There have been entire articles written about how music documentaries are finally getting good in 2021. That’s a shaky premise at best, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that this has been a banner year for feature-length films, TV series, and DIY docs focusing on a vast range of musical subjects. Of course, lists like the one below are inherently incomplete and entirely subjective—it could have included this year’s high-profile productions on Tina Turner, the Notorious B.I.G., Britney Spears’ recently terminated conservatorship, or George Martin’s studio on a Caribbean island (pairs well with Get Back), but you can easily read about any of those elsewhere.
Instead, I’d like to share nine music documentaries (and one mockumentary) that we enjoyed in 2021—some critically acclaimed, some completely ignored, and all illuminating in their own way.
Fanny: The Right to Rock
As the first all-women band signed to a multi-album major label deal, Fanny have broken ground since the early 1970s. Battling bigotry at all turns, the kick-ass rock group founded by Filipino-American sisters June and Jean Millington finally receive a fitting tribute in Montreal director Bobbi Jo Hart’s joyful documentary. Putting their own spin on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, the film’s highlights are its stories of smoking hash with Mick Jagger and recording in the nude with Todd Rundgren. Ain’t that peculiar?
The Sparks Brothers
“I love Sparks” is the basic sentiment repeated by a cavalcade of celebrity talking heads in Edgar Wright’s fanboy-ish documentary. At times, it feels like the director simply decided to invite his famous friends to take part (do we really need to know what Fred Armisen and Jason Schwartzman think?), yet witnessing the Mael brothers’ creative evolution throughout their prolific discography is undeniably fun. When combined with Annette, the siblings’ feature film collaboration with director Leos Carax, 2021 starts to feel like the year of Sparks.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage
The first episode in Bill Simmons’ musical counterpart to his 30 for 30 sports documentary series (which also includes installments on Alanis Morrisette, DMX, Juice WRLD, and Kenny G) returns to the site of an unmitigated disaster. At this point in history, Woodstock ’99 is synonymous with the raging fires and rampant sexual assaults that could have been prevented if its organizers cared about people over profits. New York Times writer Wesley Morris says it best when he compares the festival’s toxic atmosphere of white male, nu-metal aggression to a “swamp.”
Eric’s Trip: 1990-1996
For an entirely different kind of ’90s nostalgia, this DIY documentary by Eric’s Trip frontman Rick White tells the story of the beloved cult band from Moncton, New Brunswick. Over the course of six years, they became the first Canadian act signed to Sub Pop while remaining steadfast in their love of lo-fi home recording. Combining rare live footage with grainy personal videos and appearances on MuchMusic, the updated 2021 edit is an electrifying document of one of the greatest bands of their era.
People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan
The first film from Kurupt FM expands the original pirate radio mockumentary series to the size of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Like The Lonely Island’s comedic masterpiece, this hilarious parable reveals how the pursuit of fame can drive a wedge between friends when the UK grime crew’s song “Heart Monitor Riddem” becomes a viral hit on a Japanese game show. The extended sequence set to Beats and Steves’ karaoke version of The Streets’ “Dry Your Eyes” moved me to tears.
Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
Karen Dalton: In My Own Time begins with a straightforward documentary structure, but once you hear her low, sorrowful voice emerge from a mouth missing two bottom front teeth, you’ll be hooked. With a haunting score by Julia Holter and narration by Angel Olsen, this documentary tells the story of the Oklahoman folk and blues singer who Bob Dylan called his favorite artist of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene. Dalton only released two albums in her own time, but her heartbreaking interpretations will live on forever.
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
I Am a Cliché presents Marrianne Elliott-Said as a human being, not the disposable pop star described in her lyrics as Poly Styrene. This deeply moving documentary looks beyond the late X-Ray Spex frontwoman’s fame into a personal life fraught with mental health struggles. Narrated by director/daughter Celeste Bell with excerpts from Elliott-Said’s teenage diary, the film is an intimate glimpse into her years after punk. As Bell opens her heart to understand her mother’s complicated history, I Am a Cliché gives fans the same opportunity.
The Beatles: Get Back
The best music documentaries of 2021 burst open the vaults to showcase archival footage that has never been publicly available until now. Peter Jackson’s Get Back is a massive gift to fans in that regard, though an eight-hour series of John, Paul, George, and Ringo trying to write Let It Be may only truly appeal to Beatle freaks (or musicians who want to see how the sausage is made). Watching classic songs come together in real time is magical, as is the way George pairs pink socks with his turtleneck.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes has made music the focus of several idiosyncratic projects over the years, including his Karen Carpenter biopic filmed early in his career with Barbie dolls, a semi-fictional twist on the glam-rock reinvention of David Bowie, and another experimental biopic focused on Bob Dylan. The Velvet Underground is a masterclass in the use of split-screen montage to explore how the NYC underground rock heroes fearlessly fused streetwise poetry with avant-garde inclinations. Pushing back against sexist critiques of Nico and the misogynistic behavior of Andy Warhol, Haynes’ mesmerizing film reveals fresh angles on an immortal group of artists.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
In 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival welcomed over 300,000 attendees to a free outdoor event during the same summer as Woodstock. The difference is that this festival’s astonishing footage of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly Stone, Sonny Sharrock, and countless other incredible musicians had been gathering dust for over 50 years…until Questlove decided to televise the revolution. By weaving full-song performances into contemporaneous moments from the civil rights movement—plus the commentary of enlightening voices, such as the late journalist and author Greg Tate—Summer of Soul provides a powerful reminder of the many ways that Black excellence has been suppressed.