Ever since the Sixties, when rock & roll became not just a sound but a "lifestyle," fans have been eager to see what it's really like to live it out behind the scenes. Over the years countless bands have granted backstage access to film crews, resulting in hundreds of documentaries and concert films that might be considered minor classics. If you're a fan of the Minutemen, Fugazi, A Tribe Called Quest, Wilco, the MC5, Motown's Funk Brothers or even the lovable Canadian metal also-rans Anvil, to name a scant few, there's a beautiful movie for you. Those films appeal to niche audiences; naturally, the top vote-getters in our latest Readers' Poll tend to cover a much wider swath of the electorate. Click through to see the titles your fellow readers chose as the best rock & roll documentaries of all time.
Director Davis Guggenheim's 2008 film was a guitar fanatic's version of The Hours – an ambitious examination of three colorful characters that crossed decades and artistic styles. Famed ax-slingers Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the Edge of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather dove into their pasts to examine why they picked up their instruments, which musicians most influenced their sound and how their acts' greatest hits came to fruition. Their humor peeks through as well – the title comes from the Edge in a dry warning that reveals itself to be a drastic understatement.
The charm of It Might Get Loud lies in its direct courtship of guitar buffs; its acoustic reinterpretations of the band's hits are master classes in the nuances of the instrument. In the documentary's moving climax, the three men meet and teach their songs to each other in a fluid, friendly campfire-like setting. It is a pure celebration of spirit and rock & roll, and it's quite revealing, too: Page doesn't pick up U2's "I Will Follow" chordal pattern intuitively, proving that even rock gods need a bit of tutelage sometimes.
As Jack Black states with typical bombast in Beyond the Lighted Stage, the exhaustive 2010 documentary about Rush, "Rush is just one of those bands that has a deep reservoir of rocket sauce." Filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn's loving look at the history of the enduring prog-rockers fully supports the actor-singer's theory; through scores of backstage and personal footage from the Seventies onward, the directors paint a clear picture of the experimental nature that has made Rush so polarizing in modern rock (except in Canada, where they are pretty indisputable as deities). They're also artful in touching on some of the more painful moments in the band's history, including the death of founding drummer John Rutsey.
Beyond the Lighted Stage was nominated for Best Long Form Music Video at the Grammy Awards, but it lost to When You're Strange, a documentary about the Doors.
Less a documentary than a handy springboard for reawakened international fervor, The Beatles Anthology reminded the world that it was high time to obsess about the Fab Four again. First aired in 1995 on ABC – and created with the rare collective permission of surviving members Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – the six-part film was released in conjunction with a newly completed single ("Free As a Bird"), three double albums of rare material and a coffee table book. It was a trove of unreleased footage and personal insight.
The Beatles Anthology takes the formidable task of compiling the band's entire history – from their earliest incarnation as skiffle rockers in Liverpool to the acrimonious fighting that felled the band during the Let It Be sessions – and does so with admirable honesty. (Harrison, in particular, is hilariously blunt in his memories of the group's British Invasion heyday: "I don't remember going there twice," he deadpans of their second night at Shea Stadium.) The band's indispensable producer, George Martin, also factors considerably into the revelations of the long film, especially when discussing the artistic restlessness that propelled Rubber Soul and the new recording experimentation that made Sgt. Pepper a linchpin of modern rock. In all, the anthology is as grandiose a project as its subject warranted.
It's no secret that Bob Dylan's least favorite subject is himself. So viewers of the intensive 2005 documentary No Direction Home were pleasantly shocked to see its inclusion of a brand-new, extremely thorough interview with the folk legend in which he talked candidly about his most fertile artistic period: his arrival in New York City in 1961 through his motorcycle accident near Woodstock, New York in 1966.
In fact, it took Herculean effort to get Dylan's sound bites. The project began 10 years before its release, when the musician's longtime manager, Jeff Rosen, started conducting interviews with Dylan's friends and collaborators (including the influential Sixties poet Allen Ginsberg, who would die before the film's release, and Dylan's press-shy ex Suze Rotolo). After Rosen had a wealth of supporting material, he convinced Dylan into a rare retrospective chat in 2000 – an interview that, thanks to their longstanding connection, reportedly lasted 10 hours.
Once Rosen had amassed so much footage, he reached out to Martin Scorsese to shape the raw elements into a film. The Taxi Driver director agreed, and it proved a beneficial arrangement for everyone. The film received a Peabody Award, and Scorsese walked away with a Grammy.
Cameron Crowe's enthusiastic look at the grunge heroes cuts to the chase: it speeds through introductions, diving straight into the Seattle rock heyday of the Nineties. For casual Pearl Jam fans, this was a frustrating step; to passionate fans of the band, including Crowe himself, it was the only way to channel the intensity of the band. Just as Crowe's access to Led Zeppelin through his reportage at Rolling Stone inspired Almost Famous, his personal history with Pearl Jam informed Twenty: the director first met founding members Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) in the late Eighties when they were in the group Mother Love Bone, before they connected with singer Eddie Vedder and sold some 60 million records.
The enduring friendship leads the band to give Crowe some interesting admissions, not least Vedder's recollection of being told off by a waitress when he bemoaned his newfound celebrity. (She said succinctly, "If you don't like it, you picked the wrong business to be in.") The group also opens up about the death of nine fans during the Roskilde music festival in Denmark in 1990, an event that deeply upset the musicians and gave a new solemnity to their music. After all this, Crowe's great footage (combed out of 30,000 raw hours) is just icing.
Never say the Who couldn't appreciate intrepid spirit. When they were approached by mid-20s superfan Jeff Stein about making a documentary, he was upfront about the fact that he had no previous directorial experience. (He did, however, have a book of photographs of the band under his belt.) The lack of pedigree paid off spectacularly: The Kids Are Alright plays fast and passionately, like the band itself. It begins with the then-controversial decision to open with their destructive performance on the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – the first and only time the Who would perform on an American variety hour, and an elegant summation of drummer Keith Moon's propensity for mayhem.
There is terrific lost concert footage unearthed by Stein in The Kids Are Alright – including the band's performance at the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus, long delayed because of the Stones' dissatisfaction – but the real poignancy lays in its personal look at Moon. The volatile, charismatic drummer died one week after he saw an initial cut of the documentary. The film debuted one year later, at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
"Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, everybody be cool . . . come on!" It's difficult to watch Mick Jagger plead with his crowd at the end of Gimme Shelter, the 1970 Rolling Stones tour documentary. For all his charisma, the singer was unable to stem the violence that was erupting around him at the Altamont Festival on December 6, 1969.
Organized by the Stones and intended as a free, fan-appreciation event to wrap their American tour, Altamont now stands as one of the greatest tragedies in rock concert history. Gimme Shelter is famous in its unflinching account why: the menacing nature of the Hells Angels security, the hostile environment for the performers (the Grateful Dead hightailed it out before their set) and the death by stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. A lesser documentary could have glossed over Altamont – panned out, evaded the violence – but Gimme Shelter is an accurate, formidable portrayal of the symbolic end of the idealistic Sixties. It has a looming dread throughout, and it lands hard.
Ask its many generations of passionate fans, and they'll agree: calling This Is Spinal Tap a mere "mockumentary" is a grave disservice. It is a candle at the altar of rock bombast, a hysterical dissembling of artistic pretension, a landmark of filmmaking that was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, fer chrissakes.
It's also, of course, completely fake. Directed by Rob Reiner, the 1984 film is an intricate satire of hard rock culture that hinges on the brilliant, mostly improvised performances of actors Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. Using the same breathless reverence of most rockumentaries of the Eighties, it follows the band's inception (when they were called the Originals, then the New Originals) through their rise to stadiums and ill-suited stylistic experimentations, to their interpersonal strife and breakup. And they only sacrificed a handful of drummers along the way.
Rock fans all have their favorite moments from the flick, whether it's the band's disastrous homage to Stonehenge or lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel's immortal line, "These go to 11." For many rock stars of the era, it all felt familiar: Ozzy Osbourne admitted that he'd also gotten lost on his way to the stage, and Metallica singer James Hetfield suffered mysteriously similar burns as one incident in the film. Steven Tyler reportedly refused to get the joke; surely Aerosmith's cover art of Stonehenge on their 1982 album Rock in a Hard Place did not factor in. Not at all.
In some ways, the documentary of the Woodstock Festival made as big a splash as its subject did. Besides being selected for preservation in the Library of Congress (take that, Spinal Tap!), Woodstock won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature after it was released in 1970, a victory that immediately legitimized concert movies in the film world.
Woodstock succeeds where many other documentaries lag because it captures the beatific spirit of the event so poetically: the amber sunlight, the smiling attendees relaxing on fields. It focused on the environment of the weekend in 1969 just as much as the now-iconic performances – a bold move at the time, and one that showed a deep respect. (The 40th anniversary edition, released in 2009, skewed more toward performances, with two extra hours of previously cut footage.) After all, people talk about Jimi Hendrix laying into "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, but what do they focus on next and twofold? The pacific atmosphere, the overall sense of camaraderie, the encapsulation of the best of the Sixties' spirit – and it can be felt again by watching the documentary.
The farewell concert of the Band was extraordinary from the start: five hours long, with scores of special guests including Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and a loving audience that had been served turkey dinners before the show (it was Thanksgiving). Director Martin Scorsese was prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime musical event and came with cameras in tow, maintaining a nuanced eye for action from set opener "Up on Cripple Creek" through "Don’t Do It," the band's encore cover of the Marvin Gaye song. It wasn't an accident that his cameras captured seemingly each solo and vocal delivery with perfect timing; he had painstakingly story-boarded each song beforehand.
Despite the affectionate nature of the evening, shooting The Last Waltz was not without its egotistical showdowns. Bob Dylan, in particular, came armed with stipulations about when he could be shot, and the restrictions were many. "When Dylan got onstage, the sound was so loud, I didn't know what to shoot," Scorsese once explained. "[Concert promoter] Bill Graham was next to me shouting, 'Shoot him! Shoot him! He comes from the same streets as you. Don't let him push you around.'"
After Scorsese fleshed out the project with backstage footage and interviews with the bandmembers (especially focusing on guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson), it was ready for release. It was immediately embraced by music fans (although Levon Helm disliked its focus on Robertson) and is still considered a landmark of concert filmmaking.