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The Seven Best New Music Documentaries of the Year

From a doc on the Foo Fighters with rare footage of them performing with Eddie Vedder to the controversial Tribe Called Quest movie, here are the films you need to see

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Set to premiere Tuesday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin before opening theatrically in April, this two-hour history of Dave Grohl’s band follows the Foo Fighters from its earliest days to the recording of its forthcoming Wasting Light with producer Butch Vig. The big find: footage of the Foos’ first tour, a 1995 series of shows with Eddie Vedder’s Hovercraft side project and Mike Watt. “There were hardly any pictures from that show and we didn’t think anyone even shot it,” says Academy Award-winning director James Moll. “But it turned out [former Foos guitarist] Pat Smear’s ex-wife shot it on a videocamera and had it in storage.” Foo Fighters also benefits from candid interviews with everyone from Grohl to past members like Smear. Moll found Grohl particularly forthcoming, especially when talking about the end of Nirvana and the birth of the Foos: "For a long time, Dave didn't want to talk about Nirvana because he wanted to establish himself. That time is long passed.”

He might be biased, but Moll says it's a great time for music docs. “They’ve traditionally been about deep social issues, but now they're also more about pop culture, and they're commercially viable. I've heard people say, ‘I just saw a documentary that was better than any scripted movie I've seen in years.’”

Here are six more of the best music-based documentaries that have recently been released or are coming soon.

By David Browne

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“Lemmy: 49 % Motherf—ker, 59% Son of a Bitch”

Directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski call this tribute to the iconic Motorhead frontman “a rock & roll adventure,” and the two-hour film lives up to that billing. Whether he’s rehearsing with Metallica, assailing a reporter or proudly donning a Nazi uniform, Lemmy is never less than his uncompromising, hard-living self. (He even gave the directors the okay to include a clip of Dave Navarro recalling the time Lemmy offered him crystal meth.) “Lemmy’s one of the few human beings who does whatever he wants and has made it his life,” Orshoski says. “He transcends music—he’s an idea to respect and envy.” The expanded two-disc DVD, out now, includes a heap of bonus footage—like Lemmy periodically yelling at both directors.

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”

“Classic rock groups have been documented over and over—it’s time to start documenting the last great American form of music, hip-hop,” says actor Michael Rapaport about his directorial debut, a history of the eclectic Native Tongue rappers of the Eighties and Nineties. Rapaport, a longtime fan of A Tribe Called Quest, who compares the group's 1998 breakup to watching parents getting divorced, calls the film “raw and not overproduced”—it even includes footage of a fractious reunion show in 2008. Q-Tip, who participated in the project, offered up some enigmatic Tweets about the film after its Sundance premiere (“the director of the film cannot speak to what is in my head abt [sic] the documentary … but we are truly thankful for your interest in our music and your interest in this flattering look at our career”). Rapaport insists the comments are “a non-issue … Q Tip is passionate and cares about getting things right. I consider him a friend.” Sony Pictures Classics will release the film this summer.

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“Troubadours: Carole King/James Taylor/The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter”

Carole King says this documentary—which uses her longtime friendship with James Taylor as a means of chronicling the rise of the singer-songwriter scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies—grew out of her successful reunion tour with Taylor last year. “We thought there should be a documentary, a companion piece,” she says. Directed by Morgan Neville, the movie, now airing on PBS and available on CD/DVD via Concord Records, includes reminiscences from Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Martin, as well as amazing vintage clips—like King’s wedding to fellow songwriter Gerry Goffin and Taylor debuting “Fire and Rain” at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. “Oh, my God—I’d never seen that before,” King says of the Taylor footage. “It was the first time he ever played it.”

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“Color Me Obsessed, a Film About the Replacements”

"I wanted to make a documentary that didn’t play like a typical VH1 special,” says director Gorman Bechard of his two-hour tribute to the legendary beloved Minneapolis band. “I wanted it to be told by the people they influenced and by the fans.” So Color Me Obsessed features none of the Replacements on camera nor any of their music, but does include testimonials from admirers like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon – “He says people should buy Tim because everything you’re hearing in music now can be found on that record,” says Bechard. Former Cheers star George Went was such a fan that he submitted his own Flip cam-filled tribute to the band. “It’s not just about the Replacements,” Bechard says. “It’s not just about the Replacements,” Bechard says. “It’s about how any band affects you and becomes almost part of your family.” Color Me Obsessed is set to play film festivals in Florida, Wisconsin, Chicago and Toronto, with other screenings in the works.

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“Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune”

Nearly 20 years in the making, director Kenneth Bowser’s documentary is the first to chronicle the life and career of the beloved Sixties folk protest singer who hanged himself in 1976. The film—which includes rare footage of Ochs’ troubled later years as well as testimonials from admirers like Sean Penn (who once planned to play Ochs in a film) and Christopher Hitchens—has become a surprise art-house hit, expanding to over 70 cities since its January opening in New York. “For a generation, it’s the story of their time,” says Bowser. “But there are also kids who say, ‘My parents had his records in their collection, and who is this guy?’” Surprise last-minute funding came from promoter Michael Cohl, a longtime Ochs fan currently producing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

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“This Is Noise Pop”

Since 1993, San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival has hosted indie bands including Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, Pavement and many more. Director Adam Werbach’s documentary (which premiered at this year’s Noise Pop and is looking for distribution) was filmed onstage and backstage between 1998 and 2009, capturing the rise of current indie rock in the process. “It’s about the idea of indie and what happens when it goes mainstream—is it still indie?” says Werbach. Among the highlights: Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse cursing out an audience for making too many requests, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab recalling the band’s rise to fame and Pavement’s Scott Kannberg offering bitter memories of the band–prior to its recent reunion.

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