10 Best Music Documentaries of the Year According to the Guy Who Sees Them All


Editor’s note: last week we posted a list of the five must-see documentaries of 2013, but we also want to share a top ten list from our friend across the pond, Andy Markowitz of MusicFilmWeb. If you’re not familiar with the site, get to know it, because it’s the premier place for reading about music docs (check out their annual poll for Nonfics founding editor Christopher Campbell’s picks for best doc of 2013). And now for his introduction to his choices for this year:

As the editor of a website on music documentaries, I got asked a lot in the past several months if I think there’s been a Sugar Man effect. My answer is, yes and no. It certainly seemed like 2013 brought more music docs about little-known or forgotten artists, fewer that relied on celebrity wattage. (Even the two on my top 10 that deal with star acts did so from left-field perspectives.) Searching for Sugar Man’s commercial and Oscar success no doubt played a part in making such films more visible, attracting media attention and distribution deals. But it’s worth noting that these movies about the unsung, unknown, and unlikely were in the works long before Rodriguez was swooped out of obscurity. The arc in music film was already bending toward story, character, surprise and cinematic verve — in short, the things that make a great documentary of any stripe — and I think the titles below bear that out.

That said, I can’t say anything I saw this year felt as fresh and exciting as Sugar Man (maybe that’s another effect) — or, for that matter, as the superb Finnish documentary The Punk Syndrome, actually my favorite last year. But there were quite a lot of films I liked quite a lot. Beyond what was for me a clear №1, the rest of the list could have slotted in almost any order. I limited the selection to movies that premiered theatrically in the U.S. in 2013 or played widely on the festival circuit. A few that just premiered or have so far only screened abroad are already shortlisted for next year. As for the 10+ below, the ones that haven’t already will likely be coming to a cinema or device near you before long, and I hope they bring you the same sense of delight and discovery they brought me.

1. Mistaken for Strangers (Tom Berninger, USA)

Mistaken for Strangers is a stroke of accidental genius. Berninger’s utter inability to make a standard-issue tour doc about his brother Matt’s band, indie darlings The National, yields instead a uniquely revealing and hilarious exploration of what it’s like to be the fuck-up little brother of a rock star — and, not unsympathetically, what it’s like to be a rock star with a fuck-up little brother.

No news on official theatrical or home video release, but the film will screen in L.A. on March 25th, with live concert by The National.

2. Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker (Lily Keber, USA)

Thirty years after Booker’s death and long past the time when most of the world forgot about him, Keber’s doc captures both the stunning virtuosity and the ineffable strangeness of this gay, one-eyed, junkie piano great, evoking a New Orleans far removed from Bourbon Street cliché.

No news on official theatrical or home video release at this time.

3. 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville, USA)

Neville, a veteran and consummately skilled music doc maker, turns his attention to the artistry and lot of the back-up singer, crafting a worthy tribute to the unheralded MVPs of rock, pop and soul.

Now playing in theaters (returning to NYC tomorrow) and available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. Arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on January 14th.

4. Los Wild Ones (Elise Salomon, USA)

Musical discovery and emotional intimacy intertwine in this portrait of retro L.A. indie label Wild Records and the bond between its Irish paterfamilias, Reb Kennedy, and his artist roster of mostly Mexican rockabilly cats.

No news on official theatrical or home video release at this time.

5. A Band Called Death (Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, USA)

The Rodriguez-like resurrection of Death, a trio of black brothers from Detroit who played punk rock before there was such a thing, makes for a heartwarming and bittersweet story of overdue recognition and fraternal ties.

Available on DVD, iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Instant Video and many more digital and VOD services.

6. Muscle Shoals (Greg “Freddy” Camalier, USA)

It goes on a mite too long and features perhaps a celebrity soundbite too many, but Camalier’s film conjures a deeply satisfying sense of how personality and place shaped a tiny Alabama town into a soul music mecca.

Now playing in theaters and available on iTunes. Arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on February 25th.

7. Springsteen & I (Baillie Walsh, UK)

This crowd-sourced doc composed of fan-made videos manages, somewhat surprisingly, to set aside (or at least contextualize) mush and gush to get at not just how people worship the Boss but why.

Available on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes.

8. A.K.A. Doc Pomus (Will Hechter and Peter Miller, USA/Canada)

Channeling its subject’s generous spirit and making the most of the archive/interview doc toolkit, A.K.A. Doc Pomus pays affectionate and incisive tribute to the late, great composer who poured physical struggle and emotional turmoil into some of the most enduring songs of the last century.

Now playing in theaters and on XBOX VOD. Arrives on iTunes in January.

9. The Great Hip Hop Hoax (Jeanie Finlay, UK)

Chronicling the misadventures of two Scottish lads who passed themselves off at the highest echelons of the music biz as brash California rappers, Finlay’s film is an entertaining rollick that swerves into unexpectedly dark corners.

Available on DVD, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

10. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Sophie Huber, Switzerland)

Seamus McGarvey’s lustrous cinematography and Stanton’s wracked, cracked vocals on a clutch of folk and country standards fill in the spaces left by the elusive actor and singer’s unwillingness to play the part of documentary subject.

Now playing in theaters. No news on home video release.

Honorable mentions:
Death Metal Angola (Jeremy Xido, USA/Angola)
Downloaded (Alex Winter, USA)

When he’s not watching, writing about, or thinking about music films, Andy Markowitz is a content wrangler for hire with more than 20 years experience as a journalist and critic. He is a former editor of the alternative weekly Baltimore City Paper, where he won a national award for arts writing. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Guardian, Transitions Online, TimeOutPrague, and Cinefantastique Magazine, among other publications. Andy is currently based in Sheffield, UK, home of Def Leppard, Heaven 17, and Pulp. The first album he ever bought was Led Zeppelin IV.