11 of the best music documentaries, films and TV shows to watch on Netflix

Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times Of Ben Fong-Torres
(Image credit: Tribeca Film / Fred Morales)

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 music documentaries, films and series. 

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. So we've compiled a shortlist of some of the very best Netflix has to offer, from streaming classics to brand new documentaries, which we think every music fan will be able to appreciate, no matter their tastes.

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres

Packed with anecdotes of music legends, hippy counterculture, print media and vinyl, this documentary about legendary music journalist Ben Fong-Torres has access to so many rich veins of ephemeral nostalgia that, much like its subject, it's admirably restrained in its sentimentality.

With his erudite knowledge of popular music, reserved professionalism, dry humour and loud shirts, Fong-Torres joined Rolling Stone magazine at its inception as senior editor in 1968 and was quietly responsible for shaping the publication's now much-mythologised reputation as well as mentoring many of its staff. But he grew up the son of Chinese immigrants in post-war America during the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Fung-Torres faced so much daily racism and exclusion that, despite his prodigious talent, he was initially doubtful he could ever become a writer. 

Through his love of popular music, he found a sense of belonging. However, those formative experiences of being marginalised stayed with him, drawing him to stories of those similarly treated and leading many music greats to open up to him with uncharacteristic frankness. It's easy to see why Fong-Torres was so widely respected among musicians and, in some cases, the only journalist they would speak to. Not that they always liked what he wrote, but as the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir says, if Fong-Torres criticised them, they probably deserved it.

One of the highlights of this documentary is Fong-Torres sifting through his sprawling archive of yellowing cassette tapes featuring his interviews with a dizzying array of talent. From this treasure trove, we hear Tina Turner explain how Mick Jagger learned to dance from studying her show side of stage; Ray Charles discuss the indignity of touring in segregated states and Stevie Wonder recount hearing someone tell him that being Black is a greater disability than being blind.

Profiling one of the 20th century's best profilers is no easy task, and director Suzanne Joe Kai does an excellent job of comprehensively chronicling and condensing a vast amount of social, music, media and personal history into 1 hr and 42 minutes. Occasionally snippets of the myriad of interviews with adulating celebrities feel a touch crammed in, which unsettles the overall narrative coherence and is at odds with the assertions that Fong-Torres wasn't bothered by fame or its proximity. But it's a minor quibble in an otherwise engaging film that's essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in music or journalism.

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.

Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy

Epic multi-part music documentaries being all the rage, Netflix’s new four and a half-hour film Jeen-yuhs is a timely, fascinating, if troubling study of Kanye West that looks set to prove essential viewing, regardless of your opinion on his more recent, headline-grabbing behaviour.

Released in three parts over the coming weeks, the first episode of Jeen-yuhs introduces us to West as an ambitious 21-year-old producer, prized (and occasionally taken advantage of) by other artists for his beats, but desperate to rap himself. While it now seems surreal to see West accosting PAs at the Roc-a-Fella Records offices, begging them to listen to future classics like All Falls Down, it’s easy to see why his endearing but frantic attempts to secure a record deal weren’t immediately successful. He doesn’t sound like his contemporaries and, presciently large ego aside, he doesn't act like them either, constantly whipping in and out of his retainers to the disgust of the artists he’s trying to impress.

Directed by West’s longtime friend, Clarence ‘Coodie’ Simmons, who has been filming him since 2004, and Chike Ozah, Jeen-yuhs may not be wholly objective but it presents West as an artist with an empathetic frankness, and offers us a voyeuristic glimpse into his creative process and the early 2000’s hip-hop scene. The directors' close relationship to their subject also produces some of the film’s most poignant moments, such as when West’s unreservedly devoted mother Donda, who died in 2007, reveals the tenacious bond between mother and son. It’s impossible to watch without feeling moved. Hated, adored, but never ignored, this Kanye West documentary is fascinating viewing.

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.

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.

Echo in the Canyon

This slightly patchy documentary pays homage to the folk-rock scene that grew out of Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s. It follows Jakob Dillon (Bob’s son) as he gathers some musician friends – Fiona Apple, Nora Jones, Beck and Regina Spektor – together for what is essentially a tribute show to the bands that defined the era, including The Byrds, The Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. 

Be warned: the film’s pacing is uneven, often self indulgently luxuriating over live footage of Dillon’s covers that are presumably a handy device to avoid paying for music rights. And there are pretty conspicuous gaps in the narrative too. There are no mentions of Joni Mitchel, Jim Morisson, Love, The Eagles or James Taylor, though Ringo Starr and his sports car seem to get plenty of screen time. There’s also no allusion to the Manson clan and the notorious murders committed at Cielo Drive that undeniably impacted the spirit of freedom and openness that had permeated the Canyon music community.

But despite these hefty caveats, Echo in the Canyon’s focus on the songs themselves is gently rewarding, as are many of the interviews with Crosby and Stills as well as Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, who gamely divulges on her musical ménage à trois with fellow band members, unapologetically grinning, “I was a very busy girl”.

ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium

Massacre at the Stadium is a very different kind of music documentary about the life of Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer, songwriter and poet in the 1960s. His outspoken criticism of General Pinochet, who became the country's dictator by way of an American-backed coup ousting the democratically elected socialist president in 1973, resulted in his torture and murder by loyalist soldiers. A crime that went unexamined and unpunished for over 40 years.

Despite its graphic sounding title, the filmmakers refrain from getting too detailed on the violence that Jara endured, instead choosing to focus on his life, music and influence as well as the unrelenting activism mounted by his wife Joan Jara in the face of repression and bureaucratic indifference. His songs, both of protest and daily life, take front and centre, with artists including Bono and Bruce Springsteen paying tribute to his talent and bravery.

 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.

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.

What We Started

Netflix documentaries have almost become rubber stamps of endorsement for genres that up until recently would not have found mainstream approval, or even been considered by many to be 'serious' music.

What we Started chronicles three decades of electronic dance music with a focus on the careers of Carl Cox and Martin Garrix with interviews with stars from the genre's past, present and future including  Erick Morillo, Ed Sheeran, Moby, David Guetta, Steve Angello, Afrojack, Usher and Tiesto. The film expertly juxtaposes their various paths over time as it charts the genre's rise trying to keep both newcomers and the already initiated entertained.