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30 Best Music Documentaries on Netflix Streaming This Instant

From the Beatles to Big Star, Philip Glass to Ice Cube, here’s 30 great docs you can watch right now


From Ken Burns' 10-volume jazz odyssey to Ice Cube's 51-minute meditation on the L.A. Raiders, Netflix offers no shortage of excellent music content to stream immediately. Most of the rock doc classics (Don't Look Back, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz, Wild Style) require you to utilize your DVD queue (or hit your local rental store), but here are the 30 best options if you need a fix right now.

By Reed Fischer, Caryn Ganz, Richard Gehr, Kory Grow, Keith Harris, Will Hermes, Daniel Kreps, James Montgomery, Jason Newman, Mosi Reeves, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Al Shipley and Christopher R. Weingarten

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13. ‘The Black Power Mixtape’

Between 1967 and 1975, Swedish journalists visited the U.S. and filmed interviews with the era's black radicals, including Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver (filmed while in exile in Algeria), and the Honorable Louis Farrakhan. Decades later, Göran Hugo Olsson discovered this footage languishing in the Swedish Television studios, and assembled it into a cogent narrative featuring commentary by Erykah Badu, ?uestlove (who created the soundtrack alongside Om'mas Keith), Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, Abiodun Oweyole of the Last Poets and others. Onetime Fugees associate John Forté, who was incarcerated for years on drug charges, offers some particularly poignant words about the 1971 Attica uprising and the question of whether "prisoners have human rights."

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12. ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’

A tale of two stans. One of the deepest and most intimate portraits of music obsession, this 2008 film follows two adults – one a 50-year-old man, the other a 38-year-old intersex individual – who are obsessed with Tiffany. Yes, the four-hit-wonder Tiffany of "I Think We're Alone Now" mall-pop fame. What begins as a chance encounter between the filmmaker and his subject evolves into an examination of extreme fandom. (Spoiler alert: A restraining order is involved.)

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11. ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’

On April 2nd, 2011, James Murphy pulled the plug on his beloved disco-rock outfit LCD Soundsystem, getting the band together on the stage of New York's Madison Square Garden for one last dance. This doc capturing the days surrounding the final gig is framed with interviews by journalist/columnist Chuck Klosterman that capture a melancholy Murphy coming to grips with his decision to walk away from the well-loved project. There's full-song footage of the show (though not the entire set) that includes shots of Aziz Ansari crowd-surfing and the magical moment the band lit the disco ball during a scorching "Us V. Them." There's footage of Arcade Fire preparing an impromptu cameo on "North American Scum," which is how the film got it's name ("Just shut up and play the hits," Win Butler instructs Murphy in jest). There's Reggie Watts and a choir and laughter and sobs and almost enough POV footage from the pit to recall the feeling of teary ecstasy that filled the room that night. (Bonus: the excellent footage of Murphy's adorable French bulldog, Petunia.)

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10. ‘Good Ol’ Freda’

One of the most revealing Beatles docs ever revolves around their secretary, Freda Kelly, a Liverpool office worker who spent lunch breaks at the Cavern Club watching her favorite band. Eventually they gave her a job, and for 11 years (the band lasted 10) she was their loveably tough gal Friday and fan club spokeswoman. At core it's the story of a briefly charmed working-class life: Kelly returned to non-com secretarial work after her Cinderella ride. But with a juicy Beatles soundtrack, it's also about fandom, loyalty and unwavering British discretion. "Did you go out with any of them?" asks the interviewer early in the film. "Pass," she says, laughing.

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9. ‘Paris Is Burning’

The same year that Madonna exposed a sliver of New York drag ball culture to the world with "Vogue," filmmaker Jennie Livingston's documentary shed some light on the other runway lifestyle — from the walks to the dance to the terminology. Still seen as the benchmark for those looking to learn about the voguing culture that thrives today, scene legends like Willie Ninja and Pepper LaBeija shed light on runway categories (some of which, like "Executive Realness," have bled into the mainstream) and most importantly, the often dangerous lives led by gay and trans people, mostly of color, in 1980s New York. So vilified for who they were, it's almost unfathomable how influential drag ball culture is today. Yet here we are, no shade.

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8. ‘Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)’

Twenty years after his death, hard-charging, prodigiously talented soft-rock songwriter Harry Nilsson remains an enigma – though you get the feeling he'd probably prefer it this way. John Scheinfeld's doc goes to great lengths to recount the singer's wild ways (losing months with John Lennon, boozy studio sessions, the occasional brawl), often coming at the expense of his sublime abilities. Scheinfeld eventually arrives at the conclusion that Nilsson may have been fucking with us the entire time. Did he ever truly realize his potential? Probably not. But maybe that's the point.

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7. ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’

The Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me is a rock & roll ghost story with a teary-eyed power-pop soundtrack. The seminal Memphis alt-country architects' main men Alex Chilton and Chris Bell died before the film's creation, so their hard-luck story is told by surviving members, family, Ardent studio/label personnel, and famous fans like R.E.M. and the Flaming Lips. After Big Star's failed rise and breakup in the early Seventies, the story steers to Bell's underrated I Am the Cosmos phase and tragic early passing. Later, Chilton's emergence from provocative punk experiments with Tav Falco's Panther Burns to reform the cult-favorite group is just as bittersweet as his melancholy vocal on "Thirteen."

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6. ’20 Feet From Stardom’

This enthralling film about the offstage lives – for better or worse – of backup singers took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary last year. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting all sing the praises of the voices that make their songs complete – though obviously its really a chance for these unsung heroes to have the spotlight for once. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love recalls the time she spent cleaning houses prior to her comeback; Stones singer Lisa Fischer explains why she has not released another solo album, despite winning a Grammy; and Merry Clayton recalls how Mick Jagger convinced her to sing the rape and murder lines in "Gimme Shelter" while wearing a silk bathrobe. The revelations are so interesting, that Jagger has begun production on shows for TV and Broadway based on the film.

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5. ‘Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns’

This 19-hour mini-series is not without its problems. It's co-produced by jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, so anything exciting that happened after 1970 (free-jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, punk jazz, free improv) gets the short end of the drumstick. But no one tells America's story like Ken Burns, who treats our jazz heroes with the same loving hand he treated our Civil War vets, panning across archival photographs and letting people with first-hand experience tell the story. PBS' ability to use truckloads of actual jazz recordings is the real treat, so you get singer Jon Hendricks explaining Charlie Parker's phrasing while Charlie Parker plays; and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves playing a 27-chorus solo at Newport Jazz Festival as photos show the audience in frenzy. An incomplete primer, but essential nonetheless.

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4. ‘A Band Called Death’

The proto-punk rockers in Death were so adamant about keeping the name of their band – which three African-American brothers implausibly formed in Detroit in 1971 – that they turned down record deals to preserve their integrity. A Band Called Death is less about a punk footnote that emerged when Joey Ramone was still Jeffrey Hyman, but of the importance of sticking to your beliefs and the power of family. In fact, the band didn't find an audience until 2008, when the bass player's three songs formed a band to cover their dad's music.

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3. ‘Marley’

Directed by Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland), who took it on after Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme dropped out, this corn-free authorized assemblage of frank interviews and marvelous vintage footage paints the best A/V portrait to date of the non-Western world's most massive musical figure. With both Chris Blackwell and Bunny Wailer credited as producers, this 2012 release is a remarkably even-handed look at the reggae star who died of cancer in 1981 at 36. The early footage of the Wailers embodies cool as Platonic ideal, while the later Marley group's epic sound at the 1976 Smile Jamaica concert and 1979's Zimbabwe independence celebration capture fiery performances that seem larger than life.

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2. ‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’

In 1990, Madonna had her Gaultier-designed cone bra pointed in one direction: world domination. Her Blonde Ambition tour that year, timed to the release of Like a Prayer, was a sexy spectacle that inflamed the Vatican and "the facist state of Toronto" (which tried to get her to tone down her faux masturbation act during "Like a Virgin" for her show in the Canadian city). So of course she filmed it all for an arty doc that showed her crawling into bed with her dancers, sparring with her then-beau Warren Beatty and insulting Kevin Costner when he dared to describe her show as "neat." Ultimately, the film captures Madonna's fraught relationship with her family, her single-minded focus on her showmanship and her attempts to keep one foot in the seamy underground where her gay dancers live and one in the glossy Hollywood world she so desperately wants to conquer. It's a somewhat truthful, very daring and totally fascinating look at a pop superstar's continued rise.

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1. ‘Style Wars’

Produced for PBS television in 1983, the late director Tony Silver and photographer Henry Chalfant's Style Wars is the defining document of the graffiti artists that worked parallel with New York's fledging rap music– capturing hip-hop culture in all its unfiltered, grimy glory. There's Dez bragging about his "styyyyllle," Skeme arguing with his mother over his stated goal to "destroy all lines," Mayor Ed Koch unveiling his "Graffiti is for Chumps" ad campaign at a press conference and the Rock Steady Crew battling the Dynamic Rockers at Club USA. Vintage scenes of trains tagged with Vaughn Bode characters; teenage B-boys body-rocking in basketball courts; and a soundtrack featuring classic joints (Rammellzee and K-Rob, Trouble Funk, the Fearless Four) make this an essential period piece.