The 7 Must-See Music Documentaries of 2016

We list the best concert films and musician profiles of the year.

One evening shortly after the election, I climbed into bed and searched in vain for something to watch and end the evening with. The heaviness, dread, and confusion that followed November 8th had naturally extended to popular culture. Entertainment for it’s own sake suddenly seemed irresponsibly escapist while politically aware works resonated as all the more essential yet, at the same time, too much to bear. Newly fraught was the relatively unimportant but previously routine task of watching something in order to give my mind some temporary peace and get up the next day to get to work — both practically speaking in terms of my day job and in the longer-term sense of working against this country’s enduring but newly energized forces of hatred.

It was in this context that I viewed Jonathan Demme’s concert documentary Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids in a way that would have been far different had I watched the film upon its Netflix debut several weeks before. Under the specter of dystopia, a film that celebrated dance and sexual expression seemed almost revolutionary — less like the fan-targeted inevitable byproduct of the music industry that many concert documentaries are and more like an unapologetic and lively celebration of exuberance. Timberlake is far from the ideal figure to fuse politics and popular culture in 2016, but Demme’s film in this context served as a reminder that a body, through dance and song, can be a vessel for expressing freedom. It’s a message that echoed in this moment as something vitally important to remember and hold onto in the dark days ahead.

As many a film theorist and critic have said, all of cinema is political. And nonfiction is perhaps the most overtly political mode of filmmaking. For this year in particular, the multifaceted political possibilities of music documentaries bore a specifically resonant tenor, putting on display the many things that both music and documentaries can do. Here is a selection of titles that are certainly worth your time.

Breaking a Monster

Perhaps the most transparent as-it-unfolds documentary about the music business since The Target Shoots First, Luke Meyer’s Breaking a Monster follows Brooklyn-based tween metal band Unlocking the Truth as they rise from anonymity into corporate stagnation, from breakout viral sensation to the slow-moving train of big labelhood. As has been covered since the film’s debut on the festival circuit, much of this story’s continued drama occurred after the cameras stopped rolling. But Breaking a Monster remains a remarkably candid look at how the corporate business works today, especially as the film juxtaposes the cautious system of branding with the spontaneity of Internet fame and the restlessness of creative youth.

Watch it on Netflix.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Thorsten Schütte’s archival documentary focuses less on Zappa’s musicianship (though there is plenty of that here) and more on Zappa the media critic. Zappa was a vocal commentator about television, politics, and the commercial norms through which the two intersect, and he frequently espoused his observations of such subjects via the very institutions he criticized. Eat That Question’s archival approach makes it not only a fascinating document of Zappa the public figure, but an examination of how Zappa navigated his relationship to media and politics through media and politics, from his first John Cage-inspired variety show performances to the production of 200 Motels to his testimony against the Parents Music Resource Center to his final observations about publicly living with cancer. Eat That Question is a vital and revealing work about an artist both challenging and working through the limits of mass commercial culture.

Rent it on Amazon.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

Netflix exhibits numerous concert documentaries of the music and stand-up variety, and many of its titles resemble — cinematically speaking — little more than functional recordings of performances. The director of Stop Making Sense illuminates what more conventional approaches to filming the stage are missing. Demme opens the film with a concise introduction of the “Tennessee Kids,” Timberlake’s backing band, as well as the tour’s crew. This shrewd move frames what would otherwise be a showcase surrounding a single pop megastar as a collaborative project, removing the anonymity of those who labored on and off stage to make this Las Vegas event happen. Thus, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids is at once a document of an enthralling stage performance and an observation of the complex work that makes such a thing possible.

Watch it on Netflix.

Miss Sharon Jones!

2016 saw the loss of more than its fair share of talented musicians, with soul singer Sharon Jones amongst them. Barbara Kopple’s portrait of Jones as she struggles to get her work back on track while undergoing cancer treatment is not a predictable survivor story (especially in light of her recent passing). Miss Sharon Jones! shows the network of people — professional collaborators who make for a close-knit family — dependent upon this fiercely independent musician, and puts at its forefront the question of how to make a living in art and performance within the unpredictable limitations of our bodies. The contrast between Jones’s body onstage and in treatment is devastating.

Rent it on Amazon.

One More Time with Feeling

Two years ago, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth spectacularly chronicled Nick Cave’s perspective on rock music as routine artistic work, a continued production of self out into the world. Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling offers a more inward-looking image of Cave’s process as he records the album Skeleton Tree, his first after the tragic loss of his son. Although the incident that shadows over the album is not mentioned directly until halfway into the film, One More Time with Feeling’s examination of art as process avoids searching for catharsis, peace, or even greater meaning in making music after — in response to — a new, devastating reality. Defiantly irresolute, Dominik’s film sees art as part of the continued cycle of life, not a key to unlocking its mysteries.

Pre-order the Blu-ray, out March 3, 2017.

Presenting Princess Shaw

For me, this is 2016’s biggest music documentary surprise. Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw was advertised as a YouTube era, real-life Star is Born, but it is actually an inventive examination of the global circulation of music in the digital era. Combining observational filmmaking with an archive of Internet videos, Presenting Princess Shaw depicts its title subject’s (Samantha Montgomery) unlikely collaboration with Israeli musician Kutiman as an inevitable product of amateur and professional musicians’ everyday interaction with new media, and astutely observes the blurring line between Montgomery’s private life and Princess Shaw’s increasingly public one. This, in contrast to far more successful documentaries of obscure musicians finding renown in the digital age, is the insightful glimpse into music in the 21st century that we need.

Watch it on Netflix.

Sonita

Continuing 2016’s glut of interesting documentaries about YouTube stars, Sundance hit Sonita observes the life and music of Afghanistan-born teenager and aspiring rapper Sonita Alizadeh as she navigates a way out of being sold into marriage by her mother while living as an immigrant in Iran. Alizadeh begs her documentarian, Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, to do something to get her out of her hopeless situation. Ghaemmaghami initially refuses, believing that her intervention would exist beyond the bounds of a documentarian’s responsibility. But she eventually gets involved, filming a music video for Alizadeh that goes viral and serves as her ticket to a better future. Beyond the film’s urgent subject matter, Sonita is an inquiry into a filmmaker’s responsibility for her subject and a powerfully timely argument that there is nothing apolitical about silent observation in the face of injustice.

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