Best Music Documentaries on Independent Lens and Beyond

October 02, 2013 by Craig Phillips in Lists

In honor of both Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey [which, if you missed it, is available ’til the end of this week to watch for free online] and the joyful Muscle Shoals, which will air on Independent Lens in April ’14 [web site coming soon], we compiled a list of other music docs that IL has produced, and then added a few more of our favorite music docs in general.  Look over our lists and then add some of your own favorite music documentaries in the comments below. Many of these films are available on DVD or streaming on, as well as on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and elsewhere.



  • Billy Strayhorn: Lush LifeThe composer of “Take the A-Train” and other Duke Ellington hits, Billy Strayhorn struggled with obscurity and prejudice as a successful gay man in the tumultuous middle of the 20th century.
  • Compañeras: Profiles America’s first all-female Mariachi band.
  • D tour: Refusing to let a failing kidney deter him, indie rock drummer Pat Spurgeon goes on tour with his band while searching for a donor and administering his own dialysis.
  • End of the Century: The Ramones: follows punk progenitors The Ramones through more than two decades of touring, recording, and bickering.
  • For Once in My Life: Every member of the Spirit of Goodwill band copes with incredible challenges and obstacles, but nothing holds them back when it’s time to rock the house.OnceInMyLife
  • Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes: Take an in-depth look at masculinity in rap music and hip-hop culture — where creative genius, poetic beauty, and mad beats sometimes collide with misogyny, violence, and homophobia.
  • Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew: Overcoming Kallman’s Syndrome, prejudice, self-destruction and powerful enemies in the music industry, rediscovered jazz legend Jimmy Scott recounts his rise and fall and rise again as one of the most distinctive vocalists of our time.
  • La Lupe Queen of Latin Soul: Legendary Afro-Cuban pop singer Lupe Yoli, the Queen of Latin Soul, was famous for her emotional — and controversial — performances before her tragic death in 1992.
  • Music from the Inside Out: Featuring the musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Music from the Inside Out weaves together a mosaic of the stories, ideas, experiences and music making that form the heart of these musicians’ lives, inside and outside the concert hall.
  • Make ‘Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story: From their days as a teenage duo in the Depression to recent gigs on MTV and the Grand Ole Opry stage, The Hackberry Ramblers have been the life of the party since 1933, with their energetic blend of Cajun music and western swing.



  • P-Star Rising: Rapper Priscilla Diaz was dazzling New York nightclub crowds at age nine. But chasing music stardom isn’t child’s play when you live in a shelter, your mom’s an addict, and your dad’s struggling to keep the family afloat.
  • Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under a GrooveFollow one of the most unique and influential groups in music history. From a 1960s barbershop doo-wop group to 1970s masters of funk, through pitfalls, comebacks, to becoming the world’s most sampled band, P-Funk continues to perform, record, and funk on into the 21st century.
  • Strange FruitAn exploration of the history and legacy of “Strange Fruit,” the song first recorded by Billie Holliday in 1939 which has become an enduring anthem of American civil rights.


Some of our other favorite music documentaries through the years — check them out if you’ve never seen (and heard) these:
[in no particular order; go to IMDb to track ’em down]

  • The Last Waltz
  • Stop Making Sense: Purely one of the greatest, most creatively structured, concert films ever.
  • Buena Vista Social Club
  • Gimme Shelter
  • Searching for Sugar Man
  • Woodstock
  • The Night James Brown Saved Boston
  • Dig! (by Ondi Timoner, about the contentious rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols) and Hype! (Doug Pray, who also did the IL film Art & Copy)
  • The Devil and Daniel Johnston
  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

What are some of your own favorite music documentaries? Do you prefer concert films or a mix of music and story?

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.