Top 10 music documentaries made in 21st century
Opinion: Following the recent premiere of the HBO documentary, "Love to Love You, Donna Summer," theGrio counts down the century's 10 best.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
On Saturday, HBO premiered “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” an excellent documentary about the late Queen of Disco. It’s another brilliant addition to the Black music documentary canon and has all the markings of a fabulous documentary: poignancy, honesty, revelation, enlightenment, elaboration and appreciation.
The 21st century has been a golden era for music documentaries. The previous century gave birth to classic films like “Wattstax” and “The Gospel According to Al Green.” However, the flood of documentaries over the past 23 years includes a stellar collection of filmmaking that explores an array of top-rate talent.
“Time is Illmatic” told the story of Nas’ seismic debut album, “Illmatic.” “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James” gave us the good, bad and ugly about the late King of Punk Funk. “Soul Power” unlocked the history of the star-studded 1974 music festival that accompanied the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
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With other insightful docs over the last year about acts like Louis Armstrong and Little Richard, it appears the rising quantity and quality of music documentaries may continue for the foreseeable future. Here are theGrio’s top 10 music documentaries so far of this young century.
10. “Homecoming” — 2019
“Homecoming” helped cement Beyonce’s reputation as her generation’s most outstanding live performer. The Netflix film immortalized Beyonce’s 2018 headlining of Coachella sets with the Grammy winner in the director’s chair. Incorporating Kemetic symbolism with the instrumental and stylistic aesthetics of HBCU marching bands, “Homecoming” celebrated multi-tier Blackness.
9. “Marley” — 2012
There are many documentary films about the late, great Bob Marley. However, “Marley” is arguably the definitive piece about the man and his music. A panoramic view of the reggae legend’s life — his mother, widow and children, girlfriends, infidelities, musical process, bandmates, interactions with local politicians, assassination attempt and more — the film is exhaustive in its comprehensiveness.
8. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — 2015
The best kind of documentaries are very revealing. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is no exception. This Netflix documentary revealed the internal thoughts and external exploits of the High Priestess of Soul. Not only do we see how her music evolved from pop and jazz standards to politically charged anthems, but we learn about the turmoil of her first marriage and her disillusion with the U.S.
7. “Quincy” — 2018
When “Quincy” premiered in 2018 on Netflix, Quincy Jones was 85 years old. After watching this documentary, you will marvel at how he managed to stay alive as long as he has. Sure, the film shows how Jones became the most revered music producer ever and shares his extensive Rolodex of collaborators, including Ray Charles, Count Basie and Michael Jackson. But the film also reveals the countless times he jeopardized his life to become a better musician, as well as the real-time effects that growing up motherless had on his life and relationships.
6. “Bad 25” — 2012
Because Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the cultural juggernaut that it was, many forget about the success of its follow-up, 1987’s “Bad.” But Spike Lee remembered. The famed filmmaker recontextualized Jackson and producer Quincy Jones’ daunting task of following the biggest-selling studio album of all time, crafting an LP that yielded a record five No. 1 singles, including “Man in the Mirror” and the title track. In “Bad 25,” Jackson’s collaborators, friends and celebrity fans speak in detail about the marketing, making of each song and the album’s accompanying groundbreaking music videos.
5. “Summer of Soul” — 2021
As many times as Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has appeared in music documentaries, it was only a matter of time before he directed one of his own. The Roots drummer-bandleader knocked it out of the park with his debut, winning an Oscar for his efforts. “Summer of Soul” tells the forgotten story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival during which Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, B.B. King, Nina Simone, Sly & The Family Stone and others gave stellar performances.
4. “Mr. SOUL!” — 2018
History has almost forgotten one of the most critical and influential Black TV shows ever. PBS’ “SOUL!” was one of the first Black talk shows, featuring then-budding future legends like Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, The Spinners and LaBelle, who delivered provocative performances. The show also featured insightful conversations with thought leaders like Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael. Director Melissa Haizlip expertly created “Mr. SOUL!” to shine a spotlight on the groundbreaking program and its creator and her uncle, Ellis Haizlip.
3. “Amazing Grace” — 2018
Aretha Franklin’s 1972 live double album, “Amazing Grace,” is the best-selling album of her career and ranks among the best-selling gospel albums ever. Filmmaker Sydney Pollack captured the recording of that masterpiece with the Southern California Community Choir in Los Angeles. His 2018 concert film of the same name proves that Franklin was the greatest singer ever. The LP still sounds superb, but it’s watching her perform “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “The Old Landmark” and “Wholy Holy” in “Amazing Grace” that’ll bring out the Holy Ghost in any viewer.
2. “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” — 2002
Motown Records’ tagline was “The Sound of Young America.” The men responsible for playing and establishing that sound were the label’s in-house studio band, The Funk Brothers. This bittersweet celebration remembers the Detroit instrumentalists who played on classics like “What’s Going On,” “My Girl” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The 2002 doc, “Standing in The Shadows of Motown,” is as informative and uplifting as it is heartbreaking. While many were interviewed for the film and played a concert with all-star singers, many of the main Funk Brothers didn’t live to see people cheer for them.
1. “Still Bill” — 2009
Sting said it best during an interview for this film: “The hardest part about being a songwriter is to be simple and profound.” There could be no better way to describe this film’s subject: singer-songwriter Bill Withers. “Still Bill,” named after his breakthrough sophomore album, finds Withers telling his own story in his candid, no-nonsense style. He talked about overcoming a stuttering problem as a child, his indifference to the music industry and fame, why he walked away from a lucrative career and what inspired him to create again in his 70s.
These 10 films have set a very high bar for those that follow during the rest of this century.
Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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