12 of the best movies about music to watch online
We all have our favourite musicians and bands, but how much do we really know about them, their history, their beliefs, their stories? Enter the music documentary, to shed light and new information about the artists we love.
And then there are the biopics that pay tribute to the greats, often based on their own autobiographies, or inspired by true events.
Here is our pick of some of the best music movies you’ll find online to stream.
Amy, 2015 (Netflix)
The life and death story of Amy Winehouse is a tragedy on an epic scale. It tells the singer’s tale, from childhood through to the substance abuse that eventually killed her at the age of 27 (where she joined Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain in the notorious 27 Club).
This multi-award-winning documentary not only covers the lows but also the highs, and illustrates Winehouse’s incredible talent. The success of the 2015 film and the music from the soundtrack of the same name also gave Winehouse her second posthumous nomination at the 2016 BRIT Awards for British Female Solo Artist.
Brenda Fassie Not A Bad Girl, 1997 (Showmax)
One of South Africa’s most beloved artists, the late Brenda Fassie reveals intimate details of her personal life behind the public persona in this fascinating documentary. Refusing to hide her sexuality and using her music to tell the devastating stories of how black people lived under the cruelty of apartheid, Brenda Fassie was an outspoken activist.
The intimate documentary was filmed in 1997, at the height of Ma Brrr’s popularity, and at a time when the “New South Africa” had only just started taking shape. The film gives rare and valuable insight into the of the life of The Queen of African Pop both on and off the stage, in her own words.
Devil At The Crossroads, 2o19 (Netflix)
Considered one of the greatest blues artists of all time, Robert Leroy Johnson’s story is rooted in the myth or legend that a man sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for incredible guitar skills.
At the time of his success in the 1930s, there seemed to be no other explanation for his talent, which was acquired within about a year. A good yarn never hurt any musician. Johnson completed few recordings (in 1936 and 1937), which nonetheless display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians.
Keith Richards is a case in point: he references Johnson in his own documentary, Under The Influence.
Dolly Parton: Here I Am, 2019 (Netflix)
Here I Am is also the title of the theme song for the movie Dumplin’, now on Showmax. Dolly Parton is a true living, walking, talking (singing) legend. Her career spans decades thus far, with hit after hit, album after album.
The 74-year-old Queen of Country was inducted in the Country Music Hall Of Fame back in 1999. She’s famous for her bosom and equally large blonde wigs, and she’s always ready to make a joke at her own expense.
“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” she once quipped. Miss Parton (who has been married to Carl Thomas Dean since 1966) owns a theme park (Dollyland) and has appeared in movies, too.
Gaga: Five Foot Two, 2017 (Netflix)
In the past, Lady Gaga (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) favoured sensationalism, which made her look like she was trying too hard to emulate Madonna, who pretty much owns the rights to pop-star shock value.
But as the years have gone by, Gaga has revealed herself to be an incredible songwriter, singer and yes, even actress. According to Netflix, Gaga: Five Foot Two is of cinéma vérité style, as to give viewers “unfiltered, behind-the-scenes access” to a year in the life of Gaga, during which it covers the production and release of her fifth studio album, Joanne.
Keith Richards: Under The Influence, 2015 (Netflix)
Like his influence (under which the title may refer), Robert Leroy Johnson, myths and legends surround Keith Richards, guitarist extraordinaire for the Rolling Stones. Now 76 going on 77, he has survived a rock ‘n roll lifestyle that is the template for hedonism, decadence and indulgence.
A comedian once said if he opened the newspaper and Keith Richards hadn’t died overnight, all was well in the world. Truth is, Richards has cut back on the booze, cigarettes and drugs, but it will never tarnish his reputation for living it large. The Stones had their roots in good old blues music; when Richards met Mick Jagger and discovered a mutual love for Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, the bond of a lifetime was formed.
Reincarnated, 2012 (Netflix)
Ah, Snoop Dogg, what a guy. So famous for his gangsta rap, and yet he made a cooking show with Martha Stewart, of whom he is a great admirer. We all know how much Snoop admires his weed too (he made a guest appearance in Weeds once upon a time, puffing a strain he called MILF), so we’re not surprised he’d want to explore Rastafarianism (although we should be cautious not to fall into stereotyping).
Reincarnated documents Snoop Dogg’s transition into Snoop Lion (his Rasta name), which involved him taking a trip to Jamaica to make a reggae album and discover more about the Rastafari faith, which preaches love and nonviolence.
Springsteen on Broadway, 2018 (Netflix)
Bruce Springsteen is a storyteller of note. His music is beyond reproach, and he’s written an autobiography. And in the opening moments of this documentary, he shows he can be funny, too. He talks about all the things he’s never done – like working 9-5, or on an assembly line in a factory.
“I made it all up,” he admits, on the darkened stage lit only with one spotlight, just a guy from New Jersey with a guitar. “That’s how good I am,” he says, without a shred of arrogance, and is immediately endeared in our hearts. Words and music flow elegantly and the two-and-a-half hours are pure pleasure.
Straight Outta Compton, 2015 (Showmax)
NWA (an abbreviation for Niggaz Wit Attitudes) was an American hip-hop group from Compton, California. They were among the earliest and most significant popularisers and controversial figures of the gangsta rap subgenre (circa 1987 to 1991), and are widely considered one of the greatest and most influential groups in the history of hip hop music.
Not a documentary but a biopic, this movie depicts the rise and fall of the group and its members Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr Dre.
Tricky Dick And The Man In Black, 2018 (Netflix)
ReMastered: Tricky Dick & the Man in Black is about the relationship between Johnny Cash aka The Man in Black and Richard Nixon, and Cash’s historic performance at the White House in 1970.
During the visit, it becomes apparent that Cash’s emerging ideals clashed with Richard Nixon’s policies. This was something of a fail for Tricky Dick (Nixon), who had orchestrated the visit out of concern for the influence of rock ‘n roll to the voters, seeking the country music star’s approval.
It wasn’t Nixon’s only brush with popular music that year; Elvis Presley pitched up for an impromptu meeting with the President … to offer his law enforcement services.
What Happened, Miss Simone?, 2015 (Netflix)
Early in this film, during an interview, Simone ponders what freedom feels like.
“What’s free to me? It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love? How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love how it feels to be in love? … I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: NO FEAR! I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life. No fear!”
This is particularly poignant given the current events of June 2020.
The film, which covers Simone’s abusive husband and her political activism, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards.
At the beginning, a quote by Maya Angelou appears on-screen: “Miss Simone, you are loved, even idolized by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?”
Whitney, 2014 (Showmax)
The late singing sensation Whitney Houston’s journey to superstardom is brought to life in this documentary that chronicles her rise to fame and rocky relationship with Bobby Brown. While some musicians die peacefully of old age (Chuck Berry lived to a ripe old 90), many succumb to the effects of their lifestyles; Houston was one of those, sadly passing away in a bath, “drowning due to coronary artery disease and cocaine intoxication”.
This biopic, set between 1989 and 1994, received mixed reviews from critics, with praise going to Yaya DaCosta’s performance as Houston and Angela Bassett’s direction of the film.