40 Greatest Rock Documentaries - Rolling Stone
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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.

David Byrne, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Lynn Mabry Stop Making Sense - 1984

David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Lynn Mabry Stop Making Sense - 1984

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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

The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter - 1970

The Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter - 1970

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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

Dr John, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson The Last Waltz - 1978

Dr John, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson The Last Waltz - 1978

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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

Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette as D.A. Pennebaker films for the documentary film 'Don't Look Back' about Dylan's 1965 tour of England.

Bob Dylan smokes a cigarette as D.A. Pennebaker films for the documentary film 'Don't Look Back' about Dylan's 1965 tour of England.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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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