10 Great Music Documentaries

10 Great Music Documentaries

Written by Rich Isaacs

A lot of people turned to binge watching during the pandemic lockdowns. Although I wasn’t binging, I did take the opportunity to check out a number of documentaries about bands, events, and people associated with the music industry. Almost all are available on DVDs from Netflix, and/or through streaming on Netflix or rental from Amazon Prime. Here are three that tell about record executives, engineer/producers, and artist managers, three that focus on studio musicians and backup singers, two that cover influential recording studios, one about The Beatles’ fan club manager, and a new one showcasing a series of huge concerts in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park in 1969. All are highly recommended.

Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (DVD)

Tom Dowd (1925 – 2002) was a legendary engineer and producer for Atlantic Records from the late 1940s all the way into the 2000s. Prior to his career in recording, he studied nuclear physics, and was involved with the Manhattan Project while in his late teens. This is a fascinating look at one of the giants of music production. It seems that every artist with whom he worked had the utmost respect for him, and the list of artists is staggering, from John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ornette Coleman, through Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Rod Stewart, and many more.

This is a great music documentary, but it appears to be currently unavailable in full for streaming or purchase (as new), although bits are viewable on YouTube. I saw it years ago, and I was later given the disc as a present.




Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built (DVD)

Narrated by Bette Midler, this was part of the PBS series American Masters. From Ahmet Ertegun’s youth growing up in New York as the son of a Turkish diplomat, sneaking into jazz clubs, to reaching the heights of the recording industry, this is a fascinating story. Ahmet (along with his brother, Nesuhi) created an independent record label focusing on jazz and R&B artists in the 1940s. Their first big client was Ray Charles. Songwriting giants Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller played a significant part in the label’s success, along with Jerry Wexler and the aforementioned Tom Dowd as engineer/producer. As with Tom, it seems that all of the artists on the label had respect and love for Ahmet. He was also a co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (I couldn’t find a trailer video for this one, but, trust me, it’s impressive.



Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (DVD)

If you watch this, you’ll find that the description in the title of Mike Myers’s documentary about Shep Gordon’s career as a talent manager/agent is not hyperbole. The famous people attesting to his goodness as a human being include Michael Douglas, Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Sharon Stone, Tom Arnold, Sylvester Stallone, Mick Fleetwood, and many others. The opening sequence of comments alone is really impressive.

Shep tells incredible stories about the rock and roll world, going back to meeting Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix when he first came to California as a young man. He just sort of fell into the business of managing acts (Jimi said to him, “you’re Jewish, aren’t you? You should be a manager.”) In addition to working with clients as varied as Alice Cooper, Groucho Marx, Teddy Pendergrass, Gipsy Kings, Anne Murray, Pink Floyd, and the Dalai Lama. He became a restaurant and liquor promoter later in life. With his help, Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo Tequila) and Willie Nelson (Old Whiskey River Bourbon) launched signature labels. He was also in the forefront of the celebrity chef movement, promoting Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.

Gordon is living out his retirement in Hawaii, where he entertains visitors and neighbors (including former Warriors’ basketball coach Don Nelson). He also wrote a book about his life, They Call Me Supermensch. I came away from this film wishing he was in my life, and I’d bet that you would, too.




The Wrecking Crew (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

By now, most of you have heard of this shifting conglomeration of LA session players. Once again, the list of records on which they played in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-blowing. From the “Wall of Sound” of Phil Spector’s productions through ”MacArthur Park” and an incredible number of other hits, the chances that you’ve never heard these players in action is almost non-existent. They played on albums by Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, among countless others. Several of the “members” went on to solo careers, including Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, and Sonny Bono. Drummer Hal Blaine and guitarist Tommy Tedesco were mainstays of the group.

There are lots of interviews with the musicians themselves along with the stars for whom they played. Tommy Tedesco’s son Denny directed the film. (For more about this legendary group of musicians, check out WL Woodward’s article in Copper Issue 135.)




Standing in the Shadows of Motown (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

Whether or not you are a fan of the Motown sound, this documentary, narrated by Andre Braugher, is an incredible look at another group of unsung (pardon the pun) musicians. Although it predates the documentary above, an alternate title for this one could have been The Detroit Wrecking Crew. It features the key players backing up the many hit groups that came out of Motown. They called themselves “The Funk Brothers.” It is said that they played on more Number One hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and the Beach Boys combined!

Keyboardist Earl Van Dyke was a sort of ringleader for this collection of musicians, most of whom were recruited from the Detroit jazz and blues scene by Motown founder Berry Gordy. The rhythm section of bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin influenced players around the world. There are wonderful stories being told about the sessions, and featured throughout are tracks from a reunion concert with the surviving members, augmented by horns, backup singers, and guest vocalists (including Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, and others).




20 Feet from Stardom (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

Backup singers are the focus here, only a few of whom went on to solo success despite having world-class vocal chops. Among those featured are Darlene Love, Patti Austin, Claudia Lennear (“Brown Sugar”), Tata Vega, and Lisa Fischer. Merry Clayton, probably best known for her screaming background vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” tells an amazing story of how that performance came to be.

Darlene Love is probably the most famous of all, having sung many of producer Phil Spector’s hit recordings that were credited to The Crystals and others. Her trio, The Blossoms, did backing vocals for artists ranging from Buck Owens to Frank Sinatra to James Brown. They even took a turn “sounding white” on Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.” Interviews include commentary from the stars for whom they toiled, such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger, and others.




Muscle Shoals (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

The most artistically filmed of all of these, Muscle Shoals relates the history of two recording studios (Fame and Muscle Shoals) in a little town in Alabama that went on to become destination points for major artists.

Engineer and producer Rick Hall founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises with Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford in 1959. When Hall took over in 1960, he moved the business to Muscle Shoals and shortened the name to FAME Studios (a most serendipitous acronym). Hall was driven to succeed, having overcome a dirt-poor upbringing and a period of homelessness. He assembled a studio band of young, local white musicians who had an uncanny knack for finding “greasy” grooves. More than a few Black artists who went there to record because of the sound were taken aback to see that the musicians who been responsible for the funky playing on tracks by Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, and others, were white.

Jerry Wexler (with engineer Tom Dowd) recorded Aretha Franklin’s first album for Atlantic Records there. Wexler later took the musicians (who became known as the “Swampers”) to New York, a move that eventually led to the band deserting FAME Studios to open their own, rival studio back in Muscle Shoals. They went on to great success, but Rick Hall just went ahead and found a new batch of players and continued to make hit records, earning a Producer of the Year award in 1971.

There are, of course, lots of artist interviews ranging from Keith Richards to Jimmy Cliff and others.




Sound City (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

This one also ranks high on my list. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/Nirvana) produced and directed this look at the rise and fall of the Sound City recording studio. Although the Van Nuys (Southern California) facility was unassuming from the outside, and more than a little dumpy on the inside, there was magic being created. The list of major albums recorded at Sound City includes Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and countless others.

Part of the film focuses on the custom Neve 8028 recording console (one of only four) that contributed to the sound of the studio. When the studio closed, Grohl bought the Neve and installed it in his own recording space. Although we don’t know what he paid for it (he has said he would have paid $1,000,000), the original invoice from almost 50 years ago was a not inconsequential $78,000.

Grohl does a great job telling the story. There are lots of interviews with artists and engineers, including one with Mick Fleetwood where he relates how Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks came to be in Fleetwood Mac. A good amount of recording session footage is included, as well.




Good Ol’ Freda (DVD/Amazon Prime rental)

I suppose, technically, this is not a music documentary – it’s about the woman who ran the Beatles’ fan club for ten years, but you needn’t be a Beatles fan to enjoy this one. It’s the story of Freda Kelly, who, as a teenager in the early 1960s, became involved with the band (never romantically). Her story, which she had kept to herself for decades, is amazing. She is a sweet and unassuming woman with an incredible recall – you will find yourself smiling along with her as she tells of life with the Fab Four.




Summer of Soul

This one’s showing in theaters and streaming on Hulu now. In 1969, the same year that Woodstock took place, there was a six-weekend concert festival in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park that drew 50,000 fans each week. Each weekend had a different focus, from gospel, comedy, blues, Latin jazz, soul/pop, to jazz. Featured artists included Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder (who does an energetic drum solo), The Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Hugh Masekela, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Moms Mabley, Ray Barretto, Abbey Lincoln, and many others.

It has been called the “Black Woodstock,” but it seems that very few people beyond the attendees were aware of it. The 3rd Annual Harlem Culture Festival, as it was known, was professionally filmed, but the footage languished in storage for 50 years, until Ahmir Khalid Thompson (“Questlove” from Jimmy Fallon’s house band, the Roots) resurrected it. The sound and video are quite good. Archival footage from the turbulent time is interspersed with the concert clips.







I think you’ll find more than a few of these to be worth watching. I thoroughly enjoyed every one.

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