The Last Waltz and Music Documentaries

The recent death of The Band's Levon Helm brought back fond memories of watching The Last Waltz. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film documents The Band's final show in 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom and is considered one of the best concert films ever produced.

Listening recently to his 2007 Fresh Air interview, I learned that Helm wasn't very keen on having a big farewell but went along with it. The concert featured all the major players in the folk, country, and rock scenes of the time including Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison (in a very memorable bedazzled maroon leisure suit giving a passionate rendition of Caravan complete with high kicks).

Music documentaries are a tricky thing. So many, especially of the concert film variety, are done so poorly that I find I enjoy the featured musician less afterwards. Much like my attraction to music, a good one tells a story or challenges your thinking in a compelling way. Here are some of the good ones in my opinion:

  • Fearless Freaks: The Wondrously Improbable Story of the Flaming Lips - Fifteen years and over 400 hours of footage went into this amazing chronicle. It shows both the exuberant creativity and the grittiness that comes through in their music. The director, Bradley Beesley, has another crazy documentary called Okie Noodling (aka handfishing for 30 lb. catfish!) that's also worth a viewing.
  • I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco - Filmmaker Sam Jones stumbled into one of the most pivotal times in Wilco's career as they make the album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which is subsequently dropped by their label, and the disintegration of Jay Bennett's relationship with the band. Not only are these momentous events captured with commentary, but they are beautifully filmed and edited.
  • Danielson: A Family Movie (Or, Make a Joyful Noise Here) - Danielson is a very polarizing band/musician. The music can be jolting and vocals shrill and then there's his Christian faith and lyrics that come out of that. Oh, and he dresses up like a tree for solo shows and they wear nurses uniforms as a band. If that doesn't entice you enough, he also launched Sufjan Stevens' career which is included in this film. His shows are some of the most engaging I've ever attended and this film helps explain why.
  • No Direction Home - Another Scorsese film, it focuses on Bob Dylan's career in the 60s. Less artistic than Pennebaker's Don't Look Back but much more informative and enlightening. I wish the rest of his career would get this sort of documentary treatment.
  • The Devil and Daniel Johnston - The debatable merits of Daniel Johnston's art aside, this film does an amazing job of compassionately portraying him as both troubled and endearing. His struggles with bipolar disorder are heart wrenching at times but seeing the incredible impact he has on people both through personal interactions and his art are inspiring.

What are your top music documentaries?  What classics are missing from my list? Looking forward to some new recommendations.

Written by Bobby on May 10, 2012


KristinG on May 11, 2012


My family are big fans of Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a film masterpiece of concert and documentary. (DPL has it, too!)


Sounds good. I'm reading Neil Young's bio, Shakey, right now so it should be a nice compliment. Also, it looks like the same director has another Young film coming out at the end of June. Here's the trailer:

Anonymous on May 11, 2012


Thank you for this list; there are a few I haven't seen yet.

Though not quite a documentary in the traditional sense, the Burn to Shine series is wonderful for anyone who loves watching musicians do their thing. It's made by a company who employs Fugazi's Brendan Canty. So far there are four out, and plans for more.

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