We’re certain there will be some great documentary films on this list that you might not have known they ever existed…. even if you’re a documentary film enthusiast. These are all great films that can educate the public and at times be agents of social change with feeling, soul and meaningful messages. After reading some year end reviews we decided to throw our hat in the conversation and compile a list of our own. And after looking at it, the list is nothing short of mind blowing and reflective of great (and often overlooked) music documentaries released in 2012 that will have longevity and be a source of education as well as viable information about unique people and cultures for many years to come. These are music docs we’ve personally seen where storytelling trumps celebrity in creating truly memorable sound-and-vision experiences and unsung influencers tell their stories of overcoming tremendous odds.
Here are our top music documentaries for 2012 in no particular order. Please feel free to leave a comment about your favorite music documentaries of 2012:
(Director -Malik Bendjelloul)
[Sundance winner and Official Selection at SXSW, Tribeca and Los Angeles Film Festivals]
Chronicles the disappearance and resurrection of Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter who recorded two albums of lyrical, allusively political psych-folk in the early ’70s that went nowhere commercially. In America Rodriguez vanished into obscurity; in South Africa, where one of his records had randomly fetched up, he became an icon to disaffected apartheid-era youth, who bought his albums by the hundreds of thousands and figured he was dead.
(Director – Spike Lee)
[Official Selection Venice International Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival]
Spike Lee ‘s first music documentary marks the silver anniversary of MJ’s 1987 Thriller follow-up, Bad, the only album in history that sold between 30 -45 million units and be considered a sales disappointment. (Of course, it became the 5th best selling album of all time and spawned five straight No. 1 singles, so these things are relative.) Focusing on THE WORK, Spike breaks down the making of Bad song by song (and video by video) with behind the scenes footage of the sessions and the subsequent tour and commentary from from Quincy Jones, Martin Scorsese, Cee Lo Green, Sheryl Crow, LA Reid, Mariah Carey, Andre Crouch, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Siedah Garrett, Jeffrey Daniels, Glen Ballard, Chris Brown, Nelson George, Bruce Swedien and may others). The only disappointing thing about the TV version that aired on ABC on Thanksgiving is that there is 40 minutes to an hour cut from this film of which we had to watch the German version on YouTube (in German) to hear about the infamous Wesley Snipes character that was proposed to Prince (of which Prince mentioned in a Chris Rock interview for VH1). Jackson estate holder, John Branca, mentions how MJ thought Prince “put a curse on him” and LA Reid saying that “you just can’t send an artist the caliber of Prince (or MJ for that matter) a track and ask him to do something on it because he would be more likely say let’s start a new track”. Nonetheless, a lot of this great pertinent and historical music information was left on the cutting room floor for the American TV release but we will get in the DVD version. This is one of the most important music documentaries in years and provides us an opportunity to separate a man we knew too much about from the music we never really got to appreciate. MJ was and always will be the ultimate entertainer and one of the best we’ll ever see!!!!
(Director – Kevin MacDonald)
[Official Selection of Cannes Film Festival, SXSW, Fandana Film Festival, deadCENTER Film Festival, Berlin’s International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Curaçao International Film Festival, Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival, American Black Film Festival, Homer International Documentary Film Festival, New Zealand International Film Festival]
Bob Marley’s universal appeal, impact on music history and role as a social and political prophet is both unique and unparalleled. The definitive life story of the musician, revolutionary, and legend, from his early days to his rise to international super-stardom. Made with the support of the Marley family, there is rare footage, incredible performances and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best. The nearly 2½-hour film has scores of musical moments to remind followers of Marley’s infectious talent.
(Director – Jason Orr)
[Audience Award International DocuFest Atlanta, Official Selection San Francisco Black Film Festival, Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, Northwest Film Festival, Blackstar Film Festival, New Voices in Black Cinema Film Festival, BAM Cinematek]
Of course we’re bias towards this one and we must say that other year end lists that we read was the inspiration to create our own list. We are empowered by overwhelming responses and feedback from our screenings across the country from movie goers saying that FunkJazz Kafé: Diary Of A Decade is a much needed, highly informative and educational music documentary that tells the story of how soul music (and a plethora of soul/R&B/funk/jazz bands) evaporated out of the commercial music market as well as the inspiring story of the FunkJazz Kafé phenomenon. An unscripted arts and music festival that evolved (and still thriving) out of Atlanta’s bubbling creative arts and music community of the early 90’s to current. Narrated by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Chuck D (Public Enemy), FunkJazz Kafé: Diary Of A Decade includes commentary from several key influencers, icons and architects of modern soul, R&B, funk, jazz and hip hop like Cee Lo Green, George Clinton, Roy Ayers, Larry Mizell, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Caron Wheeler (Soul II Soul), Dick Gregory, Cornel West, Janelle Monae, Dallas Austin, Omar (UK Soul Legend), Dionne Farris, Van Hunt, Meshell Ndegeocello, Andre 3000, Loose Ends, Jamie Foxx, Bilal, Raphael Saadiq, Speech (Arrested Development, Jamie Foxx, Sticman (Dead Prez), Common, Joi Gilliam, Lil’ John Roberts, MC Lyte, Talib Kweli, N’Dea Davenport (Brand New Heavies), Eric Roberson, Algebra, DJ Kemit, Donnie, Professor Griff, Anthony David, Jamal Ahmad, Ray Murray (Organized Noize), LeRonde Williams, Kevin Powell and Doug E. Fresh. A definite go-to documentary for years to come as “Diary Of A Decade” evokes dialogue of classic American cultures in need of preservation and stimulation. This film has more insight and star power than has ever documented before.
FunkJazz Kafé: Diary Of A Decade will be screening exclusively in movie houses in selected cities around America and the United Kingdom for most of 2013 before it goes to public broadcast or DVD release with a much shorter TV /DVD version than the current theater version touring the country. So we encourage you to hit the DEMAND IT! button on the right of this page (and/or send us and email to firstname.lastname@example.org) so you don’t miss this one-of-a-kind documentary film when it comes to a local theater in your city for an exclusive screening.
(Director – Joe Berlinger)
[Best Documentary Film Nashville Film Festival, Audience Award – SXSW, Official Selection – Sundance, Hot Docs, Calgery International Film Festival, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, Dallas Film Festival]
• Winner, Primetime Emmy® Awards 2012, Outstanding Sound Mixing For Nonfiction Programming
• Nominated for 3 Emmy® Awards
• South By Southwest: Audience Award
• Cleveland Film Festival: Audience Choice Award for Best Film
• Nashville Film Festival: Impact of Music Award as Best Music Documentary Film
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES travels with Paul Simon back to South Africa on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his historic Graceland album. Paul reunites with the original band to give a reunion concert and to explore the story of the turbulent birth of the album. Despite its huge success, and despite it being the first popular example of fusing American and African musical styles, Graceland was initially met with tremendous political crossfire, as Paul was accused of breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa designed to end the Apartheid regime.
Paul revisits these ghosts and comes to some new revelations as his musical journey is explored. Featuring interviews with the key anti-apartheid activists of the time and such musical legends as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney, and David Byrne, the film is both an anatomy of a profound artistic achievement and a meditation on the role of the artist in society.
(Director – Susan Lacy)
This is PBS documentary for their American Masters series that is so inspirational that it had to be included on our list. David Geffen’s far-reaching influence — as agent and manager, record industry mogul, Hollywood and Broadway producer, and billionaire philanthropist — has helped shape American popular culture for the past four decades. American Masters explores the highs and the lows in Geffen’s professional and personal life through more than 50 new interviews with his friends, colleagues and clients, as well as other media luminaries. Irving Azoff, Jackson Browne, Cher, David Crosby, Clive Davis, Barry Diller, Maureen Dowd, Rahm Emanuel, Nora Ephron, Tom Hanks, Don Henley, Arianna Huffington, Jimmy Iovine, Elton John, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Calvin Klein, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Mike Nichols, Yoko Ono, Frank Rich, Steven Spielberg, Jann Wenner, Neil Young, and many others illustrate Geffen’s riveting story.
You can see the full documentary here: Inventing David Geffen
(Director – Gail Levin)
Here’s another great, informative PBS -American Masters documentary of a cultural icon from the heyday of American jazz music, Cab Calloway. This is smart, well-presented insights into his music, his dancing, his acting and his barrier-crossing appeal. Explore the life of this pioneering jazz legend who charmed audiences with his bravado and showmanship. Cab led one of the most popular African American big bands during the jazz and swing eras of the 1930s-40s, with Harlem’s famous Cotton Club as his home stage, best known for his “Hi de hi de hi de ho” refrain from signature song “Minnie the Moocher”.
See the full documentary here: Cab Calloway- Sketches
(Directors – Don Argott and Demian Fenton)
[Best International Music Documentary – Beefeater In-Edit, Best Music Documentary – IDFA, Best Documentary – Boston Independent Film Festival, Official Selection –SXSW, BAM Cinematek, San Francisco Indie Fest]
A raw character study of Bobby Liebling, the aging, addicted, agoraphobic, self-sabotaging lead singer of cult doom metal progenitors Pentagram, as he struggles to escape his parents suburban basement and finally begin living his adult life, with the help of his loyal manager/biggest fan and an unlikely love interest. This story of the human will is actually mind-blowing and inspirational.
(Directors – Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett)
[Audience Award – International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Official Selection – Philadelphia Film Festival, Hampton’s International Film Festival, Vermont International Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, Twin Cities Film Festival]
Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family chronicle, the story of Death is one of brotherly love and fierce, divinely inspired expression. Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was Death. Formed in the early ’70s by three teenage brothers from Detroit, Death is credited as being the first black punk band, and the Hackney brothers, David, Bobby, and Dannis, are now considered pioneers in their field. But it wasn’t until recently — when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of Bobby’s attic nearly 30 years after Death’s heyday — that anyone outside a small group of punk enthusiasts had even heard of them.
(Directors Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan)
[Official Selection – SXSW, Silverdocs Film Festival, CIMMFest, Don’t Knock The Rock Film Festival, Seattle Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Reel Music Festival, Woodstock Film Festival]
As mentioned above with punk rock pioneers like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, this a remarkably intimate look at one of history’s most influential and iconoclastic rock bands. Beginning life as a jazz/funk-fusion act, Bad Brains went on to become one of the most innovative and influential hardcore punk bands on the planet. Their impact can be heard in groups as diverse as Nirvana, Fugazi, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys, and their unique hybrid of blistering punk and melodic reggae is unmatched to this day. Combining found footage, rare concert recordings, interviews with heavyweights like Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, Vernon Reid, Beatie Boys, Michael Franti, Anthony Kiedis and Ian MacKaye, and comic book style animations, the film traces the Washington-born Brains’ musical evolution from funk to hardcore punk to reggae. Culminating in a turbulent 2007 reunion tour sabotaged by the band’s eccentric, unpredictable frontman, Paul “HR” Hudson, “Bad Brains: A Band in DC” captures the struggle (and ultimate perseverance) of the group as they continue to produce music after 25 years together.
(Director – Jesse Vile)
- [Awards: Special Jury Prize: Documentary , Cinequest Film Festival, Audience Award: Best Documentary , Cinequest Film Festival, Best Documentary, Chicago Film and Music Festival, Outstanding Achievement in Music, Newport Beach Film Festival / Official Selection – Independent Film Festival Boston, Hamptons International Film Festival, CIMMfest, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Calgary International Film Festival, Cinequest Film Festival (San Jose), Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Hot Docs, Memphis International Film and Music Festival, Leeds International Film Festival, DOC NYC, Docs DF (Mexico City), Starz Denver Film Festival, Rokumentti (Joensuu, Finland), Golden Horse Film Festival (Taipei), San Francisco Documentary Film Festival]
Chronicling the life of the guitar prodigy/virtuoso who was on his way to the top of the rock world when he was diagnosed with ALS and given a few years to live, “Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet” tells the incredible story of a guitar legend who refuses to give up on his dream of being a musician despite the most incredible odds. It is a story of dreams, love, and the strength of the human spirit.
(Director – Jay Bulger)
[Grand Jury Award – SXSW, Sound & Vision Award –CPH:DOX (Copenhagen) / Official Selection – Silverdocs, Vancouver International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Sound Unseen, Melbourne International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, IFF Boston]
Though best known for his work with Eric Clapton in Cream and Blind Faith, the world’s greatest drummer did not hit his stride until years later in 1972 when he drove the first Range Rover ever produced from London to Nigeria in pursuit of the African rhythms and musical icon, Fela Kuti. There he found his Mecca of drumming, introducing the African beat and “world music” to the West, years before any other musicians in the field.
Unfortunately, Ginger’s African glory days were short-lived as he found himself looking down the barrel of a Nigerian officer’s machine gun. Signaling his departure from the continent and the loss of his fortune, Ginger returned to England where a pattern of divorces, self-destruction, and countless groundbreaking musical works continue on to Italy, California, Colorado, and current day South Africa where he lives inside a fortified compound with his 29-year-old internet bride and 39 polo ponies. The documentary includes stories from his ex-wives, children, and many of the greatest living musicians that worked with Ginger including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, Mickey Hart, Carlos Santana, Max Weinberg, Chad Smith, Femi Kuti, Neal Peart, Simon Kirke, Marky Ramone and many more.
(Director – Poull Brien)
[Special Jury Award, CIMMfest / Official Selection – SXSW, Silverdocs, Munich International Film Festival, Montreal International Documentary Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Milwaukee Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, IDFA, CPH:DOX]
This is a true soul story…. starting off on his 62nd birthday, Charles Bradley: Soul of America follows the extraordinary journey of singer Charles Bradley during the electrifying and transformative months leading up to the release of his debut album “No Time for Dreaming.” Despite being abandoned as a child, a period of homelessness, the devastating loss of his brother and constant poverty, Charles never gave up on his life long dream to be a professional singer. With the help of producer and Grammy-winner Gabriel Roth (Daptone Records) and musician and label owner Tommy Brenneck (Dunham Records), Charles moved away from the James Brown covers he’d been performing for nearly half a century and focused on finding his own unique voice.