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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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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