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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

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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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28. ‘Muscle Shoals’

The first voice you hear in Muscle Shoals, the first face you see? Bono. So you know right off the bat that this is going to be one of those documentaries that ratifies the importance of its subject matter with famous talking heads. Thankfully, once the film gets going, firsthand accounts of cutting classic records at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio outnumber hyperbolic testimonies by uninvolved superstars like Alicia Keys. Great stories abound, from the tense, awkward sessions that made Aretha Franklin into a superstar, to the engineer who had to push a fader up and down as Percy Sledge's voice rose in volume as he recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman." And in those little details the big picture emerges, of a racially integrated studio in Civil Rights-era Alabama that changed the sound of rock and soul.

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26. ‘Calle 54’

You won't learn a whole lot about the history of Latin jazz – an alchemical reaction of virtuosic playing and Afro-Cuban rhythmic underpinnings – in Spanish director Fernando Trueba's loving 2000 tribute. But you'll get plenty of exposure to its essence through a dozen beautifully filmed performances recorded, for the most part, at Sony Studios on 54th Street in Manhattan. These range from spectacular tunes by the exuberant Tito Puente (who died a year later) and brotherly Fort Apache Band, to stunningly intimate interludes with Brazil's Eliane Elias and Chucho and Bebo Valdés's remarkable father-son piano duet. Calle 54 is the rare music doc in which the sidemen alone are worth the price of admission, and while it may not travel wide, it flows deep.

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25. ‘Naqoyqatsi’

The final film in Godfrey Reggio's acclaimed Qatsi trilogy is a slow-motion descent into the uncanny valley, exploring life in the shadow of war (it was released 13 months after 9/11) and technology. The first 17 minutes are a slog (lots of binary code and mathematical formulas and fractals), but soon its an expressionist take on how we map the human body, from medical software to slow motion footage of a speed skater kicking up ice – and especially the synthetic realities of wax figures, computer animations, crash test dummies, and the manufactured smiles of TV commercials. Without any narration, the film can be experienced as an 89-minute music video on Philip Glass's mournful score, complete with Yo-Yo Ma cello solos and keyboards by a young Nico Muhly.

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24. ‘Charles Bradley: Soul of America’

On the surface, a 62-year-old former James Brown impersonator usually would be relegated to hipster record-collector novelty status. But Charles Bradley, the charismatic, soulful male counterpart to Sharon Jones, channeled six decades of unimaginable hardship – illiteracy, homelessness, the murder of his brother – to release his uncomfortably cathartic debut album in 2011 to worldwide acclaim. Charles Bradley: Soul of America details the singer's life with candor, showcasing a singer with the pride of being Brown's heir apparent and the humility to pass out flyers to random people for his own show. As Bradley sews his own show clothes and takes care of his elderly, infirmed mother, the singer displays such a gentle, affable demeanor, it's impossible not to root for his success.

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23. ‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’

What does Johnny Depp have in common with no small number of Rolling Stone interns? An obsession with Hunter S. Thompson. The Oscar-winning actor twice previously slipped into the role of the famed journalist – in Terry Gilliam's 1998 acid-fried epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and 2011's semi-autobiographical The Rum Diary – and narrated this 2008 documentary. Spanning Thompson's life from his 1965 breakthrough Hell's Angels to his artistic downfall following his botched assignment covering "the Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974. The film also revisits Thompson's failed bid to be Aspen's sheriff, "Las Vegas" and the 1972 Campaign Trail. Along with interviews from allies like Tom Wolfe and targets like Pat Buchanan, the documentary gains exclusive access to the writer's archives and pulls out never-before-seen footage and unearthed audiotapes to create a portrait of the author. Depp – doing his best Hunter impression – appears on camera to read passages of his work.

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22. ‘I Want My Name Back’

New Jersey's Sugarhill Gang has long been dismissed by hip-hop historians for allegedly ripping off the original Bronx hip-hop scene for "Rapper's Delight," rap's very first national smash. In this engrossing documentary, Wonder Mike and Master Gee reclaim their reputation as MCs worthy of respect as they wage court battles with their former label, deal with a fake "Sugarhill Gang" led by disgraced member Big Bank Hank, and record an unlikely Europop hit with French producer Bob Sinclar.

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21. ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’

It lacks in focus, but it's unparalleled in access. Kanye West, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Nas – there's almost no MC that won't give up a few minutes to spit some rhymes for director Ice-T. Ideally a film about learning how the rap game's veterans finessed their craft, Something From Nothing is mostly a gorgeous showcase for verbal pyrotechnics (Immortal Technique really steals the show here). Plus, it's a helpful reminder that pioneers like Grandmaster Caz – hovering around 50 when this was filmed – could probably take out some of your favorite DatPiff sensations in a rhyme fight.

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20. ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’

The 13th Floor Elevators' maniacal 1966 blooze-blasting ego-strut "You're Gonna Miss Me" established the template for psychedelic rock, and singer Roky Erickson's overdriven wail was a key influence on Janis Joplin. But in '68 Erickson suffered an apparent psychotic breakdown onstage, and the following year he accepted psychiatric confinement to avoid a 10-year prison sentence after he was busted with a single joint. Drug overindulgence, involuntary electroshock, legal harassment – this could make for a lurid, exploitative film in the wrong hands, but director Keven McAlester focuses on the troubled man behind the mythos, charting how Erickson's brother Sumner helps the struggling rocker come to grips with his life.

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19. ‘Pearl Jam 20’

To celebrate 20 years as grunge's most resilient band, Pearl Jam rewarded their hardcore fanbase with this rockumentary that traces the group from their Mother Love Bone days to the Mookie Blaylock era, from Ten to Ticketmaster. More a trip down memory lane than a probing look at one of rock's most well behaved bands, PJ20 contains enough excellent concert footage and humorous moments to satisfy both the casual fans that stopped caring after "Daughter" and the diehards who bang the Backspacer "virtual vault" downloads. The film was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker and former Rolling Stone scribe who knew Pearl Jam when they were Matt Dillon's backing band. As an added bonus, Pearl Jam's grunge compatriots – Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Neil Young… even the U-Men – and all five Pearl Jam drummers are represented in archival footage.

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18. ‘Defiant Requiem’

A single act of protest that makes the entirety of punk rock seem like child's play. Defiant Requiem is the story of conductor Rafael Schächter and an amateur chorus of Czechs rehearsing a rebellion the basement of a Terazin concentration camp. They learned the Latin text of Guiseppe Verdi's Requiem – with its themes of vengeance and justice – as a protest to the Nazis, a cry of help to the Red Cross and a therapeutic release for themselves. Only one photo exists, so interviews with survivors paint a picture of crowded barracks, extreme hunger and the power of music. "I'm not so sure whether I was hard of hearing but I think that my stomach stopped growling when I was singing," says one. "I think when you are more a soul than a person, I don't think the soul has to be nourished by anything but by heavenly music."

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17. ‘Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm’

The most enduring documentary about the Band, Martin Scorsese's 1978 concert film The Last Waltz, has often drawn criticism for its focus on Scorsese's buddy Robbie Robertson at the expense of his bandmates. Decades later, Ain't In It For My Health offers a gratifying corrective: a film dedicated to the Band's brilliant, golden-throated drummer Levon Helm. Released just a couple years before Helm's 2012 passing, Jacob Hatley's documentary catches the legend in the middle of his late-career renaissance, holding the famous Midnight Ramble concerts at his home in Woodstock and releasing Grammy-winning solo albums. But his decade-long battle with cancer, and the problems with money and drugs that plagued Helm after the Band's dissolution, aren't glossed over, as his complicated life and undeniable talent are captured with warts-and-all honesty.

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16. ‘The Punk Singer’

The main attraction of filmmaker Sini Anderson's tribute to riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna is the extensive footage of early Nineties Bikini Kill shows. It's one thing to hear admirers explain the band's impact on third-wave feminism and attest to Hanna's charismatic pull; it's another to see visual evidence of Hanna's aggressive yet un-macho performance style in real time. No less compelling, however, is the more recent intimate examination of Hanna's life with her husband, the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz, as the singer talks about the late-stage Lyme disease that has mostly sidelined her since 2005.

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15. ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’

Ginger Baker's former collaborators express nothing but reverence for the Cream drummer's musical prowess and style. As for the man himself – well, to hear John Lydon tell it, Ginger's a swell guy. However, pretty much no one else that director Jay Bulger speaks with agrees. Brusque, colorful, charismatic – the usual adjectives used to politely describe larger-than-life personalities seem more euphemistic than ever applied to a bona fide rock & roll crank like Baker. The money shot: An irate Baker lashes out at Bulger, bloodying the filmmaker's nose with a firm swat of his metal cane and sending him fleeing from the South African compound where Baker's currently holed up.

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14. ‘Last Days Here’

The shopworn tale of "influential cult rocker who, decades later, finally gets his due" is redeemed in Last Days Here, the story of heavy metal pioneers Pentagram and their frontman Bobby Liebling. More gutter than Black Sabbath, Pentagram were the band that almost made it, but drugs and internal conflicts doomed the group to obscurity before Myspace nostalgists resurrected them. Liebling, a semi-functioning heroin addict living with his parents, allows directors (and superfans) Don Argott and Demian Fenton to shoot everything as he prepares for a comeback tour and attempts to turn his life around. With more than 300 hours of footage to pick from and an intense, endlessly watchable protagonist, Last Days Here is the rare music doc to transcend the title "music doc," the harrowing story of a man teetering on the edges of both death and success.

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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.

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