The 10 Best Music Documentaries of the Decade

by Steve Barker on October 11, 2010 · 7 comments

I haven’t seen every single music documentary released between 2000-2010, but I have come pretty close. I’ll watch one on any band whether I’m a fan or not. Most of the time documentaries about bands I don’t really like or am completely unfamiliar with turn out to be the most interesting. Compiling this list was much harder than I initially expected. I will probably lose sleep tonight for not including Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten on this list.

That said, below is my list of the ten best music documentaries of the past ten years.

If there is anything on here you haven’t seen, do yourself a favor and add it to the top of your Netflix queue.

More Best of the 2000s: The 20 Best Movies of the Decade

10. Some Kind Of Monster (2004)

I know a lot of people who hate this movie, but not because it isn’t done well or incredibly interesting — it’s because the movie portrays the guys behind some of the most badass songs ever as a bunch of whiny wuss bags.  Some Kind of Monster follows the three remaining members of Metallica in the studio while they’re attempting to record their 8th studio album St. Anger. Halfway through the process James Hetfield leaves for rehab only to return with a strict set of rules and guidelines for the recording process, which of course doesn’t sit well with Best Frienemy Forever Lars Ulrich.

The film gives you a glimpse into one the biggest bands on the planet as they bicker over small things and attend therapy sessions, at one point bringing in former band member Dave Mustaine to talk about the past. This movie is like a car crash you just can’t seem to take your eyes off. The film also proved my feeling that Lars is a huge tool, mainly when he auctions off his Basquiat collection. Only a total tool would be cheering at every extra million, he doesn’t need, off of priceless art that any real art collector would kill to have.

9. Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop (2008)

I’ll have to admit that when I first watched Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop I had never heard of the band Gogol Bordello and had no clue what a Gogol Bordello even is. I’m still not exactly sure, but I learned this much: Gogol Bordello fucking rocks.

I first came across this film through a Netflix suggestion. Since I liked Sex Pistols Filth and the Fury and Kill Your Idols, Netflix assumed I’d like Gogol Bordello: Non-Stop. They were right, but I was skeptical. I actually put the movie on late one night when I couldn’t sleep, expecting to pass out within twenty minutes. That didn’t happen. Thinking you could sleep through this documentary is like thinking you could sleep through a riot.

Gogol Bordello is a self-proclaimed “gypsy punk band” based in New York City that brings elements of the circus, vaudeville, Middle Eastern dance and beer-and-sweat-soaked punk rock to their live show. It’s almost too crazy for me to even describe the type of energy they have on stage. The film moves between live performances and interviews with band members and fans. Eugene Hutz, the group’s leader and super-likable guy, tells his story of growing up in the Ukraine then moving to New York where he started out as a DJ and later formed the group. By the time the credits rolled I was a huge fan of this band. I heard they’re going to be playing in Seattle next month, and I’m already trying to figure out a way to get my hands on a ticket and the next day off work.

8. Girls Rock! (2008)

I consider myself to be a liberal guy who doesn’t believe in gender roles, but I’ve always kind of believed, with the exception of Jett and Joplin, that chicks can’t really rock. This movie proved me wrong.

Girls Rock! follows girls from the ages of 10-18 as they visit a rock camp and learn how to start a band. This isn’t some cheesy camp either with acoustic guitars and counselors who don’t know Fugazi from Frank Zappa — there are real instruments and amps and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney is one of counselors. Most of the girls attending the camp are outsiders in their hometown, but at rock camp they meet like-minded souls, form bands and rock out. In the final concert a painfully shy girl lets loose and sings on stage. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to hold back tears during that scene.

7. Scratch (2001)

Scratch is a film about the history of Hip-Hop DJing a.k.a. turntablism. The film starts from the beginning with Grand Wizard Theodore and Grand Master Flash explaining the origins of DJing at block parties and continues all the way to present-day DJ competitions and battles, showing the progression of record-spinning over twenty-five years.

All the major players are interviewed in this film, including DJ Shadow, Qbert, DJ Premier, Mix Master Mike, Z-Trip and Cut Chemist, who gives a great monologue about digging for records in new towns and what they smell like. Many of them demonstrate their skills for the camera. At one point the X-ecutioners do a mind-blowing, five-man, improvised jam session.

6. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Everyone says the same thing about Anvil! The Story of Anvil: “It’s just like Spinal Tap — except real.” That is a decent description, but the film is much more than that.

The main two guys in Anvil, Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are heavy metal geniuses who no one has heard of except fellow rockers like Slash, Scott Ian and Lemmy, all of whom praise the band and can’t seem to figure out why they never “made it.” The film follows Anvil on a comeback tour, which is more sad than glorious, but you can’t help but love their spirit.

Most metal bands from the 80s, even the most popular, money-making ones, are long gone in the 2000. But Anvil, who once filled stadiums, is still rocking out in dive bars to drunken crowds of less than ten. By the end of the movie you can’t help but root for these lovable rockers and wonder the same thing as Slash and Lemmy: “Why didn’t these guys make it?”

5. Fearless Freaks (2005)

The Flaming Lips are one of those bands that seem to have been around forever. Fearless Freaks shows they’ve been around even longer than I thought.

They formed in the early 80s. The film chronicles the band, with tons of archival footage from their early days playing backyard parties and small clubs to their rise, becoming one of the most entertaining live bands on the planet. My favorite scenes are the intimate moments with Wayne Coyne alone with his notebook writing songs. I like to see the artistic process. It also shows the guys in their hometown of Oklahoma acting as apart from your typical rock stars as possible. In one scene Wayne shows great excitement decorating his house for Halloween as he tries to scare the neighborhood kids.

If I learned anything from this documentary it’s that The Flaming Lips play music because they love it. Fame and fortune doesn’t seem to be a motivating factor. Had it been they probably would have broken up in the early 90s.

4. Loud Quiet Loud (2006)

As anyone who was a Pixies fan in the 80s knows, Kim Deal and Black Francis (Frank Black) hate each other. The band broke up because the two both had huge egos that couldn’t stand to be in the same room let alone share a stage.

Loud Quiet Loud follows the band on a reunion tour in 2004. The behind-the-scenes footage shows four people who still don’t really seem to like each other much (Frank and Kim ride in separate busses) and don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves on the road. But when they hit the stage they are all connected and sound just as good as they did twenty years earlier when they were all best friends.

This isn’t a typical band on the road movie. Kim is a recovering alcoholic who sucks down about 15 nonalcoholic beers a day and there are no groupies or all night parties. It’s just four people who seem to be on tour more for the fans than themselves.

3. Metal – A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)

Sam Dunn is a Canadian anthropologist and self-proclaimed metal head that travels the world looking at the origin, culture and controversies surrounding heavy metal music. Dunn scores interviews with all the big names in the genre: Dio, Alice Cooper, Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy and Tony Iommi are just a few all-stars interviewed.

Dunn doesn’t just interview these guys, however — he hangs out with them, showing these bigger-than-life megastars in a vulnerable state. At one point Dio gives Dunn a tour of his house to show off his collection of medieval swords. He also spends time with fans and examines the metal community as a whole.

Whether or not you like heavy metal  (I myself am a mild fan of the genre), you will find this film fascinating.

2. Dig! (2004)

Dig! follows The Brian Jonestown Massacre as they fight, do drugs, burn bridges and occasionally make really good rock and roll. I had never heard of the band before this movie and haven’t heard much about them since, but when they are focused they make some really good music.

The movie lets you into the chaos of a drug-addicted band lead by an eccentric genius. At one point, the band comes to blows on stage in the middle of an industry showcase.

1. The Gits (2005)

Part music documentary. part crime investigation, The Gits is the story of a Seattle grunge band that was struck with tragedy at its prime when lead singer Mia Zapata was brutally raped and murdered. Using live footage and retrospective interviews with band members and friends, Mia’s inspirational story is told.

The film comes to an emotional climax when Mia’s unsolved murder of ten years finally has a suspect based on DNA. The live footage of the band playing in small clubs shows that Zapata was a huge talent who would have gone on to be one of the biggest rock stars in the world had her life not been cut short.

If you can get through this whole flick without crying, you’re dead inside.

Honorable mentions: Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, Play it Loud, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

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1 Bill Coffin 10.11.10 at 9:00 am

Awesome article. Just curious though…how come It Might Get Loud didn’t even merit a mention? This question is academic for me, as I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposed to be incredible. Is it more hype than substance? Or was it just outplayed by better films?

2 Morgan O'Rourke 10.11.10 at 12:12 pm

I was thinking the same thing but probably because I just saw it. It’s definitely worth checking out, if only to see Jack White steal the show from the likes of Jimmy Page and The Edge. Also check out the White Stripes doc, Under Great White Northern Lights. Between the two I’m a much bigger fan of Jack White now than I ever was. So I guess they both did the trick.

3 Steve Barker 10.11.10 at 8:48 pm

I had a feeling that someone would mention “It might get loud” I have to admit that I had not seen it at the time when I wrote this. I almost included it in the honorable mentions, but didn’t feel comfortable since I hadn’t seen it. Now that I have seen it, I think it deserves an honorable mention.

4 Hecubus Evil 10.12.10 at 2:43 am

Great article. Maybe not 100% a music documentary but the Ali/Frasier Rumble in the Jungle doc has some great music in it.

5 Andy Markowitz 10.12.10 at 5:32 am

I’ve seen eight of these movies and in my view all are better than It Might Get Loud. Nice list Steve.

Some other great ones: Heima, the Sigur Ros documentary; Nomadek TK, a terrific musical road movie; and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, a BBC doc which has done some festival and theatrical screenings this year.

If you’re into music docs check out our podcast, See It Loud, currently stationed at seeitloud.posterous.com but soon to move to MusicFilmWeb.com, a news & info hub site for music docs past, present, and future. We’ve talked about some of these films on past shows and will have an interview with Lips from Anvil coming up in a couple weeks.

And yes, I’d recommend you get your hands on those Gogol Bordello tickets. It’s a fantastic show.

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