The best music documentaries for guitarists to stream ahead of Get Back
When Peter Jackson’s three-part Get Back documentary finally arrives later this month on Disney+, it promises to be three fascinating hours of never before seen footage for Fab Four-loving guitarists to get stuck into on a chilly winter’s eve. But for guitar players, the venerable music documentary can offer more than just entertainment – exploring the stories of how some of the world’s most acclaimed players and artists strived to perfect their art can make us rethink our own approaches. It’s also a way to develop a greater understanding of the history of genres and their pioneers, that can suddenly alter everything we thought we knew about the derivation of popular music. And what’s more, it’s just fantastic to see great players doing what they do – on stage or off it.
READ MORE: Watch: The first trailer for The Beatles: Get Back docuseries has landed
All of which means that you shouldn’t just chuck on another episode of Masterchef while you’re waiting for Get Back to drop on November 25 – there are so many fantastic guitar-centric music documentaries out there on streaming services, and below we’ve picked out ten of the very best for you to enjoy.
All of the below are streamable right now – should you have the appropriate subscriptions. While some may not be available in your region (or you might not be signed up to every streaming service!) they’re all well worth tracking down if you’ve never had a chance to see them before. So dim the lights, close the curtains, put your feet up and let’s crank up the volume.
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Available on: Amazon Prime Video/NowTV
Prior to this 2008 film’s release, few had heard of Canadian heavy metal band Anvil – aside from the likes of Lars Ulrich, Lemmy, Scott Ian and Slash, interviewees who gladly admit the band’s importance and influence on the development of the metal boom of the 1980s, at the outset of this documentary. While bands of the ilk of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses ascended however, Anvil were left behind at the starting post. As Slash philosophises, “Sometimes life deals you a tough deck”.
Catching up with central members Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner in their home city of Toronto, it’s great to see that the pair are still making music, initially on their own terms while working full time in catering and construction respectively. Before long the promise of a second chance in the form of a European tour pulls the two former hell-raisers back out into a quest for wider recognition.
While Robb and Lips’ commitment to both the band and each other, coupled with their respective families support is truly heartening, there’s a definite Spinal Tap-esque quality to many of the band’s antics and performance footage (such as the explanation of their first track Thumb Hang). Unlike the cynically sketched caricatures in that film however, before long you’re rooting for Lips and Robb to realise their dreams in the face of the obvious fiasco that the tour has turned out to be…
Less concerned with celebrating the band’s music than it is with spotlighting the pair’s endearing tenacity in the face of adversity – something that musicians of all stripes will be familiar with – Anvil! is an engrossing watch.
After the pair come to verbal blows while making their 13th record, we’re privy to some painful exchanges. Ultimately, a teary Lips reconciles with Reiner by saying that “You’re my fucking brother man, who else can I cry on their shoulder and say shit too.” Moving stuff.
9. Cobain: Montage of Heck
Available on: Amazon Prime Video/NowTV
Montage of Heck inventively casts light on the late Nirvana frontman with never before seen footage, interviews from Cobain’s closest friends and family, unsettling plunges into the visceral illustrations and words adorning his private journals and some beautifully crafted graphic novel-like animated sequences. With Nirvana, Kurt caused a seismic shift in the alternative music world that endures to this day. Cobain’s teenage experiences, from his tumultuous family life, early dabblings with drugs, a struggle with a chronic stomach condition and his resulting fragile sensitivity are all unflinchingly documented, while the broader context of Reaganite America in which he came of age is illustrated via some quick-fire montages of contemporary political and popular culture.
The acceleration of the early ramshackle Nirvana from small-town guitar band in Washington State to the avowed kings of alternative music is such an exhilarating watch, and makes the viewer empathetic to the psychological whirlwind that it must have triggered in the rather nervous young frontman. One of the doc’s most interesting revelations is just how grounded and professional Kurt approached Nirvana from the outset, as the film shows dissatisfied letters from to a former drummer, a very meticulous rehearsal schedule, early budget and tour plans as well as the detailed chord diagrams which pepper his songwriting journals.
The pulse of the film, is a salvo of live Nirvana footage – some of it widely viewed before, other clips presented for the first time – which emphasise that behind the mythology and the tragedy of Kurt’s eventual suicide, Nirvana were one hell of a breathtaking live band. It also reveals that though Cobain’s destructive guitar performances were thrilling, his punk rock exterior masked the fact that, underneath it all, he was a meticulous songwriter.
Though it’s a rollercoaster of a doc, but for our money the most spine-tingling moment in Montage of Heck is the Super 8 footage of a tiny toddler Kurt Cobain, holding a small toy guitar. An affecting reminder of the essential humanity that lay behind one of rock’s most revered deities
8. McCartney 3,2,1
Available on: Disney+/Hulu
While The Beatles Anthology remains the definitive word on The Beatles story, it’s not currently streamable, McCartney 3, 2, 1 however provides a much more music-focused swim through an assortment of Beatles material, as well as a few choice cuts from the titular mop-top’s solo career. Over five episodes, Sir Paul and famed producer Rick Rubin dissect the Beatles’ canon, with Rubin on hand to both adjust the faders and be awed by McCartney’s explanations of how the fab four’s body of work was forged.
Episode Four, Like Professors in a Laboratory is a particularly engaging episode, with a more focused look at the more innovative elements within The Beatles’ songbook, ranging from the use of tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows, Ringo’s crucial beats which set the tone for many of The Beatles’ biggest tracks, such as Get Back’s military-like pound, and the band’s early forays into recording guitar parts at half-speed, like during the solo of A Hard Day’s Night.
It’s clear that McCartney is the biggest Beatle-fan in the room from the get-go, relishing in hearing the individual stems and unpicking the threads of the music he and his mates made over five decades prior. The final episode, in which he discusses his songwriting relationship with John, allows him to affirm an enduring respect for his former musical partner. “At the time I was just working with his bloke called John, now I look back and I was working with John Lennon”.
“You guys were excited making it, and we get to feel your excitement” pinpoints Rubin during a dissection of And Your Bird Can Sing’s guitar part, as the track is carefully un-mixed. McCartney 3,2,1 is a must-watch for Beatle-fans, and a rich resource for anyone with a passing interest in the history and development of both pop, songwriting and guitar recording.
There’s countless memorable moments across the six parts, but a notable guitar-centric high-point comes in Episode Five’s spotlight on McCartney’s dazzling Taxman solo, “It was just free, there was also a little bit of Indian in there.” Macca explains, “I wouldn’t have thought about it or written anything, it was like, the track was so cooking, that if we’re going to have a solo it should just be ridiculous”.
7. Searching for Sugar Man
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
An extraordinary true tale, charting the remarkable story of Sixto Rodriguez, a humble Detroit based singer/songwriter from the early seventies. Despite his adept songwriting talents, his two studio albums did little business in the United States upon release, yet became firmaments in the popular culture of South Africa – and reportedly sold more copies than Elvis Presley. It’s gripping from the outset, though it’s soon made heartbreakingly clear that Rodriguez was seemingly never aware of the phenomenal scope of his impact on South African culture, or the fact that, his debut album Cold Fact was so omnipresent that it was assumed by many South African youth to have been as influential globally as The Beatles’ albums were.
Oblivious to his overseas success, due to the complexity of the international label system of the early seventies, and the closed-door on communications between the USA and arpatheid-era Africa, a dejected Rodriguez was reported to have committed suicide mid-gig at some point in the 1970s, though when journalist and fan Craig Bartholomew Strydom realised that fanciful accounts of just how he died wildly varied, he decided to go in search of the truth behind the life of this enigmatic minstrel…
We won’t give away the second act of the film, as the investigative thrust of Craig’s search is part of the film’s appeal, needless to say it’s a search that leads to a truly magical resolution, while the impact of Rodriguez’s astounding catalogue of should-have-been classics, including I Wonder and Sugar Man on South African culture proves that, even without the apparatus of promotion and touring, good songs just can’t be kept down.
While it’d be a spoiler to reveal the film’s actual best moment, for people who’ve never heard Rodriguez’s lost canon of work, the film is an absolute goldmine of instant classics that, in a parallel universe, would have put him on a par with Dylan.
6. Tom Petty: Runnin’ Down a Dream
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
A compelling portrait of the late, great Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream begins by probing the influences that inspired the young Tom, such as an obsession with Western movies that got him interested in the guitar (“I like the idea of the guitar, because cowboys played guitar.”), an awakening via the British invasion, and a resulting major fixation with rock’n’roll that led to early band Mudcrutch, before crystallising in the shape of the venerated Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Undoubtedly one of America’s most gifted rock’n’roll songwriters, the film rightfully puts Tom and the band on a pedestal throughout, foregrounding the making of an amazing range of songs including Don’t Do Me Like That, Free Fallin’ and Refugee, revealing Petty’s glee when writing songs. Though his bandmates such as Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as star fans such as Dave Grohl and Johnny Depp share their own perspectives on Petty’s story, it’s the man himself who provides the most imperative narration, coming across in his interviews as a warm and humble artist in thrall to the magic of music.
It’s best enjoyed in a few sittings, as its near four-hour runtime will devour a whole evening, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most complete and insightful artist documentaries you can watch. Petty’s humanity resonates through both this film as he shares details of a life of momentous twists and remarkable turns. It’s likely you’ll walk away sharing Dave Grohl’s final remark; “He’s just a badass” .
While the live performance of American Girl – wherein Petty showcases a double-necked Rickenbacker is a glorious early moment, our pick is the clip of Petty playing the chorus chords of The Waiting and explaining how he was struck by a flash of Michelangelo-like topline inspiration after playing the cycle repeatedly for a week. A moment that makes us want to grab the nearest acoustic…
5. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Essaying the life and evolving character of The Beatles’ guitarist from his childhood in Liverpool, achieving more success than had hitherto been imagined, developing into a capable songwriter and masterful guitarist, then becoming absorbed by Indian spirituality. Living in the Material World is a captivating watch. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the calibre of interviewees is understandably top-notch, with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton and Olivia and Dani Harrison amongst others providing the flowing oral history of George Harrison.
In the documentary, it’s emphasised that Harrison’s growth as a songwriter coincided with his discovery of both Indian spirituality and musical tradition, with George Martin revealing that Harrison regular communicated his musical ideas in an untypical way, while his friend, racing driver Jackie Stewart theorises that Harrison’s heightened senses – the result of the daily mantras he performed each day – were the secret behind the fluidity of his guitar playing. The film makes the case that George’s quest for spiritual fulfilment through both music and personal growth was the central spine that drove all of his finest work.
Often overlooked in the shadow of The Beatles’ two central totemic figures – Lennon and McCartney, Living in the Material World presents a fascinating insight into ‘the quiet one’, and underlines Harrison’s centrality to the band. It also spends significant time exploring his diverse life as an individual; how he assembled the world’s first benefit concert for Bangladesh in 1971, funded the Monty Python team when they struggled to amass the budget for the timeless Life of Brian and continued to be a fastidious musician and producer, right up until his sad death from cancer in 2002. It’s a real treat to hear more of Harrison’s more obscure Beatle and solo cuts throughout the film’s runtime too, including the gorgeous The Inner Light.
While the story of Harrison politely asking a tribe of Hells Angels to leave the studio after naively inviting them to visit is a notable laugh-out-loud moment, the best moments have to be the behind-the-scenes clips of The Travelling Wilburys – music demigods Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne – recording their two albums in the studio with George. A rare glimpse at these towering figures at work and casually interacting.
4. Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Available on: Netflix
The mythical figurehead of rock ’n’ roll excess, Keith Richards serves as a surprisingly engaging anchor for this deep dive into the range of blues, country, rock’n’roll and reggae performers that had a formative influence on Richards and his bandmates, The Rolling Stones. In the midst of recording his third solo album Crosseyed Heart, we’re invited to witness Richards at work in the studio as he assembles his new record, while also taking the time to explain how those original influences such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, as well country legends such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash still inform his work right up to the present day.
As the documentary unfolds, Keith demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the evolution of genres, explaining the through-line from Celtic folk music to rock’n’roll. He also shares a deep-rooted admiration for those pivotal blues pioneers. Richards’ guitar playing is at the fore of the doc, with Keith’s friend Tom Waits explaining that it seems Richards possesses what London cabbies used to call ‘the knowledge’ – only for music instead of taxi routes. A highlight for guitarists comes early in the film, with a brief tour of Richards’ mouth-watering guitar arsenal, including a look at his late 50s black Gibson ES-355 and a 1928 L1 Gibson – the same guitar that Robert Johnson used. Another highpoint comes with Richards’ reminiscences about the recording of key ‘Stones tracks, including a fascinating explanation of how the guitar sound on Street Fighting Man was realised.
It’s readily apparent that despite his legendary hedonism, Keith is fundamentally a passionate musician that understands his position in an ever-growing family tree of music. Obvious too is that, at the (then) age of 71, Richards is still besotted by the thrill of playing, as Keith says “It is one of the best feelings in the world. It may be only rock ’n’ roll but I’ll tell you what, that’s the shit.”
Though we’re tempted to give it to the startling footage of an argument between Richards and Chuck Berry in 1987, it’s not really the most joyous moment in the film, that honour has to go to the clip of The Rolling Stones performing on stage with their idol, Muddy Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago back in 1981. In an instant, the rock ’n’ roll monarchs become giddy fanboys.
3. ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads
Available on: Netflix
The surviving recordings of the short lived Mississippi blues master Robert Johnson, who died at age 27, resulted in the essential foundations for modern popular music, and rippled through the electric blues and rock ’n’ roll booms of resultant decades. This relatively brief documentary covers Johnson’s under-documented life, revealing how a range of tragedies shaped his attitude toward his music, and examining the myth that a deal with Satan was the source of his seemingly overnight transformation from a clunky novice into a near-miraculously gifted player.
Musicologists, cultural commentators and even Johnson’s own grandson shed light on the true story of the real man behind the shadowy legend, indicating that personal tragedy, loss and a fierce focus were the true secrets behind Johnson’s technical prowess. Who in actuality took himself away for a year under the tutelage of his mentor Ike Zimmerman, working on his techniques together in graveyards late at night.
After numerous heartbreaks, and his talents not being recognised by a god-fearing neighbourhood who largely spurned Johnson’s innovations as ‘the devil’s music’, it’s indicated that Johnson seemed to stop running from the identity that everyone was seemingly ascribing to him, infusing his music with esoteric references to satanic symbolism, the African Hoodoo tradition and more, while his personal life became mired by alcoholism and womanising, before ultimately kicking the bucket by way of a poisoned bottle of whiskey.
It’s an extreme story, but this slickly made documentary, which intersperses talking heads with animated sequences and performances of Johnson’s music, does much to explain how the torch of Johnson’s musical style was picked up and ran with, all the way into the modern pop era.
The explanation of Johnson’s simultaneous shuffle rhythm part and slide guitar technique lays bare why so many must have been transfixed and also suspicious that some supernatural elements must have been at play. As his fingers seemed to work his guitar in opposing rhythms.
2. Carmine Street Guitars
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Taking a fly-on-the-wall look at a week in the life of Greenwich Village based guitar builder Rick Kelly at his Carmine Street Guitars store, this unnarrated documentary is a veritable feast for guitar players. Along with his apprentice (and superb artist), Cindy Hulej, Rick builds characterful guitars largely from reclaimed lumber, preferably pulled from old buildings in New York City. Rick is no ordinary luthier and it’s obvious that he has a deep love of the history of the city. He is fuelled by the idea of breathing new life into aged wood that has been used for other purposes for decades, before being born again as a sparkling sounding, unique-looking hand-made guitar.
Kelly is also keen to learn more about the numerous notable faces that pop into his shop, including Jim Jarmusch, Marc Ribot, Captain Kirk Douglas (of The Roots) and pedal steel player Christie Bougie among others, amicably engaging them in conversations about their playing, passions and struggles. A particularly interesting conversation with The Kills’ Jamie Hince reveals that Hince had recently suffered with major tendon problems in his left hand, prompting Rick to recommend a fatter-necked guitar. Jamie immediately finds it more comfortable. There’s a real sense that Kelly views his guitars as being almost like people, and he’s keen to get to know as much as he can about his patrons so he can matchmake.
Affirming that his passion for guitar building is life-long, Rick is dedicated to carrying on the traditions of old-school guitar building, believing it to be a lost art in the era of mass production. While Kelly’s warmth as a human being, and the various conversations that take place throughout the days of the week are enough to make the documentary engaging for even non-guitarists, the character of those tremendous axes – and the exemplary players who take them for a spin – mean that there’s little else that a guitar-lover could want from a documentary.
In the space of one week, Kelly transforms some wood salvaged from McSorley’s – the oldest Irish saloon bar in New York – into a mouth-wateringly beautiful instrument, with the body made from the ale-soaked old pine of the bar. It’s a thing of genuine character and history, while its sound, demoed by Charlie Sexton at the end of the film, is out of this world. “I love this guitar Rick, it’s got a great vibe – much like this place.” Sexton says.
1. It Might Get Loud
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Though they’re three players with wildly different approaches and philosophies, this part-biographical documentary, part-summit delves into the history and musical journeys of Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page, revealing very common threads in their narratives, despite their wholly differing guitar perspectives. White’s discovery of ancient blues records, particularly Son House’s Grinnin In Your Face, spurred him to pursue a DIY, impromptu sensibility in his playing, while The Edge was driven by a mission to discover new sonic textures, developing his huge, effect-moulded sound. Meanwhile, dynamic proficiency and technical nous lay at the heart of Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page’s approach. Regardless of their differences, it’s apparent that the three esteemed musicians each share a fundamental love of the instrument.
The film spends some time delving into each man’s history, with each of the three explaining their formative influences and how their lives were shaped by a broad array of music. Most engaging is Page’s tales of forming a homespun skiffle group, before becoming a session musician at Olympic Studios and learning how to be a dexterous, reliable player in a fast-paced commercial world. White takes us back to his home city of Detroit, where playing the guitar when he was growing up in the 1980s was seen as ‘uncool’, while The Edge literally brings us back to his old comprehensive school, where he first met the members of U2, responding to a poster advertising auditions for a band.
Regardless of your interest in the individual subjects’ music, this film succeeds at examining how malleable the guitar can be in the hands of very different players, and how the experiences of the three charismatic individuals add much to their own unique angles on the instrument. There’s also the glorious spectacle of the three heavyweights revelling in the chance to play together.
Any time the three men play together we’re on cloud 9, but a particular highlight is the look of awe on White and The Edge’s faces when Page starts casually pumping out the Whole Lotta Love riff.
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