In the absence of gathering to enjoy live music, now is a good time grab a drink and cheer some excellent music documentaries while you’re social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
In alphabetical order, here are 16 outstanding music docs available to stream right now. If your favorite movie isn’t here, it means I hate you and the band in question. (I’m kidding; I could do another list of 16 in a heartbeat.)
"20 Feet from Stardom" (directed by Morgan Neville, 2013)
What’s it about? The background singer has an odd status: He or she is largely anonymous but often among the very best musicians on any given stage, seeing as how they must adapt to a plethora of artists. This is their story.
Stream it on: Netflix; rent from various services.
"808" (directed by Alex Dunn, 2015)
What’s it about? As music changes, so do the instruments we make it with. As the electric guitar helped create rock music, so did the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer change the face of hip-hop, techno and electronic music in general.
Stream it on: Amazon Prime and Tubi; rent from various services.
"A Long Strange Trip" (directed by Amir Bar-Lev, 2017)
What’s it about? Love them, like them or loathe them, the Grateful Dead is a crucial band in the great, bloody corpus of late-20th century American popular music; this four-hour, six-part examination does a lovely job of showing why (though it could have done a bit more than just mention the band’s misogyny and chaotic-evil side).
Stream it on: Amazon Prime
"Another State of Mind" (1984, directed by Adam Small, Peter Stuart)
What’s it about? In 1982, as the first wave of American hardcore punk was cresting, directors Adam Small and Peter Stuart followed a very young Social Distortion and Youth Brigade (the Canadian one) across the United States as they toured in a bus. An essential document of a place and time.
Stream it on: YouTube
"Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" (2011, directed by Michael Rapaport)
What’s it about? The life and times of one of the top 10 (top five?) most important hip-hop groups, and therefore pop music groups in general, of their generation. A complicated bunch and a very moving story.
Stream it on: Rent or buy from various services.
"The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years" (1988, directed by Penelope Spheeris)
What’s it about: The first Decline is a great doc about first-wave punk in Los Angeles. The third is a depressing doc about crust punk kids. But the second is astonishing, a look at hair metal at its very peak. One of the funniest movies about rock music ever made and to this day nobody is quite sure if the bands were in on the absurdity or not.
Stream it on: Amazon Prime, rent or buy from various services.
» Related: What is Austin without SXSW?
"Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back" (1967, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)
What’s it about? Bob Dylan’s acoustic 1965 tour of England, right after "Bringing it All Back Home" came out but before he "went electric" at Newport in July. A portrait of the artist as a funny, arrogant, kind, obnoxious, fearless young god, "Dont Look Back" (nope, no apostrophe) pretty well invented the rock doc.
Stream it on: Criterion or Kanopy; rent or buy from various services.
"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (2005, directed by Michel Gondry)
What’s it about? One of America’s funniest human beings (well, at one time, I suppose) throws a block party in Brooklyn featuring Erykah Badu, Common, Bilal and more. A good time is had by all.
Stream it on: Rent or buy from various services.
"Depeche Mode 101" (1989, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)
What’s it about? Pennebaker mixes live footage of Depeche Mode (whose 101st date of the "Music for the Masses" tour was in front of 60,000 folks at the Pasadena Rose Bowl) while inventing the whole "Real Word"/"Road Rules" thing by following a bunch of young, contest-winning fans following the band. The white jeans are incredible, and you have not lived until you heard the live "Everything Counts," wherein 60,000 young Angelenos sing about money.
Stream it on: Rent or buy from Amazon.
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston" (2005, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig)
What’s it about? A thoughtful and occasionally heartbreaking look at Johnston, one of the defining artists of 1980s and ’90s Austin, a man who struggled with mental illness and one hell of a songwriter.
Stream it on: DirectTV; rent or buy from various services.
"Gimme Shelter" (1970, directed by David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, Albert Maysles)
What’s it about? The Rolling Stones’ doomed concert at Altamont, the death of the Sixties dream and why it’s a terrible idea to use the Hell’s Angels as security for anything. (Pairs nicely with the Dead doc; it was the Dead camp’s deeply moronic idea to use the Angels at the concert.)
Stream it on: Criterion and Kanopy, rent or buy from various services.
"Heavy Metal Parking Lot" (1986, directed by Jeff Krulik)
What’s it about? Seventeen minutes of tailgating in the the parking lot outside the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. (essentially the Washington, D.C., market), on May 31, 1986, before a Judas Priest show. You will hear some of the most egregious Maryland accents known to man and a lot of girls convinced they are Rob Halford’s type. A perfect movie.
Stream it on: Amazon or Fandor
"The Last Waltz" (1978, directed by Martin Scorsese)
What’s it about? A gorgeously shot final concert by the Band and a bunch of their closest music biz pals. (Van Morrison! Look at that jumpsuit! Neil Young! What is under his nose?)
Stream it on: Amazon Prime; rent or buy from various services.
"Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" (2004, directed by Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky)
What’s it about? Four grown men whose emotional maturity is fixed at about age 20 try to grapple with what it means to be stuck with each other for decades. Hypnotic and incredibly weird. Even devout Lars Ulrich haters will see his relationship with his dad and say, "Oh. OK, I get it now."
Stream it on: Netflix; buy or rent from Amazon.
"Monterey Pop" (1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)
What’s it about? Yeah, yeah, "Woodstock," fine. But there’s a reason Pennebaker is on here three times. "Monterey" is better shot and better edited with better performances (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, an astonishing Otis Redding). The king of ’em all, y’all.
Stream it on: Criterion; rent or buy from various services.
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (2002, directed by Paul Justman)
What’s it about? The story of the Funk Brothers, the under-known Detroit studio ninjas who played on dozens and dozens and dozens of Motown hits.
Stream it on: Amazon Prime and Hulu; rent or buy from various services.