The 10 Pop-Music Documentaries I Most Wish Someone Would Make


Music movies are having a moment — if, indeed, they ever stopped having one. Take the pop-music biopic. There are times, like right now, when it surges in popularity, yet the form has never gone out of style. And music documentaries, a staple of the indie-film world, have only proliferated in the streaming era. This means they have to compete for visibility, but a ton of them are getting made and (mostly) getting seen. They’ve become a happy epidemic.  

A few, like “Amy” or “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?,” are popular and vital enough to have carved out a place in the culture — and, in the case of both those films, to have inspired the creation of a biopic (the upcoming Amy Winehouse drama “Back to Black,” and the Bee Gees film that Ridley Scott is now set to direct). I have it on good authority that when you’re trying to put together a music documentary, the prospect of it spawning a biopic can be a key selling point.

Yet the fact that so many music docs are niche films is, in truth, all to the good. For really, how could it be otherwise? Rare subjects like the Beatles are universal (or close enough to it), but not everyone wants to seek out a documentary about Sparks (“The Sparks Brothers”) or ZZ Top (“ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas”) or the Go-Go’s (“The Go-Go’s”) or Blood, Sweat & Tears (“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?”) or Gordon Lightfoot (“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read Me Mind”) or Sinéad O’Connor (“Nothing Compares”) or David Bowie (“Moonage Daydream”) or Tiny Tim (“Tiny Tim: King for a Day”) or the Grateful Dead (“Long Strange Trip”) or Nina Simone (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) or the Velvet Underground (“The Velvet Underground”) or Mad Dogs & Englishmen (“Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen”) or Frank Zappa (“Zappa”) or Milli Vanilli (“Milli Vanilli”). Yet each and every one of those films found an ardent audience.

And the hits keep coming, the latest one being the Devo documentary that played a couple of months ago at Sundance (and will likely be released this year). If you’re a music fan, a documentary about a favorite artist can feel, when it arrives, like something weirdly inevitable. You can no longer imagine the world without it. Yet these movies can be tricky to get off the ground. The issue of music rights looms large, meaning that the artists, if they’re still alive, have to cooperate, and that estates need to be placated.

It’s astonishing to consider all the major and, in many cases, larger-than-life musical artists who have never had a documentary made about them. The same is true regarding music biopics — and this year, building on the success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” and “Bob Marley: One Love,” you can feel the obsession with that form hitting a new peak, as we ready ourselves for the first dramatic treatment of the life of Bob Dylan (“A Complete Unknown,” starring Timothée Chalamet) and the four Beatles biopics that Sam Mendes announced he was making. Dylan and the Fab Four: It doesn’t get any grander than that. (Let’s hope the movies live up to their subjects.) And I have as much fun as anyone imagining the pop-music biopics I’d love to see, or getting into the parlor game of casting them.  

Right now, though, I’m excited enough by the music documentaries I’ve seen in just the last year — films like “Little Richard: I Am Everything” and the recently released “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” — to be fixated on that form. The range of possibilities for music docs that have yet to be made is staggering. I also have a personal angle on the subject, which is that I don’t happen to have very hip music tastes. As a rule (though not always), I lean into the ecstasy of pop, and this means that there are artists I’d love to see a film about who don’t clear the bar of cool. I’ve included them in the roster below. So mock me all you want, but cool or uncool, here’s my list of the 10 pop-music documentaries I’d most love to see. For guidance, I have given them titles.

“Midnight Cruisers: The Story of Steely Dan.” The first thing that’s always said about Steely Dan has to do with the coded subversive quality of their lyrics. The first thing that should be said about them is that their music, song after song, album after album, is rarely less than incandescent. Walter Becker is no longer with us, but Donald Fagen would be tour guide enough through a portrait of how Steely Dan crafted their extraordinary albums, and how much they did (or didn’t) live the stories those songs tell.

“Patti Smith.” She’s the high priestess of punk, with one of the most stirring voices — a wail of rapture — in his history of rock. Yet for all the rediscovery of female artists that’s been going on, there’s a generation that still needs to see and hear and experience the ragged g-l-o-r-i-a glory of her saga.

“Can’t Get It Out of My Head: ELO and the String Effect.” As a singer, Jeff Lynne was obsessed with sounding like John Lennon. As the composer-arranger-producer-mastermind of the Electric Light Orchestra, with songs like “Evil Woman” and “Nightrider” and “Livin’ Thing,” he built sonic castles in the air — and the fact that you could hear the layering was part of the magic. ELO deserves a movie that documents the group’s pop-symphonic stairway to heaven.

“Chic and the Disco Revolution.” They changed music and changed the world, elevating the pulse of disco into a percolating life-force art form. (People act as if disco was simply a phenomenon of its time. Excuse me? Listen to “Dance the Night” or The Weeknd’s “Blinding Light” or just about anything by Lady Gaga.) And they created an image of upscale Black elegance that was more than aspiration — it was a dream made real. Yet though Nile Rodgers went on to become one of the most celebrated producers of his time, what he and his partner, the late Bernard Edwards, created in Chic is a chapter of music history whose monumental arc has yet to be definitively told.

“This Guy’s in Love with You: The Burt Bacharach Story.” He was the greatest romantic songwriter of his time. And I’d love to see a movie that explored how he wrote those songs, one that captured his star persona and talked about what the kind of romanticism he incarnated really meant and why it went out of style.

“Otis Redding: Try a Little Tenderness.” He was just 26 when he died. Yet the reason he was the greatest male soul singer of the ’60s is the depth of experience in his voice — he seemed at once young and old, full of lowdown joy yet in dialogue with a pain he transcended in every line. Out of the studio, he lived large, like the legend he already was. But due to his tragic death in a plane crash in 1967, Otis Redding remains, to this day, far too great a mystery.  

“Once I Had a Love: The Story of Blondie.” I think “Parallel Lines” is the second greatest album of the ’70s. (Look below, and be very afraid, for my #1 choice.) Yes, Blondie was the crossover new wave band, and the reason that happened is that their songs were transcendent. Deborah Harry’s singing was direct, ecstatic, and operatic; she could scold and she could soar. And in their fights and evolutions, the band was a tale unto itself.    

“Duran Duran on Film.” They may have been the quintessential band of the ’80s, which is why you might have mixed feelings about their shrewdly packaged and propulsive sound. Yet the devotion they inspired, and still do, makes them a worthy subject for a movie that looks back at an age when Simon Le Bon, radiating the preppie charisma of a villain in a John Hughes movie, could become a teen-pop avatar.

“Still Dr. Dre.” The crossover of hip-hop into the most influential mainstream music form of its time is a saga of staggering fascination and power. And Dre, more than perhaps any other single figure, was the genius behind that transformation. He was an incomparable force in shaping the sound of rap, enlarging the complexity of it, and honing (and marketing) its ethos of danger. He deserves a movie that takes us behind all those scenes, including the scandalous ones.   

“Hope You Find Your Paradise: Supertramp in America.” With apologies to the gods of respectability, I think that Supertramp’s 1979 album “Breakfast in America” is the single greatest record of the ’70s. I also think it’s the greatest Beatles album the Beatles never made. I like Supertramp’s early stuff too (and their 1982 song “It’s Raining Again”), but I’d like to see an entire documentary about the band centered on the making of “Breakfast in America” — the lushness, the pop sublimity — and the timeless fan phenomenon it became.



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