Baz Luhrmann's Elvis movie is rightly winning plaudits left, right and centre, thanks to its intoxicating blend of dazzlingly stylish cinematography and an outstanding performance by Austin Butler as The King of Rock and Roll. But if you've already been out to see the big-screen spectacle (or you've not yet had the chance) and are inspired to watch a music movie or doc at home, what should you choose?
Whether you're in the mood for a genre deep dive, a pop-culture romp or a biography of an icon, you can count on Netflix to deliver the goods when it comes to this sort of thing.
Netflix has built up quite a repertoire when it comes to music content and its extensive library now spans its own original music TV shows and documentaries (some of which are included in this list), as well as harvesting some absolute treats from elsewhere.
With so much on offer, it can be more than a little tricky to pick through the service's suggestions to find something that will appeal to your sensibilities. That's why we've done the hard work for you. If you loved Elvis, we're confident you'll love at least one of these picks, even if you're not already familiar with the subject in question.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
A fascinating story of extraordinary talent.
The story of one of music’s truly troubled souls, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fairly by the book's documentary – but you can’t really go too wrong with a character like Nina Simone, as her brilliance and music shine through everything.
A life filled with difficulties is traced with a vast amount of wonderful archive material and contemporary interviews; it’s the story of a fascinating life that frustrated the young Eunice Waymon from the start.
She yearned to be a ‘serious’ classical musician, but as a black girl in segregated North Carolina suffered instead from racism and discrimination at every turn. She would become, as Nina Simone, a major participant in the civil rights movement – which again set her all too often on a different path from financial opportunity, much to the annoyance of her husband and manager.
The Sparks Brothers
In an age of effortless information, many music documentaries can often struggle to turn up anything that constitutes new ground regarding their subjects. During their six-decade career, tangible facts about the enigmatic multi-genre duo Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael) have become so entangled with their cultivated mythology, born from their absurdist performances and inscrutable songwriting, that this new definitive biography, The Sparks Brothers, will be something of a revelation for even the most ardent of fans.
Whether you're a fully-fledged member of the Kimono cult, or you just quite like trying to sing along to palpation inducing This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us, or indeed you're a total newcomer, The Sparks Brothers is so impeccably comprehensive and directed with such tangible delight by Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver) that it instantly captivates viewers, taking them along for an intoxicating, stranger than fiction rollercoaster ride.
In a rare feat for a rock doc, Wright builds a cinematic universe worthy of his surrealist subjects that manages to retain an elusive air of performance art. Embracing the theatricality of the brothers Mael, Wright and animator Joseph Wallace mix collage cutouts with stop motion puppetry to illustrate both personal anecdotes and those that have become media folklore, such as John Lennon calling Ringo Starr to tell him that Adolf Hitler was playing keyboards on Top of the Pops (impeccably voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg). Even the excessive roster of talking-head interviews, including Mike Myers, Weird Al Jankovic, Flea, Tony Visconti and Beck, are done in a distinctive, playful style that is anything but cliché.
The Sparks Brothers has a 98% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes for a good reason; if you love music, it's a must-watch.
Inventing David Geffen
Whether you consider media mogul David Geffen a rags to riches sensation worthy of admiration for his unmitigated success in the worlds of music and film or a ruthless businessman cashing in on the talent of others, the story of his life, as he puts it forth, is a fascinating pop culture ride every bit as entertaining as the acts he represented.
This documentary features Geffen himself recalling his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn before making his way to LA and stealthily working his way up from mailroom boy at the William Morris Agency (a job he obtained by falsifying academic credentials) to talent agent after noticing that "they earn the most while knowing the least".
After going solo, Geffen managed acts including Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. By the time he was 30, he had founded Asylum Records signing artists such as The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell's recollection of writing Free Man in Paris about Geffen and his continued bashfulness about the song gives a brief glimpse behind his carefully constructed facade.
With a life and career that encompasses his eponymous label, home to a diverse roster with the likes of Nirvana, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, Peter Gabriel and Olivia Newton-John; founding Dreamworks film studios; and nearly marrying Cher, there's no shortage of glittering talking heads who gush over – and occasionally critique – Geffen. The result, fact or fiction, is an engaging treat for music lovers.
The Defiant Ones
The Defiant Ones is a four-part series that charts the partnership between Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine and rapper and record producer Dr. Dre. As much as being a music documentary, it's a story of entrepreneurship and how an artform helped build an empire for two pioneering individuals.
Not only are there hours of fascinating interviews with all the main players in the story but plenty of archive film footage of two masters at work. It's clear that both know a great track when they hear one and also how to get ahead in the cutthroat world of the music business (and later in consumer tech). But of course, as is so often the case, it also shows two people who are utterly driven to be successful.
Thankfully, Dre and Iovine prove articulate and interesting interviewees, modest and self-aware (even as multi-millionaires sat in their luxurious homes) and with enough crazy tales from life and business that could have filled many documentaries. Sit back, relax, be impressed, entertained and inspired.
- Check out these easy ways to get better Netflix recommendations
Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives
Netflix just loves a documentary about media impresarios, and this two-hour feature on Clive Davis is ripe with nine decades-worth of history-making anecdotes that make Forest Gump look like an underachiever.
Growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn, Davis was still in his teens when his parents passed away in quick succession, an event that both devastated him and drove his unrelenting work ethic, initially as an entertainment lawyer and later as president of CBS Records.
Despite not having a musical background, Davis discovered that he had 'golden ears', a gift that, according to showbiz lore, led to him signing the likes of Janis Joplin, Gil Scott-Heron, Whitney Houston and Patti Smith. Davis' ears not only helped him discover artists but also influenced his shrewd management, allegedly pushing Bruce Springsteen to write Blinded by the Light by repeatedly rejecting his first album until he came up with a hit, and forcing Simon and Garfunkel to release Bridge Over Troubled Water as the lead single for their final album. And then there was his knack for relaunching stars such as Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, who had unbelievably fallen out of favour with the record-buying public.
Don't expect any big personal revelations – there's the odd juicy tidbit such as Davis claiming to decline Joplin's advances, and plenty of scandals involving payola and bitter corporate betrayal – but it's the examination of his relationship with Houston, from first discovering her and guiding her career (apparently insisting that the intro to I Will Always Love You remain a cappella) to his feelings of ineptitude as he witnessed her decline, that is most telling.
Tick, Tick... Boom!
A musical about the process of writing a musical: if the thought of Broadway legends suddenly breaking into a song about the futility of eating Sunday brunch in a New York diner fills you with dread, then you might assume that Tick, Tick... Boom! is not for you.
But although Lin-Manuel Miranda's film about composer Jonathan Larson (played by an inconceivably talented Andrew Garfield) before he achieved the mega success of Rent might appear all showbiz jazz hands and heavy vibrato, it's actually an engaging reflection of a musician desperately seeking inspiration while struggling against the brutality of failure and the creative slog.
The narrative only examines Larson's life as he works on Superbia – a failed futuristic rock opera reimagining of George Orwell's 1984. It's interspersed with songs, both staged and interpolated, from what would be his next project, a one-man show called Tick, Tick… Boom! about the existential dread he felt about turning 30 without achieving success in his field, opening with the lament that he would soon be "older than Stephen Sondheim when he had his first Broadway show, older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon".
Larson did, of course, go on to be incredibly successful, but he sadly didn't live to see his work become celebrated, dying of a heart disorder at the age of 35 on the day of the first preview of Rent, for which he posthumously won the Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score, as well as a Pulitzer.