The best music documentaries

Popstars on film: 14 must-see music documentaries

Music and movies have been interlinked for as long as Hollywood has been around, and many a popstar has given acting a go – but what about when they’re playing themselves?

We look at the movies that celebrate lost legends, and the artists who’ve only been too happy to let a fly on the wall reveal all, no matter how shocking the results.

One Direction – This is Us

Still a fivesome, One Direction took us behind the scenes of their 2013 Take Me Home Tour, on-camera high jinks spliced with footage from the shows. While the movie is unscripted and cameras were access all areas, we’d definitely like to see those outtakes. There’s a noticeable absence of any hell-raising, and Zayn, Harry, Louis, Liam, and Niall all seem like witty, clean-living boys. Anyone looking for dirt would be better off checking their own fingernails.

Lady Gaga – Five Foot Two

Documenting Gaga’s return to the charts with fourth album Joanne, and her Super Bowl Half Time Show performance, Gaga: Five Foot Two is a fairly downbeat look at her thoughts on fame and the loneliness that goes hand in hand with pop superstardom. Not that Gaga isn’t funny and sharp, because she is – her “rivalry” with Madonna is dealt with to marvellous effect – and the production is glossy and slick.

Katy Perry – Part of Me

Set during Katy’s California Dreams Tour, what could have been a saccharine, cartoonish extended promo turned into something else entirely when Katy’s marriage to Russell Brand broke down while filming was going on. That aside, there are loads of celebrity cameos and Katy’s live shows are never short of spectacular.

Madonna – Truth or Dare

Is this the popumentary to end them all? Back in 1991, few thought Madonna could get more shocking, but she delighted in proving them wrong with Truth or Dare (called In Bed With Madonna in the UK). Warts-and-all barely covers it: Madonna shows every side to her personality: good, bad, mean, hilarious, spoiled, generous. Plus there's a scene with a bottle of water that can never be forgotten.

Kylie – White Diamond

Not quite as revelatory but fascinating nonetheless, White Diamond charts Kylie’s return to touring in 2007, following her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. You get to see Kylie’s fun side as she trills mini operettas backstage and cavorts with her friends and crew, and there are guest appearances from sister Dannii and U2 frontman Bono.

Geri Halliwell – Geri

Candid to the point of full body-cringe at times, this documentary picks up Geri’s life mere days after she quit the Spice Girls, and follows her journey to find a post-Ginger life for herself after five years of sharing her bandmates’ spotlight. Geri comes across pretty well, if a little unsure of the magnitude of what she’s done, and her horror at her mum getting some screen time is still a classic scene. The entire thing is currently on YouTube.

Amy Winehouse – Amy

This heartbreaking, Oscar-winning movie from 2015 tells Amy’s story through snippets, recordings, interviews and archive footage. Her rise to fame, issues with substance abuse, romantic troubles, career highs and lows and, finally, her sad passing, are dealt with emotionally but respectfully. Warning: this is not for the faint-hearted, so make sure you are surrounded by fluffy animals and comfort food while watching.

Whitney Houston – Can I Be Me/Whitney

An icon taken before her time, Whitney Houston’s life was a subject of fascination long before she died. Two documentaries have tried to make sense of Whitney’s successes and troubles, each causing controversy with their revelations. Can I Be Me uses footage from Whitney’s 1999 world tour, while Whitney, which was approved by those looking after the star’s estate, relies on interviews with her inner circle, and makes some astounding discoveries. Both movies are pretty emotional; big Whitney fans may find it’s too soon to process them, but they're as fascinating as they are heartbreaking.

Blur – No Distance Left to Run

What do you do when the band gets back together? Record it for posterity, of course! When the band reunited for a tour in 2009, they invited camera crews along – probably a good way to make sure there are no squabbles, actually – and added in some previously unseen archive footage and interviews about what it was like to be a band again.

Beyoncé – Life is But a Dream

Let’s face it, Beyoncé was never going to make an explicit, shocking look at the ups and downs of life on the road or backstage bickering. But while Life is But a Dream is beautifully produced and its themes carefully curated – it is a bit like a dream, really, all gorgeous, floaty and colourful – Beyoncé is still very open and honest about what it’s like to be Queen Bey, and her personal life, and you do come away from it feeling like you know her a little better.

Justin Bieber – Never Say Never

Way before the tattoos, the blond dye job and, of course, those record-breaking chart feats, Justin was the subject of his own movie, which charted the days leading up to one of his hugest concerts, at Madison Square Gardens in New York City. Featuring a trip back to J-Biebs’ native Canada, behind the scenes footage and interviews with his nearest and dearest, perhaps the most curious thing about Never Say Never is they don't speak to the man himself. It’s still worth a look to see what it’s like to be part of the huge pop machine that’s involved in keeping a star in check and on schedule.

Kurt Cobain – Montage of Heck/Kurt & Courtney

After taking his own life in 1994, the Nirvana frontman has been the focus of numerous books, documentaries, and movies. Among the highest profile is Kurt and Courtney, a 1998 movie by Nick Broomfield – who also co-directed Whitney: Can I Be Me – which looked into the circumstances surrounding and arising from Kurt’s death. The documentary caused controversy when Courtney Love refused to take part and license Nirvana’s music to be used, which led to a war of words between her and Broomfield. Montage of Heck, which uses home video, archive footage, and Kurt’s own journal entries, has been decried by some close to Kurt as mostly fictional, but seeing his story in his own words still has impact, and there are plenty of revelations along the way.

A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes & Life

2011 film Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest tells the story of one of the most iconic and influential hip-hop groups of all time. While it’s a celebration of what made the group great, their history, and their legacy, it also doesn’t shy away from documenting the tensions among group members and covering the low points too. Some fans were irked the movie wasn’t 100% positive, but the resulting film feels like a fair and honest portrayal of a group’s rise and fall.

Kesha – Rainbow

Following her return to music with album Rainbow in 2017, after a prolonged court battle with her former collaborator Dr Luke, Kesha decided to provide more insight into her story with a film of the same name. Mixing raw confessionals, harrowing stories of rehab for an eating disorder, and dealing with her pain along with highly stylised, striking art montages, Rainbow depicts the urge to create as a way of finding your way out of the darkness.

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