The Top 10 Music Documentaries

rory gallagher

When most of us think of the words ‘music documentary’, Spinal Tap springs to mind; and that’s not only because it’s one of the funniest films of all time, but because it’s also probably pretty close to the truth. That aside, the music doco can be a vital part of a fan’s collection, and more often than not, provide an intriguing insight into the lives and careers of our favourite acts. Here are the top ten music documentaries of all time; each one as unmissable as the last:

10. Gimme Shelter (1970)

An occasionally harrowing visual record of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour and free concert at Altamont that sees the unwitting band being present at the tragic killing of a fan by over-aggressive Hells Angels hired as security. Sometimes labelled as ‘the day the ’60s ended’, the Altamont concert has gone down in history as a defining moment in music and the Stones’ career. Watch Jagger & co. shake their stuff here:

9. Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour (1974)

The original Gallagher brother, Rory Gallagher was a blues-rock troubadour and – by all accounts – a gentleman of the highest order. Having disbanded his first group Taste shortly after wowing Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 and rejecting a chance to join the Rolling Stones, Gallagher embarked on a long journeyman career, earning the respect of musicians and fans the world over, and it was in 1974 that he was probably at his peak. Check out Gallagher shredding like a demon on his signature tune ‘Tattoo’d Lady’:

8. New York Doll (2005)

This outstanding documentary tells the story of legendary punk trash band New York Dolls’ flamboyant bassist, Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, as he hits rock bottom after the Dolls break up, to his final redemption and band reunion some thirty years later. From being at the epicentre of the musical world to doing volunteer work in a church, Kane proves to be a loveable and almost pathetic character in parts, but ultimately triumphs as the Dolls get back together. The fact that he dies shortly after the reunion makes this film all the more poignant. Here’s the trailer:

7. The Filty And The Fury (2000)

Julien Temple’s 2000 documentary The Filth And The Fury is the story of the Sex Pistols, as told by the band themselves, and is in part a response to his own 1980 farce The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, which has been criticised for being too skewed to the outlook of band manager and prize buffoon Malcolm McLaren. It’s honest, dirty, and downright seedy in parts, and that’s what makes it so good. Watch the full film here:

6. It Might Get Loud (2009)

Three guys sitting around chatting about chords and stuff; sounds boring. But it’s unspeakably bloody intriguing. Starring Jimmy Page, Jack White, and U2’s The Edge, this is the musician’s music documentary first and foremost, but anybody who simply likes watching the masters at work will also get a major kick from watching it. Jack White and The Edge are both excellent guitarists, but there’s only one Jimmy Page. Watch the Led Zeppelin master show ’em how it’s done:

5. Woodstock (1970)

The one that started it all? Woodstock is the most famous music festival of all time, and the original gathering needed a concert film to meet the occasion. Jimi Hendrix’s set has been released as its own movie, as it has since been seen as a defining moment of the ’60s counter-culture movement, but check out 25 year-old Ten Years After guitarist Alvin Lee’ shredding it with the best of them in the festival’s overlooked musical highlight:

4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Anyone who says they were a fan of Anvil before watching Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a liar. Anyone who says they aren’t a fan of them after watching it is an even bigger liar. The story of a down-on-their-luck Canadian metal band who never fully reached their potential and are barely holding it together, this is a touching, tear-inducing, and ultimately triumphant look at one bunch of guys who always kept the dream alive. Better buy some tissues before having a look at this one. Watch the trailer here:

3. The Doors – When You’re Strange (2009)

Described by keyboardist Ray Manzarek as the “true story of The Doors”, When You’re Strange turned heads upon its release in 2009, as the only film up to that point to make footage from Jim Morrison’s own HWY: An American Pastoral available for public consumption. It’s eerily beautiful, and you won’t be able to stop watching, even though you know how it all ends. Johnny Depp’s narration adds a touch of class to a fascinating look at one of the ’60s best bands. Watch the full doco here:

2. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007)

Alternating between uplifting and heartbreaking, The Future is Unwritten is an intimate and revealing look into the life of the late Clash frontman. Starting from his childhood as a British ambassador’s son, through squatting in the empty wastelands of West London, before finding himself as a new-age punk rock warlord, this documentary will make you laugh, cry, and ultimately have a better appreciation of where much of the Clash’s music came from. Beautiful. Check out the trailer here:

1. The Band – The Last Waltz (1978)

This Martin Scorsese-directed concert film is quite simply, the best music documentary of all time. Literally the ‘last waltz’ for a legendary band making their final concert appearance before breaking up, it is a stunning piece of film showcasing not only one of the best and most influential bands of all time, but also a ridiculously impressive cast of characters and cameos, and with more show-stopping moments than all of the other documentaries on this list put together. From Levon Helm’s drum-and-vocal mastery on ‘Cripple Creek’, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’, and Van Morrison chucking a tanty after a career-best version of ‘Caravan’, The Last Waltz is the most essential music doco of any age. Check out the opening sequence, a version of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’:

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