12 Music Documentaries You Might Enjoy
Reviewed by Christopher Kent—July 2023
(Special thanks to Lynn Yost, who also watched these documentaries, for contributing comments and editorial suggestions.)
As I write this, Hollywood actors and writers are on strike. That means that new programming available for viewing on TV — and via streaming — will soon start to thin out. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some thoughts about a dozen enjoyable music documentaries I’ve seen in the past year. They cover a wide range of topics, from how music is created (or was created in the past), to intimate biographies of pop music notables. Hopefully, bringing these documentaries to your attention will help you pass the time with some enjoyable and informative viewing.
I’ve noted where each documentary is available (at least as I write this). Please note that the availability of any given documentary may change over time, and they may be available through outlets beside those I list. For example, if you don’t have access to a particular streaming service, or the documentary is no longer showing on that service, you may find it available for rent from iTunes or on YouTube. Enjoy!
PART 1: Creating Music, the Technology and the Industry
• Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019. 1 hr., 34 min.)
(Google Play, iTunes, Prime Video, YouTube, and other sources)
This is an awesome, entertaining documentary about how film soundtracks are made, including interviews with dozens of film luminaries. It clearly explains two things:
— First, it details how film soundtracks evolved over the years, from Thomas Edison’s early attempts to link sound with film, to the development of “talkies” in the 1920s, to the use of libraries of sound effects in the 40s and 50s, to the switch to stereo sound (pioneered by Barbara Streisand, remarkably) in the 70s, to today’s unbelievably sophisticated movie soundtracks.
— Second, it shows exactly how today’s movie soundtracks are created, involving seven different sound elements that are each managed by different individuals or teams, culminating with a sound editor mixing all of these elements into one “surround sound” track that brings the film to life.
It’s a beautifully made documentary, and it will give you a great appreciation for the amount of creativity, hard work and technology that goes into a film soundtrack—and how much it contributes to the storytelling power of film.
• The Wrecking Crew (2008. 1 hr., 41 min.)
(Peacock, Sling TV, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube)
The Wrecking Crew in the title was the nickname given to a group of studio musicians that, during the 1960s, played on an astonishing number of hit recordings. (Many of them later became successful artists themselves, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.) The film features archival footage, performances and interviews, along with contemporary commentary.
These musicians often were deliberately not credited on the records so that the record-buying public would think the group pictured on the cover was playing the instruments, rather than this expert group of musicians. Members of the Wrecking Crew played on thousands of popular tracks, and the list of hits they helped to create is like a list of the greatest hits of the 60s. In fact, a couple of these musicians played on every Grammy Awards Record of the Year, for seven years in a row!
Those of us who remember this era may recall that The Monkees saw their career go down in flames when it was revealed that they hadn’t played the instruments on their own recordings. The dirty secret, of course, was that neither had many of the most successful bands of the 1960s. The Monkees undoubtedly couldn’t reveal this fact without fearing for their safety! So they took the fall.
This film was made by Danny Tedesco, the son of one of the most-often used members of The Wrecking Crew, awesome guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Although the production values are hit and miss, this is a remarkable record of what was really going on in the 1960s music business, and the music is terrific. The interviews with the musicians, along with hearing many of the hits they played on, makes this a rewarding hour and a half for anyone who enjoyed — or enjoys — the hit records that came out in the 1960s!
• McCartney 3,2,1 (2021)
In this remarkable series of six half-hour interviews, well-known record producer Rick Rubin takes Paul McCartney back to Abbey Road Studios in London, where they play and discuss some of the original multi-track tapes of the Beatles’ recordings. Because they’re listening to the original studio tapes, Rubin is able to isolate different parts, such as McCartney’s bass line or John Lennon’s vocal. The result is an in-depth examination of how a number of their most famous tracks were recorded, and why the band members made specific musical choices at the time. (I definitely gained a new appreciation for McCartney’s bass playing!) In addition, Paul tells a number of stories about the band and their music that I’ve never heard or read anywhere else. If you’re a fan of the Beatles’ music (and who isn’t?), you’ll find this miniseries most engaging and enlightening.
• Now Hear This
(PBS—an annual part of the Great Performances series)
This series on PBS, created by its host, orchestra conductor and first-class violinist Scott Yoo, offers fascinating profiles of different composers (some classical, some modern) in each episode. The show’s format takes us to the locations in which each composer lived and worked, making the program also a gorgeous travelogue.
In each episode we get to hear many samples of the music written by the featured composer, played for us by top musicians with Scott Yoo participating, sometimes accompanied by his wife, flautist and music professor Alice Dade. Contemporary experts and artists discuss the lives of the composer and how their circumstances (and sometimes their mental health) influenced their work. So the show features a winning combination of beautiful visits to exotic locations, revelations about the composers, and wonderful performances showing us why they’re considered great. It also helps that the host is charming and a first-class musician; he’s fun to watch and listen to.
The program has produced four episodes a year. In the first two seasons, the shows exclusively focused on well-known classical composers, but in recent years, Yoo has profiled more contemporary composers. Season one features Vivaldi, Bach, Scarlatti and Handel; season two covers Hayden, Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. Season three profiles American composers of note, including Amy Beach, Florence Price, Aaron Copland and in the fourth episode, a variety of different American composers.
In season four — the most recent at this writing — the first episode profiles Astor Pizzalla, known for his music that’s central to the popularity of the tango. In that episode we travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and learn about the development of the dance, as well as the history of the artist, and also learn a bit about the food and culture of Buenos Aires. (You get the idea.) The following three episodes discuss Robert Schumann, contemporary artist Andy Akiho, who uses the steel drum and “found” instruments to create music with multiple collaborators, and Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz, often associated with flamenco dancing, which includes visits to spectacular locations in Spain. Both visually and musically, Now Hear This is a wonderful series.
• Bathtubs Over Broadway (2018. 1 hr., 17 min.)
(Netflix, Apple TV, YouTube, Google Play)
This multiple-award-winning documentary reveals a peculiar phenomenon that few people have ever seen or heard: corporate musicals! For the most part, these productions — often very elaborate — were created for the benefit of sales people, intended to be shown or presented at sales conferences to inspire greater profits for the company. Companies engaging in this included General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Coca Cola and Xerox, among countless others. The musical numbers sing the praises of the products in question—everything from toilets to gasoline to soda—and encourage energetic salesmanship. Most were created during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, though a few are apparently still being created today.
While this may sound silly, many future Broadway superstars cut their teeth (and paid their bills) creating or singing in these musicals. Famous participants include Sheldon Harnick, cocreator of Fiddler On the Roof, John Kander and Fred Ebb, cocreators of Cabaret and Chicago, actors Chita Rivera and Florence Henderson, and comedian Martin Short. Many of these folks are interviewed in the documentary.)
These productions were intended only for the company employees to see, leading to very few people outside of those groups being aware of them. At the same time, the amount of money spent on some of them put major Broadway productions to shame. As noted in the documentary, the Broadway production of My Fair Lady in the 1950s cost less than a million dollars to stage, while a corporate musical created the same year cost $3 million to put on.
All of this came to light because of Steve Young, a comedy writer for Late Night with David Letterman. Originally tasked with finding weird recordings for Letterman to play on the air, Young kept finding recordings of these corporate musicals. Eventually, finding even more of them became an obsession; ultimately, he began tracking down some of the folks involved, resulting in a series of interviews and this documentary.
The film is a little slow in parts, and I wouldn’t have minded even more extensive clips of the musicals, but it’s certainly interesting and fun to watch. One highlight is that at the end of the film Young presents an original musical number done in the style of the corporate musicals, cowritten with one of the masters of this genre, including some of the artists who made a living — for a while at least — performing in these musicals. It’s a hoot! It’s also worth sticking around for the original song Young wrote about the whole experience, which he sings over the credits at the end.
• Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson (2021)
This is a six-part series hosted by hit record producer Mark Ronson (perhaps best known for producing Uptown Funk, Bruno Mars’ Grammy winning Record of the Year in 2016). Each of the six episodes focuses on a different music technology, showing how it’s been used by artists and producers, and includes extensive interviews with dozens of them. The six topics covered are: auto-tune, sampling, reverb, synthesizers, drum machines and distortion. Whether or not you know anything about these technologies, this is a very enjoyable overview of each one.
Each episode is completely different; a good approach might be to just watch the ones featuring something that happens to be of interest to you. While I wasn’t excited by the episode on sampling, for instance, the episode on reverb was fascinating. (It includes several trips to the most echo-y location on earth — an underground concrete fuel tank the size of a football field, now empty. Getting inside it is not for the claustrophobic!) I learned a lot about how auto-tune works; the history of drum machines and why different sounding machines ended up in different musical genres; and how different artists feel about the use of distortion. The series offers a fun exploration of each technology, including a number of memorable interviews with famous (and not-so-famous) artists.
PART 2: Artist Biographies
• Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (2021. 1 hr., 55 min.)
(Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV)
This is partly a biography of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, and partly the remarkable story of his best-known, record-breaking song, Hallelujah. Make no mistake, the story of how this song was written and went from being rejected by his record company to being one of the most acclaimed songs of the 20th Century is quite remarkable — even gripping. He spent years working on the song, and an endless supply of extra verses created during that time turned out to be pivotal in the song’s eventual worldwide fame. It’s quite a story, and a moving portrait of an extraordinary artist.
• Taylor Swift: Miss Americana (2020. 1 hr., 25 min.)
(Netflix, Peacock, Hulu Plus)
Miss Americana is a behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of Ms. Swift, focusing primarily on the past six years. (The title of the film is taken from her song Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.) I’ve always admired Taylor Swift’s songwriting. She’s the real deal as an artist. But I never felt drawn to her work enough to follow her career (or spend my life savings to go to one of her concerts!) So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I watched this biopic.
Actually, it’s quite interesting and surprising, both in terms of showing her creative process (during the creation of her last several albums, at least), and in terms of her development as a person. She experienced many years of initial success, but eventually the press and some of the public turned against her for a while, throwing her confidence — which had been based on winning audience approval — out the window. It’s quite interesting to see how she made her way back from that. Then she was sued for accusing a radio DJ of groping her in public, making her acutely aware of how cavalierly women are often treated and how often their claims aren’t believed, even when an offense is witnessed by a crowd—and caught on camera. Finally, you get to see her decide to take a political stand before an election, against the advice of everyone in the business.
This is a portrait of a smart, talented young woman trying to do the right thing, and it’s pretty hard not to end up rooting for her!
• Roberta Flack (2023. 1 hr., 23 min.)
(PBS—an episode of the American Masters series)
This biopic profiles the life and career highlights of this remarkable voice in pop music. For example, early in her career, a piano lounge club owner in Washington, D.C. was so impressed by her talent that he gave her her own room in the club, allowing her to develop a serious following. The documentary showcases stories about songs like The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which caused her career to take off when Clint Eastwood decided to feature it in his film Play Misty for Me. (It went on to win the 1973 Grammy Award for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year.) The artist also discusses how she discovered the song Killing Me Softly, and her partnership with Donny Hathaway, which produced several hit duets including The Closer I Get to You and Where Is the Love. (Their partnership ended when he committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.) She also fought for civil rights throughout her career.
It’s a wonderful portrait of a remarkable vocalist, arranger and producer, featuring many interviews with her and those she worked with — and fought for civil rights with — over the years.
• David Foster: Off the Record (2019. 1 hr., 45 min.)
David Foster has an extraordinary track record as a music producer and discoverer of talent. If you only know him because of his appearances on reality TV shows such as “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” late in his career, then you may not be interested in his biography, but musically, he’s a phenomenon rarely equaled in the music business. He’s won 16 Grammy Awards and worked with a who’s who of top music industry icons, producing classic hits such as Glory of Love (Peter Cetera), You’re the Inspiration (Chicago), After the Love is Gone (Earth, Wind & Fire), Heart to Heart (Kenny Loggins), I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston), Because You Loved Me (Celine Dion), Un-break My Heart (Toni Braxton), St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion) (John Parr), Unforgettable (Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole), All By Myself (Eric Carmen), Somewhere (Barbara Streisand’s version), I Honestly Love You (Olivia Newton-John), and countless others.
This documentary, released in 2019, includes discussions about his interactions with different artists, including discovering Michael Bublé, challenging Celine Dion to reach her highest vocal notes, arguments with the band Chicago over producing records that didn’t include the horn sound that they were famous for, and his belief that Whitney Houston’s massive hit I Will Always Love You — which he produced — could never be a top-ten hit because it started with an acappella line.
It’s a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary talent, including his personal flaws and some remarkable adventures. And what an extraordinary collection of music….
• Music Box: Listening to Kenny G (2021. 1 hr., 37 min.)
People tend to either love or hate Kenny G. Either way, this documentary about his life and music is quite fascinating. On the one hand, you get to hear interviews with music critics happy to lambaste Kenny G’s music (often on the grounds that it “disrespects” jazz). On the other hand, it’s obvious that millions of regular people adore his music — he’s sold 75 million albums! And the popularity of his music even inspired the creation of a new radio format that didn’t previously exist: smooth jazz.
Kenny G turns out to be a most interesting person with a fascinating backstory. He clearly tries hard to create beautiful music and works his butt off constantly to become a better player. (He still practices three hours a day!) And some of the stories from his career are astonishing. His big break came when he decided on the spur of the moment to play the song he felt was his best (Songbird) on Johnny Carson instead of the song his record company wanted him to play. That choice could have ended his career; instead it triggered a series of events that led to his first massive hit (with a little help from renowned record executive Clive Davis, who decided Kenny G might be onto something). Another wild story: His song Going Home is played in public every day throughout China to mark the end of the workday(!) And you’ll hear about a notorious public attack against him by musician Pat Metheny. (I found the attack to be way over the top.)
It’s a very interesting and thought-provoking hour and a half!!
(One note: When trying to get to this documentary on HBO Max, I was frequently shuttled over to iTunes music as soon as I asked for Kenny G. I finally got to the film by searching on HBO for “Listening To.” Ha!)
• Sheryl (2022. 1 hr., 34 min.)
(Showtime, Paramount Plus, Amazon Video, YouTube)
This is a fascinating examination of the life and career of Sheryl Crow, an artist who made it to the top while facing (as she says) huge highs and huge lows. She reflects on her experience touring with Michael Jackson at the beginning of her career; how her first nervous solo interview on TV (with David Letterman) became tied to the suicide of a friend; how she became one of the first self-producing female artists in the record business; surviving sexual harassment in the music industry; dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis; and her relationship with Lance Armstrong. Later in the film she talks about what it’s like being a so-called “legacy artist” after 30 years in the business, and how she finally was able to have a family.
Ms. Crow is a remarkably kind, thoughtful and creative soul, and that really comes across in this intimate documentary.
Copyright 2023 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.