No hagiographies to be found here, with looks at the lives and careers of Amy Winehouse, Quincy Jones, Nina Simone and Taylor Swift, among others.
Pop, rock and R&B fans will find a decent assortment of top-shelf concert films on Netflix, including Springsteen on Broadway, Beyoncé's Homecoming and Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids. But performances alone don't tell the fuller story of a musical act or a cultural movement. For that, you need a good documentary, combining exciting old footage with probing new interviews, and putting an artist into proper context.
Netflix is currently streaming a healthy assortment of good music docs. Here are seven of the best.
During her short, turbulent career, Amy Winehouse sang phenomenally catchy neo-soul songs, giving classic R&B the sonic oomph of 21st-century pop. She also became a tabloid staple, plagued by drug addiction and persistent personal drama. Asif Kapadia's documentary isn't always easy to watch, given that the phenomenally talented Winehouse fell so far and so fast. But the film is remarkably comprehensive, detailing its subject's rise from a working class background to international superstardom. And it's filled with insight into how the intense public scrutiny that comes with celebrity may set some stars up for catastrophic failure.
Chasing Trane (2016)
Saxophonist John Coltrane began his career as a sideman to some of the legends of jazz; and then from the late 1950s to his 1967 death, he had a remarkable musical run as the leader of multiple classic combos. From the pop melodicism of his early solo albums to the transcendent abstractions of his later work, Coltrane kept obsessively searching for ways to capture the fragile beauty and spiritual yearning of the human experience. Director John Scheinfeld gathers meaningful observations from famous Coltrane colleagues and admirers, who help demystify his incredibly complicated compositions and improvisations.
Hip-Hop Evolution (2016-20)
You'll need to carve out some time in your schedule to watch all of Hip-Hop Evolution, a 16-part series that's been spread across four seasons. But this project is worth the effort. Each episode has a theme and purpose: whether it's describing a subgenre or covering a key moment in the history of rap. A lot of the feature documentaries about hip-hop remain stuck in the '80s and '90s; but Hip-Hop Evolution presses on into the 2000s, making room for the "Dirty South" sound, the experiments of the Neptunes crew, the controversies surrounding the mixtape revolution and more.
Miss Americana (2020)
Taylor Swift comes from a generation of pop stars who've never had much of an "offstage" component to their careers. They expose themselves constantly, on social media and in their songs. Yet Miss Americana is still genuinely revealing. Lana Wilson spent a few years with Swift, during a time when she was moving into new phases with her sound and public persona. This film is about an idol trying to figure out how to use her influence wisely; but it's also about the difficulties of wielding a strong voice in an era when fans and haters alike gather on the internet to dissect and question everything.
Who better to make a documentary about Quincy Jones than his own daughter: the actress, writer and producer Rashida Jones? Quincy was shot over the course of several years by Jones and Alan Hicks. Their film combines a detailed and admiring biography of an EGOT-winning musician with more down-to-earth scenes of the man's daily life in the present day, coping with increasingly poor health and heavy demands on his time. What emerges is an intimate portrait of a towering cultural figure.
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What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
The jazz and R&B singer Nina Simone had a complicated relationship with the press, the music business and her own friends and family — in part because of mental illness, and in part because she was politically outspoken and confrontational. Liz Garbus's documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? includes interviews from people who knew Simone, which supplement extended performance footage, in which Simone stares down her audiences while singing some of the most thrilling American popular music of the 1960s.
ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band from Texas (2019)
During ZZ Top's rise to chart success in the 1970s and '80s, the Texas trio cultivated a certain mystique, taking on larger-than-life stage personas while mostly ignoring a rock press that didn't seem to understand or respect what they were doing. Because of all that, the documentary That Little Ol' Band from Texas tells a story that even ZZ Top fans may not fully know: about three gifted mavericks who channelled their shared love of the blues, acid rock and garage bands into weird, witty and danceable songs.
Written by: Noel Murray
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