Why Are There Suddenly So Many Music Documentaries?

There’s ‘McCartney 3,2,1,’ ‘Framing Britney Spears,’ ‘Woodstock 99,’ and dozens of others but are any actually good? We investigate.
JT
Chicago, US
July 28, 2021, 2:21pm
'Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage' (Photo Credit: Catherine Lash. Photograph by Courtesy of HBO)
'Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage' (Photo Credit: Catherine Lash / Courtesy of HBO)

If you were to rattle off even a partial list of all the music documentaries that are out right now, you’d sound insufferable: Have you seen the new HBO Max film, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage? What about Netflix’s Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell? Surely, you didn’t miss Demi Lovato: Dance With the Devil, Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine, Pink: All I Know So Far, and The Boy From Medellin, a Prime Video doc on J Balvin? You might have skipped it when it was released on HBO last December, but did you watch The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

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If you’ve been bombarded with conversations like the above, you’re probably overwhelmed. There are too many music documentaries out right now, and there’s no way that all of them are worth your time. Even music documentary directors, like Alex Winter from 2019’s excellent Zappa, think so too. “There’s just so many of them, and they're always same-samey, even when they're done by great filmmakers,” Winter told The Wrap. “I think getting documentaries made that are not fan service is still pretty rare, and I think documentaries made about musical figures that are interesting beyond being promotional pieces is very, very rare.”

So why the hell do they keep coming out? For one, streaming services have been in a bidding war for some of these titles for years. As the Hollywood Reporter notes, Amazon spent around $25 million on a forthcoming documentary about Rihanna, Apple TV+ doled out the same amount on Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. Hulu and Searchlight spent a combined $15 million on Questlove’s Summer of Soul, a feature on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which reportedly broke the Sundance record for documentary sales. 

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There are a lot of reasons for this shift: music documentaries are popular and come with built-in audiences based on the subject matter, there’s a market for nostalgia shown in ambitious features like The Last Dance, which capitalized on a sports-deprived 2020 summer to highlight Michael Jordan and the 90s Bulls. Also, because there’s so much money in these bidding wars, streaming companies are trying to compete and buy as much as possible hoping to capture the zeitgeist. These astronomical numbers make even more sense when you look at the successes of fictionalized biopics in Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and The Dirt in driving more downloads, sales, and streams of the catalogs of Queen, Elton John, and Motley Crue. These documentaries are having a similar effect: They create cultural moments that bring new interest and more dollars into artist’s pockets. 

“You’re getting people in to watch the doc.” Justin Lacob, head of development for documentary studio XTR, told The Wrap. “You're then increasing downloads or streaming revenue. [Artists and labels are] taking a cut, and [streaming companies] keeping those viewers in the ecosystem for longer. It all sends back to driving downloads, driving streaming revenue. That’s what this is all about,”

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As The Wrap notes, the Bee Gees saw a 51 percent bump in Spotify streams in the days following How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, while Shawn Mendes got a 79 percent increase after the release of his Netflix documentary. It’s no wonder that pretty much every artist big enough to become a household name seems to have a documentary on the way in 2021, including The Beatles, Tom Petty, Charli XCX, The Velvet Underground, Rihanna, Oasis, Madonna, Dr. John, Willie Nelson, and presumably more. (Several of those, including the Beatles, Madonna, Nelson, Petty, and Oasis are the subject of at least one documentary film already.) 

Obviously, music documentaries have been a pop culture staple since as far back as the 60s, when D.A. Pennebaker set a template for the genre with the 1967 Bob Dylan tour diary Don’t Look Back and the 1968 festival film Monterey Pop. While several have become celebrated classics (Think: Charlotte Zwerin and the Maysles brothers’ 1970 Rolling Stones’ concert film Gimme Shelter, Martin Scorsese’s electric farewell to the Band in 1976’s The Last Waltz, Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking, 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense) and some of the more recent ones have even won Oscars, the sheer multitude of new documentaries means that you have to dig deep to find the films that will be worth more than a lazy afternoon binge. 

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It’s becoming harder and harder to tell, judging from the market oversaturation and the large price tags these titles are getting, whether these films are craven cash grabs to boost back catalog streams and sales, shameless attempts at crafting a pop star’s album press cycle, or actually worthwhile offerings that challenge and engage audiences. To cut through the muck, VICE watched mostly everything that came out this year and decided to let you know what’s actually worth checking out. 

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (Apple TV+) 

Based on the book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 the Year That Rock Exploded by David Hepworth, this eight-part docuseries will cover familiar territory if you're well versed in classic rock, pop, and funk. But it’s not a derivative retread of the boomer American musical canon. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed, informative, and illuminating look at the stories behind classic albums like Marvin Gaye's What’s Going On, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., The Who’s Who’s Next, and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On—and the sociopolitical context that gave rise to them.

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry (Apple TV+) 

For giant pop stars like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, and Shawn Mendes, it's safe to say that the streamable documentary is quickly becoming a part of the album cycle, offering fans behind-the-scenes access to their stadium tours and revealing glimpses of life behind the veneer of celebrity. While The World’s A Little Blurry is no different, it does rise above the rest in its self-conscious candor, following Eilish and her brother Finneas as they finish their debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and grapple with newfound, stratospheric fame. The interviews with her parents are particularly affecting, as are the scenes that capture the physical and mental grind of tours and meet and greets. Even if Eilish’s music isn’t your thing, the film will make you think more deeply about the darker side of the music industry’s star-making machine. 

The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears (FX on Hulu) 

Framing Britney Spears follows the rise of the pop star and the story of the conservatorship she’s been living under since 2008, which is controlled by her father and bars her from having any control over her financial and personal life. Ever since the film’s release, it’s sparked a national conversation on conservatorships, with Spears growing increasingly public about her experiences and her desire to break free. Seeing that Spears is now taking her emancipation cause to court, this film just might be the most influential music documentary since Surviving R. Kelly, which reignited public (and prosecutorial) interest in R. Kelly, where he has since been indicted on racketeering charges alleging he ran a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls for sex, and several other sex-related felonies. Hopefully Britney finds justice, too. 

McCartney 3,2,1 (Hulu) 

OK, obviously the Beatles have been extremely well-represented on the music documentary front over the years–not to mention pretty much every facet of pop culture. Plus, with the release of Peter Jackson’s new documentary Get Back, which chronicles the band’s final years, McCartney 3,2,1 might not even end up being the most celebrated Beatles documentary of 2021. And if you don’t care about the Beatles, you can probably skip this one, which finds Rick Rubin and Paul McCartney basically hanging out and listening to music and talking about songwriting. But if you are a fan and find McCartney lovable, you will be totally charmed by his stories and insights into songwriting, even if you’ve already heard the anecdote about Jimi Hendrix covering “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after the album’s release or how “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” isn’t named after psychedelic drugs. Hearing isolated mixes of Beatles classics and McCartney solo songs will make you realize how much these fascinating parts, especially McCartney’s adventurous basslines, work together to make such beloved, enduring music. 

Tina (HBO Max) 

Tina is the rare documentary that lets the live clips play out almost all the way, allowing the power of Tina Turner, arguably the best performer in pop and rock history, to speak for itself. It’s a gorgeous, sad, and melancholic look at Turner’s life, including her horrifying relationship with Ike Turner, a violent abuser, and her resilience in the face of an exploitative music industry and a cruel and uncaring press. It’s definitely not an easy watch at times, but Turner is electric, thoughtful, and an undeniable legend throughout. Turner is 80 now and unlikely to tour again; this documentary is a riveting, definitive testament to what she means to American music. 


The Sparks Brothers (In Theaters / Digital) 

Edgar Wright’s loving and irreverent take on the massively influential but massively underrated cult band Sparks is probably the most delightful music documentary of the year. And it's essential viewing even if you can’t name a single song by the quirky pop-rock band which was founded in 1971 by Los Angeles-born brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Sure, there are plenty of talking heads—including famous fans and collaborators like Beck, Bjork, Jane Wiedlin, Jack Antonoff, Vincent Clarke, Todd Rundgren—but Wright’s playfulness as a filmmaker, replete with cartoon segments, visual puns, and countless jokes fit the subject matter perfectly. While the band might not be household names, The Sparks Brothers proves that their wild, infectious, and relentlessly adventurous songs were always ahead of their time over 25 full-length albums. 

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Hulu)  

Questlove directed this loving documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which spanned six weeks over the summer and featured phenomenal performances from the likes of the Staples Singers, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone. The film is transcendent based on this footage alone, even if its focus on interviews—including a gratuitous bit with Lin Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born in 1969—occasionally distracts from the goldmine of footage the team unearthed. However, a  segment on the predominantly Black crowd’s indifferent reaction to the upcoming moon landing—which happened to be just four days after the night Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin of the Temptations were playing—certainly resonates in today’s world of billionaire space tourism.

This Is Pop (Netflix) 

This Is Pop is undoubtedly a mixed bag—partly because each episode in this eight-part docuseries is the brainchild of a different director. Whereas the episodes on music festivals could go deeper in investigating capitalism’s co-option of counterculture, the standalone pieces on Boyz II Men and autotune with T-Pain are excellent. And if you have the patience to watch everything, you’ll find plenty of charming moments, including the Canadian singer and songwriter Andy Kim (The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar”) talking about the Brill Building and some informative introductory discussions on country music authenticity hosted by Canadian indie country crooner Orville Peck.