There’s a certain kind of frisson to be had with the experience of a well-made music documentary. Through the years, documentarists have found new ways and tools to improve on the genre that was pioneered by VH1’s Behind the Music and other MTV (you know, your tito’s music channel?) shows. Here’s a few of the most recent docus that have caught our eyes and ears.
Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of (2015)
“What do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band?” is just one among the many pressing questions that this documentary answers about one of the biggest pop groups to ever grace the late '90s.
While it’s nominally about how these five guys went through the making of their 2013 20th anniversary album In A World Like This, it’s also a career retrospective that reveals the deep resentment of Nick Carter over being bullied by the older members, how Brian Littrell struggled with vocal cord dysphonia, and other very juicy, very dramatic and surprisingly poignant narratives about being a faded celebrity and coming to grips with the demons that a career in a boyband afflicts you with.
If you’re at all nostalgic about that era, it’ll also get you bumping: Everyboooody, yeaaah.
This was supposed to be a documentary about making the newest 30 Seconds to Mars album but, in the middle of filming it, the band got sued by their label, EMI. The lawsuit was to the ironic number of $30M. Changing gears, frontman Jared Leto made the documentary partly about their struggles with their label and tacked on a bigger meta-narrative to it: he got his friends together (including the late Chester Bennington) and made Artifact into a surprisingly insightful and educational crash course on the perils of the music industry.
Through Leto and the band’s seething rage, the documentary lays out the complicated state of the modern recording industry. One of the main questions being: is it even possible for a young artist to get a fair shake in the current industry landscape or is the system designed to mire you in debt from the start?
Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids (2016)
This is more of a “how does one put together a top-shelf concert?” kind of documentary, as award-winning director Jonathan Demme makes a surprisingly coherent ensemble portrait of the players and crew involved in the final few nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience tour in Las Vegas.
There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes bits that are interesting but the most fascinating and propulsive thing about this film is Timberlake himself, whose charisma, energy, and sheer enjoyment in his craft carry the documentary on his grooving shoulders—even if you only have a passing liking of his music. Who are the Tennessee Kids? Watch the docu and find out.
Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck (2015)
Think you’re a Nirvana fan? The personal journals, drawings, audio recordings (even demos), and home movies of Cobain that were made available to director Brett Morgen may make you rethink your grunge geekdom. At times rambling and at times emotive, but always sure of its dramatic footing, the docu will give you a better sense and grasp of Cobain’s character and his transformation from young punk to the penner of songs like “Rape Me,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and our personal fave “Heart-Shaped Box.”
Sound City (2013)
Dave Grohl’s first foray into filmmaking is a phenomenal dive into what made a rundown recording studio in a shady L.A. neighborhood be the place to record iconic albums by Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, The Pixies, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and Johnny Cash. And, of course, Nirvana.
Grohl deftly chronicles the story of the studio and its technicians, weaving the threads of the artists and their albums into the mix. When the studio closed, Grohl provided a great epilogue by buying the original mixing board and inviting the Sound City alumni of artists to make a new album the old fashioned way with the Foo Fighters. So, yeah, you also got to check out the album they made.
The Defiant Ones (2018)
At the top of the music docu food chain right now is this four-part miniseries running for four hours about the rise of Interscope Records through the eyes of its main honchos: music producers Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
“Dr. Dre is the innovator and Jimmy is the levitator,” declares Eminem, one of the many faces of musical royalty tapped for soundbytes and tangential stories in the main narrative current that begins with Dr. Dre and Iovine selling the Beats headphones technology to Apple Music, a potential US$3 billion deal that just might be nixed by rockstar posturings and libations done too early.
Director Allen Hughes isn’t afraid to put his subjects in a grand historical context and moves with them at the same tranquil pace, tracing Jimmy Iovine’s childhood growing up in New York in the '70s as he charmed, cajoled, and grinded his way into the music business and eventually scored big by producing albums by Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Nicks. While on the West Coast Dr. Dre is in Compton, L.A., in the '80s, trying to score his first mixer, DJing and performing with World Class Wreckin’ Cru and then forming NWA, trying to find a viable exit from the gangs, the drugs, and the violence through music.
Highly enjoyable and at times rambling by necessity, the care, and diligence with which all this epic history as embodied in the tales of Dre and Iovine are apparent from the get-go and is simply beautiful filmmaking. It carries the same kind of visionary texture as long-form nonfiction complete with visual metaphors, juxtapositions, and even easy filmic analogies (like the part where Dre talks about using a crossfader to transfer turntables, and then the sound on the docu also delightfully pans across the TV speakers in matching expression).
It also pulls off the neat trick of being an intimate docu while having luminaries like Snoop Dogg, Nas, Bono, Gwen Stefani, Will.I.Am, Puff Daddy, and Lady Gaga onscreen. You may want to binge this one straight, no chaser, or with gin and juice.
The Defiant Ones is now streaming on Netflix