Our highly subjective list of rock & roll documentaries, available for streaming now on Netlflix and Amazon Prime.
Anvil tells the story of the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil, who, after a brief moment of glory in the early 80s, fell into obscurity. The two lead members remain committed to their dreams of rock stardom, working day jobs and making records as the years wear on, and the film captures their enduring, quixotic hunger for recognition and success, which is equal parts charming and wistful. While their early work is considered influential by the likes of Slash and Lars Ulrich, who speak respectfully of them in the film, the band mates are now in their fifties and still hoping for a breakthrough. We follow them on a European tour that is more an exercise in humiliation than comeback. The film concludes with the release of their thirteenth album, aptly titled “This is Thirteen,” and a brief return to the spotlight at a rock festival in Japan, where they play to an enthusiastic crowd of young metal heads at 9:45 am. Directed by Sacha Gervasi.
Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
Using 100% archival footage and voiceovers from the band, Crossfire Hurricane revisits the Rolling Stones’ early years, when they were regarded as dangerous and decadent, and their shows regularly devolved into riots. The film makes clear that this outlaw image did not come about by accident. “Andrew (Oldham) wanted to make the Rolling Stones the anti-Beatles,” Mick Jagger says in a voiceover. “Andrew decided the Rolling Stones were the bad guys. It wasn’t just an accident.” The film deftly conveys the excitement and mayhem of these shows, as well as the Stone’s canny evolution from local UK sensation to international superstardom. Directed by Bret Morgen.
Janis – Little Girl Blue (2015)
Ambition, Janis Joplin writes to her mother, ultimately comes down to “how much you need to be loved,” and in Janis – Little Girl Blue, we see just how much that need drove Joplin. While the film captures Joplin’s rapid ascent from small-town misfit to larger-than-life generational icon, her letters, read by Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), provide a sort of first person narration, exposing the insecurities and vulnerabilities beneath Joplin’s outsized public persona. “The only way to tell Janis’s story was through Janis’s voice. Her letters show the vulnerable artist, daughter and lover Janis was in her short but impactful life,” said writer, director and producer Amy Berg.
“If they dropped a nuclear bomb on this planet, Lemmy and cockroaches is all that’s gonna survive,” says a devoted fan in the documentary Lemmy, a worshipful testament to the enduring legend and influence of Lemmy Kilmister, the founding member of the seminal heavy metal band Motorhead. An unrepentant avatar of hard-living rock & roll, Lemmy was something of a rockstar’s rockstar, and everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to James Hetfield to Dave Grohl show up in the film to pay homage. “You could definitely say, without Motorhead, there’s now Metalica, there’s no Anthrax, there’s no Megadeath, probably no Slayer,” says Scott Ian of Anthrax. “There are no words,” says Lars Ulrich. “He’s just Lemmy. It should be a verb.” Directed by Greg Oliver & Wes Orshoski.
Long Strange Trip (2017)
An epic, sprawling history of the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip follows the band’s journey from their early gigs at Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, California to their years on the road as one of the biggest touring acts in the world. Coming in at just under four hours in length, the film captures the unique blend of musical, cultural and personal elements that went into the formation of the Dead, from their avid interest in psychedelics, to their technical proficiency as musicians, to their nearly pathological aversion to commercial success. “The Grateful Dead explored freedom,” says longtime Dead biographer Dennis McNally. “And they were on the cutting edge of a phenomenal reexamination of American values.” Directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
Metallica – Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Some Kind of Monster follows Metallica as they embark on the production of what would become St. Anger, their eighth studio album. The band is showing signs of strain. Bassist Jason Newsted has just quit. Their lawsuit against Napster resulted in a backlash from fans. Something is clearly amiss between lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. In addition to allowing the recording process to be filmed, the band retains Phil Towle, a “performance enhancement coach” to help them work through their issues in a kind of group therapy setting. These sessions are also filmed, providing a window into the band mates’ dysfunctional relationships, longstanding resentments and overall fatigue. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
Supermench chronicles the life and career of consummate Hollywood insider, Shep Gordon, who began as Alice Cooper’s manager and then went on to be both an entertainment industry power player and beloved confidant of countless boldfaced names. Possessing both an upbeat, disarming manner and a keen eye for opportunity and talent, Gordon has a genius for “making people famous,” and his career building efforts on behalf of Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass and Anne Murrary are legendary. He is also, despite a long career in the cutthroat world of music and entertainment, “the nicest person I’ve ever met, hands down,” says the film’s director, Mike Myers. Directed by Beth Aala and Mike Meyers.