I was going through some of the footage of the band in the studio recording the new album, and it gave me the itch to watch the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the unbelievably prolific LA session musicians who recorded most of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s. It was really good, so naturally it made me want to watch and re-watch some of my other favorite music documentaries.
I found a bunch of lists online of music documentaries, but to be honest most of them are either concert films (e.g., The Last Waltz) or retrospective interview-style profiles of bands of individuals (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). So that made me want to put together a list of some recording studio-centric docs in case anybody else wants to go down this rabbit hole with me.
It’s worth noting this is not an attempt at a “Best of…” list. It’s just some good flicks. We’re off!
Let it Be – The Beatles
This is the real deal, right here. The cameras followed The Beatles through rehearsing and recording what wound up being their final album. You get a sense of the dysfunction in the band, but there are some moments of joy, too, like the famous, impromptu rooftop concert scene. This movie’s been out-of-print for decades, but there are bootlegs floating around.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco
The story behind Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album is legendary — from the tensions between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which resulted in Bennett leaving the band, to the album being passed on by the band’s label, only for them to sell it to Nonesuch Records for buckets of money on its way to becoming a big hit. And cameras were there capturing it all as it happened. This movie was actually how I heard about Wilco.
A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica – Metallica
I don’t know how many times I watched this documentary as a teenager, but it was a lot. A LOT. Part one covers the recording of the black album, and part two covers their first tour in support of it. As much as Metallica became known as self-absorbed blowhards, this is on the whole a fun look at the making of an album nobody had any idea was going to change their lives forever. And the whole thing’s on YouTube.
Sound City – Various
I love Dave Grohl. This documentary tells the story of Sound City, its legendary Neve mixing console, the demise of the studio, and Grohl’s resurrection of the board in his own studio. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a music doc. Appearances by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, and tons more.
Muscle Shoals – Various
I’m cheating a little because I haven’t seen this one, but it’s about the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like The Wrecking Crew, it publicly tells the story of something that was never well-known outside of the recording industry. And also, a bunch of our fellow contributors to the annual Couch by Couchwest festival hail from the Muscle Shoals area.