‘Miss Sharon Jones!’ and 15 Must-See Music Docs

By Alyssa Schmidt

After premiering at TIFF 2015, Miss Sharon Jones! documents a year in the life of the Brooklyn-based artist and lead singer of The Dap Kings, Sharon Jones, as she grapples with a cancer diagnosis. This new doc brings Barbara Kopple back to the world of music docs after her fiery Dixie Chicks flick Shut Up and Sing!, so, in honour of the director’s new ditty, let’s look at 15 music docs worth checking out on home video.

Read more on Miss Sharon Jones! in our TIFF 2015 docs report and catch the film at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema starting Friday, August 19th.

15 Must-See Music Docs:

1. Amy (2015)

Directed by Asif Kapadia

A personal insight into the life and career of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, constructed using archival footage and insightful testimonials. This Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature is a moving portrait of a performer who was, above all else, a young woman finding her way.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Netflix

2. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)

Directed by Morgan Neville

In this Oscar-winning documentary, Neville highlights the integral contributions made by unknown backup singers to some of the greatest musical talents of the last decade. 20 Feet from Stardom proves that some of the greatest talent can come from those just beyond the spotlight.

Watch: Amazon Prime, Netflix

3. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Another Oscar winner, Sugarman examines the South African cultural phenomenon that is Detriot-based singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. Written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the film outlines the efforts of two South African fans that wish to discover what became of the inexplicably influential musician.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Netflix

4. Thunder Soul (2011)

Directed by Mark Landsman

Members of a 1970s Texan high-school jazz band return after 35 years to play a tribute for their 92-year-old band leader, Conrad O. Johnson Sr. Thunder Soul is an uplifting story that outlines the transformative potential of both music and a dedicated educator.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Netflix

5. Music by Prudence (2009)

Directed by Roger Ross Williams

Prudence Mabhena uses the gift of her voice to inspire a group of young Africans with physical disabilities and help them uncover their true, limitless value. The Oscar-winning short doc from the director of Life, Animated, which is now in theatres!

Watch: HBO

6. Heima (2007)

Directed by Dean DeBlois

Sometimes a film, simply by being beautiful, can be meaningful. Heima, by Canadian director Dean DeBlois of How to Train Your Dragon fame,is undeniably beautiful. This intimate documentary follows post-rock band Sigur Rós as they travel across Iceland in order to perform a free tour. The film captures both the ethereal quality of the Icelandic landscape as how that quality influences the band’s music.

Watch: Amazon Prime

7. Festival Express (2003)

Directed by Bob Smeaton

This compilation of footage from the Grateful Dead’s Canadian train tour depicts the height of the band’s music and fame for five days in 1970. Festival Express – including such artists as Janis Joplin, The Band, Delaney & Bonnies, and more – was planned as a festival with one unique difference – it would be portable.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes

8. Scratch (2001)

Directed by Doug Pray

A feature length documentary film about the “turntablist” movement. From the South Bronx in the `70s to present-day San Francisco, the world’s best scratchers, diggers, party-rockers and producers discuss beats, breaks, battles, and the infinite possibilities of vinyl. The film examines ways in which experimentation by DJs transformed the turntable into a musical instrument.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes

9. Ravel’s Brain (2001)

Directed by Larry Weinstein

An inventive combination of reality and re-creation, this documentary explores the life of Maurice Ravel, artfully depicting the composer’s affliction with brain disease. The entire piece is accompanied by music as documentary and drama blur in a unique hybrid performance.

10. Let’s Get Lost (1989)

Directed by Bruce Weber

A film about the enduringly admired jazz singer and trumpeter, Chet Baker. A compilation of interviews with friends, family and acquaintances cut together with footage of Baker from all years of his life. Performances interwoven with a tale of drug addiction are told alongside each other, creating a portrait of the man. A must-see for fans of the recent Chet Baker drama Born to be Blue!

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes

11. Louie Bluie (1985)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

String band leader Howard Armstrong (Louie Bluie) is the joyful, emotive, strutting subject of this tribute by fellow musician and cellist Terry Zwigoff. Filmed at the 1985 Friscofest, Louie’s unique Afro-American string band shares the stage with Cab Calloway and with Les Blank and Alan Governar in an entertaining number about the ups and downs of nicotine in Cigarette Blues

Watch: Amazon Prime, Toronto Public Library Criterion Collection

12. Imagine the Sound (1981)

Directed by Ron Mann

Ron Mann’s first feature film, Imagine the Sound examines the Toronto jazz scene through a combination of performances and interviews. This film is a tribute to the free jazz movement of the 60s, as well as a crucial element in the rise of the Toronto New Wave filmmakers that followed.

Imagine the Sound from filmswelike on Vimeo.

Watch: Vimeo on Demand, NFB:

13. The Last Waltz (1978)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Canadian-American rock group The Band perform their final concert in style at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. This Martin Scorsese documentary about the band’s farewell encapsulates not only their send-off, but their seventeen-year journey together.

Watch: iTunes, Amazon Prime, DVD

14. Gimme Shelter (1970)

Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

An iconic music doc that consists primarily of The Rolling Stone’s 1969 tour, Gimme Shelter culminates with a gruesome death during the rock band’s free concert in Altamont. Far more than a mere concert documentary, the film captures a crime in the making and rock history being made.

Watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Toronto Public Library Criterion Collection

15. Lonely Boy (1962)

Directed by Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor

Long before Justin Bieber debuted on YouTube, Canada’s teen heartthrob was crooner Paul Anka. Lonely Boy, a musical documentary staple, follows the teen sensation both backstage and in front of a crowd. His fans swoon over his obvious charm and talent. A short vignette of a man who was born to perform.

Lonely Boy, Wolf Koenig & Roman Kroitor, National Film Board of Canada

What must-see music docs would you add to the list?