Amazon is excellent at many things, but its Prime Video search engine is sadly not one of them. When you've got a hankering for a decent music documentary, hunting through Amazon Prime may return plenty of results, but the real gems tend to remain hidden away while at least 20 benign bio-pics are instead thrust in your general direction.
We think all this requires way too much sifting of an evening, so to help we've come up with this list of ten exceptional offerings, all of which are included in the standard Prime subscription. And if that's not enough we've added a further eight must-see music films currently on Amazon to rent or buy, which should provide something for everyone to enjoy.
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Included with Amazon Prime Video
Stop Making sense (2015)
In 1983, Talking Heads were at the height of their sharp-suited, loose-limbed, avant-garde grooving powers and, fortunately, director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, The Manchurian Candidate) was around to capture it in all its frantic and joyful glory.
Stop Making Sense was shot over three nights at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre at the end of that year and kicks off with a razor-cheekboned David Byrne alone onstage with an 808. Gradually he is joined by the rest of the band in a performance that builds to an ecstatic and iconic finale. It’s no wonder that Stop Making Sense is widely regarded as one of the finest concert films ever made.
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary dives into the lives of the backing singers whose vocal chops prop up the records of many a beloved pop star. Neville talks to appreciative artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and a rakishly on-brand Mick Jagger. But, most importantly, he interviews many of the gifted singers themselves, some of whom are content with their supporting role and some whose longing for the limelight has never left them.
Delving into history, 20 Feet From Stardom, touches upon issues of gender and race in the music industry but, ultimately, this is a bittersweet celebration of music and the human voice that examines the reasons why incredible talent doesn’t always lead to success.
Everyone knows the classic Cinderella story of Lordi, the Scandinavian rock monsters who won a shock victory at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. But every fairy-tale has to come to an end and, for Tomi Putaansuu aka Mr Lordi, the years since have involved tragedy, financial hardships and grappling with the repercussions of gaining sudden fame only to then lose it.
This surprisingly candid documentary follows Mr Lordi as, caught between his childhood fantasy world and the desire to support himself, he plans to stage a comeback.
The New York Hardcore Chronicles Film (2017)
There’s a tenacious dynamism and contagious energy to Drew Stone’s documentary charting the history and cultural impact of the New York hardcore scene.
Moving at breakneck speed, the movie squeezes in over 60 interviews with the likes of Billy Graziadei (Biohazard), Craig Setari (Sick Of It All), Roger Miret & Vinnie Stigma (Agnostic Front), Lou Koller, Ray Cappo (Youth Of Today), Billy Milano (S.O.D. / M.O.D.) and Mike Judge (Judge), and bursts at the seams with music and live footage. One for both hardcore fans and the curious.
Gimme Danger (2016)
Before there was punk, there was The Stooges. Jim Jarmusch's documentary celebrates the career and influence of what he calls "the greatest rock 'n' roll band ever" in unashamedly fanboy fashion.
Mixing archival photos and footage with cutout animation and reunion-era interviews, the film is driven largely by the anecdotes of Jim Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop, whose debauched raconteur style is mesmerising even if his stories won't be terribly revealing to established fans.
Mean Man: The Story of Chris Holmes (2021)
You don’t need to be a metalhead to enjoy this nostalgic come-back documentary following former W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes as he attempts to reignite his career at the age of 61.
Through archival footage and interviews the consequences of embodying a hard rock persona 24/7 are examined while, in the present day, Holmes readies himself to mount a new tour in Europe. Holmes’ story includes inter-band tensions, severe addiction and losing the rights to his songs but, ultimately, despite there still being some bad blood, this is a feel-good story of survival.
Elliott Smith – Heaven Adores You (2015)
An earnest and contemplative documentary charting the music and life of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, Heaven Adores You is presented as a visual journey across Portland, New York and Los Angeles, where he lived while writing his five solo albums from 1994 to 2000.
Featuring concert footage, personal photos and recorded interviews, Heaven Adores You is the first documentary to gain permission to use Smith's music and doesn't squander the opportunity, including tracks spanning his career and over a dozen previously unreleased songs.
Bob and the Monster (2011)
This profile of Bob Forrest, former lead singer of 80s LA punk darlings Thelonius Monster, charts his struggle with addiction and later reincarnation as an inspirational and controversial drug councillor.
Anecdotes from a roster of stars including Courtney Love, Anthony Kiedis, Flea, John Frusciante and members of Jane's Addiction shed light on the scope and depth of Bob's influence, and his story is beautifully illustrated using interwoven animation and personal footage. Come for the nostalgia and stay for this genuinely uplifting story.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Actor Michael Rapaport turns director with this documentary focusing on the tensions within one of the most innovative and influential groups in hip-hop.
Following their 20-year career producing boundary-breaking funk and jazz-infused beats and infamous break-up in 1998, Rapaport chooses to highlight the drama rather than the music. But with unprecedented access to the band and a killer soundtrack, this movie can't help but leave you in awe of the band's creative output.
Mozart in the Jungle (2014-2018)
Ok, yes, this is a series, and a dramatised one at that, but anyone with the slightest bit of curiosity about what goes on in the orchestra pit when the lights are down will enjoy being enlightened by this Amazon Original based on the 2005 memoir of New York oboist Blair Tindall.
Although firmly rooted in a world out of reach for most, the endearingly flamboyant characters, from Gael Garcia Bernal's egotistical conductor to the formidable Bernadette Peters as the president of the New York Symphony, make this orchestral romp highly addictive. Fortunately, there are four seasons to enjoy.
Available for rent or purchase
Of course, Amazon's offering extends beyond just its Prime catalogue, so if you're feeling flush why not take a look at the eight excellent films below, all of which can be purchased or rented through the site (though it's worth bearing in mind that most if not all of these titles will also be available via other streaming services – the JustWatch (opens in new tab) app can help you here).
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
If you've not yet seen Searching for Sugar Man, best return to this list in an hour-and-a-half once you have.
The story traces two fans' pursuit of the truth behind the rumoured death of one of their favourite artists, Sixto Rodriguez. His due success eluded him in America, but he unknowingly found a home and a following in Apartheid South Africa.
Winner of both the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Documentary, its narrative is as bizarre as it is entertaining. It's enough to give hope to all of us that someone, somewhere may actually be appreciating our work for what it is.
Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman, who made the film with Craig Bartholomew Strydom, co-owns Mabu Vinyl in Cape Town, which we included in our 25 record stores to visit before you die feature.
Sound City (2013)
Directed by Dave Grohl, Sound City chronicles the studio of the same name.
At various times home to Neil Young, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, The Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Slipknot, Queens of the Stone Age, Metallica, Arctic Monkeys ... [continues ad infinitum] ... Sound City's walls have contained some of rock music's most seminal recordings.
More than merely another collection of empty superlatives and talking heads – though Young, Petty and Stevie Nicks all feature – Grohl's passion for the space and its history is patently clear throughout.
Roland's TR-808 drum machine didn't sound like real drums. It's why it was widely panned upon its release in 1980, and why it has since become one of the most influential instruments in modern music.
With interviews from those who used it so successfully – artists as diverse as Damon Albarn, Afrika Bambaataa, Beastie Boys, Goldie, Phil Collins and (hey!) 808 State – and closing with words from one of the men behind its creation, 808 is a documentary charting just how creative freedom can be born of technology.
A Band Called Death (2012)
It's still probably about the most punk thing you could do: pre-date the genre and leave your demo tape gathering dust in the attic for 30 years until it finds its audience by happenstance.
David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney – three brothers from a family of eight children born to a Baptist preacher and his wife in 1950s Detroit – formed Death (whose name and their refusal to change it went some way to ensure they never got a record deal) in the family's spare room, and this is their story.
Theodoros Bafaloukos's Rockers started life as a documentary, and as a result is about as athentic a snapshot of late '70s Jamaican culture as it would be possible to find in a feature film.
It stars former Studio One drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace playing himself – in his own home, with his real-life wife and children – fighting for the oppressed Jamaican musician against the industry mafia.
Also starring reggae artists such as Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs, it's a film that endures for its music, its humour and its portrayal of Kingston culture – not least the fashion, which was written about in (opens in new tab)Vogue.
Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (1998)
It would probably be difficult for any documentary about Robert Johnson – the man who, according to one urban legend, sold his soul to the Devil in return for his talent – to be boring.
But even a life, and indeed death, so shrouded in mystery and rumour still cannot overshadow the enduring power of his music. Narrated by Danny Glover, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? focuses on both the man and his extraordinary talent, through interviews and dramatic re-enactments.
Lo Sound Desert (2015)
If the music of Sigur Rós could have been created nowhere else but Iceland, this is the story of music born in the American desert.
The exploration of a culture as much as the bands (such as Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age) born out of it, Lo Sound Desert takes a generator and its gear out into the middle of nowhere and has a party where the police aren't watching.
Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary (2016)
As the lead singer of Bad Brains, Paul "HR" Hudson pioneered hardcore punk with a positive message.
Finding Joseph I isn't so much a celebration of his legacy, however, as much as an investigation into the man himself: his enlightenment, devotion to the Rastafarian faith, and sadly often fragile relationship with his own mental health.
An extraordinary man as much as an extraordinary musician, HR provides a fascinating subject irrespective of opinions on his art.