The past few years have been something of a golden age for music documentaries, with the Oscar-winning success of Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom opening up the field for films about less obvious stars. Lately there have been a flood of movies about cult bands, forgotten local acts, and background players — and even a few docs, like Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, that have found new ways to approach some of the most popular musicians of the past half-century. Netflix has done so well with music-themed films that it commissioned its own, What Happened, Miss Simone?; and thanks in part to art-house patrons, Blu-ray buyers, and premium-cable subscribers, the market for movies about musicians has become lucrative enough that even long-shelved projects like The Wrecking Crew and the arty Leon Russell sketch A Poem Is a Naked Person have seen the light of day. It’s a marvelous time to be a music buff.
The list of 50 documentaries below features old classics, new favorites, and a few films that deserve a wider audience. It touches on pop, hip-hop, rock, punk, R&B, jazz, country, and folk; collectively, it tells a story of art forms, cultures, and business models in transition. Most important, these documentaries (and exceptional concert films, in case you were wondering) contain performances that are as essential to understanding these artists as any of their records. Think of these 50 titles (plus the 25 honorable mentions appended at the end) as a time capsule, ready to be opened today, next year, or decades from now.