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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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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

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18

‘The Filth and the Fury’ (2000)

Two decades after director Julien Temple cut his teeth by making The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, the surrealistic and sarcastic Sex Pistols mockumentary guided by their former manager, he returned to his original subject, letting the band members tell the story of the punk revolution from their perspective. The band members are all shrouded in shadows – head agitator Johnny Rotten is just an orange paintbrush of hair rising from the dark – adding emphasis to gritty, never-before-seen Seventies-era footage of the band members and their peers. The best part was Temple had the good sense to cut the story before the band's mid-Nineties Filthy Lucre reunion. KG

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17

‘Elvis: That’s the Way It Is’ (1970)

Like his 1968 comeback special, this record of the preparations for Elvis Presley's first tour in 13 years is a tale of two Elvises. There's the cocky country boy, whose studio performances with his crack band tap the primal energy of his best performances; and the stage entertainer, swaddled in foot-long fringe and buttressed by a small army of backing singers. (At one point, he jokes to the Vegas crowd that he's filming a movie called "Elvis Loses His Excess.") The 2001 recut, just released on Blu-ray, strips away footage of fans to provide more of the King in his domain. SA

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16

‘Depeche Mode 101’ (1989)

The gents from Essex may be a gloomy bunch on record, but this film about the final leg of the band's 1988 American tour is positively buoyant. Rather than a straightforward concert film like his previous Ziggy Stardust, D.A. Pennebaker (along with partner Chris Hegedus) bring their fly-on-the-wall approach to the entire traveling circus — from nimble lighting technicians to giddy number-crunchers, and from pinball-obsessed Dave Gahan to equally charismatic fans en route to see the finale at the Rose Bowl. For once, rock & roll isn’t presented as a spectacle of Dionysian excess, but of good — if not entirely clean — fun. EH

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15

‘Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!’ (2006)

Sure, the Beastie Boys could have hired D.A. Pennebaker or Jonathan Demme to film their Madison Square Garden concert on October 9th, 2004 — or they could just give 50 attendees digital cameras, let them shoot the show and then see what comes back. Subtitled "an authorized bootleg," this crowd-sourced performance movie technically lists Nathaniel Hornblower (a.k.a. the lederhosen-wearing alter ego of baritoned Beastie Adam Yauch) as the director — but it really is a fans-eye view of a great show and the ultimate testament of the trio's belief in D.I.Y. empowerment. Plus you get to see the Beastie Boys at the Garden, cold-kickin' it live. Rest in peace, MCA.

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14

‘The Kids Are Alright’ (1979)

From Maximum R&B-playing mods to arena-rock anthem makers: Jeff Stein’s scrapbook of the Who’s career collects tidbits from the band’s TV appearances, Woodstock performance footage, interviews and other flotsam and jetsam in an attempt to pay tribute to one of rock’s greatest (and loudest) groups. Like the quartet themselves, the movie is often disjointed, totally chaotic, and hits with the force of a Fender Stratocaster being smashed on a stage. It also doubles as a history of rock and roll’s British Invasion-and-beyond era, as blues fixations give way to Pop Art, feedback, psychedelica, ambitious attempts at high-art evolution and self-expression, and the power of a well-placed power chord. It also inspired the “This one goes to 11” scene from This Is Spinal Tap, for which we owe this movie an immeasurable debt. DF

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13

‘The Song Remains the Same’ (1976)

Yes, there are ridiculous dream sequences (or are they?!?!) involving pastoral reveries, swords, horses, Tommy guns and wizardsploitation, the kind that suggest profundity only if you've been using Physical Graffiti's gatefold for seed harvesting. But for years, this was the best live document we had regarding the mighty Led Zeppelin, and for all the giggles over the goofy mysticism in this midnight-movie staple, this movie still captures the experience of seeing a huge band fill a huge auditorium with an even huger sound. It also doubles nicely as a time capsule for overall Seventies rock excess, down to the Golden-God bulges, incredible drum solos (sticks optional) and indulgent guitar solos (bows not optional). DF

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12

‘Pink Floyd: LIve at Pompeii’ (1972)

The word “live” in the movie title is a bit of a red herring when it comes to Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, since the only audience in the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater in the world is the film’s crew. But it’s also what makes it all so entrancing. Seeing Floyd bookend a set of late-Sixties space-rock triumphs like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and enfant terrible gong-banging freak-outs with Meddle‘s “Echoes” – while watching it all seem to evanesce into the air, amidst the weeds, ancient sculptures and molten lava of Pompeii (with an assist from a barking dog) – seems like the perfect setting for the group. With the addition of some trippy camera effects and studio footage of the group making Dark Side of the Moon, Pompeii became the ultimate document of psych-rock’s transition into prog. KG

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11

‘The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years’ (1988)

Director Penelope Spheeris’ first Decline of Western Civilization captured the ragged desperation and willful poverty of L.A.’s hardcore bands in 1981, but The Metal Years showed what happens when the same types of musicians got a little money, a lot of drugs and gallons of hairspray. W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes steals the show by drunkenly floating in a swimming pool while arguing with his mom, but jaw-dropping scenes of Ozzy Osbourne cooking breakfast in a leopard-print robe and Kiss’ Paul Stanley flanked in bed with scantly clad women also help the film live up to its Decline title. Sadly, the film remains unavailable on Blu-ray and DVD for the moment, so YouTube is still the best way to see it. KG

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10

‘What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.’ (1964)

Two years after the landmark Lonely Boy brought cinema vérité techniques backstage, the Maysles Brothers hitched a ride with the Fab Four on their first trans-Atlantic trip. Although Richard Lester would (lightly) fictionalize similar scenarios in A Hard Day’s Night, no camera before or since ever got so close to capturing John, Paul, George and Ringo in anything like their natural state; you can almost see the walls coming up as they realize how unavoidably public their lives are about to become. The DVD version, retitled The First U.S. Visit, swaps out scenes highlighting the drudgery of promo-tour obligations in favor of the band’s Ed Sullivan Show performances — a fair trade, but it’s worth seeking out the original, which still screens in theaters occasionally. SA

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9

‘Woodstock’ (1970)

Far more people claim to have attended Woodstock than was feasibly possible, and it’s likely Michael Wadleigh’s watershed, kaleidoscopic documentary is to blame. The film captures the three-day festival over three immersive hours (a 1994 re-release pushed it to close to four), often employing split-screen to accommodate spectacles both onstage (blistering sets by Hendrix, the Who, and Richie Havens) and off (traffic jams, overtaxed Port-a-Potties, and open-air sex). An Oscar winner and box office smash in 1970, Woodstock also launched the still thriving collaboration between co-director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Just as crucially, it’s warned several generations away from the brown acid. EH

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8

‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’ (2004)

If Metallica had a love of the absurd, you could accuse them of staging their sessions with band therapist Phil Towle as an attempt to make their own This Is Spinal Tap. But when Lars Ulrich starts fielding grievances from his longtime bandmates with couples-therapy mirroring — "What I hear you saying is…" — it's no longer clear who the joke is on. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were only tapped for a making-of featurette, but when it became clear that one of the world's biggest rock bands was in the midst of a collective existential crisis, they stuck around and captured an indelible record of the live-wire dynamics that make any creative enterprise work, and often doom them to failure. How good is Some Kind of Monster? It almost makes you want to listen to St. Anger again. SA

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7

‘Monterey Pop’ (1968)

You can never discount the importance to documentary filmmaking of being in the right place at the right time, and from June 16-18, 1967, that place was the Monterey County Fairgrounds. With his cameras roaming through the crowd in the hands of Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, director D.A. Pennebaker captured not only the musical performances — from the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and many others, most of which were phenomenal — but the flower-power culture that sustained them. Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar alight is Monterey Pop's iconic image, but Otis Redding bringing Southern soul to the hippie nation was no less revolutionary. SA

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6

‘The T.A.M.I. Show’ (1964)

Justly celebrated for its incandescent performances by James Brown and the Rolling Stones — who chose, unwisely, to play after him — The T.A.M.I. Show‘s overview of “teenage music” circa 1964 serves as a primer in the tensions that would shortly rip the culture wide open. The variety-show staging and the goofy intros by emcees Jan and Dean act as a security blanket for anxious parents, assuring them that this rock & roll madness won’t get too out of hand. But by the time Brown and the Stones have worked their will on the crowd, you can feel a riot coming on. SA

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5

‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981)

Music documentaries tend to focus on the already-famous — why devote two hours to some band you never heard of? — but Penelope Spheeris’ document of the Los Angeles punk scene caught its subjects when they were still on the ground: At one point, X’s Exene Cervenka worries about the backlash that would ensue if they started charging $6 a ticket. (Black Flag’s Ron Reyes proudly shows off the sleeping quarters he paid $16 a month for: a utility closet in a crumbling deconsecrated church.) Although the songs are literally subtitled for the punk-impaired, Decline makes few concessions to delicate sensibilities: the movie dives into the mosh pit and lets you fend for yourself. SA

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4

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

What was Talking Heads’ strategy for their euphoric, propulsive 1984 concert film? “We didn’t want any of the bullshit,” drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone. “We didn’t want the clichés.” Eschewing pandering audience shots and focusing instead on evocative lighting and imaginative set design, Jonathan Demme captures the band at their creative peak, rolling through songs from their then-latest LP, Speaking in Tongues, while brilliantly reimagining old favorites like “Once in a Lifetime” and a solo-David-Byrne-with-boom-box version of “Psycho Killer.” It’s 88 minutes of endless up — a joyous marriage of New Wave, funk and Byrne’s inspired, demented stagecraft. TG

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3

‘Gimme Shelter’ (1970)

The beauty of the Rolling Stones came from their hedonistic embrace of rock's sex-and-danger ethos. The horror of this documentary comes from its clear-eyed view of the band's kinetic live power, which could be both hypnotic and terrifying in its intensity. Gimme Shelter is best remembered for its chilling finale — the death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter at the Stones' free 1969 show at Altamont — but throughout, directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin craft a spellbinding sense of the band's dark energy, which suggested liberation and nihilism. And Mick Jagger's final reaction shot is haunting. TG

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2

‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

When the Band decided to hang it up with one last show in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, they threw a wake rather than a funeral. Directed by Martin Scorsese right before he dove into Raging Bull, this concert film is, first and foremost, a celebration of the American-Canadian quintet who helped bring our nation's musical past into the present. But it's also a salute to their inspirations and peers, with performances from Neil Young and Muddy Waters intercut with interviews of individual Band members reminiscing about the sights they've seen and the lessons learned. Sure, The Last Waltz is nostalgic, but the richness of the music and the overpoweringly elegiac tone give the film a timelessness that's transporting. Even Neil Diamond kills. TG

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1

‘Don’t Look Back’ (1967)

Even if you've never seen Don't Look Back, you know it by heart. The "Subterranean Homesick Blues" opener — nicked by everyone from INXS to Bob Roberts — is the most obvious cultural reference point, but in a larger sense this documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour is the permanent blueprint for the public's image of mid-Sixties rock & roll. The glories and agonies of the road, the exuberance of a quicksilver new talent setting the world on fire, the clueless journalists: Director D.A. Pennebaker's handheld camera captured it all. In the process, he made Dylan an icon, galvanized a generation and helped transform a singular moment in the evolution of "youth music" into riveting, indelible drama. TG

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