13 Essential Music-Festival Documentaries

Photo: Warner Brothers/Alamy Stock Photo

In the beginning, there was Woodstock. And Woodstock.

In fairness, Woodstock did not invent the music festival, nor did Woodstock invent the festival film. Jazz on a Summer’s Day arrived a decade earlier. Festival beat it by three years, Monterey Pop by two. But when it comes to festival culture, Woodstock is the hinge between before and after.

Woodstock established the music festival as a moment-defining institution, one teeming with utopian promise gesturing toward something philosophically, politically, and spiritually greater than simply music. Woodstock cemented this perception, rendering the upstate New York gathering the borderline platonic form against which nearly every other festival is measured and understood. Summer of Soul’s Harlem Cultural Festival was dubbed Black Woodstock. Message to Love’s Isle of Wight Festival was the anti-Woodstock. Even its predecessor Monterey Pop is often considered, not unjustifiably, the proto-Woodstock.

Although the majority of the cinematic action here is people either playing instruments or hanging out, festival films are thematically ambitious, presenting their subjects as watershed moments and artistic zeniths that stretch beyond cultural significance into sociopolitical history. Filmmakers contend that their respective festivals are catalysts and barometers of political and cultural sea change. They are either utopian projects or, in the case of Message to Love, failed utopian ones. Festivals require a romantic removal of the self from everyday society in pursuit of an art form that is by default temporal, and it’s easy to project outsize significance from there. We want music to facilitate peace, love, and understanding where other efforts have failed. And, at least for the duration of the festival, attendees look directly into the camera and swear it does.

Beyond acting as documents, festival films are mythmaking exercises, lionizing performers and projecting lofty ideological weight to the endeavor. Woodstock’s enduring place in our cultural consciousness is almost entirely the work of Woodstock, not the other way around. The same is true of Beychella and Homecoming. The actual event is never enough, particularly if it happened before the internet did. That the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, headlined by Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder, went unseen for decades prior to its rediscovery via Summer of Soul is proof.

Festival films are constantly reminding you that it’s never just about the music. (Gladys Knight says this verbatim in Summer of Soul.) Wattstax splits its screen time between the actual performances and interviews with Black Angelenos on life in America. Under the Electric Sky declares Electric Daisy Carnival the domain of kids who sat alone at lunch, finally free to be who they are. Even Made in America, which is more of an elongated commercial for Jay-Z than a festival film, attempts shallow meditations on the American Dream in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

That said, they’re not that serious. Festival movies do not demand devoted concentration. Festival movies are also fashion movies, from Theolonius Monk’s bamboo clubmasters in Jazz on a Summer’s Day to Mama Cass’s saucer-size butterfly ring in Monterey Pop to Rufus Thomas’s pinker-than-pink short suit and cape combo in Wattstax. Above all else, festival movies are vibe movies, which is to say a successful one replicates how it felt to be there. The very best ones go one step further. Not only is this a whole vibe, they contend. It’s a vibe of enormous historical and cultural significance.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

Arguably the first festival film ever made, Jazz on a Summer’s Day is both an engrossing time capsule and an obvious passion project by some serious jazz fans — in this case, the late great fashion photographer Bert Stern and pioneering independent filmmaker Aram Avakian. Filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in vivid color and tight frames, it drips with the languid sweetness of summer, braiding performance footage with lingering audience shots and picturesque scenes from the nearby America’s Cup yacht races. Stern’s photographic sensibilities make him a master people-watcher and moment-catcher: college students dancing on the roof of a beach house, a portly man snapping while chomping on a cigar, and the Yale jazz ensemble cruising around town, upright bass horizontal across the backseat. True to Newport style, everyone looks absolutely alive with pleasure, and the film is positively breezy for it. Louis Armstrong only stops smiling long enough to put his lips to the trumpet. Dinah Washington takes a glorious turn on marimba midway through “All Of Me,” grinning from chandelier earring to chandelier earring. Anita O’Day’s vocal ping pong with drummer John Poole during “Tea For Two” is as mesmerizing as it is delightful. With Chuck Berry bouncing through “Sweet Little Sixteen” and the benefit of hindsight, Jazz on a Summer’s Day teeters enticingly on the brink of the 1960s. But what makes it remarkable is that it is a totally engrossing and enjoyable festival film first, and a historical document or subject of nostalgic fascination second.

Streaming on the Criterion Channel

Festival (1967)

Seemingly moments before naked hippies and dismembered guitars took over festival culture and festival films, music documentarian Murray Lerner released the aptly named Festival about Newport’s other long-running and globally celebrated musical gathering. Combining four installments of Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1966, Festival is a heartfelt black-and-white portrait of American music played to a smartly dressed crowd in plaid button-ups and thick horn-rimmed glasses. Musicians and attendees alike offer thoughts on folk music as an art form and a vehicle for social change, the latter paired artfully with a few lines from Donovan’s performance of anti-Vietnam protest song “The Ballad of a Crystal Man.” Lerner devotes significant time to performances from headliners Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, including most of “Maggie’s Farm” from the latter’s wildly controversial electric debut in 1965. But even more wonderfully preserved here is the prior generation of folk and blues musicians. Mississippi John Hurt sings “Candy Man” to a crowd not even half his age; Son House explains the nature of the blues — “B-L-U-S-E!” — in close-up between shots of him strumming his Style O resonator guitar. Elsewhere Joan Baez offers meaningful insights on fame and the occasional bon mot — “Come out nonviolently or I’ll kill ya,” she quips as fans swarm her for autographs. The music is predictably brilliant, but Lerner and his subjects’ deep affection for the American musical tradition is what sets the tone and makes the film so irresistible.

Streaming on the Criterion Channel

Monterey Pop (1968)

Although now cemented in pop culture history as the great pre-Woodstock festival, part of the appeal of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival is its freedom from the outsize cultural and philosophical baggage hung upon its juggernaut successor. The festival and D.A. Pennebaker’s accompanying Monterey Pop doc are still beholden to a mid-60s flowers-in-your-hair optimism, self-contained and loose in a way Woodstock and Woodstock simply are not. Jefferson Airplane and the Who take the stage dressed like paisley sorcerers. Brian Jones, alive and well, strolls the grounds. Janis Joplin is (for the very last time) the relatively unknown singer fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company, causing a visibly stunned Cass Elliot’s jaw to drop during “Ball and Chain.” Although he sweeps his camera over festival goers and the general scene, Pennebaker edits the performances down to size and fires them off in quick succession: Country Joe and the Fish’s meandering “Section 43,” right onto Otis Redding pouring himself into “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” followed immediately by Jimi Hendrix dry humping his amp to “Wild Thing” before setting his Stratocaster alight. Like Jazz on a Summer’s Day before it, Monterey Pop’s direct cinema approach to the performances and the people let both things captivate for their own sake. And my goodness, that Ravi Shankar finale is nothing short of captivating.

Streaming on HBO Max

Woodstock (1970)

It’s not an overstatement that Woodstock’s singular place in the popular imagination has everything to do with how effectively filmed and edited Woodstock is. Director Michael Wadleigh arrived in Bethel early, stayed late, and shot 120 hours of footage in between. Seven editors (including a pair of plucky film-school grads named Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese) whittled it down in time to screen it at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It then netted Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, cleaned up at the box office and made Roger Ebert declare that it “may be the best documentary ever made in America.” All that footage is put to good use with near-constant split-screen effects, which serve to make artful diptychs of the audience and give the performances an increasingly psychedelic quality. What Monterey Pop set in motion culminates here: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have trimmed the fat and the fringe from their style and music, Grace Slick exudes a confidence unseen in 1967, a barefoot Janis Joplin cements herself in the pantheon. The dynamic cameras and the hallucinatory editing — there’s no shortage of layering, mirroring, or switching up the aspect ratio — are seductive and sensory, preserving a sociocultural mood at its zenith and the era’s most gifted musicians in their prime. The film takes pains to make Woodstock feel miraculous. At this it succeeds.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

The Concert for Bangladesh (1972)

While not technically a festival, George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden either pioneered or made good use of multiple staples of modern festival culture: the surprise guest (Bob Dylan), a valiant attempt at a major band reunion (which failed to materialize when Paul McCartney refused outright and John Lennon backed out over Harrison’s stipulation that Yoko Ono could not also appear), and the charitable-benefit angle. Benefit concerts were virtually unheard of in the early 1970s; Harrison almost single-handedly invented them because, as he says in the movie-opening press conference, “I was asked by a friend if I’d help, that’s all.” Alerted by Ravi Shankar to the plight of East Pakistani refugees fleeing the genocide and famine caused by the Bangladesh Liberation War, Harrison took to his Rolodex. He assembled Ringo on drums and Eric Clapton on guitar, plus Leon Russell and Billy Preston on keys, the latter in fine form during a soulful rendition of “That’s the Way God Planned It” that lifts the entire arena. The Concert for Bangladesh is filmed simply and directly, a straightforward document of an event more concerned with raising awareness of a humanitarian crisis than the collective consciousness. The audience is heard but rarely seen; Shankar drolly responds to their applause after he finishes tuning with, “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” The Concert for Bangladesh is admittedly light on moments like those, and the actual concert’s impact is arguably significantly greater than that of its film. But if you’re into the Quiet One, then play this film loud.

Available on DVD

Glastonbury Fayre (1972)

The festival film arguably arrives in the 1970s with Glastonbury Fayre, a homespun and handheld account of the second-ever Glastonbury, with naked mud wrestling, mutton chops, and motorcycles to boot. The music follows suit. With Terry Reid ripping through “Dean” to open the movie, Family breaking out a flute and a multi-neck guitar, and the Arthur Brown-led Kingdom Come in menacing face paint, it’s evident the spiraling psychedelia and dreamy folk of the previous decade is evolving into something heavier, proggier, more baroque, and increasingly sinister. That’s not to imply that the crowd had abandoned free love or flower crowns, neither of which are in short supply among attendees assuming both the lotus and missionary positions in the green fields of Somerset. Back at the campsite, the camera dutifully documents drum circles and a tent-side Catholic Mass celebrated by a priest who is most likely the oldest person in the entire movie. Glasto devotees will appreciate scenes of the inaugural construction of the now-iconic Pyramid Stage, already disintegrating by the movie’s end. Otherwise, Glastonbury Fayre’s strongest performance (and its finale) is Traffic’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” shot in close range as it brings the entire audience to their feet. Footage of headliners David Bowie and Joan Baez is notably absent, but the greatest and most British understatement of Glastonbury is not: “It tends to be a bit muddy. Have you brought any boots with you?”

Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

Wattstax (1973)

Wattstax is a difficult festival film to characterize, partially because entire swaths of it do not take place at or even discuss the 1972 Watts Summer Festival. It exists deliberately within the context of the 1965 Watts riots, a six-day explosion of racial unrest triggered by a traffic-stop confrontation between a 21-year-old Black man and a white California Highway Patrol officer. Wattstax was organized specifically to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the riots, which the film uses as an entrée into a larger portrait of the nature of Black life in 1970s America. Director Mel Stuart runs through the performances from Albert King, the Staples Singers, and The Bar-Kays with one-and-done efficiency, regularly cutting away from the last half of a song to an extended interview with Richard Pryor or external discussions among Watts residents. Over montages of storefront churches and local street life, Stuart’s camera sits in on discussions of the Black church experience, interracial relationships, the built-in camaraderie of the power shake, the cops, the blues, and more. The people are the point, both those interviewed and the 100,000-plus attendees in floppy hats, matching dashikis, minidresses, and bell bottoms held up with suspenders. Perhaps even more deliberately than Woodstock and Woodstock before it, Wattstax portrays Wattstax as not just a festival but as the gathering where a distinct ideological, cultural, political, and artistic moment coalesced to ascend to historical significance. It looks good doing it, too.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

Message to Love (1995)

Filmed at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 but unreleased until 1995, Murray Lerner’s Message to Love is a brutal portrayal of the dismantling of hippie culture at the hands of capitalism that flatters neither side. The darkness, explosive anger, and outright cynicism of the film and its subjects makes Festival’s mid-’60s folksiness feel almost quaint. In the opening minutes alone, emcee and producer Rikki Farr screams at gatecrashers, then the Who’s Roger Daltrey shreds his vocal cords on “Young Man Blues,” the band’s second most famous but far meaner anthem to generational disillusionment. Whatever hippie virtues are still professed in short interviews, the comedown from the 1960s is written across everyone’s faces. Message to Love watches reality set in on festival culture, depicted in tense scenes of promoters squabbling over contracts and gatecrashers clashing with cops. Unlike most other films on this list, Message to Love has real stakes and genuine conflict. “This festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp where people are being exploited!” shouts one radical into the stage microphone in protest of the three-pound admission price, inadvertently revealing the emptiness of his dying era’s ideology. Another gatecrasher interrupts Joni Mitchell’s set just as she finishes “Woodstock,” an accidental requiem if there ever was one, only to be dragged offstage by cops. She’s visibly shaken as she appeals to the audience for respect. There’s plenty more where that came from. It’s a real bad trip, but one hell of a film.

Available on DVD

Glastonbury: The Movie In Flashback (1996)

The second of three Glastonbury-focused films made since the early 1970s, the bewilderingly titled Glastonbury: The Movie in Flashback is the vibe-iest of festival vibe films. Not only does it effectively capture the Midsummer spirit of the 1993 festival long before it served as the stomping grounds of supermodels in mud-caked Hunter wellies, it also provides a remarkable window into the state of British music right before Britpop and the Cool Britannia mania of the Blair years swallowed everything. The music is droney, ravey, psychedelic, heavily rhythmic, and still weird. Stereo MCs, Spiritualized, Ozric Tentacles, the Orb all make brief appearances, befitting this version of Glasto that is utterly focused on the mystical. The camera lingers on blood-red sunsets and blue dawns. It pans over chanting Hare Krishnas and late-night raves, periodically using light leaks and motion blur to make the visuals feel appropriately druggy, if a little dated. Ventriloquists, sitar players, and jugglers entertain the campsite, where the movie spends the most time. “Glastonbury is first and foremost a pagan festival,” notes a festival-goer in a brief man-on-the-street-style interview, and Glastonbury agrees. In the process, it checks off plenty of festival-film boxes: the Woodstock split screen, the occasional interview but lack of narration, and a fixation on attendees. The film spends far more time with the audience than the musicians, then wraps it up in a blissed-out, 80-minute package. If “Worthy Farm” means nothing to you, this isn’t for you. If it does, try it out.

Streaming on PlutoTV

Under the Electric Sky (2014)

Under the Electric Sky is a bit of a departure, genre-wise, from the rest of this list. Although Skrillex makes an appearance during Made in America, the vast majority of music-festival movies focus on pop and rock, broadly speaking. This isn’t difficult to explain. For one thing, dance music from ’70s disco onward was the domain of dark clubs and hours-long sets. Bad lighting aside, it’s also difficult to convey cinematically a genre of music that exists to be experienced physically. Nevertheless, when EDM went nuclear in the United States, festival promoters seized the moment and a camera, and out popped Under the Electric Sky. Filmed at Electric Daisy Carnival 2013 in Las Vegas, Under the Electric Sky will give you genuine PTSD over the shameless garishness of the early 2010s. It follows a handful of festival attendees — including a group of insufferable douchebags who call themselves the Wolf Pack and shotgun beers on the top of their aunt’s RV (which they trash) — as they make their way through the forest of shutter shades, neon mesh, Native headdresses, furry hoods with animal ears, “FREE HUGS” signs, and ecstasy’d-out 21-year-olds trading candy (beaded bracelets, for the uninitiated) with a cop because the P.L.U.R. mentality will save the world. Or something. Performance footage is kept to a minimum, but slow-mo shots of attendees making out in front of the Ferris wheel are a regular feature. “It’s almost like Woodstock reinvented,” gushes Armin Van Buren. Reader, it is not.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video

Made in America (2014)

Was 2012 really so long ago? With its cloying Obama-era optimism and the mere presence of Miike Snow, Ron Howard and Jay-Z’s account of the 2012 Made in America festival certainly makes it feel that way. Whatever nostalgia you might have for the lineup acts can’t save it either, seeing as the film spends minimal time on the performances and so much time pressing lineup artists to talk about the American Dream. (They even ask Hives frontman Pelle Almqvist, who is most definitely Swedish, and it’s still not the most cringeworthy moment in the film.) Jay-Z spends most of Made in America doing a laughable man-of-the-people cosplay, citing his journey from Marcy Houses to the big time as proof that “we all have the same struggles and the same dreams.” (Do we though?) D’Angelo talks about the Tea Party. Odd Future-era Tyler, The Creator talks about how he likes bright colors. Jay-Z talks about the club he opened in the Barclays Center in one of several truly brazen moments of naked advertising. The disjointed snippets of the actual performances that actually make the final cut are terribly lit and barely in focus. Worst of all, Made in America commits the cardinal sin of the festival film: It sounds godawful. Not that it really matters, since this is a 93-minute Jay-Z commercial. Still, that sound engineer did Pearl Jam and Passion Pit — remember them? — so dirty. Were we ever so naïve?

Streaming on Tubi

Homecoming (2019)

Perhaps we could be purists about Homecoming, which is a film about a festival headline set rather than a film about a festival in its totality. But realistically, does anyone remember anything else about Coachella 2018 besides Beyoncé? She obliterated the rest of that year’s festival and remade it in her own image; “Beychella” remains imprinted in the cultural lexicon. All of this was by design, and preserved by Homecoming. The movie is nothing if not a massively successful instance of contemporary mythmaking, enshrining the actual performance as a Zeitgeist-defining moment while positioning its star within a narrative of triumph over adversity. With digressions on her difficult second pregnancy and behind-the-scenes footage, Homecoming presents a many-splendored Beyoncé: consummate performer, loving wife and mother, spiritual guardian to her marching band and a small army of dancers, and benevolent artistic dictator, driven forth by the pursuit of perfection and her lofty ideals of representation, community, and liberation. And it works! Seen from every possible angle and spliced together using footage from both weekends, the actual performance is dizzying and mesmerizing in its sheer maximalism. Bey is rarely alone onstage, flanked by step dancers and backed by a marching band. The music rarely pauses. Everything glitters, from the Nefertiti headdress to the updated “Survivor” camouflage outfits worn during the Destiny’s Child reunion segment. It’s dazzling, and it crystallizes the Beyoncé myth in short order. Made in America could never!

Streaming on Netflix

Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

No disrespect to sourdough or its starters, but Questlove’s Oscar-winning docu-ode to “Black Woodstock” is perhaps the pandemic project par excellence. Stitched together from 40 hours of footage that languished for decades in producer Hal Tulchin’s basement, Summer of Soul lets the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival finally see the light of day with a generous helping of hindsight. The film takes pains to position the multi-weekend festival as a watershed cultural moment within a complex historical one; Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples’ spirited rendition of “Take My Hand Precious Lord” sung in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated a year prior, is the film’s de facto centerpiece. Highlighting everything from the ebullient gospel of the Edwin Hawkins Singers to the psychedel-ified funk of Sly and the Family Stone to Motown mainstay David Ruffin hitting that high note in “My Girl”, it captures a compelling artistic splintering happening within Black popular music at the time, and it does so in front of a styled-out audience. Most of Summer of Soul’s obligatory music-doc talking heads are the performers and audience members themselves, there to underscore the profound personal impact the event had on them and provide backstory. It’s always useful and often interesting, such as when the Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. reflect on being a Black group with a smash hit culled from Hair and hippie culture. Regardless, the music, televised at last, is the point.

Streaming on Hulu
13 Essential Music-Festival Documentaries