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Sept. 22, 2021

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Rock out to the 7 best music documentaries of all time

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U.S. jazz and blues singer Nina Simone in concert at the Olympia music hall in Paris on Oct. 22, 1991. Simone is the subject of the 2015 documentary film "What Happened, Miss Simone?" directed by Liz Garbus.
U.S. jazz and blues singer Nina Simone in concert at the Olympia music hall in Paris on Oct. 22, 1991. Simone is the subject of the 2015 documentary film "What Happened, Miss Simone?" directed by Liz Garbus. (Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images/TNS) (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Photo Gallery

There may be as many kinds of music documentaries as there are genres of music.

Recent years have brought a batch of vanity-project concert films that include this year’s “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” and “Pink: All I Know So Far.” There are exceptions, such as Beyonce’s “Homecoming,” but these tend to be the least interesting docs, alternating between glossy performance footage and fan gushage.

Another recent trend is almost the opposite, a series of grittier films about the anonymous musicians whose job it is to make superstars look good. The most acclaimed of these is the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom.” But “The Wrecking Crew,” a many-years-in-the-making look at session musicians who seem to have played on every 1960s hit, and “Muscle Shoals,” about the session musicians who seem to have played on every ’70s hit, also are excellent.

The most popular subgenre, with audiences and awards voters, is probably biographical portraits. Oscars have gone to docs about piano maestro Arthur Rubinstein (“The Love of Life”), violinist Isaac Stern (“From Mao to Mozart”) and singer Amy Winehouse (“Amy”). Many more have been nominated, including the group portrait of the “Buena Vista Social Club,” Cuban musicians whose movie competed against two other music docs at the Oscars in 2000 (they lost to nonmusical “One Day in September”). The truth is that, like newspaper stories, the best music documentaries always center around singular people with unexpected stories to tell — even if they’re not specifically focused on those people.

Music documentaries are in the zeitgeist now because a new one opened July 2, and it’s already finding its place among the finest of all time. One of the best things about seeing Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” in a theater is that it reminds you what a difference a good sound system makes for any movie, but especially for one about music. I have seen “Soul” at home and at a multiplex and I loved it both times, but the theatrical experience was superior because — as a title card at the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” exhorts — “This film should be played loud!”

So let’s hope you can crank it up at home when you stream these outstanding music docs.

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

Jonathan Demme’s work seems simple: a concert film so narrowly focused that we rarely even see the audience. But Demme and Talking Heads structured the concert ingeniously, beginning with just singer David Byrne and gradually building both the size of the band and the sound of the music. Byrne’s hypnotic performance is the focus of the movie but Demme also attends to quirky bassist Tina Weymouth and singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt because they’re all stars.

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ (2015)

It’s impossible to encapsulate a life in a couple of hours but the genius of this Liz Garbus biodoc about Nina Simone is that it doesn’t pretend to. The jazz/blues/pop singer was an incredibly complicated person, which the film reveals with archival interviews, intimate performance footage and chats with those who knew her, including her daughter. It plays out like snapshots of a rich but difficult life and, because Garbus is modest about her intentions, those snapshots add up to a fascinating portrait.

‘Amazing Grace’ (2019)

Shot in 1972, when Aretha Franklin was at the height of her powers, the film was not released for decades because of litigation and production issues. Franklin was dead by the time it hit theaters, making the film even more poignant because of its footage of Franklin and a choir recording what would become the most popular gospel album of all time.

‘Say Amen, Somebody’ (1982)

Black church music has been around for centuries, but gospel only became codified as a genre about a century ago, as this jubilant film reveals. There’s plenty of archival footage that traces the history of the form through the lens of “father of gospel music” Thomas Dorsey, who wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the Martin Luther King Jr. favorite that figures prominently in “Summer of Soul.”

‘Woodstock’ (1970)

Even if you’re not nuts about the music of Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and others (I’m not), the film is worth watching for its portrait of people at a striking moment in time. An Oscar winner for best documentary, it’s a triumph of editing and reporting that is much more than a concert film.

‘A Great Day in Harlem’ (1994)

Jazz giants (Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins) gathered for a group portrait in 1958. Jean Bach’s Oscar-nominated film describes what went on behind the effort to rustle up the musicians, some of whom were not reliable and some of whom did not like each other. “It was like a family reunion,” one of them remembers in the film, which can be viewed for free on YouTube and which now feels like an almost unimaginable gathering of legendary talents.

‘20 Feet From Stardom’ (2013)

Their names were unknown outside the music biz, but the backup singers here — mostly Black, mostly female — demonstrate plenty of star quality. Darlene Love is the most familiar name but Lynn Mabry (who’s also in “Stop Making Sense”), Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer all demonstrate pipes that should have had bigger careers. The highlight is a sequence that isolates Clayton’s scorching vocal track on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”

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