Tune In, Turn On: The Best Music Docs of 2021

This year the streaming services runneth over with quality content for every music fan

Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Image: Showtime)

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the perfect time to catch up on your TV cache.

It was indeed a big year for superior music documentaries and docu-series, available on streaming services and by subscription as well as on-demand. And let’s not forget old fashioned basic cable, at least for those with access to AXS-TV.

Here are 12 of the best watches from this year.

 

1. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (Apple TV+)

This is the best thing on any screen anywhere and no one’s watching it. The eight-part, 45 minutes each docu-series focuses on how the music of the titular year had an impact on culture and politics, and vice versa. The sheer volume of music released by iconic musicians that year is staggering. Topical episodes are explored through archival images, video and audio, with no talking heads in sight. An absolute must-see.

 

VIDEO: 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything film trailer 

 

2. Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm (On Demand)

If you’re an appreciator of Britpop, then you know all about this studio on a farm in Wales where so many of that era’s landmark albums were recorded. Rockfield has a much bigger legend than that brief moment in the ‘90s, however, as it is where heavy metal was born with Black Sabbath and where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. Studio tales are recounted by the owners and their families, as well as from a cross-section of musicians. Charming and informative at the same time.

 

VIDEO: Rockfield trailer 

 

3. Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James (Showtime)

Bitchin’ is the latest in the string of documentaries that have been made about Rick James, whose life and outrageous behavior are neck and neck with his groundbreaking music. James’ antics, on-stage and off, his rampant drug use and shocking exploits provide the kind of material that won’t let you look away, caught up in both the beauty and the destruction that unfolds over the course of his life. 

 

VIDEO: Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James film trailer

 

4. This is Pop (Netflix)

This is Pop is eight 44-minute episodes, each exploring a different aspect of pop music in its various iterations. From the hitmaking teams in Sweden to country music, boy bands, Britpop, festivals, the Brill Building and Auto-Tune, the non-linear approach to the wide-ranging genre works extremely well. The common thread across the episodes is the clever humor with which the topics are tackled. Really, the only way to do it.

 

VIDEO: This Is Pop trailer

 

5. Mr. Saturday Night (HBO)

Part of the Music Box series of brief, but comprehensive music documentaries, this particular one turns the spotlight on Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees’ manager, also the producer of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, plus the label owner who released the second biggest soundtrack of all time. Stigwood is an intriguing guy and this film serves as a nice companion to the stellar 2020 documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, also on HBO.

 

VIDEO: Mr. Saturday Night film trailer

 

6. Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (Apple TV+)

You don’t have to have any interest in the global sensation that is Billie Eilish to get completely absorbed in this cinema verité style documentary. Every moment of her life has been documented and it’s skillfully cut together with a year’s worth of fly on the wall filming to give a full-screen picture. Eilish’s willingness to have the most private and painful parts of her life captured on camera makes this unlike any other film of its kind.

 

VIDEO: Billie Eilish The World’s A Little Blurry

 

7. Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson (Apple TV+)

Uber-producer Mark Ronson explores technological progress in making and recording music in topical episodes whose titles describe their content: Auto-Tune, Sampling, Reverb, Synthesizers, Drum Machine and Distortion. He gathers an impressive cross-section of guests to discuss these topics and creates an original piece of music that uses the episode’s topic as its centerpiece. Not dissimilar to This is Pop, but without the humor and a lot more taking itself seriously.

 

VIDEO: Watch The Sound With Mark Ronson

 

8. The Sparks Brothers (Netflix)

Director Edgar Wright tackles the long overdue documentary on this 50-year strong duo. The film retains the quirkiness and sense of humor of its subjects in its tone. Similarly, the mixture of talking heads—who clearly are more than willing to be part of this film—also get into the spirit and the wackiness that is always associated with the duo. Absolute cultural icons, the film does the duo justice.

 

VIDEO: The Sparks Brothers trailer

 

9. Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away (On Demand)

Every week should be Phil Lynott Appreciation Week. The late Thin Lizzy frontperson is criminally underrated and shamefully not receiving the accolades that are his due. Despite humble beginnings that were not only fraught with poverty, but with horrific racism, the prolific Lynott, who died far too young, left a formidable legacy. Featuring his bandmates, close friends and family, this film is a true tribute that feels as sad as it does triumphant. 

 

VIDEO: Phil Lynott: Songs From While I’m Away trailer

 

10. Icon: Music Through the Lens (PBS)

Imagery is such a huge part of music and the impact that musicians have. This six-part series, which runs an hour per episode, turns the camera onto music photographers. From the ‘60s to the present day, the talented individuals who captured unforgettable moments which are instantly recognizable, share their experiences through the thematic episodes. Worth watching just for the slideshows alone. 

 

VIDEO: Icon: Music Through The Lens trailer

 

11. Don’t Go Gentle: A Film About IDLES (On Demand)

It feels like IDLES came out of nowhere and are now everywhere. This short film, made by one of their fans, gets deep into the band and the personas inside it, their dynamics with each other and with their fans, where their music comes from, and how their personal lives inform what is happening musically. But most importantly, it unpacks AF Gang, the worldwide network of IDLES fans who provide a support system for each other that has grown bigger than the band itself. Fascinating stuff.

 

VIDEO: Don’t Go Gentle film trailer 

 

12. Tina (HBO)

If there ever was a story of triumph, it belongs to Tina Turner. The legendary entertainer’s story is well-known: plucked out of obscurity by Ike Turner who then abused her until she got herself out from his clutches only to rise much higher than she ever did with him, becoming an enduring figure in music and pop culture. Tina herself seems like the person least interested in her own story as she sits nonchalantly through her documentary, shrugging off her hardships and refusing to wallow. You gotta love her all the more for that. 

 

VIDEO: Tina Official Trailer

 

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Lily Moayeri

Lily Moayeri has been a freelance journalist since 1992. She has contributed to numerous publications including Billboard, NPR, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Spin, Los Angeles Magazine, A.V. Club, and more. Lily hosts the Pictures of Lily Podcast, a bi-weekly podcast about her interviewing experiences. She has participated as moderator and panelist at numerous music conferences. She has also served as a teacher librarian since 2004 focusing on guiding students in navigating the intersection of technology and education.

One thought on “Tune In, Turn On: The Best Music Docs of 2021

  • December 28, 2021 at 6:37 pm
    Permalink

    No Beatles

    No Velvet Underground

    WTF?

    Reply

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