Pin It
Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer
Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer (2013)

8 essential music documentaries on iconoclastic heroes

As Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers comes out in cinemas, we explore the biographical documentaries that give light to the blurred lines between artistry and mystery, from Kathleen Hanna to Daniel Johnston

“Throughout all the years I’ve been making music, if you get on a tour bus with a bunch of musicians, eventually the conversation will go to Sparks,” Beck insists in The Sparks Brothers, a documentary about your favourite band’s favourite band. The Edgar Wright-directed film charts the career of Ron and Russell Mael, a pair of oddball brothers who have amassed 25 beloved albums of experimental ultrapop in just over 50 years. Despite that pedigree – and the cadre of adoring talking heads that pop up in the documentary, including members of the Sex Pistols, New Order, Franz Ferdinand, and Depeche Mode – Sparks have retained an artistic purity and sense of mystery with unparalleled moustache choices, refusing to take themselves too seriously, and working in heady complexities. 

That ability to break the creative mold, to earn the respect and adoration of artists and fans around the world, and yet to stand powerfully apart from the larger music industry machine is a rare combination, and one that deserves to be explored via a full-hearted, comprehensive documentary. And while the likes of Stop Making Sense and Shut Up and Play the Hits exemplify the concert film’s place in the spotlight, the best biographical documentaries honour the depth and mystery of an artist while simultaneously upholding both, toeing the line between tell-all exploration and mystification. To that end, Wright utilises the inventive storytelling that made films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Baby Driver shine, telling the Mael brothers’ story via puppets and stop motion animation in addition to interviews and vintage footage. Neither the band nor the film are interested in making the Maels idols, so every ounce of the much-deserved analysis is buoyed by an artistic tongue pressed firmly in the proverbial cheek.

In honour of The Sparks Brothers’ release, and of an art form that catalogs and glorifies the secrets and stories of musical heroes, we’ve put together a list of eight documentaries that tell the tales of essential voices with complex stories that deserve passionate scrutiny.

THELONIOUS MONK, THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT, NO CHASER (1988)

As a genre, jazz is brimming with unique individuals who never received the full weight of the acclaim they deserved, nor the complex character studies. It’s a blessing then that Christian Blackwood had captured hours of intimate footage of the legendary pianist Thelonious Monk before his passing, and that Charlotte Zwerin tracked down his friends, family, and collaborators to add context around the edges. The resulting film captures the living, breathing artistic genius, but also the tragic, waning humanity of one of the genre’s all-timers. The documentarians deftly walk the line of exploring Monk’s mental health without feeling exploitative or diagnosing him, while simultaneously honoring the man’s titanic art. More than a compelling story of an individual musician, the dichotomy of strength and clarity while performing, and haze in personal affairs offers a fascinating portrait of artistic life.

DANIEL JOHNSTON, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For a large swath of the general public, the only aspect of Daniel Johnston’s life they recognize would be the t-shirt Kurt Cobain wore featuring the folk singer’s art. “HI, HOW ARE YOU,” the wide-eyed alien wonders, an emblematic image of a true outsider who wanted so badly to connect. A stunning picture of mental health as much as music, Jeff Feuerzeig’s film approaches the iconic outsider artist with the same tenderness of the heart-wrenching bedroom pop songwriting and charming DIY cassettes that made Johnston a hero to so many. By balancing archival recordings explaining his “nervous breakdown”, his musical aspiration, and his time in a mental institution with footage of the artist in his later days, The Devil and Daniel Johnston contextualises an underground legend who impacted the work of artists from Nirvana to The Mountain Goats.

KATHLEEN HANNA, THE PUNK SINGER: A FILM ABOUT KATHLEEN HANNA (2013)

Those lucky enough to have seen Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, or The Julie Ruin live know the righteous power that is Kathleen Hanna. Very few performers have the ability to inspire the way Hanna does through her powerfully feminist art, but then she has always magnified that strength through perhaps even more outspoken activism. Through The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson brings that dynamism into the light for all to see plainly – less hero worship than unflinching look at a complex human. That the film can give time to both Bikini Kill inspiring countless bands around the world and the concern some fans had around Hanna marrying the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz is a testament to Hanna herself, and her refusal to be essentialised. Add in time spent on Hanna’s battles with Lyme disease, and The Punk Singer writhes with complexity and fire, demanding active attention and respect. 

SIXTO RODRIGUEZ, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012)

There’s no telling when an artist will change your life. Sometimes it’s the big pop star known the world around whose song just happens to strike that chord. But then sometimes it’s a little-known folk singer, someone who feels as if they’re singing directly into your soul, someone with whom you have a special relationship even though they might be a world away. Such was the case with Sixto Rodriguez, a musician whose work flopped commercially in the United States, but who somehow became a legend in South Africa without even knowing it. Rodriguez’s songs became anti-Apartheid anthems and his work was sold in numbers that matched The Beatles in Cape Town. Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the quest to track down the Michigan musician, who some had even theorised had long ago committed suicide. Along the way, director Malik Bendjelloul extricates Rodriguez’s story from the myth made by those that love him and the blank space left by those that ignored him, a fascinating bit of investigative biography that honours – or even establishes – his legacy.

NINA SIMONE, WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (2015)

Though many have sung the songs of Nina Simone, none have matched that voice, that strength, that insistence on existing in the face of a world that often seemed disinterested. Through the eyes of director Liz Garbus and Nina’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, What Happened, Miss Simone? details the power that the vocalist was capable of, as well as the pain that was caused by refusing to tone down her revolutionary activism. What Happened utilises long stretches of archival performance and footage of Simone herself, but the ability to focus so closely on the way in which political rebellion, abuse, and oppression impact a culture, a community, and a family is the film’s true strength. 

CHET BAKER, LET’S GET LOST (1988)

It’s easy to get lost in songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Almost Blue”, especially in the hands of an artist like Chet Baker and paired with the evocative black and white film of fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Let’s Get Lost sinks the viewer deep into the life of the jazz musician, tracking his rise as a legendary trumpeter and vocalist alongside his fall due to heroin addiction. Weber’s documentary lingers on images of Baker as an older man, honoring his continued ability to convey these grand emotions while showcasing the stark reality of how obsession and addiction can unravel even the greatest talents.

ANVIL, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2009)

Lemmy, Lars, Slash. Hard rock and metal operate to a remarkable degree on iconic heroes that need only a single name to evoke a much bigger picture. Prior to 2009, the word Anvil only did that for a select few – but tellingly, among that number were those aforementioned legends themselves. The Story of Anvil explores the strange legacy the Canadian metal act had amassed, as well as the band’s attempt to regain their 80s flash of relevance through under-attended concerts, poorly organised travel arrangements, mismanagement, and lack of funds. Director Sacha Gervasi plays all of that chaos with warmth and heart – but then again a character like Steve “Lips” Kudlow doesn’t need much help to come across as a lovable metalhead teddy bear. While so many music documentaries portray their subjects as unassailable legends, Anvil! instead focuses on exactly how human and fallible it is to live life for art, and how beautiful that failure can be. 

LINDA RONSTADT, LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE (2019)

When a popular artist strikes out from their main genre to experiment on an album, some section of the music world inevitably rises up in shock. And yet Linda Ronstadt leapt from rock to country to new wave to mariachi to opera, refusing to be contained. The 2019 documentary The Sound of My Voice somehow manages to capture that extensive scope, her indefatigable spirit on full display. That then makes her early retirement in the 2000s due to a debilitating health condition that much more heartbreaking. The film assembles interviews with friends and collaborators like Jackson Browne, Dolly Parton, and Bonnie Raitt, but Ronstadt herself explaining how important singing and expression have been to her life somehow both reminds of how tragic aging and disease can be, as well as art’s ability to reach heights that remain untouched by the passage of time.

The Sparks Brothers is out in the US now, and will hit UK cinemas on July 30