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10 essential music documentaries to watch during lockdown

Photo via Sony

Words: Dylan Murphy

Here we are again – back in lockdown. Usually, there is a little afterglow in early January from all new year’s resolutions, time spent with family eating and drinking until your heart is content and optimism about the new year. But following one of the strangest festive periods in our lifetimes everything feels understandably grey.

During the first lockdown, there was a sense of optimism in the air, with people taking the time spent at home as an opportunity for reflection and personal growth.

However, now, maintaining that same energy is a little more difficult and we’re understandably fed up with being in the house. While that same enthusiasm for banana bread and 5k challenges may have waned after nearly a year of lockdown hokey cokey, documentaries provide an accessible and pain-free way of learning about any given topic whilst keeping yourself shielded from the cold January winds.

Packaged in numerous different styles, you can find most for free online or across streaming services. With a lot more time on our hands as we slowly edge out of winter, why not explore the artist you’ve heard loads about, but never got into from the comfort of your sofa. Alternatively, you could explore a friendship through the lens of one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time. Whatever you have in mind, we have you covered. Here are the 10 essential music documentaries to get you through lockdown.

Nina Simone – What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winning an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, What Happened, Miss Simone? follows the life and career of the iconic Nina Simone.

Trained as a classical pianist with a penchant for performing Nina Simone was an immensely talented artist and songwriter who seemingly had a fruitful career path mapped out for her by her then husband and manager.

However, she met numerous obstacles as she diverged from the original blueprint. Nina proceeded to follow a more revolutionary calling against the advice of her manager to support the civil rights movement in the way she knew how – writing music.

What Happened, Miss Simone? lays bare the multifaceted challenges she faced as an artist and black woman – from domestic abuse and mental health problems to racial prejudice.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Everybody’s Everything – Lil Peep Documentary

For those sceptical of the substance of the face tatted Soundcloud generation, Everybody’s Everything paints vividly the appeal in the visceral and often painful music of Lil Peep before his untimely death.

Made up of home videos, archival footage, behind the scenes of Peep at London Fashion Week and never before seen tour videos the documentary highlights at once how Peep connected with a generation of fans and the unforgiving nature of overnight fame.

Honing in on the existential pain that followed Peep and the ambiguous details surrounding the artist’s death, the documentary is an insight into the life of a young man that set himself on fire to keep others warm.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Though, evidently, A Tribe Called Quest have had an enduring impact on hip hop Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest focuses more on the relationships that built the music. Highlighting the relatable elements of brotherhood and ultimately the fractures that would cause their demise.

Bonus points for the fact Madlib composed the film score with music supervision by Peanut Butter Wolf and Gary Harris. 

Available to watch on Youtube.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston’s music isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. But there is no denying the fragility in his delivery and the honesty in his conviction that appeals to so many.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston captures at once the brilliance, trauma and outright complexity of a tortured artist. Having fans in Kurt Cobain, Beck and Wilco, Daniel’s influence reaches out beyond the innocent distribution of tapes to strangers. His music is contradictory and leaves a lasting impression. At once you can feel both disturbed and sympathetic towards the emotions espoused in his catalogue, which is testament to a truly intriguing artist.

Available on Amazon Prime.

Searching for Sugar Man

Detroit folk-singer Sixto Rodriguez had very little relative success in terms of record sales, but somehow became a bonified icon in South Africa. This documentary sees two South Africans set out to unravel the mystery around the enigmatic musician, who was long rumoured to have committed suicide.

We don’t want to spoil too much with this one, just watch it.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime.

MATANGI/ MAYA/ M.I.A

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. is the 2018 biographical documentary about English-Sri Lankan multi-hyphenate M.I.A. Looking at her life chronologically it examines her upbringing as an immigrant in England, the effect that had on her art and the subsequent controversies that would follow her career.

Themes of resilience are peppered throughout the decades of footage taken from her life and career and like her or lump her it highlights her undeniable influence on popular culture.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Dreamville Presents: REVENGE

Debuting at number one in the US Billboard Chart, Revenge of the Dreamers III is a colossus of a compilation album. Curated by Dreamville label head honcho J. Cole, the recording sessions at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta have become hip hop folklore with a slew of huge names working round the clock to soak in the unique atmosphere.

A whopping 343 artists and producers were invited to the sessions resulting in a total of 142 songs being created. Of that, 35 acts and 27 producers contributed to the final product.

The official documentary gives a fly on the wall experience of the legendary sessions and attempts to capture the moments of magic that were crammed into the dimly lit rooms in Georgia.

Featuring J. Cole, Bas, Cozz, Lute, Ari Lennox, Earthgang, JID, Buddy, Vince Staples, Ty Dolla Sign, Ski Mask The Slump God, Smino and Guapdad 4000, to name just a few.

Available to watch on Youtube.

Amy

If you weren’t in your feels enough this January, then buckle up.

Amy, is the moving tribute to the late and great Amy Winehouse. In lieu of explicit narration it lets her lyrics and and myriad of clips tell the story of a tortured soul who was taken too soon.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime.

Wot Do U Call It Grime Documentary

Named after the song by Wiley, Wot Do U Call It aired as part of a series on Channel 4 and examines the early days of Grime.

Before Stormzy had a number one and AJ Tracey started doing serious numbers there was a generation of dedicated MCs doing up clashes who inspired by dance music but reluctant to be grouped in as part of hip hop.

Featuring interviews with the likes of Kano, Wiley and Jammer it gets right down to the root of the genre and gives some real perspective how far it has come.

Available to watch on Youtube.

Nas: Time is Illmatic

Detailing the journey behind the creation of one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, Nas: Time Is Illmatic highlights how Nasir Jones’ authentic Queensbridge experience informed his writing.

Nas guides the viewers through the hallways that heard his first raps, the smells and sights of the projects and the street corners where he honed his skills. Nas: Time Is Illmatic‘s appeal reaches beyond the confines of hip hop heads, illustrating the transformative power of art in the face of America’s crushing social ills.

Available to view on Netflix.