2015 really has been a bumper year for music documentaries. We’re only half way through, but already a couple of names jump out and strike you as some of the best films of the year, let alone the best music docs.
But while films like Amy and Montage Of Heck have received relatively generous marketing campaigns to get the stories of already known stars into cinemas, there are a load of documentaries that go pretty much unmentioned, noticed only by the hardcore fans of the bands they may be focused on.
With that in mind, here’s fifteen of our favourite examples that you may not have heard of, to get you started on a road of musical education.
Salad Days: A Decade Of Punk In Washington DC (2014)
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, this film, which focuses on the early DIY punk scene of the US capital, finally got a limited cinematic release. It still screens sporadically at certain film festivals (check the website for details) with a DVD release slated for September 2015. Featuring first hand accounts of a time when bands like Minor Threat, Void, Rites of Spring, and Fugazi released their own records and booked their own shows without major record label constraints or mainstream media scrutiny, this is well worth a watch.
No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers (2015)
One of the most outspoken bands in Welsh music history, the Manics started life in the early 90s claiming they were going to make one album, sell millions of copies of it, and then split up. With that in mind this documentary take a look at how and why the Manics are still here, and the speed bumps on the road to their worldwide acclaim.
Pitchfork Classics: Slowdive – Souvlaki (2015)
The Pitchfork Classics series of mini-documentaries have already provided us with insightful gems on albums by Modest Mouse and the Flaming Lips, but the cream of the crop has to be this 50-minute long retrospective on Souvlaki, the seminal record from shoegazers Slowdive. The best part? It’s completely free to catch on YouTube right now.
Waiting For The Drop: Rise of the Superstar DJs (2015)
Your opinions of EDM will go one of two ways. It’s either a glorified marketing tool designed to appeal to a young and dumb market who really should know better (and this really beggars belief), or the last great musical movement. Either way, this doc looks to shine some light on the matter, and at least have you coming away with a more informed opinion, if not a greater appreciation of the dance sub-genre currently tearing the globe apart.
Soaked In Bleach (2015)
This year’s Montage Of Heck was undoubtedly one of the finest music docs of the year, and seems a pretty definitive take on the late Nirvana front man’s story. But, like the bad fan fiction of the music world, Nirvana documentaries are everywhere. This one is wholly unofficial, and take the controversial stance of pointing the finger of blame regarding Kurt’s death to, shall we say, people very close to the grunge icon. If you like your conspiracy theories, this will make for an intriguing viewing.
Daft Punk Unchained
For the French speaking cross-section of the WOW readership, this one’s for you. So new to the music documentary scene that it’s still awaiting an English translation, BBC Worldwide’s production raised a great deal of buzz when it was premiered on French television a couple of months ago by providing a great insight into one of electronic music’s most mysterious acts. We’re sure a subtitled version will come about soon for those not fluent.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
Everyone remembers the Sex Pistols and The Clash as being at the forefront of the punk scene in ’76 – ’77. But for some reason, The Damned, a band arguably more influential than either of those two, are often forgotten. Dubbed “the third prong in the holy trinity of UK punk”, this documentary charts the story of the band and wonders how the group managed to survive so long in the first place.
1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)
In 1991 filmmaker Dave Markey took his handheld camera out on the road as the bands of the moment (Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland etc etc) traversed continental Europe on a summer festival tour. At times spoofing the hell out of Madonna’s Truth Or Dare documentary down to entire scenes re-enacted with tongues firmly in cheek, this film features exhilarating live performances from a pre-supernova Nirvana and The Best Band Ever (fact), Sonic Youth. It recently enjoyed a DVD re-release, so shouldn’t be too hard to find.
Beautiful Noise (2014)
At one time it felt like this shoegaze documentary would never come out. But in mid-2014, fans of all things melodious yet noisy got to see a film that charted the shoegaze movement of the early 90s through bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and AR Kane. Featuring interviews with all the major players, this is sure to have you reaching for your fuzz pedal.
People Who Do Noise (2008)
Remember when your parents used to shout up to you to turn it down? “It’s just noise!” they’d exclaim. Well, they were wrong. It wasn’t just noise. Loud, sure. But full of rhythm and melody. Well, this documentary follows a group of Portland based musicians who literally do just make noise. Huge amp rigs set-up to get just the right texture of white noise, then manipulated through effects pedals into weird and wonderful combinations. This will open your eyes to a new way of thinking about sound, and you can watch it in full here:
Breaking A Monster (2015)
Remember Unlocking The Truth? The metal band that made headlines last last year by securing a $1.8 million recording contract? At the tender age of 13-years old, no less? Breaking A Monster follows the band’s journey from rehearsals in the garage to possibly being the Next Big Thing, and asks and whether a band whose members are still going through puberty can handle the pressure of having to live up to the hype.
If there’s one piece of technology that’s influenced the direction of popular music more than any other, it’s the Roland TR-808 drum machine. It’s become a bit of a legendary piece of kit, with its bass heavy low end helping to shape hip-hop and modern dance music. Pretty much everyone in the music world has used one at some point, so it stands to reason that pretty much everyone appears in this doc from Li’l Jon to Damon Albarn.
Rough Cut and Ready Dubbed (1982)
This is basically a student project come to fruition, and carries with it all the rough around the edges charm that you might expect. It serves as something as a musical time capsule though, documenting a time when punk-rock became post-punk, the oi movement, a 2-tone ska revival, and a mod revival all at once. Its splintering genres perfectly stand in as a metaphor for the social context of an early-80s Britain ravaged by gang violence and the rise of fascist movements like the National Front. It’s unpolished style only adds to its transportative qualities.
The Punk Singer (2013)
The Punk Singer is about feminist singer Kathleen Hanna who fronted the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and who was a central figure in the riot grrrl movement. It uses a combination of interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the life and career of Hanna from her troubled upbringing, her prominent punk and dance-punk bands, her coining of the phrase “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Kurt Cobain, all the way up until her 2010 diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease and the severe treatments she endures to combat it. A bravely personal account of one of music’s underrated pioneers.
Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
The best music documentaries are constructed in a way that they tell an interesting story in an engaging way that manages to hold the attention of even those who may not have been fans of the subject matter before hand. That’s exactly what Meeting People Is Easy does, as it follows Radiohead on their promotional tour of the 1997 album OK Computer. It uses a a collage of video clips, sound bites, and dialogue to document the band’s burn-out as the group’s 104 date (!) world tour progresses.