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An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at homeCourtesy of Universal UK

The best music documentaries of the year

From the crushing heartbreak of Amy to the hardcore arrival of The Slits, here are the essential docs that 2015 gave us

2015 has been chock-full of stirring music documentaries. They zoomed in on everything from sweaty hardcore bands that preached straight-edge lifestyles to iconic chanteuses who triggered an avalanche of think pieces. They made us nostalgic for the glory days of grunge, hip hop before it got lost in lavish production and questionable ethics, and some even opened our eyes to lost musical landscapes that have been woefully ignored in the history books. Here are the ones that deserve to be showered with accolades.


Salad Days throws a spotlight on the Washington, DC, hardcore scene of the 1980s. Featuring all your favourite hardcore bands – The Teen Idles, S.O.A., Bad Brains, Minor Threat, etc. – it’s sprinkled with fascinating anecdotes, like how Henry Rollins went to private school and worked in a Häagen-Dazs store, or how Ian MacKaye, at 52, still gets prank calls about being straight-edge. Ultimately the film deals with the many misconceptions surrounding the scene and the often-derided straight-edge movement it birthed. Basically the straight-edge dudes weren’t as humourless as you thought.


Two goofball radio DJs from New York City had a big hand in how hip hop blew up in the 1990s. In Radio That Changed Lives, we learn how Stretch and Bobbito kick-started the careers of Nas, Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Big L and others, simply by spinning their records and encouraging artists to freestyle live on air. The studio was essentially a conveyor belt of future rap stars, but whereas these artists went on to make big bucks, the DJs lost money on the show. There’s no bitterness, though, as they dust off old tapes of shows and revisit highlights with the rap titans they supported. When the credits roll, you’re left frantically scribbling down track titles to later Google, and at the same time asking yourself how so much great music got buried under so much sludge.


2015 saw two Kurt Cobain documentaries – the other being the more sordid Soaked In Bleach, about the singer’s last days – but only in Montage of Heck will you find a vividly drawn portrait of the Nirvana frontman. Utilizing a treasure trove of previously unseen archive footage, including shocking scenes of a doped up Cobain holding his newborn daughter, the film is as intimate as it is revealing. It’s an epic access-all-areas doc that – unique for a film on the subject – also boasts interview time with Courtney Love, albeit conducted under typically manipulative circumstances. It’s her way or not at all, Mr Filmmaker.


Watching Amy, the acclaimed documentary about Amy Winehouse’s life in the spotlight, it’s easy to get swept up in the perniciousness of the press who swarmed around her wherever she went, always flashing bulbs in her face. And they did harass her. But more importantly, this film introduces us to the Amy we never knew: the Amy that her closest friends remember, and the Amy that her closest friends regret she became. As with the intimate scenes of Kurt and Courtney filming themselves in hotel rooms in Montage of Heck, we peer behind closed doors to find Amy loved up, drugged up, at her worst and at her best. Documentaries don’t get much more intimate, or heartbreaking, than this.


The Slits were the world’s first all-girl punk band. While their arrival on the scene was greeted with rousing fanfare by some it did cause controversy and confusion among others. As guitarist Viv Albertine explains in this new documentary: “They didn’t know whether to fuck us or kill us, basically.” Ultimately The Slits lived how they wanted to live and left a trail of exciting new female punk bands in their wake. Here to be Heard is the as-yet-untold story of the queens of punk.


Fresh Dressed isn’t strictly speaking a hip hop documentary; it’s about the rich fashion culture that envelops the history of the genre – think Kangol hats, baggy trousers, and box-fresh adidas. In the film we hear from Nas, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and others about the importance of staying fresh and what it means to be fresh dressed. As Kanye claims: “Being fresh is more important than having money.” Although for others – namely the designers who were slapped with copyright infringement suits by the big labels – this maxim led to grave financial repercussions. Fresh Dressed is a reminder of how culturally progressive rap music was back in the day, when the idea of backwards baseball caps and flamboyant chains seemed revolutionary.


Scottish post-punk isn’t exactly a genre of music that crops up in those countless Channel 4 documentaries on punk and subcultures. In fact the labels associated with the genre – chiefly Fast Product and Postcard Records – have been unfairly ignored in the annals of punk. Step forward: Big Gold Dream. Tracing the scene’s evolution form 1977 to 1985, and including bands such as Orange Juice and Josef K, the film highlights the importance of the scene’s DIY labels, suggesting, in the case of Fast Product, that it was a precursor to legendary indie labels like Factory and Creation.


Nina Simone ruffled a lot of feathers during the Civil Rights Movement, when she ‘went political’. That’s when the famed High Priestess of Soul began to use her showbiz platform for her activism, which obviously radio stations didn’t want to hear – they sent back broken copies of her scalding “Mississippi Goddamn”. Throughout Liz Garbus’s documentary, which includes intimate audio recordings of Simone and candid diary entries telling of brutal beatings from her husband, it’s the singer’s fierce commitment to her beliefs that astonishes. This is a thought-provoking portrait of a powerful, intense, sincere, and incredibly lonely woman.


Sarah Records might not carry the same clout as Banksy or Massive Attack as far as being a Bristol treasure, but the little-known indie pop label was recently described by NME as the second greatest indie label of all time, so mentioning it in the same breath as the city’s trip-hop scene should be more common. Which is where this documentary comes in. Charting the history of the label through its releases, which run from 1987 to 1995, the bands – The Field Mice, The Sea Urchins, Heavenly, Secret Shine and others – tell their story along with the head honchos who ran it on a shoestring. It’s an intimate tale of a homegrown scene that will light a fire under anyone with dreams of doing it themselves.


In 1999, Tower Records had sales of over one billion dollars. Five years later they filed for bankruptcy. So says the opening titles of All Things Must Pass, a film that details the store’s history from its humble beginnings as a drugstore that sold used records to a billion dollar franchise. Ultimately we learn that Tower Records, like the fictional Empire Records (written by a former employee of Tower) was a fun place to hang out; a place where you could surround yourself with music and music lovers; a place where you could spot rock stars and future rock stars. Even Dave Grohl had a job there. We hear from both musicians and former employees about the drink, the drugs, the parties, the arrival of the CD, and of course, the arrival of Napster, which signaled the downfall of the store (because no business can compete with free). And did I mention that the doc was made by Colin Hanks, of Orange County fame? Papa Hanks must be proud.