Until Live Music Returns, Learn About Music History With These 5 Streamable Documentaries

May 11, 2020

Until that day comes when we can all enjoy live music again, take this opportunity to stream some excellent music documentaries in the comfort of your own home!

Here are five that I highly recommend.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story

Available on Netflix      

It's not a stretch to call Martin Scorsese America's greatest living film director.  In the realm of music movies, he directed "The Last Waltz," which we'll get to next.  "Rolling Thunder Revue" is one of the music projects Scorsese has done in recent years where he creates a film combining an assemblage of rare archival footage and contemporary interviews. 

Bob Dylan had the idea to lead a gypsy caravan of musicians around the northeastern United States and Canada in the fall of 1975.  They would just appear in various towns and play.  It was a freeform circus that Dylan also extensively filmed.  Scorsese's movie is a delight, with Dylan at an absolute peak in the musical performances, and wonderful vignettes of Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsburg and many more.     

The Last Waltz

Available on YouTube and Amazon Prime

The Band, weary of the road, had decided to end their career as a group with a lavish farewell on Thanksgiving Day in 1976.  They invited a stellar assortment of their fellow artists to join them.  The concert was held at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, legendary concert promoter Bill Graham's venue.  Interestingly, Graham had the entire four hour concert filmed for his own use.  That raw, black and white footage emerged years later.

Martin Scorsese's film of the event featured meticulously planned camera work, brief interview segments and some songs performed at a later date on a movie studio soundstage.  All the performances are great (yes, even Neil Diamond), and this filmed gathering of rock luminaries of the 1960s/early '70s came to be seen as signifying the end of an era.  Punk and disco were coming up fast.  

The Future Is Unwritten: Joe Strummer

Available on YouTube and Hulu   

Joe Strummer's father was in the British foreign service, resulting in Strummer being born (as John Mellor) in Turkey, and travelling all over the world as a child.  A music fan from a young age, Strummer had been in a few bands prior to co-founding the punk rock band The Clash in 1976.  The Clash advanced musically with each new album, incorporating reggae, funk, rockabilly and other influences in their songs.  Julien Temple's film tells Strummer's story, including the post-Clash years and Strummer's untimely death.  The film itself has a punk energy, both visually and in its honest and socially conscious attitude- just like its subject.  

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime

Nina Simone is remembered today as an active voice for civil rights in the 1960s.  Documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus shows us how Simone got to that point and how her activism changed her life.  Musically gifted and poor, Simone (born Eunice Waymon) grew up in North Carolina with aspirations to be a concert pianist.  Later, she began playing in clubs and singing to earn a living. 

Simone had a successful career, but she felt drawn to the struggle against racial discrimination.  By the late '60s she had come to consider herself a performer of "civil rights music."  Simone's family and friends tell her compelling story, but the real reason to see this film is Simone herself.  She was a fearless, unique artist, and many fine performances from throughout her career are included in the film.  

The Devil And Daniel Johnston

Available on YouTube

Singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston wrote songs from his imagination, inspired by mental illness and his love of comic books.  He also wrote achingly honest, beautiful songs about his feelings.  In the 1980s, he played and sang those songs into a boombox cassette recorder, and he distributed copies of the cassettes to anyone who would take them.  Johnston was a lo-fi indie pioneer, eventually attracting enough attention to record in an actual studio.  But it was those cassettes that made his reputation.  Johnston died in September of 2019.  "The Devil And Daniel Johnston" was released in 2006.  It's a loving and honest look at this outsider artist.  

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