14 pop documentaries you need to see
By Steve O'Brien | November 11, 2021
14 of the best pop documentaries out there, from The Stone Roses to Sparks to Madonna…
14. The Stone Roses – Made Of Stone
The Stone Roses’ 2011 reunion was one of the more surprising pop comebacks. Almost immediately, the reunited band called on This Is England director (and Roses superfan) Shane Meadows to follow them as they began gearing up for a world tour. Meadow’s love of the band shines through every shot of this starry-eyed documentary, and indeed he gives as much of a voice to the fans as he does to the band. Stunningly shot concert footage sits next to intimate fly-on-the-wall clips of the band who seem, at that time anyway, to be in seventh heaven hanging out with each other for the first time in nearly 20 years.
13. Depeche Mode 101
Co-directed by husband-and-wife filmmaking team DA Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) this revealing documentary follows a bunch of competition winners as they travel across America to attend Depeche Mode’s landmark Rose Bowl concert. As much about the band’s fervent fanbase as about Depeche Mode themselves, it captures the band at the very height of their powers.
12 Joy Division
Grant Gee’s definitive documentary on Joy Division really should be watched alongside Anton Corbijn’s superlative Ian Curtis drama, Control. Like that 2007 film, it captures the chilly, oppressive milieu of 1970s Manchester, as well as boasting interviews with Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and key players Tony Wilson, Annik Honoré and Peter Saville.
11 Beastie Boys Story
When Beastie Boy Adam (‘MCA’) Yauch died of cancer in 2012, it put a final full stop on a band that had been in existence, in one form or another, since 1981. Thirty-nine years on from their formation, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze filmed the band’s surviving members, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz, onstage at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, for a frequently funny and, at its end, desperate sad history of one of the most innovative and maverick hip-hop bands of all time.
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10 Moby Doc
You may ask the question, given the number of autobiographies the man born Richard Melville Hall has penned, do we really need a documentary too? Well, Moby Doc turned out to be as idiosyncratic as his music, a surreal and boldly unconventional portrait of one of music’s most unique voices.
9 Bitchin’: The Sound And Fury Of Rick James
Rick James is one of pop’s more problematic figures. Underage sex, kidnapping, rape, torture and drug running all feature in Sacha Jenkins’ dark, disturbing account of one of funk’s biggest names. Featuring interviews with his daughter, Ty James, his second wife, Tanya, his manager, as well as members of his group, the Stone City Band, this documentary offers up a fascinating and unsettling portrait of a profoundly troubled soul.
8 No Distance Left To Run
Blur had been dormant for much of the 00s, when, in 2008, they announced that they were to reform (with Graham Coxon, who’d walked during the making of 2001’s Think Tank) for a series of shows. This documentary was made in the wake of that reunion, but it also offers up a comprehensive history of the band. Although made with their co-operation, it’s no hagiography, and indeed some of the clips, particularly of a drunken Dave Rowntree berating a hapless interviewer, makes for uncomfortable viewing. (Rowntree has since apologised)
7 The Sparks Brothers
“Your favourite band’s favourite band,” screamed the poster for The Sparks Brothers, director Edgar (Hot Fuzz) Wright’s starry-eyed love letter to one of the most unique pop duos of the past half century. That brothers Russell and Ron Mael are such witty and clever interviewees clearly helps, but the Shaun of the Dead filmmaker also points his camera at some of the pair’s famous fans, including Vince Clarke, Mike Myers, Beck, Nick Rhodes and Jason Schwartzman. As comprehensive as Wright’s movie is (it clocks in at 140 minutes), it still manages to preserve the mystery of this most enigmatic of pop bands.
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6 The Go-Go’s
The Go-Go’s story really is one of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, so much so that, if you didn’t know the band, you might think it was written as a parody. From their formation in LA in 1978 to their ugly break-up in 1985 through to their happy reunion in the 00s, it’s a tale of youthful exuberance and ego. All members are interviewed and it’s clear that some memories, particularly of their split, are still raw.
5 The Filth & The Fury
Julien Temple had previous with the Sex Pistols, having directed the somewhat bitter and Malcolm McLaren-centred Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle film in 1980. The Filth & The Fury is a more honest, less spin-laden account of the Pistols’ rise, featuring contributions from all four surviving members (all filmed in silhouette). John Lydon breaking down as he remembers the death of his friend Sid Vicious is one of the film’s most memorable moments.
“I don’t understand why she ended the way she ended. I want you to make a documentary to help me find out.” That was the request from Whitney Houston’s longstanding agent, Nicole David, to the film director Kevin Macdonald. Whitney then doesn’t skim over the singer’s tragic decline, but rather seeks to understand why it happened. Being granted seemingly full access to family members and friends, Macdonald’s film could have easily become sensationalistic and ghoulish, yet it always remains tasteful. As Variety wrote, “The film captures the quality that made Whitney Houston magical, but more than that it puts together the warring sides of her soul.”
3 Cracked Actor
In these days of uber-varnished film portraits of premier league pop stars, Alan Yentob’s 1975 doc about David Bowie seems even more shocking. Filmed while the singer was struggling with cocaine addiction, it’s a sometimes hard watch, but at the same time, it captures some of the most cherishable footage of him performing, mostly from his ambitious Diamond Dogs tour. “I’d caught him at what was an intensely creative time, but it was also physically and emotionally gruelling,” Yentob said in 2013. “Our encounters tended to take place in hotel rooms in the early hours of the morning or in snatched conversations in the back of limousines. He was fragile and exhausted but also prepared to open up and talk in a way he had never really done before.”
2 In Bed With Madonna
Few artists have ever been as savvy in the art of selling themselves as Madonna. Exhibit A is Truth Or Dare, a controversy-courting documentary that followed the Material Girl around during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour. Filmed mostly in black and white, it was a total myth-building enterprise from the then-33-year-old pop diva, selling a version of herself to the world that was cheeky, transgressive, contemptible of mediocrity (we all remember the finger-down-the-throat moment after Kevin Costner tells her her show was “neat”) and, above all else, overtly sexual (demonstrating her fellatio technique with a glass bottle).
Asif Kapadia’s 2017 portrait of Amy Winehouse is one of the towering achievements of the music documentary genre. Shot through with empathy towards its subject, it’s made up from hours of personal video footage of Winehouse, most of it unseen during her lifetime, giving this film a uniquely intimate perspective. Amy was critically acclaimed on its release and currently boasts a 95% rating on reviews aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Its Best Documentary BAFTA and Oscars wins were the icing on the cake.
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Steve O'BrienSteve O’Brien is a writer who specialises in music, film and TV. He has written for magazines and websites such as SFX, The Guardian, Radio Times, Esquire, The New Statesman, Digital Spy, Empire, Yours Retro, The New Statesman and MusicRadar. He’s written books about Doctor Who and Buffy The Vampire Slayer and has even featured on a BBC4 documentary about Bergerac. Apart from his work on Classic Pop, he also edits CP’s sister magazine, Vintage Rock Presents.