This Is Spinal Tap was a comedy film that set the benchmark for all the laugh-out-loud mockumentaries that have since followed when it was released back in 1984. Amid one of the many laughter-filled movie theatres sat an unmoved Ozzy Osbourne—the joke was lost on him. Ozzy found the unfurling rock ‘n’ roll madness so true to life that the ‘mock’ element simply never landed.
Any life thrust into the limelight has an air of interest about it and that is particularly true when it comes to music. Whether it is tales of trailblazers vying against unjust civility, rock ‘n’ roll stars getting caught up in chaos of their own making, or simply capturing a moment of musical magic, music documentaries can be fascinating cultural insights.
Below, we’ve tapped our toes along to the best that Netflix currently has to offer. From Martin Scorsese’s classic delve into an iconic period of a musical hero to that very hero’s son delving into an iconic period of musical history, we’ve got it all covered.
The best music documentaries on Netflix:
What happened, Miss Simone?
Nina Simone began her firm stance against racial injustice when she was just a child and refused to play at a church recital if it meant that her parents had to sit in the back rows. Although she would face further slings and arrows thereafter as she was turned away from classical music simply because of the colour of her skin, she never once yielded and blazed a trail of brilliance for others the follow and soak in the boon of.
The unique insight of What happened, Miss Simone? offers up rare live clips and footage from her life interspersed with tales and tributes to the late star. Liz Garbus’ documentary is a fitting tribute to an icon.
The Sparks Brothers
“They don’t really look like a band,” British talk show host Jonathan Ross declares in the documentary, “They just look like people who’ve been let out for the day.” The best British group to ever come out of America a marvellous oddity with over terrific 20 albums to their name. Edgar Wright’s joyous depiction gets the accounts of fans who are equally bemused and beguiled by the legends.
With a Mark Bolan lookalike frontman thrusting about like Jagger and a motionless artist sporting what can only be described as a ‘Hitler moustache’ on the keyboards, pumping out theatrical sonic mayhem disguised as synth-pop, to the naked eye, they’re certainly not the most conventional group. As it turns out the appearance of the band is as enigmatic as their story.
Behind all the tired old hum hawing surrounding a non-existent Oasis reunion, the one truth often forgotten is how the band always seemed fated to be short-lived in the first place. On the one hand, you have Liam Gallagher, a fellow whose brother described magnificently as a “man with a fork in a world of soup.” And then you have Liam jibing that Noel is the sort of person he would end up “braining” if they ever hung out together again.
Naturally, when they were together this resulted in some hilarious stories. However, beyond the accidental crystal meth hijinks, Supersonic is a documentary that captures a unique period of British culture that will perhaps never be recreated ever again. The film preserves that era in sticky-carpeted amber.
Echo in the Canyon
Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s was where everything came together and everything fell apart: bands, relationships, the Earth’s crust, you name it—everything was coalescing, and that led to fractures. The fractures, in truth, were inevitable, considering everyone was playing music, taking drugs and having sex with each other in a creative, liberated frenzy. How very Californian.
Bob Dylan’s son Jakob weaves his way through the history of this reverberating scene with the top-down in the old timeless neighbourhoods. It was loved by artists during that reverberating boom for the same reason it is loved by artists now: “To be that close to the Sunset Strip and yet you had a feel that you were in the country was beautiful.” That might be so, but it’s not all that often when you’re out hiking in the rolling hills that you bump into Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips within five minutes of each other. That was the reality in Laurel Canyon. And the only issue with the documentary is that it’ll leave you pining to time travel.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
“Once we had Rolling Thunder constructed, [editor] David Tedeschi and I looked at it, and I said, ‘It’s conventional,’” Martin Scorsese said upon the release of the documentary. “‘It’s just a film about a group of people who go on the road and they sing some songs. I’m going to have to start all over.’ We have to go with the music, maybe, go with the spirit of the commedia dell’arte. And then the words started to come in about possibly people who weren’t there, being there. [Laughs] That’s interesting. That’s a challenge, as they say. Let’s pursue that.”
Dylan’s travelling roadshow recreation features some of the finest talents of an era all coalescing somewhat chaotically. The result is a stunning insight into both Dylan and the final embers of the counterculture. Albeit a little longer than most music docs at 144 minutes, it crams something of note into each second.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99
Netflix clearly realised that the combination of farce and music festivals was a match made in heaven following the successful release of Fyre in 2019, with their latest release, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 being yet another dissection of an event turned horribly wrong. Promising peace and pure ecstasy, the revival of Woodstock in 1999 resulted in rage and riots across the event space, with the new documentary breaking down what exactly went wrong.
For music fans or lovers of business, this is a must-watch, and if it’s anything like Fyre, then we’re in for a real treat, watching the chaos unfold in the safety and warmth of our own homes.