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Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain circa 1992
Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain circa 1992via kurtandcourtney.tumblr.com

The most insightful music documentaries of all time

From Kurt and Courtney’s home movies to the cocaine-fuelled heights of David Bowie, these are the docs that prised our eyes wide open

This year has seen an overwhelming avalanche of music documentaries, from Asif Kapadia’s devastatingly intimate portrayal of Amy Winehouse, Nickolas Rossi’s fandom-filled Elliott Smith tribute and Brett Morgen’s ambitious, cut-n-pasted Kurt Cobain biopic. And that’s without mentioning the music docs that are still peaking their head around the corner, from the BBC’s version of Grace Jones and Daft Punk to still-in-the-works clips of The Slits, Rihanna and M.I.A. However, just because a documentary is about your favourite artist doesn’t mean it’ll always be objectively good. The best docs are revealing, insightful and full of surprises. With that in mind, here ten of the most eye-opening, gasp-worthy music films to have graced our screens.

KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK (2015)

This isn’t the only Kurt Cobain documentary to exist, but it's surely the best. Arguably, the reason it shines so brightly is down to the sheer amount of personal home video footage and long lost solo demos that director Brett Morgen has salvaged, managing to paint an immersive portrait of the charismatic, talented and troubled Nirvana frontman who was also completely in love. “I was given footage of Kurt and Courtney that nobody had ever seen, and in it we see a completely different dynamic,” Morgen told us. “They were two kids in love with each other in a way that only 25-year-olds can be in love – that fiery, passionate, intense love.”

BIGGIE AND TUPAC (2002)

This early-00s Nick Broomfield classic is absolutely fascinating. While a lot of the film focuses on the lives of friends-turned-enemies Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, it delves even deeper into the events surrounding their deaths, and throws light on the oft-disputed claim that Suge Knight, head of Death Row Records, might have been responsible. It’s also worth watching for the throwback footage of East Harlem, and amazing clips of a 17-year-old Biggie rapping on a street corner. 

AMY (2015)

This is as much a documentary about music icon Amy Winehouse as it is about the parasitic nature of the British tabloid press and the tragic ins-and-outs of drug addiction. And although Winehouse’s family have since distanced themselves from the film, calling it ‘misleading’, it’s hard to deny that director Asif Kapadia has seemingly left no stone unturned, crafting an engrossing, hard-hitting and devastatingly eye-opening film from start to finish, which shows the artist to be as soul-bearing as her albums. Does it do justice to Amy Winehouse’s memory? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

DIG! (2004)

This doc about 90s heroes The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre isn’t to everybody’s taste, but it’s gradually garnered a loyal cult following over the years, with many hailing it the “real life Spinal Tap”. The unbridled rivalry, stylised hedonism and affected self-indulgence of the two bands is as unsettling as it is funny, and you leave wondering whether they’re idiots or unsung geniuses, dripping in irony.

PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER (2013)

When feminist punk protestors Pussy Riot were arrested for hooliganism after performing in a church in Moscow, the world went into overdrive. Many expressed their support of the band, who were rebelling against homophobia, sexism and systematic oppression, and believed their arrest was unjust. This 2013 BBC documentary follows the court proceedings, and includes interviews with the band’s family members, gradually piecing together one the most interesting stories of political dissidence through music in the past decade.

CRACKED ACTOR (1975)

This 1975 Alan Yentob-directed masterpiece about music visionary David Bowie was never officially released, although it’s managed to find it’s way everywhere (including YouTube). The hour-long clip has since become notorious for it’s no-holds-barred insight into Bowie’s fragile mental state at the peak of his cocaine addiction and musical success, as the camera follows him in limousines, hotels and on stage throughout a huge LA tour. “When I see that now I cannot believe I survived it,” Bowie has since commented. “I was so close to really throwing myself away physically, completely.”

THE STONE ROSES: MADE OF STONE (2013)

Most music documentaries paint a nostalgic vision of the past, but director Shane Meadows casts his eyes firmly to the future, using old footage of iconic Manchester favourites The Stone Roses to show how the past informed the present. Throughout this beautifully crafted, black-and-white creation it becomes clear that you’re watching a visual love letter to the music of The Stone Roses, and it’s impossible not to get completely (re)obsessed yourself.

THE FILTH AND THE FURY (2000)

British director Julien Temple is the king of the music docs, but this turn-of-the-millennium Sex Pistols biopic The Filth and the Fury is by far his best. The film dives head first into the lives of the punk pioneers, the social context that spurred on their music, and the open-mouthed, combative reaction to them at the time. As Claire Healy wrote last week, “for as long as there's been subculture, there's been a moral panic to match.” This film celebrates that moral panic perfectly.

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012)

Malik Bendjelloul’s tremendous debut Searching for Sugar Man has become as much of a cultural phenomenon as the mythical musician it chronicles – Sixto Rodriguez. The Oscar-winning film, which was all shot using Super 8 film and an iphone camera, documents the journey of two journalists seeking to discover what had become of Rodriguez, to discover that he’d found huge but unlikely success in South Africa. Bendjelloul sadly died last year – read our tribute to him here.

GIMME SHELTER (1970)

Not to be confused with the 2013 American drama of the same name (the one where Vanessa Hudgens plays a drug addict), this landmark counterculture-era documentary follows the last weeks of The Rolling Stones 1969 US Tour, which culminated in the notoriously disastrous Altamont Free Concert (maybe hiring Hells Angels as security wasn’t the best idea?) The concert and resulting documentary marks an abrupt and explosive end to the ‘Summer of Love’ just four months after Woodstock. On a side note, Mick Jagger looks ridiculously hot on stage.