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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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21

‘Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival’ (1997)

It’s a concise encapsulation of Age-of-Aquarius contradictions: An overhead shot of some 600,000 festivalgoers filling up the grounds of the East Afton Farm on England’s Isle of Wight — which immediately cuts to the festival’s M.C., Rikki Farr, telling the audience that they can go to hell for ruining a chance at rock & roll bliss. The community-versus-commerce argument over rock-fest admission fees runs throughout Murray Lerner’s doc on the ill-fated 1970 endeavor, in which disillusioned organizers and artists tussle with hippie entitlement (“We want the world, and we want it now!”), and both iron fences and utopian hopes come crashing down. In addition to 20/20 hindsight, however, Message also brims with amazing performance footage of the period: a blistering number from The Who; Hendrix, less than three weeks from shuffling off this mortal coil, doing “Voodoo Chile”; the Doors tearing into ‘The End”; a Bitches Brew era Miles Davis Group; and Joni Mitchell, playing (ironically) “Woodstock” and almost being attacked by a dead ringer for Charles Manson.

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20

‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ (1966)

On December 11th, 1968, Mick Jagger — tired of conventional concert performances — assembled the Who, Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, Mitch Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull and Yoko Ono inside an replicated big top, combining actual circus performers with one-off collaborations. Despite the historical importance — it was Brian Jones’ last public performance and the only time Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi performed with Tull — the footage was shelved for nearly 30 years, reportedly due to the Stones’ unhappiness with their own set (and by being upstaged by Pete Townshend and Co.). Gimme Shelter and Shine a Light are better documents of the band, but nothing compares to the sheer lunacy and singularity of this doc that literalized the metaphorical circus that was both the Stones in 1968 and Swinging London. JN

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19

‘Wattstax’ (1973)

In its first incarnation, Stax Records was a tribute to the creative force of racial integration, but after Martin Luther King's murder rocked Memphis to its core, new co-owner Al Bell pushed the label to pursue African-American uplift. The culmination of his vision was a celebratory concert timed to the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, featuring Jesse Jackson and Richard Pryor alongside Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers. For all its inspirational moments, the show is stolen by prankster Rufus Thomas, who masters an unruly crowd with his rendition of "Do the Funky Chicken." SA