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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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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