Ten great rockumentaries

Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues
Bob Dylan - Subterranean Homesick Blues

Bob Dylan providing the iconic opening to ‘Don’t Look Back’ with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Our selection of cinematic gems give an insight into the fantastic, fascinating and sometimes fraught lives of musicians and songwriters

hen you love an artist’s music, it’s natural that you’ll want to know more about the people behind it. Which is why there have been countless dozens of ‘rockumentaries’ made over the years. Some are essentially just concert films, with a few ‘behind the scenes’ clips thrown in; increasingly in the modern era, some are little more than an exercises in brand marketing. But some are true cinematic gems… and we’ve listed ten that we think fall into the latter category below.

Don’t Look Back

Dir. DA Pennebaker, 1967
Shot in fly-on-the-wall style in black and white, this groundbreaking film by renowned documentary-maker Pennebaker follows a young Bob Dylan on his 1965 UK tour. Widely considered a classic not just of the rockumentary genre but of documentary film-making full stop, it’s worth watching for the scene where Dylan mercilessly lambasts a suddenly very sheepish Donovan for hurling an empty bottle out a window alone.

Gimme Shelter

Dir. Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970
This film started life as a simple document of the Stones’ 1969 US tour. But that tour, of course, included the infamous free concert at Altamont speedway, where 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, was stabbed and killed by Hell’s Angels… and so the movie ended up being a document, instead, of the 60s dream going wrong in spectacular fashion. The DVD release includes a phone-in discussion of the tragedy on KSAN radio the following day, with Sonny Berger among the callers.

This Is Spinal Tap

Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984
Okay, yes, this one’s a spoof. But it’s still one of the greatest rock n’ roll movies ever made… and as just about any touring band will tell you, “It’s funny because it’s true”. Even the arty, intellectual Cocteau Twins once described a then-recent tour as “just like Spinal Tap… right down to getting lost under the stage”. But hey, enough of our yappin’…

1991: The Year Punk Broke

Dir. Dave Markey, 1993
Ostensibly a tour movie following New York alt/art rockers Sonic Youth on their 1991 trek around Europe, Markey’s film ended up being, as well, the definitive cinematic document of grunge at its height, with great live footage of Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr and Babes In Toyland.

Biggie & Tupac

Dir. Nick Broomfield, 2002
Mainstream hip-hop is a strange world where big business and street gang rivalries collide. The most obvious person to really get under the skin of that world probably wasn’t a 50-year-old former boarding school boy from Somerset… yet Broomfield’s attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the deaths of Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur makes for fascinating viewing all the same. Then again, he’d had quite a lot of practice at this kind of thing – his 1998 film Kurt And Courtney could also easily have made this list.

End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones

Dir. Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, 2003
Here’s something you may not know about Da Brudders: after falling out over a woman (and politics), childhood friends Joey and Johnny Ramone never spoke to one another from the early 80s onwards, despite continuing to tour and record for another 15 years. The rift between them is at the heart of this great career-spanning documentary by Fields and Gramaglia – and also nearly ensured that it never came out.

Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

Dir. Sacha Gervasi, 2008
Like Spinal Tap… but real. Canadian heavy metal band Anvil had some success in the 1980s but were then pretty much forgotten about by the world at large… until former Anvil roadie turned successful Hollywood screenwriter Gervasi made this movie. Following Lipps and Robb as they navigate the highs and lows of the comeback trail and featuring talking heads from the likes of Lemmy, Lars Ulrich and Slash, it’s one of the funniest – and most heart-warming – rock n’ roll films you’ll ever see.

USA Songwriting Competition 2024

Michael Jackson’s This Is It

Dir. Kenny Ortega, 2009
Initially not intended to become a movie, This Is It documents Michael Jackson’s preparation and rehearsals for the mammoth concert run of the same name, which was scheduled to start in July 2009, but cancelled due to his  death. Although the rumours surrounding the late MJ mean  his legacy is riddled with uncertainty, there’s no doubting the King Of Pop was aiming to deliver yet another historic performance. This Is It is the closest fans get to witnessing it.

Katy Perry: Part Of Me

Dir. Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, 2012
Possibly not everyone’s cup of tea, but you don’t need to be a Katy Perry fan to find this film compelling. Following her career from  gospel-singing beginnings to the global megastar we know now, this fly-on-the-wall documentary gives us an interesting insight to her slightly unhinged, candyland pop star life. Live performances from her last world tour are shot in 3D, so viewing on the latest technology feels almost like sharing the stage with the star.

Searching For Sugarman

Dir. Malik Bendjelloul, 2012
Two South Africans set out to uncover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock n’ roller, Rodriguez. His career didn’t last long in the US, but unknown to Rodriguez he had become a national music idol in South Africa. A touching tale with constant twists and turns… resulting in a Detroit construction site worker discovering that his long-faded musical aspirations had come true after all.

There are no comments

Add yours

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Songwriting Magazine