Music documentaries you should stream

Social distance in style with these insightful music films


Phil Akre

Here are 10 music documentaries to check out while staying at home during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Phil Akre, Staff Writer

Say it once more with me, there’s always something to stream. The time to watch is now, considering the majority of Americans are home on stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak. To help curb the endless wandering through streaming apps, here’s a list of 10 music documentaries available on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. The selections range from highlighting specific artists and musical styles to seminal moments in popular music history. 

“Bob Marley: LEGACY” (YouTube)

To celebrate Bob Marley’s 75th birthday anniversary, his estate is producing a docu-series published monthly on YouTube. The series features live covers of Marley songs by today’s artists, interviews with Marley’s family and friends and pristine archival footage. The episodes are just 20 minutes, making for a quick, informative watch. For more on Marley, check out “Who Shot the Sheriff,” for an in-depth look at the 1976 assasination attempt on his life. 

“Clive Davis – The Soundtrack of Our Lives” (Netflix)

The brains behind the music business are just as important as the legendary artists we revere today. Clive Davis is a giant in this sense — the record executive that helped pave the way for a number of legends. Now 88 years old, Davis first entered the industry in 1965, going on to sign artists like Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd. This insightful documentary highlights the turbulent life of a record producer through multiple eras of popular music. 

“Festival Express” (for rent, $3.99 – Amazon Prime Video)

It’s the summer of 1970, and the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy and others are traveling through Canada by train, jamming and partying. This really happened, and thankfully was captured on film. Originally dubbed the “Transcontinental Pop Festival,” the tour made stops in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary over a two week span. The documentary features interviews with tour musicians, archival jam session footage and concert clips. 

“Jazz” – Ken Burns (Amazon Prime Video)

Amazon Prime Video has really improved its offerings over the last two years. Among its documentary options is “Jazz.” Acclaimed filmmaker, Ken Burns, helms the 10-episode series, chronicling the origins of the musical style, its key moments and pivotal changes. If you have access to Prime Video, make sure you add this to the watchlist. Burns and (any topic here) + free = must-watch. 

“Long Strange Trip” (Amazon Prime Video)

Looking to explore a band you don’t know much about? Try “Long Strange Trip,” a well-rounded and immersive docu-series that highlights the Grateful Dead, its legacy and followers. Jam-packed with band interviews, the six-episode documentary covers the group’s San Francisco origins and 35-year touring career. It was well-received by critics and fans alike, though it doesn’t discuss later Grateful Dead incarnations (e.g. Dead & Company). 

“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” (Netflix)

One of the best music documentaries available on Netflix, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” is a fascinating look at one of history’s greatest artists. Like so many before and after him, Davis was undoubtedly a troubled figure. His struggles, however, never defined his musical output. This documentary provides an honest reflection of Davis’ life, one defined by constant innovation and notable obstacles. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue” (Netflix)

By 1975, Bob Dylan was already a longtime king among folk/electric rock fans and artists. He released “Blood on the Tracks” in January 1975, and embarked on the now-famous Rolling Thunder Revue tour. This Martin Scorsese-directed film highlights the tour, interviews participants (Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and more) and offers surprising access to the ever-mysterious Dylan. 

“The Last Waltz” (Amazon Prime Video)

On Thanksgiving Day 1976, the folk-rock, boogie-Americana group The Band played at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It was a carefully-planned operation, with Martin Scorcese handling direction duties, supported by a team of what were then Hollywood’s best cinematographers. “The Last Waltz” captures the magic of that night, where musical guests appeared on an endless loop. Genres collided, and artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters appeared. To get a diverse mix of mid-1970s rock, watch this piece of music history. 

“Tricky Dick and the Man in Black” (Netflix)

This isn’t a straightforward look at the life of Johnny Cash —this is an exploration of his values, decisions and legacy. The documentary highlights his highly-publicized relationship with President Richard Nixon. Part of Netflix’s ReMastered series, the film provides viewers with access to a different side of Cash’s often-misunderstood persona. Music aside, it’s a complex analysis of popular culture and celebrity politics.