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Ten Great Music Docs You Can Stream Right Now

From an epic account of country music to a quirky exploration of Auto-Tune, there's something for every music fan.
  • Photos: HBO, Def Jam Records, PBS, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu.
    Photos: HBO, Def Jam Records, PBS, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu.

    The streaming era has created a boom for music docs in both content and form. With so many platforms vying for content, overlooked artists and genres are finally getting their due, and because streamers are more open to playing with narrative structure, even the most popular acts can be part of projects that dig deeper or go weirder than ever before.

    Sometimes all this freedom delivers excellent work. From feature films about rock legends to short-form explorations of musical trends, here are ten great music docs you can stream right now.

    The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (HBO Max)

    In one of the most moving scenes of any music documentary, The Bee Gees lets Barry Gibb discuss outliving all his brothers – both his fellow Bee Gees Robin and Maurice, and his kid brother Andy, for whom Barry wrote loads of hit songs. That pathos infuses the entire film, which is as much about the complicated costs of working with your family as it is about the disco revolution that the Gibbs helped define.

    Behind the Music: LL Cool J (Paramount+)

    The reboot of VH1’s long-running series is frequently a misfire, since episodes often play like press releases. The LL Cool J segment, however, is a winner. LL himself is refreshingly blunt about his successes and failures, and many of the other interviewees are infectiously passionate about his music. The highlight of the entire episode may be Eminem’s giddy recollection of listening to LL’s music as a kid.

    Country Music: A Film By Ken Burns (PBS Passport)

    At eight episodes and almost 16 hours, this Ken Burns project is exhaustive but never once exhausting. In fact, it’s arguably the best documentary ever made about country music, digging deep into the history and ascension of one of America’s great homegrown art forms. And because so many legendary artists sit down for interviews, the doc also stands out among Burns’ extensive filmography. His scholarship, impressive is always, gets a jolt from the vibrant and eccentric showpeople who have first-hand experience of the subject.

    Available for streaming on PBS Passport (free with a membership to your local PBS station) or via Amazon’s PBS Documentaries channel, which comes with a free seven-day trial.

    The Go-Go’s (Showtime)

    Famously the first all-female band to have a number one album, The Go-Go’s are excellent musicians with wild private lives. This documentary does a great job framing the importance of their work while lettingeach of the band members shine as fascinating individuals.

    The Jesus Music (Hulu)

    This film persuasively argues that the history of contemporary Christian music is as rebellious as punk or hip-hop, since it also involved people from an outsider community building an underground sound that eventually burst into the mainstream. Frank interviews with stalwarts like Amy Grant and Kirk Franklin address the genre’s fraught attempts to balance holiness with human folly, which have sometimes led to artists being ostracized at the top of their game.

    Music Box: Listening to Kenny G (HBO Max)

    Hands down the best entry so far in the Music Box series that Bill Simmons created for HBO, this one is not only about soft jazz pioneer Kenny G, but also about the way people respond to his music. From the many who love him — including the entire population of China, apparently — to the many who think he is the worst thing that ever happened to recorded sound, the film interrogates how we create our personal tastes. And there in the middle is Kenny G himself, proudly nerdy and appealingly unfazed by his own strange place in the culture.

    Song Exploder: R.E.M. - “Losing My Religion” (Netflix)

    Based on the hit podcast of the same name, Netflix's Song Exploder dives into the minutiae of how great artists create their songs. Not every tune covered in the show’s two seasons is strong enough to merit the attention, but “Losing My Religion” absolutely is. 30 years later, R.E.M.’s signature hit still sounds unlike anything else, and it’s fascinating to learn how the band constructed it.

    Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (Hulu)

    Both an Oscar and a Grammy winner, the Questlove-directed Summer of Soul not only unearths long-lost footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, but also explores how an event this successful could have been forgotten for decades. Exhilarating performance footage from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone demonstrates exactly what we’ve been missing all these years.

    This Is Pop: Auto-Tune (Netflix)

    It has a few clunky episodes, but overall This Is Pop is a solid docuseries that pokes into under-explored corners of pop music. The standout is this 45-installment about the rise of Auto-Tune, the pitch-correcting software that defined hit songs for muchof the early 2000s. Along with a fascinating exploration of where the tech came from, the episode also offers a poignant account of what happened to T-Pain, Auto-Tune’s great maestro, after the sound fell out of favor.

    What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix)

    A deserving Oscar nominee directed by Liz Garbus (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), this film chronicles Nina Simone’s life, music, and fearless civil rights activism. It works because it uses so much archival footage to let Simone boldly speak for herself. Her genius shines through, and so does her urgent, unquenchable passion.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Music and TV, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Behind the Music , Country Music, The Go-Go's, The Jesus Music, Listening to Kenny G, Song Exploder, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), This Is Pop, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Ken Burns, Kenny G, Liz Garbus, LL Cool J, Nina Simone, The Bee Gees