2017 was an excellent year for rock docs, with major players like HBO, Netflix, and Showtime all eager for compelling original content. This combined with the numerous tragedies which struck the industry in 2017, the past year has provided a bumper crop of music industry documentaries. Here we look at some of the best.
Guest post by Taylor Mims of Amplify
Who doesn’t love a good rock doc? With big companies like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and Cinemax clamoring for original content, compelling music documentaries and docuseries were rolled out on a regular basis in 2017. From the devastating loss of superstars to taping into music history, Amplify has compiled a list of a few of this year’s documentary standouts and why you should watch them.
The Defiant Ones
Director: Allen Hughes
Length: Four one-hour episodes
Where to Watch: HBO, Amazon Video
The Defiant Ones is mogulism, street life and deep filmmaking chops at its best.four-part part mini series on HBO has drugs, crime, underdogs, mistakes made, and plenty of drama to keep it going for over four hours. The series begins by detailing the early lives of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine separately as each came up as outstanding producers in their own rights. We learn even more about the early days of N.W.A, Dre’s masterpiece “The Chronic,” and his crippling perfectionism. Iovine’s story tells of a young man who felt the need to prove himself and did just that, over and over again by any means necessary. We see interviews with Eminem, Stevie Nicks, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Trent Reznor, and the late Tom Petty. The storylines collide as the two shrewd business men strike a $3.2 billion deal to sell the Beats brand to Apple in 2015.
Gaga: Five Foot Two
Director: Chris Moukarbel
Length: One hour and 40 minutes
Where to Watch: Netflix
It can be difficult to know how to approach a documentary about an artist when the artist is so involved in its making. For Lady Gaga (a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two isn’t so much about her trying to control her persona, but finally taking a step back and allowing her fans to see an entirely different side to her. Gaga: Five Foot Twobanishes the meat dresses and saturn ring costumes and shows Germanotta at her most vulnerable. The film, directed by Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York) and greenlit by Heather Parry at Live Nation Films, mainly focuses on the conception, recording, and release of Joanne with power producer Mark Ronson. The album and film come together over heartbreak, intimate family stories, chronic illness, and concludes with the pop star’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year.
George Michael: Freedom
Director: David Austin & George Michael
Length: One hour, 35 minutes
Where to Watch: Showtime
It was a sad day nearly a year ago when the world lost George Michael on Christmas. Countless people were no doubt listening to Wham’s 1984 classic “Last Christmas” when they heard the news. That song’s staying power, among many other George Michael hits, is a testament to a pop megastar gone too soon. Michael had begun work on the Showtime documentary prior to his untimely death and the film features his voice over its duration. With interviews from Stevie Wonder, Mary J Blige, Liam Gallagher, and Elton John, Freedom tells a gripping and deep story of Michael’s love for music, his undying ambition, and his fight to stay true to himself throughout his career. For a musician who was often referenced for his sexual conduct in more recent years, Freedom reminds audiences how the singer became such a brilliant star and the joy his songs brought to generations.
Mike Judge Presents: Tales From the Tour Bus
Director: Mike Judge
Length: Eight half-hour episodes
Where to Watch: Cinemax
Mike Judge’s Tales From the Tour Bus may not technically be a documentary, but the animated series tells the true and often crazy stories of some of country’s biggest stars of yesteryear. The series focuses on notorious characters like Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and other influencers like Johnny Paycheck and Blaze Foley. Judge’s signature animation plays out the legendary moments of its stars while friends, family, and acquaintances recall decades-old tales. While the episodes are filled with hilarious anecdotes, the show doesn’t shy away from tougher topics like Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his cousin or the toll drinking took on Johnny Paycheck’s promising career. The series is for serious country lovers and anyone looking to reminisce about country’s raucous beginnings.
Director: Bernard MacMahon
Length: Three episodes that run roughly an hour to 90 minutes
Where to Watch: PBS, iTunes, Amazon Video
Executive produced by Jack White, T Bone Burnett, and Robert Redford, PBS’s American Epic series takes the audience back to the roots of modern music in the United States. The series is based on a book titled “American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself,” written by director Bernard MacMahon, McGourty and Elijah Wald. American Epic begins with record labels search for new music in rural areas in the 1920s that resulted in the discovery of the Carter Family and countless other pioneers of folk, blues, and country. MacMahon spent eight years researching and visiting families that could provide first-person accounts, photographs, or memorabilia from a decade that laid the foundation for today’s music. With never-before-seen footage and images, American Epic goes beyond just a cliff-notes version of American music history. Episodes also included contemporary musicians like White, Alabama Shakes, Nas, Elton John, Beck, and others recreating the songs found in the film using the same recording equipment from the 1920s. Those songs, along with restored recordings of the originals, can be found on the album American Epic Sessions released via White’s Third Man Records.
Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)
Director: Colin Hanks
Length: One hour, 24 minutes
Where to Watch: HBO
One of the most recent tragedies in live entertainment was the terrorist attack that took place on Nov. 13, 2015 at the Bataclan theater in Paris. Three terrorists opened fire in the venue during the Eagles of Death Metal set, resulting in 90 deaths and 200 wounded. The documentary Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends) features the band and concertgoers as they recall the harrowing events of the night and the film does an excellent job of capturing the event without fetishizing the violence. In the aftermath, director Collin Hanks speaks with Eagles of Death Metal founders Josh Homme and lead singer Jesse Hughes about the formation of the band and how their decades-long friendship helped them get through the terrible incident. It documents the post-traumatic stress of Hughes struggles to deal with and looks at how the band and fans rallied to be together again in Paris to finish the performance.
Taylor Mims is Amplify's News Editor. She is a Los Angeles native and received her Masters in Creative Writing from Cal State Long Beach.