The Best Music Documentaries of the 21st Century, from ‘Amy’ to ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’

With the possible exception of sports figures, no documentary subjects capture as much mainstream interest as musicians. While the film industry generally regards documentaries as a specialized genre with its relevance confined to award season, films about beloved musicians are capable of becoming box office juggernauts and cultural phenomena in their own right.

It’s not hard to see why, as music and filmmaking have always been inextricably linked. Great film scores and needle drops often give movies an extra level of emotional depth that no other art form could ever hope to match. And while live music is ephemeral by definition, filmed performances of great artists allow fleeting moments on stage to become permanently etched into pop culture.

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Music documentaries can serve a variety of purposes, from highlighting unknown geniuses to exposing fans to previously unseen sides of world-famous rock stars. But the common denominator that links the genre’s best entries is the intersection of great music, unflinching honesty, and a filmmaker’s intuitive understanding of storytelling.

The 21st century has emerged as a particularly fertile era for great music documentaries. Part of that stems from the fact that many of the 20th century’s biggest stars have aged into the introspective phase of their careers and granted filmmakers unfettered freedom to tell the stories of their lives. Simultaneously, the democratization of filmmaking technology has made it easier than ever for filmmakers to document the brilliance of unknown artists and release their work for the entire world to experience. Music documentaries have become a lifeline for independent film distributors and a regular presence at the Oscars — two trends that don’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Ranking music documentaries is bound to be a subjective activity, as no mere mortal is capable of truly separating the films from their own personal music tastes. But the cream does gradually rise to the top, as the best music docss put their subjects in new light while reminding us why we loved them in the first place. From sprawling miniseries from Oscar-winning filmmakers to microbudget DIY projects that grew into viral successes, keep reading for our list of the best music documentaries of the 21st century (so far).

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