You might have playlists loaded up with your favourite artists on Spotify or Apple, but how much do you know about how the song was made, and why it was made? And what was happening in the world for the artist to need to create that particular track, or that concert that became a cultural moment?
Whether you’re joining recording sessions with Taylor Swift, WHAM!, Lady Gaga, BLACKPINK, or Keith Richards, or sitting in on rehearsals for Beyoncé’s iconic Coachella performance, getting to know the process and context of an artist whose work has valiantly soundtracked your own life is an act that takes the music itself even further, giving you a greater appreciation for the tracks in your pocket. That’s where documentaries come in. At the very least, you’ll have something smug to tell your friends about next time you’re listening to a song.
The 30 best documentaries on Netflix
Netflix has a bunch of strong music documentaries, with some particularly standout films ready to stream, from Martin Scorsese’s spin on the shape-shifting of Bob Dylan to the much-talked-about Miss Americana. Each comes practically brimming with music, along with behind-the-scenes interviews and footage of some of the most prolific artists of our time.
Without leaving your house, here’s your ticket to the best documentary films about music that you can find on Netflix, in no particular order…
Making the sun shine brighter than Doris Day.
Despite the fact that you’ll probably have that infernal holiday earworm “Last Christmas” stuck in your head for a month after watching this doc on the ’80s British pop super two-some consisting of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, it’s still worth the risk! The latter name being the best reason why — we’ve all heard Michael’s story by now, but Sr. director Chris Smith finally gives “the other one” Ridgeley the focus he deserves as the co-songwriter on all the duo’s hits.
With the ’80s feeling further away with every passing year (not to mention every passing superstar of the time), this doc will send you right back to those heady days of pegged jeans and puffy stickers. That “Careless Whisper” sax solo for the win. — Jason Adams, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: WHAM! is now streaming on Netflix.
When you think of landmark concert films of the last ten years, Homecoming immediately springs to mind. Directed, written, and executive produced by Beyoncé, the electrifying two-hour film captures the creation and performance of the superstar’s unforgettable 2018 Coachella set, putting you both behind the scenes and centre stage of this historic cultural moment.
Set on a now-iconic bespoke pyramid stage, Beyoncé’s set pays tribute to the creative spirit of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and features special guest appearances by Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, and Solange. Bow down, indeed.
How to watch: Homecoming is now streaming on Netflix.
3. Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and Gerry Mulligan at the “Birth of the Cool” recording sessions on Jan. 21, 1949 in New York.
Credit: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Born as an episode of PBS’ classic American Masters series, this comprehensive 2019 doc is perhaps too straightforward for a man who made his career out of careening between genres and notes. But director Stanley Nelson still hits all the right ones by giving newcomers the opportunity to understand how revolutionary Miles Davis was, with the only truly American artform that we call jazz.
With access to the Miles Davis Estate, narration by Carl Lumbly, and a score entirely made up of Davis’ beautiful one-of-a-kind sound, the documentary covers six decades of the artist’s life and career. The film ventures to understand how Davis picked up influences from his travels through Europe, especially Paris, and turned them into brand new ideas through his trumpet. Thankfully, Birth of the Cool doesn’t shy away from the dark, uncool side of his life, giving Davis’ second wife, Frances Taylor, the chance to detail the abuse she suffered, and going deep on his heroin addiction. — J.A.
How to watch: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is now streaming on Netflix.
4. Miss Americana
“Miss Americana” is not just for fans.
Whether you’re a fan of Taylor Swift or just curious about her meteoric rise to fame, Miss Americana allows you a rare peek into the pop superstar’s life. Director Lana Wilson crafts an intimate portrait of Swift, through plenty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, taking you into the songwriting sessions of her album Lover, backstage on the spectacular Reputation tour, through her relatively short journey from teen country singer to global superstar, through the sexual assault lawsuit she won against radio host David Mueller, and the breaking of her political silence.
But more than anything, the film makes plain that our loud opinion is the last thing that matters to Swift. As Mashable’s Angie Han writes, “Maybe it’s not the movie everyone wanted. Maybe this latest reinvention of Taylor Swift, this time as a woman who’s comfortable enough in her power to wield it fully, isn’t for everyone, either. But maybe, also, that’s the idea: Swift, Miss Americana tells us, is done worrying about what everyone else thinks.”
When you’re done, watch the Reputation tour film on Netflix, knowing the story behind the scenes.* — S.C.
How to watch: Miss Americana is now streaming on Netflix.
5. Dolly Parton: Here I Am
Here she is.
Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
There are lots of things to live in terror of in this modern world — nuclear armageddon, climate change, the Supreme Court — but the thing that should scare us all the most of all is finding out something untoward about the world’s greatest human being Dolly Parton. That would be the final straw, the last Horseman of the Apocalypse, the terminal brick popped out of the dam that finally washes us all into oblivion.
Thankfully, Here I Am, Francis Whately’s 2020 doc on the country music icon, acting legend, and philanthropist from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, only uncovers news as dark as this: even Parton’s best friends have never seen her without her wig on. What’s that wig hiding, Dolly? Only more rainbows and beautiful music, no doubt. – J.A.
How to watch: Dolly Parton: Here I Am is now streaming on Netflix.
6. Rolling Thunder Revue
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg visit Jack Kerouac’s grave.
Half-real and half-phony just like the musician that inspired it, Martin Scorsese’s 2019 pseudo-documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (which is its full title) puts actual footage of Bob Dylan’s 1975 tour through the Northwest and Canada alongside faked interviews and footage, and leaves it up to the viewer to discern which is what. Did Dylan really put on white face after seeing KISS perform? Was Sharon Stone really a groupie turned costumer in her teenage years?
Add to this the fact that most of the real footage from the tour was filmed by Dylan himself for a semi-fictional and unreleased film called Renaldo and Clara, which complicates the original confusion further. Like the best Dylan song, this Revue contains meta multitudes. –J.A.
How to watch: Rolling Thunder Revue is now streaming on Netflix.
“Quincy” moves through the decades of music alongside Jones’ own life story.
Credit: Arnold Turner/Getty Images for Netflix
Over 2,900 songs and over 300 albums recorded. 51 film and TV scores. Over 1,000 original compositions. 79 Grammy nominations and 27 wins. You get it, yet? Quincy Jones has been busy for the last 70 years. Created by his daughter Rashida Jones with Alan Hicks, Quincy examines the immense impact the record producer, arranger, and musician has had on music over the last seven decades. It’s mostly narrated by Quincy himself, with archival audio from famous friends like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, alongside a treasure trove of home footage and new material.
It’s fascinating to watch just how much of the history of modern music Jones has been a part of, and how many “firsts” he achieved as a Black musician and producer in America. Quincy moves through the decades of music alongside Jones’ own life story — he discovered music amongst a hard childhood on the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression in the ’30s, before diving into the be-bop scene in New York in the ‘50s. Then, he moved through pop, funk, jazz, and disco in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Los Angeles, and through the hip hip explosion in the ‘90s. Keep an eye out for the short but powerful heart-to-heart between Quincy and Kendrick Lamar.— S.C.
How to watch: Quincy is now streaming on Netflix.
8. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Party after party, scene after scene, cake after cake.
Credit: Caesar Sebastian/Netflix
Superstar EDM artist Steve Aoki once played 300 shows in a single year, and that’s the breathless spirit this 2016 doc from filmmaker Justin Krook aims to capture.
The son of the Japanese wrestler turned Benihana restaurant entrepreneur Rocky Aoki, Steve gives more than a hint that his entire propulsive career has been a rebuke to his father’s lackluster parenting skills. But the lulls between the chaos come few and far between — much like Aoki’s life and much like he seems to prefer it. Like the documentary’s title suggests, this is party after party, scene after scene, and cake after cake after cake smashed in his fans’ eager faces, with sleep rendered an extreme afterthought. – J.A.
How to watch: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is now streaming on Netflix.
9. Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell
Biggie with 50 Grand.
Credit: George DuBose
A compelling, personal portrait of one of the greatest rappers of all time, Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell is an intimate look at the life of Christopher Wallace, AKA The Notorious B.I.G., whose death at 24 years old has also become the stuff of legend. But although the film starts at a tragic end, it actually concentrates more on Wallace’s life through those who really knew him.
Directed by Emmett Malloy and made in collaboration with Biggie’s estate, the documentary features a huge amount of backstage, onstage, and on-the-road footage filmed by his best friend Damion “D-Roc” Butler, alongside interviews with family, including his wife Faith Evans, mother Violetta Wallace, grandmother Gwendolyn Wallace, uncle Dave Wallace, and friends from both childhood and later years. It was co-executive produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs, who also appears. Especially unique to this documentary is the short time spent on Wallace’s visits to family in Jamaica, and unexpected musical influences — interviews with his neighbour, saxophonist Donald Harrison, about the impact of bebop and jazz on his rap techniques are a treat. — S.C.
How to watch: Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is now streaming on Netflix.
10. Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl
It’s your perogative to watch this.
Credit: Jim Bennett/Getty Images
She’s still the one we run to! Taking a page from the book of Tina Turner is never a bad idea, and country/pop superstar Shania Twain seems to’ve lifted the best page of all, having moved to a gorgeous house set against the majestic scenery of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. That’s where she’s mainly interviewed for this 2022 doc on her career, and where she talks about many of such influences — the earliest being Dolly Parton, because of course. Still holding the title of the best-selling studio album by a solo female artist ever for Come On Over in 1997 (it’s the ninth best-selling album of all time), Shania, smart, grounded, and funny, still impresses us much. – J.A.
How to watch: Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl is now streaming on Netflix.
11. What Happened Miss Simone?
Nina Simone’s life was not an easy one.
What do you know about Nina Simone? You’re about to learn a lot in this exceptional documentary about the singer, classical pianist, and Black Power activist, whose life was no easy path.
Directed by Liz Garbus and tightly woven with Simone’s music, What Happened, Miss Simone? examines the star’s public career and private life, her childhood in segregated North Carolina, her survival of domestic abuse, her struggle with addiction, the experience of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, revelations of abuse against her daughter, and her role in the civil rights movement and its impact on her career. This Best Documentary nominee will leave you with a complex picture of Miss Simone, and a thorough understanding of the impact of a song like “Mississippi Goddamn” on the music industry, on society, and on the artist herself. — S.C.
How to watch: What Happened Miss Simone? is now streaming on Netflix.
12. The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir
“You have to see it to see it,” says Bob Weir, famed guitarist for legendary jam-band The Grateful Dead. And he’s not wrong — this 2014 doc from director Mike Fleiss (God Bless Ozzy Osbourne) trains its lens on the less famous member of the famous outfit in order to chart a lesser known voyage through rock history, and unearths all sorts of hidden gems from the road that was.
Running in at just 85 minutes, the film might be shorter than some of the Dead’s guitar solos, but it manages to capture that certain something that kept people coming back, and back, and back to the band for decades. Memories that are probably otherwise lost to many of the people who experienced it! — J.A.
How to watch: The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir is now streaming on Netflix.
13. BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky
How much do you actually know about BLACKPINK?
You might have watched their videos, seen them live, or just watched this superstar K-pop group smash records all over the joint, but how much do you actually know about BLACKPINK? Directed by Caroline Suh, Light Up the Sky is a fascinating, fun, and sincere portrait of one of the biggest groups in the world right now.
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Amid behind-the-scenes footage of early auditions, childhood home movies, recording sessions, and touring, including that historic Coachella performance, the documentary sits you down with Lisa, Jisoo, Jennie, and Rosé, the four members of YG Entertainment’s wildly popular South Korean girl group. These frank solo interviews, along with their heartfelt reflections on each other’s roles in the group, give insight into these talented, determined young women who worked incredibly hard for years in YG’s rigorous training program, debuting with chart-smashing single “Whistle,” and building their meteoric rise to fame (with all the perfectionist pressure that comes with it). — S.C.
How to watch: BLACKPINK: Light Up the Sky is now streaming on Netflix.
14. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Wander down the strange path of Cohen’s wild career.
Credit: Jack Robinson/Getty Images
Tackling the author, poet and musician Leonard Cohen’s several decade career through the lens of his best known song, filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine find a novel way to help us know someone as unknowable as Cohen. There are a multitude of interpretations and covers; heck, across Cohen’s life-span he wrote several hundred verses for “Hallelujah”, which he would switch up throughout his career. Beginning as one small track buried on a flop album, this documentary weaves the song’s rise to prominence and eventually iconic stature (thanks to a million covers) alongside the strange path of Cohen’s wild career, giving us a unique window into a man for whom words were clay, forever molding. – J.A.
How to watch: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is now streaming on Netflix.
J-Lo fans, assemble.
Credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images
Jennifer Lopez has been entertaining us for decades, so you should take a second for Halftime. The documentary is focused on Lopez’s SuperBowl halftime show with Shakira (and her daughter Emme) in 2020 that made a public statement about the border crisis, but also takes in the artist’s career over the decades, from her beginnings in the ’90s as a Fly Girl on In Living Colour to her incredible performance as pop star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the lauded biopic, to her Grammy-winning music career and its eras, to her critically acclaimed and Golden Globe nominated role in Hustlers.
Directed by Amanda Micheli and edited by Carol Martori, Lopez maintains full control in this documentary, having not always felt this way across her career and speaking at length about being underestimated and not taken seriously. Halftime brings the receipts too, showing the unbridled racism and sexism she’s endured from the press and entertainment industry. Despite it all, Lopez continues to kick every goal.
How to watch: Halftime is now streaming on Netflix.
16. Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives
An idealized portrait but fascinating nonetheless.
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
A hagiography can be just what the doctor ordered sometimes, when the subject demands such respect. And when it comes to the music industry, the legendary producer Clive Davis – the man behind Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Alicia Keys, and his right-hand lady Whitney Houston, just to get us started — warrants a good old fashioned love-fest.
By all accounts a decent man (at least by all the accounts that they put on the screen here) blessed with a “golden ear”, Davis knew how to find and nurture talent and take them to the top of the charts time and time and time again. And his story will make you long for the simplicity of his old-fashioned, personal, one-on-one approach, when everything wasn’t quite so soullessly corporate. — J.A.
How to watch: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is now streaming on Netflix.
17. Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now
A powerful portrait.
Scotland’s celebrated and Grammy-nominated purveyor of fine sad songs, Lewis Capaldi’s natural charm, candour, and signature cheeky humour make this documentary both an absolute treat and a deeply moving portrait. Directed by Joe Pearlman, How I’m Feeling Now checks in with Capaldi in Whitburn, Scotland, with 15 billion streams and sold out shows in 36 countries under his belt. He’s writing his second album in his parents’ shed, the follow-up to his incredibly successful debut Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, amid varying lockdowns around the world. Between reflections on fame, writing, and performing, the documentary paints a wonderful picture of Capaldi in his hometown; you’ll meet Capaldi’s parents, family, and friends, paired with plenty of sweet home movies and studio session recordings brimming with pure talent.
Notably, having filmed with Capaldi during his experience with anxiety, ticks, and being diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, Pearlman’s documentary is an emotional, vulnerable, and powerful journey through some of the most challenging times in the artist’s past few years. It’s something Capaldi commented on after the film was released. “I didn’t realise how much my anxiety and Tourette’s was taking over my life until I watched [the footage] back,” he told The Independent. “When I saw the first draft, it was so depressing, I was surprised I didn’t die at the end! I mean, there’s always the sequel.”
How to watch: Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now is now streaming on Netflix.
18. Barbra: The Music The Mem’ries The Magic
Credit: Steve Jennings/WireImage for BSB
It’s Barbra doing what Barbra does best: belting out big music while running a single fingernail through her hair. This concert film from Streisand’s 2015 string of nine shows was filmed in Miami and the Golden Girls vibes are strong with her shimmery black pantsuit and string of special guest stars. We see a little backstage footage — hey there’s James Brolin, hey there’s her pampered pup — but mostly it’s just Barbra hitting the stage, beginning right off the bat with “The Way We Were” and not stopping the hit parade for nearly two straight hours. She tells some stories, she disco-dances, she says she’s on a diet but she wants the ice cream anyway. It’s all the hits! – J.A.
How to watch: Barbra: The Music The Mem’ries The Magic is now streaming on Netflix.
19. Gaga: Five Foot Two
Essential viewing for Gaga fans.
Head into the studio with Lady Gaga amid the making of her fifth album, Joanne, in this characteristically raw, compelling documentary released in 2017 — before the “Shallow” madness, though there’s a lovely fleeting moment when she gets the part in A Star Is Born in there, too.
Directed by Chris Moukarbel, Gaga: Five Foot Two follows the superstar during the recording of her album with Mark Ronson (and for one excellent minute, “Hey Girl” collaborator Florence Welsh), and ahead of her Super Bowl halftime performance, all peppered with a stream of reflections on love, work, and self-confidence — all while living with chronic pain. But as Joanne is an album inspired by the death of her aunt Joanne, it also fittingly offers some moving glimpses into her family life.
How to watch: Gaga: Five Foot Two is now streaming on Netflix.
20. Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Keith Richards: a happier bullshitter you will never see.
Credit: Jane Rose/Netflix
In Metric’s song “Gimme Sympathy,” the band asks the question: “Who would you rather be / The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” Would you rather burn big and bright and fast, or long and steady, perhaps past your moment? This 2015 doc on Stones guitarist Keith Richards makes a good case for the latter.
Watching Richards in the process of making his first solo record in several decades, Under the Influence (directed by 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville) is mainly just for Stones fans — thankfully, that’s a not small percentage of the population. Richards more than lives up to his status as the hard-living rock star with a parade of well-worn tales entertainingly re-told — five decades into his career and a happier bullshitter you will never see. Did Richards ever tell you about the time Chuck Berry famously popped him one? “I was one of Chuck’s greatest hits,” he laughs. – J.A.
How to watch: Keith Richards: Under the Influence is now streaming on Netflix.
21. Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You
Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener World Tour” at The O2 Arena on Aug. 17, 2019 in London.
Credit: Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for AG
Released during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, this one was a shining light for live music fans missing concerts at the time — and it remains a gorgeous example of how to film a live show. Shot at London’s O2 Arena for Netflix during Ariana Grande’s 2019 Sweetener World Tour, Excuse Me, I Love You is the concert film that’ll remind you of those large-scale collective scream sessions many of us used to indulge in. As Mashable’s Rachel Thompson writes, the film is “a love letter to the Time Before. A time when singers pointed their mics to packed arenas, giggling as ecstatic crowds chanted back their lyrics word for word. A time when we’d throw our arms in the air and yell “encore” before pouring our weary bodies onto the last train home.”
Featuring pitch-perfect performances of tracks from Grande’s hit-heavy albums including thank u, next, Dangerous Woman, and of course, Sweetener, the film also throws in some fun footage of Grande with her crew on the road.
How to watch: Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You is now streaming on Netflix.
UPDATE: Aug. 14, 2023, 6:02 p.m. UTC This post has been updated to reflect the current catalog on Netflix.