing these artists onstage, backstage or behind the scenes — partially for posterity, partially for plain old reportage and partially for the second-hand high of it all.

So we’ve compiled the 40 greatest rock documentaries, or “rockumentaries,” of all time — the concert films, fly-on-the-wall tour chronicles, artist portraits and cinematic punk and hip-hop cultural surveys that have set the standard and still stand out. (If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes something under its banner, then it made our cut — hence the inclusion of hip-hop docs but no jazz or world-music docs. Very sorry, Buena Vista Social Club, we still love you.) Play this list loud.

Henry Rollins, Black Flag American Hardcore - 2008

Henry Rollins, Black Flag American Hardcore - 2008

Ahc Prods/Envision/Kobal/Shutterstock

38

‘American Hardcore’ (2006)

Machine-gun drumming, warp-speed guitar strumming, screamed lyrics about politics, punk ethics and personal alienation — this is hardcore, and Paul Rachman’s doc traces the underground movement’s ebbs and flows in places like D.C., L.A. and N.Y.C. throughout the Eighties. More than just a musical idea of stripping rock down to its bare necessities and brutalizing what was left, hardcore midwifed positive lifestyle templates (see straight-edge), a strong sense of community and an alpha-thug notion that violence was an inherent part of the show/scene; to his credit, Rachman looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of it all, as well as getting major players (Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, Greg Ginn) to weigh in. It’s worth its weight in old Xeroxed gig flyers. DF

Recording group dead prez's M-1 and comedian, Dave Chappelle on September 19, 2005.

Recording group dead prez's M-1 and comedian, Dave Chappelle on September 19, 2005.

Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

37

‘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. TG

U2 : Rattle And Hum, The Edge, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton 1988

U2 : Rattle And Hum, The Edge, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton 1988

Moviestore/Shutterstock

36

‘U2: Rattle and Hum’ (1988)

At the time of its release, this documentary of U2’s Joshua Tree tour was lambasted for its overly reverent, self-important tone. Now with hindsight, Rattle and Hum can be seen properly as a honest portrait of the Irish quartet, whose holy quest was to change the world through rock & roll. Allow the band’s piousness and Americana obsessions to turn you off, and you’ll miss an intriguing look at a band adjusting to a global superstar status they haven’t relinquished since. And goddamn, is that Bono is one charming sonuvabitch! TG

Thom Yorke performing live onstage, 1997.

Thom Yorke performing live onstage, 1997.

Simon Ritter/Redferns

35

‘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. TG

LCD Soundsystem performs at Madison Square Garden

LCD Soundsystem performs at Madison Square Garden

Theo Wargo/WireImage For NY Post

34

‘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. TG

Heavy Metal Parking Lot
33

‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ (1986)

A sociological study of headbangers, this 17-minute short consists of interviews with Judas Priest fans tailgating outside a Maryland show. Directors John Heyn and Jeff Krulik emphasize their subjects’ party-hearty, shit-faced shenanigans, but while it’s tempting to mock these mullet-afflicted metalheads, there’s an undeniable sweetness that permeates this mini-documentary. These kids may occasionally be inarticulate, sexist and obnoxious, but their innocent quest for rock & roll kicks is unfiltered youth personified. TG

Singer Jeff Tweedy of American rock group Wilco, January 1997.

Singer Jeff Tweedy of American rock group Wilco, January 1997.

Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty Images

32

‘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. TG

Prince - Sign O' The Times - 1987

Prince - Sign O' The Times - 1987

Cavallo Fuffalo Fragnoli/Kobal/Shutterstock

31

‘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. DF

Blonde Ambition Tour, 1990.

Blonde Ambition Tour, 1990.

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

30

‘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. TG

Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson and RUSH, L-R: Alex Lifeson (playing Gibson EDS-175 double neck guitar), Geddy Lee (playing Rickenbacker 4080 double neck guitar) performing live onstage on All The World's A Stage tour.

Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson and RUSH, L-R: Alex Lifeson (playing Gibson EDS-175 double neck guitar), Geddy Lee (playing Rickenbacker 4080 double neck guitar) performing live onstage on All The World's A Stage tour.

Fin Costello/Redferns

29

‘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. JN

David Bowie performs on stage on his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour in London, 1973.

David Bowie performs on stage on his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour in London, 1973.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

28

‘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

Chuck D. of Public Enemy performs at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan in JULY 1990.

Chuck D. of Public Enemy performs at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan in JULY 1990.

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

27

‘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. JN

Jim Jarmusch, Neil Young Year Of The Horse - 1997

Jim Jarmusch, Neil Young Year Of The Horse - 1997

Shakey/Kobal/Shutterstock

26

‘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

James Brown, Soul Power - 2008

James Brown, Soul Power - 2008

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25

‘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. TG

Brian Jonestown Massacre Dig! - 2004

Brian Jonestown Massacre Dig! - 2004

Interloper/Kobal/Shutterstock

24

‘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. EH

Daniel Johnston The Devil and Daniel Johnston - 2005

Daniel Johnston The Devil and Daniel Johnston - 2005

Sony Classic/Kobal/Shutterstock

23

‘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. SA

DEVO 1981 ‘Urgh! A Music War’ (1981)

DEVO 1981

Chris Walter/WireImage/Shutterstock

22

‘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