Music is the Medicine

The rock doctor is in. From the Boss to The Bee Gees, The Go-Gos to MacGowan, EDM DJs to upstart Jamaican rappers, our editor-in-chief Gemma Gracewood has music movie prescriptions for whatever 2020 ill is ailing you.

Music documentaries are their own kind of cinematic comfort food—or, more fittingly, a comfort cocktail. Music is medicine in any circumstance, but there’s something extra soothing about being invited in, especially when we can’t go out. Whether it’s a concert film, an intimate look at the birth of an album, or a deep dive into the history of a genre, I often turn to music documentaries as a balm, a source of creative inspiration, and a reminder to not be too square.

While 2020 has put paid to a lot of live music experiences, there are still plenty of music films coming down the pipe, about the synthwave, Bay Area thrash metal, the tiny but strong Vietnamese metal scene, drum and bass, an influential New York record store. It’s rare these days to get a Cocksucker Blues, though. The closest thing to Robert Frank’s suppressed, fly-on-the-wall documentary about The Rolling Stones’ debauched 1972 North American tour would be something like the recent Fyre Festival exposés, Fyre and Fyre Fraud, both of which ooze with schadenfreude.

Every now and again, insider access gives us a high-concept triumph like Mistaken for Strangers, Tom Berninger’s wildly irreverent 2013 film about his brother’s band, The National. Conversely, as with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy (2015), public footage can do more to tell the tale than insider interviews ever could. But, generally, the price of access is usually artist approval, and rock docs in the 21st century have become sanctioned, often sanitized outings to sell an album, rebuild a reputation or launch an act.

Perhaps that is part of the comfort factor of music films at this time: the knowledge that we are arguably watching something the artists themselves are comfortable with—no nasty surprises or nip-slips. Ultimately, I think we love music movies because we simply love music, and want to know more about the ephemeral qualities of those who make it. That’s certainly why famous directors often throw themselves into music films—there’s nothing more unknowable and magical than a musician’s brain.

While he’s “no psychologist”, the attraction is as clear as day to filmmaker John Scheinfeld, who has documented musicians including John Coltrane, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, and Herb Alpert: “Music is the universal language. It touches us emotionally, it touches us intellectually. And what comes along with that is if somebody’s music really impacts us in a significant way, we want to know more about that artist. I know that’s what interests me as a filmmaker.”

We take a deep dive into 2020’s music film offerings and write you a few prescriptions.

David Byrne’s American Utopia

For when you just want to be happy (and shout a bit).

What a miracle it is that David Byrne’s American Utopia was captured by Spike Lee in the Before Times, so that we have it now, when we’re all making it up as we go along, and everybody’s not able to come to our house. Lee’s cameras add intimacy and suspense, and importantly, bring a democratic vibe to it all. While Broadway tickets are mostly for the well-to-do, this film shouts “Come in! All are welcome!” We’re not just watching; we’re in it, we’re above it, we’re around it, we’re on stage, wrapped in a celebratory, cerebral knitting-back-together of America through song. You will probably cry. You will almost definitely be undone by ‘One Fine Day’.

Streaming now on HBO.

Pair with: Okay, it’s cheating because it’s not from 2020, but Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads gold-standard concert film Stop Making Sense, which has long been one of the highest rated titles on our platform, is the only possible double feature here.

Available for purchase on VOD.

The Go-Gos

For when you need an injection of punk spirit.

Prolific documentary director Allison Ellwood has two films out this year: a two-part docuseries on the tight LA music community in the winding hills of Laurel Canyon, and The Go-Gos, a Showtime film about the most successful female rock band of all time. If you’ve never heard ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ or ‘We Got the Beat’, fix that, now. “Ellwood allows her film to be a celebration of the punk-rock scene and of kick-ass women, a feminist documentary through and through,” writes Andrew Chrzanowski on Letterboxd. “The Go-Gos doesn’t shy away from the vitriol and chauvinism faced by the band even in their first tour of England along with Madness and The Specials, and the obstacles faced by a group of all women and with a female manager as well in a male-dominated industry.”

Streaming on Showtime.

Pair with: On the Record. Drew Dixon is as fierce and brave as they come, stepping up to tell her story of abuse by one of hip hop’s leading forces in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s powerful documentary.

Streaming on HBO Max.


For those trying to stay on the path of artistic excellence in the face of every kind of challenge.

Writing on Letterboxd, Andrew Jupin notes that Alex Winter’s Zappa is “a perfect example of the most successful kind of music doc: when an audience member can go in not knowing a thing about the musician—I knew literally two Zappa songs before watching this—and … come out the other end with a real vested interest in exploring that musician’s body of work.” Read more, and listen to the Letterboxd Show episode with Alex Winter.

Coming to select US theaters and on-demand this Thanksgiving weekend.

Pair with: Darius Marder’s impressive and unforgettable narrative debut, Sound of Metal, starring this story’s cover star Riz Ahmed as a drummer who is losing his hearing. The sound design is something else.

In US theaters November 2; streaming on Prime Video from December 4.


For angry dancing and a glimpse of the future.

Stacey Lee’s manifesto on the place of women in electronic dance music culture is beautiful, infuriating, pulsating and timely. Underplayed is a women-in-the-workplace film, where the workplace is a stadium and the job is to bring a crowd to the drop, and watch them let go. Lee follows wildly skilled DJs including Alison Wonderland, Rezz, Tygapaw and Tokimonsta, and also dips into the past, shining light on electronic pioneers like Wendy Carlos and Delia Derbyshire (Whovians know her by her theme arrangement). Fun fact: women’s hands most likely built the Moog your boyfriend is noodling around on—that’s what being an expert in quilting qualifies you for. There’s literally no reason for EDM to discriminate on the basis of gender, so when things settle into new-normal and we’re allowed to cut loose again, demand women on the bill. In the meantime, turn this up.

Currently on the festival circuit.

Pair with: Bill & Ted Face the Music. Both films celebrate female producers, and theremin queen Clara Rockmore gets shout outs in both, too.

OUTDEH—The Youth of Jamaica

For when you just wanna chill on the island with a mango.

Energy drink giant Red Bull has long provided a showcase for documentary storytellers with a global focus. In OUTDEH—The Youth of Jamaica, German filmmaker Louis Josek takes a portrait of three twenty-something Jamaican men with low-key but serious ambitions for themselves, and the self-belief to match. One of those is rapper Bakersteez, whose anxiety and fear of crowds sits in opposition to his desire to be on stage. The trio tell their own stories, move at their own pace, figuring out the meaning of manhood and saying things wise beyond their years as they dream of a new Jamaica. It’s like watching a coming-of-age tale in real time.

Watch it for free.

Pair with: Marley. Re-released this year with additional footage to celebrate what would have been Bob Marley’s 75th birthday, Kevin Macdonald’s family-sanctioned life of the reggae master is as definitive as it’s probably possible to get.

Available to rent on VOD.

Coachella—20 Years in the Desert

For reliving the pungent joys of festival culture and sweaty strangers.

Made to celebrate Coachella’s twentieth anniversary, and released in April, after things had already turned to custard, Coachella—20 Years in the Desert is a monument to the tens of thousands of bookers, roadies, sound techs, riggers, caterers, drivers and other beloved live-industry contractors currently unable to bring music dreams to the people. The festival’s origin story, the search for the perfect spot, the wild curation ideas (Madonna in the dance tent!), the rise of the hip-hop headliners and their mega-productions—all that music industry content, told by Coachella’s creators, is fascinating. Rosanna Arquette hiring herself to wander around bagging backstage interviews is also adorable. But the music remains the reason to tune in. A spine-tingling Amy Winehouse. The Arcade Fire ball drop. Tupac’s hologram. Kanye’s fake mountain. Peter Murphy from Bauhaus hanging upside down! (Thank f—k their idea to release hundreds of bats into the crowd didn’t eventuate.)

Free to watch on YouTube.

Pair with: BLΛƆKPIИK—Light Up the Sky, Caroline Suh’s doc about the first K-Pop group to ever perform at Coachella. It’s one of those corporate films that come as part and parcel of the pop product these days (related: Shawn Mendes: In Wonder is due on Netflix November 23), but it’s nice to see well-trained, hard-working young people achieving their dreams, while missing their families.

On Netflix now.

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

For when you should be dancing.

The glorious hair. The shirts. The strut. The tight harmonies. It’s about time someone took on the hirsute and high-voiced Gibb brothers—Barry, Maurice and Robin—otherwise known as the best-selling musical artists of all time. Heavyweight producer Frank Marshall helms this Bee Gees documentary, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, which is gaining early praise at festivals for including the creators of disco in the conversation. “There aren’t many music documentaries that can effectively shine a spotlight on social issues while still keeping the artist at the center of the conversation,” writes Mat Messa. “Black people and gay people started a lot of cool things they rarely get credit for and the club owner in this represents a lot of quieted voices,” agrees Jeremiah Reynolds, adding, “One of my big takeaways is how art needs space. Quality innovation requires obsessive focus.”

Coming to HBO and HBO Max later this year.

Pair with: Tiny Tim—King for a Day, for more male falsetto, and the kind of story you couldn’t make up, lovingly assembled by Johan von Sydow. “Weird Al” Yankovic narrates the diaries of unlikely ukulele star Herbert Khaury, as friends and family members help to interrogate the fuzzy line between freak and genius.

On the festival circuit.

Herb Alpert Is…

For horny nostalgia—and a reassurance that not all rich people suck.

As well as just being toe-tappingly delightful, Herb Alpert Is… has a sincere message about using your creative powers for good. “This is a man who’s a true artist, but who has felt so much gratitude for the success that he’s had, that he really set out to make the world a better place,” director John Scheinfeld says. Read about the making of the film in our interview with Scheinfeld.

Available in virtual cinemas and on VOD now.

Pair with: Regina King’s forthcoming dream-narrative One Night in Miami, which also features Sam Cooke. (Alpert co-wrote Cooke’s hit ‘Wonderful World’.)

In select US theaters Christmas Day; on Amazon Prime Video from January 15, 2021.

Miss Americana

For those election-year, anything-is-possible vibes.

Never forget that 2020 was kind of okay, briefly, back when Lana Wilson’s emotionally revealing, artist-approved documentary Miss Americana premiered at Sundance. Hot on the heels of Gaga: Five Foot Two came another megastar confessional, in which Taylor Swift grapples with how much of her voice—not her singing voice, but her, y’know, thoughts and opinions—she is prepared to have heard… and then, when she is ready to say what she really thinks, the fight to actually be heard. There’s comfort in seeing someone with all her privilege struggle. Plus, her New Zealand producer Joel Little is the approving chap we all need as we come up with silly lyrics on the spot.

Streaming on Netflix.

Pair with: Yellow Rose, an affecting indie drama about a Texan Filipina singer-songwriter whose country music ambitions are interrupted when ICE comes for her undocumented mother. Eva Noblezada is perfect in Diane Paragas’ narrative debut.

Available now on demand.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

Because being in the studio is a good use of quarantine time.

Director Thom Zimny is presumably a member of the Springsteen family at this point, so comfortable is the E Street Band with his presence. Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is yet another film-to-sell-the-album, but heck, the fans are not complaining. As Scout Tafoya writes on Letterboxd, “I’m not made of stone: this wrecked me. Like I get it, it’s a doc selling an album for an evil corporation, but where else can you see the band play in studio not interrupted by voice-over or needlessly cutting away. I could have watched another several hours of this.”

Streaming on Apple TV+ from October 23.

Pair with: Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys Story, for when you can’t and you won’t and you don’t stop.

Also streaming on Apple TV+.

Crock of Gold—A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan

For those who are drinking through it.

That the hard-living Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan is still here to participate in Julien Temple’s film is a surprise to many, but his memory, cutting cultural observations, withering insults and sweary mouth are all very present, though subtitles are necessary (and not because of the Irish accents). Abundant archive footage, animated sequences and family members (including MacGowan’s hilarious dad, who blames Creedence Clearwater Revival for his son’s ‘downfall’) help to round out the tale of the Christmas Day baby born into an austere, stout-fuelled family (“We pissed out the front door, yeah, and shit in the fields”), who became a punk superstar and an Irish icon. And, as is the way with Irish stories, there’s as much blarney as there is music, so if you’re here just for the Pogues, you have been warned.

Screening at DOC NYC November 11-19 (tickets here); in US theaters and on demand December 4.

Pair with: Dinner in America, a punk-rock rom-com that opens with a purposefully obnoxious blast of vitriolic angst, but gradually thaws into one of the year’s most unexpectedly sweet, big-hearted gems which you can comfortably file next to Trust-era Hal Hartley, Heathers and Babyteeth.

Currently on the festival circuit.

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