How to help those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, in Austin and beyond

The best music documentaries to stream while you’re stuck at home

From A Life In Waves to A Band Called Death.

March 19, 2020
The best music documentaries to stream while you’re stuck at home L-R: Michael Ochs Archives, Pascal Le Segretain, David Redfern (all via Getty Images)  

We're a week or so into self-isolation and streaming services have begun to feel like video games. It seems that, at a certain point, you will complete them. First you'll run through The Sopranos, rewatch 30 Rock while messing around on your phone, take a chance on some Marvel franchise — all semi-valuable ways of spending time. But as isolation sets in, it may only be a matter of time before you're streaming moon landing conspiracy documentaries you found deep in the bowels of Netflix, desperately trying to stave off boredom as you unhinge from reality and spiral further down into madness.

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Don't do that! At least not yet. There are loads of music documentaries to get through before you start wondering about what's really going on at Area 51. We've put together our favorites below.

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Gimme Shelter (1970)

Perhaps the tensest (and certainly the most viscerally violent) concert film ever made, Gimme Shelter has secured its place in the critical canon as a defining chronicle of the death of the activist ‘60s. The film’s stars are The Rolling Stones at the peak of their powers: for the first half of the film, we see Mick Jagger and company manifest their genius onstage for rapt audiences and in the studio. Then the film turns to a free day-long festival at the Altamont Speedway in California, organized by the producers behind Woodstock and headlined by The Stones. Before the band’s performance, violence between the audience and the show’s security force, the biker gang Hell’s Angels, erupted throughout the day. It is during the Stones performance when the film descends to a horrifying cocktail of bedlam and classic rock; the audience becomes a surging, violent creature that Jagger impotently tries and fails to control. The chaos leads to the death of an 18-year-old Black boy named Meredith Hunter, stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel for brandishing a pistol. The film is content to lay the blame solely on Hunter, though it has been reported that he raised the gun in self-defense. The circumstances of Hunter’s death, and the Rolling Stones’ inability to prevent it, help Gimme Shelter to lay bare the facade of the rock star mythos, and to a certain extent, expose the limits of music as a unifying force in periods of turmoil. — Jordan Darville

Watch on: YouTube

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A Life In Waves (2017)

If you mostly listen to rap or pop music, there is a good chance you haven’t heard of Suzanne Ciani. It’s a forgivable offense, but you should know the truth: the 73-year-old synth pioneer is one of the single most influential cultural figures to emerge in the past century, an innovative and important composer whose works changed electronic composition and radically shaped the vernacular of advertising. A composer who was best known for jingle writing, Ciani gained a reputation in the '70s for her ability to use machines — primarily the Buchla synthesizer — to conjure any noise imaginable, from the fantastical to the hyper-real. One of the earliest advocates for electronic composition, Ciani developed sound effects for early Atari games and created a scarily real sound effect of a Coke bottle being poured with only synths. Synth music — the bedrock of what this era’s great producers like Pierre Bourne and A. G. Cook do — would be profoundly different without her influence. A Life In Waves, released in 2017, uses revelatory archival footage (including a bizarre Letterman appearance) to sketch a beautiful and impressionistic portrait of Ciani’s life and influence. Soundtracked by her own ambient new age compositions and running only 74 minutes, it’s a brief, insightful pick-me-up. — Shaad D'Souza

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Watch on: Amazon Prime

Baltimore, Where You At? (2014)

Almost a decade ago, filmmaker Tim Moreau made his way to Baltimore to learn about a derivative culture of house music that was making an impact on his life thousands of miles away in France. What he found when he arrived was that Baltimore club music had gone through a number of phases and generations in its 20-plus years of existence. Baltimore, Where You At? is an intimate look at how DJs, emcees, and producers created a sound and culture that would not only make its way up to places like Philadelphia and Newark in the States, but also to people in European cities. For all the moments of joy, there is some sorrow to bear: short, but resonant tributes to late club music pioneers K-Swift and Miss Tony leave a swell of pride for city natives who can remember the two’s impact, but there’s also room to grieve about what their lives (and the genre) could have become if they were still around. This film hits the streets, church services, and collective dance practice sessions to illustrate the liveliness of a music that’s fading away as its city’s primary music of choice. — Lawrence Burney

Watch on: Vimeo

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Just a few weeks ago (before we collectively moved towards social distancing and self-quarantine), I visited Ja’Tovia Gary’s exhibition flesh that needs to be loved at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. Gary’s inaugural show, which also doubles as the East Coast premiere of THE GIVERNY SUITE, includes a series of layered videos and archival footage from Nina Simone at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, all in pursuit of freeing the distorted histories behind Black female interiority. Days later, I decided to rewatch Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? which also opens with Nina Simone performing at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. The documentary takes us through the tumultuous rise of Simone as both an activist and a singer. Often in times of deep sociocultural tension, I find comfort in Simone's words: “I’ll tell you what freedom means to me, and it’s no fear. I mean really, no fear." — Warren Seuradge

Watch on: Netflix

Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1993 (2019)

If footage of saucer-eyed British clubbers is your thing then YouTube is an endless source of inspiration. There’s no better place to learn about rave culture, though, than this 2019 documentary from artist and filmmaker Jeremy Deller. The hour-long BBC doc charts the history of acid house music in Britain from its origins in the LGBT clubs of Chicago to a point where it got so big politicians were campaigning to close down illegal parties held in forests on the outskirts of pretty much every major town and city in England. Interspersed between rave footage is the social context which allowed the scene to thrive, from industrial action by miners in the north of the country to the British-Caribbean soundsystem culture changing the face of the music people were listening to. Deller presents the history of the music as a lesson to a classroom of inner-city kids whose minds genuinely seem boggled at what they’re seeing. It’s not surprising, footage from the past rarely feels this alive. — David Renshaw

Watch on: YouTube

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A (2018)

Way back in 2013, M.I.A. released a trailer for a documentary that wouldn’t end up arriving for another five years. When the film finally hit screens in 2018, it didn’t feel like MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A made as much of an impact as it could have back then. That’s a shame, because it’s a wildly fascinating glimpse into the life of one of pop’s most resilient activists. Rather than focusing on a certain time in her career, director Steve Loverige builds a collage spanning Maya Arulpragasam’s childhood all the way to the release of her last album, 2016’s AIM. While his approach doesn’t leave enough time to thoroughly unpack everything that it sets up, it does provide a vehicle for decades of remarkable footage. Loverige met Arulpragasm during college, and he captures integral moments of her scrappy DIY beginnings. But Arulpragasm makes a strong case for self-documentation as well, of keeping your own receipts and records while building a body of work — her footage of an early trip to Sri Lanka is especially pivotal. As the film vaults toward the present day, it morphs into a story you’re probably already familiar with. Even so, it offers a good case to revisit M.I.A’s expansive back catalog, as well as to dust off your old Casio and finally get working on your own. — Salvatore Maicki

Watch on: Amazon Prime

A Band Called Death (2012)

This is the story of three brothers making raucous music in their Detroit bedroom, steadfastly refusing to change their name despite the promise of a recording contract if they toned things down, and eventually drifting into an obscurity so complete that their own kids didn’t know about their punk backgrounds decades later. Bassist David Hackney’s three sons eventually formed a Bad Brains cover band, unaware of their dad’s punk background until Death’s records started to trade for wild prices between completists (including Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins). And through that shared musical bond, A Band Called Death works beautifully as a tribute to the late David Hackney, the band’s leader and chief iconoclast. This came out in the same year as Searching For Sugarman, and there are parallels to be drawn between the two docs, but Death asks a uniquely fascinating question: What would punk have sounded like if these three Black kids from Michigan had received the airplay their explosive music deserved, five years before punk snarled into the public consciousness? — Alex Robert Ross

Watch on: Amazon Prime

Bad Rap (2016)

Bad Rap explores representation in hip-hop, following four Asian-American rappers — Dumbfounded, Awkwafina, Lyricks, and Rekstizzy — pursuing a dream in the wake of uncertainty and artistic confinement. This idea of identity is treated as a double-edged sword — the tag of being an “Asian rapper” can lead to recognition, but it threatens to box artists in. Awkwafina, for example, says that her initial surge in the earlier half of the 2010s with songs like “My Vag” was in part due to her ethnicity, and she expresses concern over career longevity (which is interesting to look back on given the success she's seen since). In other moments we see Dumbfounded and Rekstizzy express frustration with trying to break out of how Asian-American males are generally depicted in mainstream media. It's chiefly about representation, but Bad Rap also looks at the ways that technical skill doesn't always lead to success in a creative field, and the need to identify a niche as an aspiring artist. — Will Gendron

Watch on: Netflix

The best music documentaries to stream while you’re stuck at home