When it comes to music documentaries it can go one of two ways: you can drown in the pretentious, back-slapping over-reach that is U2's 1988 Rattle and Hum or brilliantly capture the decadence, tragedy and greatness of artistry as seen in Gimmie Shelter, the riveting 1970 film chronicling the Rolling Stones' harrowing '69 tour. This Black History month, EnStars pulled together 10 other great music documentaries that land in the realm of the latter. From Nas to Billie Holiday, break out the popcorn!
The Carter (2009)
As barebones documentaries go, The Carter-which follows the high flying 2007-2008 commercial apex of current embattled Young Money rhyme general Lil' Wayne-is a straight-no-chaser music film that balances raw artistry with cringe-worthy dissection. There's a reason Weezy attempted to block the release of this unvarnished document of an artist at his proverbial peak battling an assortment of rock & roll clichés (Wayne's use of codeine-fueled syrup is at once fascinating and disturbing). This is riveting stuff.
What Happened, Miss Simone (2015)
Arguably the most powerful and defiant voice during the '60s soul revolution, Nina Simone is also a baffling enigma. The recently released What Happened, Miss Simone not only peels back the labyrinth of layers of the outspoken singer, songwriter, pianist, and performer, it also captures the genius of this at times tortured giant.Indeed, Miss Simone goes beyond the iconic vocalist's signature numbers such as the lush "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and the two-fisted Civil Rights anthem "Mississippi Goddamn." The Liz Garbus directed feature unleashes never-seen-before archive footage and interviews with Simone's peers, ex-husband, family members and the late High Priestess herself.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
You could say Beats Rhymes & Life is as much a document detailing the rise and meltdown of a seminal '90s hip-hop group as it is an insider's look at the fruitful, tumultuous, dysfunctional and hopeful friendship of childhood brothers-in-spirit Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. The Native Tongue representatives (the legendary, daring artsy clique that included the likes of De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, and Black Sheep) are seen breaking through hip-hop's hardcore gangsta rap ceiling dropping a string of groundbreaking works that would challenge what it means to be hip-hop.There's everything from testimonies from Common, the Beastie Boys' Mike D, and others, the making of Tribe's timeless recordings, and band splitting bickering during a doomed reunion concert tour to Phife getting a kidney transplant from his loving wife. In other words, it's bigger than hip-hop.
A Band Called Death (2012)
It seemed like Death, the before-their-time black rock group hailing from Detroit, would remain in obscurity. That is until the illuminating Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett--helmed story hit the big screen offering much needed insight into the stereotypical-confounding musical contributions of the pioneering Hackney brothers (David, Bobby, and Dannis). The '70s trio is now viewed as the bridge between early indie rock rebels the Stooges and the punk era of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. Rock on!
The real triumph of Marley is that the docu-biography manages to break new perspective and insight into the life-and-times of a global pop culture deity. Bob Marley isn't treated with kid's gloves here. Instead, the balanced portrait presents the reggae giant as a complex visionary who early on struggled with his own racial identity (Bob's father is white), fatherhood and stardom on the road to becoming a towering, socially conscious voice for his beloved country of Jamaica and beyond.Here you get the deep follower of Rastafarianism as a world-conquering rock star, charming womanizer, bold protester against social injustice, and a world music behemoth whose 1981 death from cancer only amplified his transcendent message of love.
The Prince of Paisley Park (1991)
At the time of its broadcasting, The Prince of Paisley Park was a rare look inside the mysterious, insolated purple kingdom of one-man-band, Oscar-winning superstar Prince Rogers Nelson. The BBC-backed special didn't unveil all of the celebrated musicians' secrets. But sit-downs with such notables as former Paisley Park artists drumming dynamo Sheila E. and gospel-soul wailer Mavis Staple, music writer Nelson George, and a dizzying performance clips (one of which featuring Prince jamming onstage with jazz titan Miles Davis) does the job.These days, His Royal Badness has cleaned up his dirty mind a bit, but still releases music and hits the concert stage to critical acclaim when he isn't inducing squeals from usually jaded award show audiences. The Prince of Paisley Park is a reminder of why the public fell in lust with the bantam Minneapolis genius in the first place.
Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)
Released eighteen months after the tragic death of the King of Pop, This Is It offers fans a glimpse of what would have been. Part documentary and concert film, this is a well-crafted vehicle that highlights Michael Jackson rehearsing for his sold-out concert-residency of the same name at London's O2 Arena.Here the usually eccentric music prodigy is humanized (This Is It is proof that Jackson wasn't kidding when he said he believed in the magic and wonder of live performance) as he meticulously builds his stage show song-by-song and set-by-set through a marathon of obsessively choreographed sound checks. The final statement is described as "honest, raw, unguarded, right up until the day he died." A fitting tribute for a man who lived his life (through good times and dark, tabloid addled times) for the entire planet to see, otherworldly moonwalk and all.
American Masters: Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (1988)
Arguably the best production of the American Masters series, Queen of Soul displays wailing royalty Aretha Franklin in all her roof-raising glory. You don't become the most celebrated voice of your generation by staying low-key. No, reach the heights of a rhythm and blues giant by literally sweating through landmark statements like "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."All the classics are here: Among them "Respect," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "Dr. Feelgood"), as well as some cool face time with the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, soul innovator Ray Charles and the criminally underrated George Michaels, all speaking on the unmitigated greatness of the former gospel vocalist turned secular, soul-stirring, hand-on-the-hip game-changer.
The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (2000)
There have been many books, a dramatic motion picture and even a Tony-winning Broadway play detailing the rich yet tragic life of America's most revered jazz and blues vocalist. However, to its credit, The Many Faces of Billie Holiday adds eloquently to Lady Day's incalculable legacy by raising the curtain on her brave artistry. Holiday sung with heart-wrenching grief when it came to lost love, but she also proved to be a powerful mouthpiece for social change as evident by her sobering "Strange Fruit," a work that takes on the violent lynching of blacks in the South. This is the story of a true national treasure.
Time Is Illmatic (2014)
More than two decades later, Nas' stunning 1994 work Illmatic still cast a luminous shadow on the celebrated emcee's career. Time Is Illmatic goes a long, definitive way to explaining why the genre-blazing, opening hip-hop salvo remains a revered triumph. More than a making-of documentary, this stylish presentation follows Nas from his at times harrowing childhood growing up in New York's rough-and-tumble Queensbridge projects to his rise as rap's storied ghetto griot.Particularly rich is the relationship between Nasir Jones and his jazz musician father Olu Dara. It's here you understand the complex artistry of a then brazenly cocky teenager and future rap king who is shown here stealing the show during an early '90s live performance of his career-launching verse on Main Source's epic "Live At The Barbecue." Street's disciple, indeed.