Get a front row ticket — to your couch.
Image: netflix / mashable composite
By Shannon Connellan2020-09-04 19:00:00 UTC
You might have playlists loaded up with your favourite artists on Spotify or Apple, but how much do you know about how the song was made, and why it was made? And what was happening in the world for the artist to need to create that particular track, or that concert that became a cultural moment?
Whether you’re joining recording sessions with Taylor Swift, Quincy Jones, Lady Gaga, or Travis Scott, or sitting in on rehearsals for Beyonce’s iconic Coachella performance, getting to know the process and context of an artist whose work has valiantly soundtracked your own life is an act that takes the music itself even further, giving you a greater appreciation for the tracks in your pocket. That’s where documentaries come in. At the very least, you’ll have something smug to tell your friends about next time you’re listening to a song.
Netflix has a bunch of strong music documentaries, with some particularly standout films ready to stream, from the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom to the much-talked-about Miss Americana. Each comes practically brimming with music, along with behind-the-scenes interviews and footage of some of the most prolific artists of our time.
Without leaving your house, here’s your ticket to the best documentary films about music that you can find on Netflix, in no particular order…
20 Feet From Stardom
Darlene Love. Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Claudia Lennear. Tàta Vega. You might not know these names, but they’ve made some of the biggest musicians of our time sound even better. Directed by Morgan Neville, Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom is an ode to background singers, finally handing the microphone over to these powerhouses and tracing their impact over the decades. “There’s a power to what it is that we do. No one till right now has publicly acknowledged it,” says Janice Pendarvis, who sang backup for David Bowie, Blondie, and Sting.
Ultimately, it’s an overwhelmingly fascinating two hours of incredible voices that finally get the recognition they deserve, including prodigious singer Darlene Love, who found her beginnings in The Blossoms, the first Black background singers working in the studios amongst a predominantly white industry, and one of the most prolific session groups of the ’60s — think Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song.” Some of the singers interviewed have on-screen listening sessions of the tracks they provided backup for — there’s a particularly strong moment watching Merry Clayton unpack being a Black singer recording backup for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” during the ‘70s (considering Alabama saw many key events in the American civil rights movement).
When you think of landmark concert films of the last ten years, Homecoming immediately springs to mind. Directed, written, and executive produced by Beyoncé, the electrifying two-hour film captures the creation and performance of the superstar’s unforgettable 2018 Coachella set, putting you both behind the scenes and centre stage of this historic cultural moment.
Set on a now-iconic bespoke pyramid stage, Beyoncé’s set pays tribute to the creative spirit of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and features special guest appearances by Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, and Solange. Bow down, indeed.
Gaga: Five Foot Two
Head into the studio with Lady Gaga amid the making of her fifth album, Joanne, in this characteristically raw, compelling documentary released in 2017 — before the “Shallow” madness, though there’s a lovely fleeting moment when she gets the part in A Star Is Born in there, too.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel, Gaga: Five Foot Two follows the superstar during the recording of her album with Mark Ronson (and for one excellent minute, “Hey Girl” collaborator Florence Welsh), and ahead of her Super Bowl halftime performance, all peppered with a stream of reflections on love, work, and self-confidence — all while living with chronic pain. But as Joanne is an album inspired by the death of her aunt Joanne, it also fittingly offers some moving glimpses into her family life.
Over 2,900 songs and over 300 albums recorded. 51 film and TV scores. Over 1,000 original compositions. 79 Grammy nominations and 27 wins. You get it, yet? Quincy Jones has been busy for the last 70 years. Created by his daughter Rashida Jones with Alan Hicks, Quincy examines the immense impact the record producer, arranger, and musician has had on music over the last seven decades. It’s mostly narrated by Quincy himself, with archival audio from famous friends like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, alongside a treasure trove of home footage and new material.
It’s fascinating to watch just how much of the history of modern music Jones has been a part of, and how many “firsts” he achieved as a Black musician and producer in America. Quincy moves through the decades of music alongside Jones’ own life story — he discovered music amongst a hard childhood on the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression in the ’30s, before diving into the be-bop scene in New York in the ‘50s. Then, he moved through pop, funk, jazz, and disco in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Los Angeles, and through the hip hip explosion in the ‘90s. Keep an eye out for the short but powerful heart-to-heart between Quincy and Kendrick Lamar.
From: The 10 best documentaries of 2020 so far (that you can watch right now)
Whether you’re a fan of Taylor Swift or just curious about her meteoric rise to fame, Miss Americana allows you a rare peek into the pop superstar’s life. Director Lana Wilson crafts an intimate portrait of Swift, through plenty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, taking you into the songwriting sessions of her album Lover, backstage on the spectacular Reputation tour, through her relatively short journey from teen country singer to global superstar, through the sexual assault lawsuit she won against radio host David Mueller, and the breaking of her political silence.
But more than anything, the film makes plain that our loud opinion is the last thing that matters to Swift. As Mashable’s Angie Han writes, “Maybe it’s not the movie everyone wanted. Maybe this latest reinvention of Taylor Swift, this time as a woman who’s comfortable enough in her power to wield it fully, isn’t for everyone, either. But maybe, also, that’s the idea: Swift, Miss Americana tells us, is done worrying about what everyone else thinks.”
When you’re done, watch the Reputation tour film on Netflix, knowing the story behind the scenes.
Whitney: Can I Be Me
“Whitney’s voice broke barriers,” says her bassist Pattie Howard at the top of this deeply moving documentary. “We did not have Beyoncés. Any African-American female artist that can now be at the top of the pop chart, that absolutely was not going to happen before Whitney Houston. It had not happened before Whitney Houston. She changed history for us and paid a price for it.”
Written, co-produced, and co-directed by Nick Broomfield, Whitney: Can I Be Me tracks the life, career, and tragic death of one of the greatest singers of all time, Whitney Houston. The documentary presents a melancholy portrait of a complex, sensitive, funny, endlessly talented singer, whose life and death have been hungrily studied by the public. Wielding an incredible trove of personal videos and public interviews, Broomfield lays out the pieces of the prodigious star’s tragically short life, from growing up in New Jersey to her meteoric rise to stardom, through the twisted relationship between fame and addiction for Houston, and how many of those around her neglected to step in and truly help.
Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly
If you truly miss the crushing, sweaty weight of an enormous concert crowd, turn the volume up on Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly. Directed by White Trash Tyler and Cactus Jack, the documentary follows the Grammy-nominated rapper around during his explosively high production Birds Eye View and Astroworld tours — think riding in on a giant mechanical eagle and an actual roller coaster.
You’ll follow Scott through photoshoots, interviews, and TV appearances, but mostly the documentary focuses on three things: performing his extravagantly energetic shows, recording (with the likes of James Blake and Kevin Parker), and the overwhelmingly strong relationship Scott maintains with his fans. Boasting some of the most stunning slow-motion concert cinematography in the game, helmed by director of photography Tyler Ross, this documentary will make you either mourn being in a crowd or thank the heavens you’re not in one.
What Happened Miss Simone?
What do you know about Nina Simone? You’re about to learn a lot in this exceptional documentary about the singer, classical pianist, and Black Power activist, whose life was no easy path.
Directed by Liz Garbus and tightly woven with Simone’s music, What Happened, Miss Simone? examines the star’s public career and private life, her childhood in segregated North Carolina, her survival of domestic abuse, her struggle with addiction, the experience of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, revelations of abuse against her daughter, and her role in the civil rights movement and its impact on her career. This Best Documentary nominee will leave you with a complex picture of Miss Simone, and a thorough understanding of the impact of a song like “Mississippi Goddamn” on the music industry, on society, and on the artist herself.
Chasing Trane traces the life of legendary jazz musician John Coltrane with his personal writings narrated by Denzel Washington. Directed by John Scheinfeld, the documentary drops you into the moment when Coltrane was fired by Miles Davis in 1957, battling heroin addiction, then jumps back in time to his childhood in North Carolina in the ’20s and traces his life back to this moment, living through the Jim Crow South, joining a navy be-bop band during World War II, and building up his career as a jazz saxophonist. Then, the film moves through Coltrane’s productive years after getting clean, and his tragically premature death at 40 from liver cancer in 1967.
Featuring interviews with musician friends and family members, along with stunning animations and artwork that bring archival photos and clippings to life, Chasing Trane is a compelling examination of the jazz icon, all while the music genuinely doesn’t stop for the film’s duration.
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