Summer is the time for music festivals and larger-than-life concerts—nothing beats dancing under the stars with a pack of friends, sloshing beer on your shoes from a plastic cup of Budweiser you paid $12 for. You can’t go to a concert every night (and after a few Budweiser hangovers, you’ll agree that’s probably for the best), but anytime you want, you can fire up Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video to rock out to a great concert film or a documentary about an amazing musician.
While my favorite concert film ever, Jonathan Demme’s sublime Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense, isn’t streaming for free anywhere, it’s worth a purchase. Did I leave out one of your absolute favorite music movies? Let me know in the comments—and I'm not just saying that. I really do want to see more.
Pearl Jam Twenty
Don’t let it make you feel old that if the band Pearl Jam was a person, that flannel-clad scamp would be well above drinking age. The band's breakthrough album Ten holds up to this day not just as an example of grunge, but as a great rock record, pure and simple. The 2011 documentary Pearl Jam Twenty is a must-watch for fans. Directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Singles), himself a former music journalist, it features tons of interviews, lots of excellent concert footage, and great cinematography to tie it all together. My biggest complaint is that I wanted it to be longer, just because it’s that good.
Way down south in Alabama there was a little brick building called the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—it didn’t look like much, but it was the site of some absolutely legendary recording sessions, including huge hits from Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Sisters, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and even contemporary bands like the Black Keys. Greg Camalier’s documentary Muscle Shoals about the studio and its incredibly talented house band premiered at Sundance in 2013 won the Grand Prize at the Boulder International Film Festival too. It’s new to Netflix, with great interviews with people like Bono, Mick Jagger, and Steve Winwood, as well as the funkiest, most soulful soundtrack you ever did hear.
Shut Up and Play the Hits
LCD Soundsystem played its final concert at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. (My friend Libby was there, and my jealousy of that fact will never, ever subside. Love you, Libs!) The epic show was filmed for this documentary—Shut Up and Play the Hits wasn’t released for another year, but if you weren’t as lucky as Libby to have danced yourself clean in person, it’ll make you feel like you're there. Rounded out with behind-the-scenes look at the runup to the goodbye show, and the comedown on the day after, this film will show you a new side of LCD Soundsystem and its not-exactly-fearless leader James Murphy. Or you can skip all the talking and just dance on your coffee table.
Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings
Watch the 2013 documentary Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings on Amazon, and you won’t even have to change sites to order yourself a $28 ukulele and try to copy his virtuosity on your own. (It’s on Netflix too.) OK, you won’t get very far, but I can guarantee Shimabukuro’s story will inspire you, and the music is just plain amazing. He started playing at age 4, and his career took off when a video of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube, but this documentary fills in a lot of the spaces in between, with interviews with his family and friends. The scenes in which he and his business manager visit her hometown in Japan after it was destroyed by the tsunami are especially heart-wrenching.
Fela Kuti: Music Is the Weapon
Fela Kuti is a fascinating figure, the creator of the afrobeat genre and a influencer of the American Black Power movement. A Broadway show Fela! and a documentary Finding Fela that premiered at Sundance in 2014 help introduce his music and his story to a new generation here in America, and Netflix has the 1982 documentary Fela Kuti: Music Is the Weapon. It tells Fela’s story from his upbringing in Nigeria, his studies in London, and his entry into politics—he even formed his own political party and attempted to run for president. As turbulent as his life appears in this movie (which came out before he was jailed for 20 months beginning in 1984 or charged with murder in 1993), the music is full of hopeful spirit, infectous grooves, and showmanship to spare.
The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack
You’ve certainly heard of Bob Dylan. You’ve probably heard of Woody Guthrie. But there’s a chance you haven’t heard much about the man who came between them, a legend named Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. And if you haven’t, that’s a shame—as well as an opportunity, because you can stream the documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack on Netflix. Directed by the singer’s own daughter Aiyana Elliott, it combines home movie footage, live performances, and interviews with Jack, his family, and his famous friends, including Arlo Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Dave Van Ronk, and Pete Seeger. The story is fascinating, about how a Jewish kid from New York City, born Elliott Adnopoz, ran away to join the rodeo and completely re-create himself. Jack did plenty of hard travelin' with folk legend Woody Guthrie, but by the time Bob Dylan arrived on the scene, Woody was very sick, so Jack was the one who taught Bob all of his tricks—only to see Bob’s career take off while Jack’s kept getting sidelined. The music is amazing, and the story is told with great love and longing, since it’s Aiyana’s way to better understand the dad who was always ramblin’ away. Bring tissues while you watch, and try to see Jack play live if you ever get the chance—he’s absolutely one of a kind.
Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A-Comin’
Even though Jimi Hendrix is hands-down one of the best musicians to ever breathe air, he didn’t put out a lot of albums during his way-too-short life. The documentary Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A-Comin’ has tons of music, including blistering hot live footage, plus fascinating background on Hendrix’s life before superstardom. From backing up Little Richard and Wilson Pickett on the “Chitlin' Circuit” to bringing down the house with “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, Hendrix’s story is well told with still images, interview footage, and even excerpts from letters he wrote to family and friends.
Madonna: Truth or Dare
I wasn’t allowed to see the Madonna: Truth or Dare when it came out in 1991, because I was 12 and my parents thought it would be too adult. (As usual, they were right.) It became the highest-grossing documentary at the time, offering a no-holds-barred, behind-the-scenes look at the life of one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Filmed during the Blond Ambition Tour, you get to see Madonna and her entourage of dancers, musicians, and crew put on their show, and party with celebrities like Madonna’s then-boyfriend Warren Beatty. (The scene where Kevin Costner calls the concert “neat” and she pretends to gag after he leaves is priceless.) Director Alek Keshishian got incredible access—too much access, complains Beatty, as well as the dancers who sued alleging invasion of privacy—and the result is one of the most compelling concert films you can stream.
This Is Spinal Tap
Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries are always good for a laugh, and the Rob Reiner-directed This Is Spinal Tap has the same spirit of utterly serious ridiculousness that we’d see later in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. It’s the story of a fictional heavy metal band from England, well past their prime, touring the United States, and the indignities they suffer along the way, from mishaps with the props to arguments with the record label to getting lost between the dressing room and the stage. And it’s simply hilarious from start to finish, with sharp (and largely ad-libbed) dialogue and affectionally mocking metal tunes—which were composed and actually played by the film’s actors, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. This film goes to 11.
Everyone knows at least one Bob Marley song, but you might not realize how extraordinary the man’s life really was. Marley (streaming on Netflix and Amazon) brings it home. Did you know Bob once worked nights at on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant in Delaware? Or that he survived an assassination attempt? Or that he got the leaders of Jamaica’s two literally warring political parties to shake hands on stage at the One Love Peace Concert? This film is packed with fascinating background info on Jamaica and Rastafarianism, exciting footage of the Wailers in concert and in the studio, along with heartbreaking interviews with the people who knew and loved him before his death from malignant melanoma in 1981 at the tender age of 36.
If you have HBO Go, make sure you also check out the ridiculously good Beyoncé: X10, a series of 10 concert videos from the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, as well as the full-length documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream. HBO Go also has Behind the Candelabra, the Steven Soderbergh-directed, Emmy-winning dramatization of Liberace’s love affair with Scott Thorson, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, and the wonderful Emmy-winning documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, directed by Martin Scorcese.