Volume Knob from This is Spinal Tap

Yes, this list goes to eleven. View the slideshow.

Love is blind. So is our taste in music. And that also logically applies to lists of one’s favorite rockumentaries. I swear, one of my life’s most ecstatic movie-going moments was going to Stop Making Sense not to see Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film, but to instead be mesmerized by the 10-minute opening video of New Order playing the song, “The Perfect Kiss,” in their rehearsal studio. The band members keep their heads down and inertly play their instruments. To non-fans it must have been like watching paint dry. To me, it was 10 minutes in heaven.

View the gallery of top rockumentaries »

So, yes, this list is subjective. And I’m going to reinforce that point by illustrating why some of these films are important to me. I hope you will share your favorite rockumentaries — personal reminiscences encouraged! — in the comments section below.

This post is born from both last week’s review of Dont Look Back, which I had never seen before and loved, and White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, which I saw a little while back, and loathed. I felt dirty watching the White Stripes doc. It’s such a fawning, suck up to the band, showing Jack and Meg White wandering aimlessly in bleak settings, rocking out on stage, having tender moments… I felt like I was watching a Leni Riefenstahl movie, aimed at convincing me to love these two. And yet, as I said before, if I did love these two, maybe I would consider it the greatest doc of all time. But, as I merely appreciate their music, I was put off. It made me more aware of how much rockumentaries play easy cards and tug at heart strings. But that’s why we love (or hate) them.

Start with #11…

#11. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002)

I’ve heard all about how genius Wilco is and yet I’ve always found the music to rock-y and without distinction, so I watched this film last week just to prove its cult status is just that — a film with a niche following that didn’t belong on my list. Well, I was wrong. Despite the film having similar propagandistic qualities to Under Great White Northern Lights, it’s really well made, insightfully breaks down how a band makes its music, and even gets inside the musicians’ deepest feelings toward each other.

#10. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Is this film about Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour anything more than a marketing tool to help sell an already narcissistic zillionaire? Not really. Were poignant moments — Warren Beatty, wow! — tailored to create a feeling of intimacy? Of course. I didn’t mind.

#9. Joy Division (2007)

When I was a teen, my friend Ben managed to get his hands on a VHS taping of a Joy Division show (when such things were hard to find). We studied Ian Curtis’ movements, looking for clues about his lost soul. This documentary finally fulfilled that yearning, and gave imagery to the haunting soundtrack of part of my adolescence.

#8. Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music (1969)

Thanks be to POV for bringing back this gem about the Man in Black! We see him singing, going back home to Arkansas and talking about his music and his rough upbringing. It’s an older profile and refreshing because it
predates a lot of the clichéd devices that are common now in rockumentaries.

#7. Gimme Shelter (1970)

It’s part concert film, part rockumentary and part CSI episode. This Maysles’ film about the Rolling Stones takes on a surreal quality as we watch the members of the band watch parts of the film themselves. Most gripping is the final show at 1969’s Altamont Free Concert, in which Mick Jagger was unable to corral the guardian Hells Angels from killing one of the audience. Riveting stuff.

#6. This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This is not a documentary, you say? You’re right. But this faux documentary about a fake heavy metal band on its last leg is so funny, and so brilliantly plays on each and every rockumentary cliché that it helped define the canon. And it’s why this rockumentary list goes to 11.

#5. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

This, too, stretches the definition of a rockumentary. It’s actually more of a documentary, but the music is vital to this story of a man with mental illness who manages to make music that some consider brilliant, others awful. It’s a wonderful film about music, art, fandom and the peculiar human brain.

#4. Woodstock (1970)

I’ve checked out some criticism of rockumentaries and some say that this film, the most famous rockumentary of all time I’d say, isn’t actually very good. It’s true that it’s not shot very well, the narrative is weak, and important moments from the famous music festival were left out. I’m OK with all of that. Just watching those hippies and Jimi Hendrix jamming — it’s like watching a phenomenon. Yes, director Michael Wadleigh just showed up at the right time, but sometimes that’s enough.

#3. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

I couldn’t care less about the super-rich heavy metal band Metallica, but I do care about four men–businessmen–icons–musicians trying to maintain their success together while remaining true to themselves. This film isn’t just one of the most honest depictions of how men relate to each other, it’s an extended therapy session. And it’s awesome.

#2. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

This film takes the best laughs from Spinal Tap and the most heartfelt moments from Some Kind of Monster, and makes them its own. Any fan of Spinal Tap (and we are many) will relish this real realization of a heavy metal band truly on its last breath.

#1. Dont Look Back (1967)

Like Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, this film benefits from age (see my review from last week) and becomes even better than the sum of its own parts. It’s about more than its subject (Bob Dylan). It’s about an entire generation. And while Woodstock can feel dated, Dont Look Back has all of the filmmaking staying power of any of the best films from Francois Truffaut, Mike Nichols or Robert Altman. I’m a recent convert, and a rabid one.

Volume Knob from This is Spinal Tap

Is your favorite rockmentary missing from my list? (Or are you a Justin Bieber: Never Say Never fan?). Let me know in the comments.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen