Music Documentaries: Behind the Spotlight

A documentary is a film genre that accurately shows or describes real-life events, without adding any fictional elements. When we talk about music documentaries, their concept is not easy to explain, and there is no black-and-white definition. Nevertheless, a music documentary could be defined as a docu-film centred around music, an artist, a concert, or even specific historical moments that defined music history.

Why Do People Choose to Watch a Music Documentary?

 A music documentary can draw the most iconic moments in music history, picturing the artist’s life from a different perspective. It can go beyond the performance, the spotlights, and the stage, showing details and aspects that sometimes could be missed and revealing the artist’s intimate universe masked under the appearances.

An example of this genre might be Amy – The Girl Behind the Name, a 2015 docu-film about the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Whinehouse. The film discusses lesser-known aspects of the singer’s life as told through her own words and music. The footage reveals what was hidden behind Amy’s make-up, showing the true soul of the artist. The director himself, Asif Kapadia, said he wanted to show the fun, bright-eyed girl we didn’t get the chance to meet.

Amy, 2015, movie poster 

A music documentary is not merely about performances, it is about life, experiences, a cross-section of an artist’s history. It is a way to bring the viewer closer to the artists’ sensitivity and build an even stronger bond through images and narration. 

As much as documentaries with realistic footage, biographical films about musicians can be multidimensional experiences, a great way to tell a story about a person or a time period. Both music documentaries and music films are becoming more and more popular, a phenomenon that could be defined with the Golden Age of Music Documentaries, as written on a Rolling Stones article listing dozens of upcoming films and TV series.

According to The Wall Street Journal, music documentaries are booming, thanks to the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix Inc., AT&T Inc.’s HBO, and Hulu. The spreading of these streaming platforms changed the way we consume video content. Documentary-inspired content is being created more than ever before and, consequently, the interest of fans wanting more insights into the life of their favourite artists increased along with the online streams.

Is it simply about the artists’ life?

Music documentaries can be part of history, just like what happened in 2018 with  Amazing Grace, a documentary about gospel music featuring the greatest soul singer of all the time, Aretha Franklin. By virtue of new technologies, we can hear Franklin in her absolute prime.

“She feeds off her audience. The more excited they become, the more her voice soars,” says The Independent. Amazing Grace is a real step back in time: the images and the audio offer a journey through time up to the year 1972 with the original recordings of the album Amazing Grace live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. 

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace (2018)

If this is an example of a documentary with realistic footage, the upcoming Respect can instead be considered an autobiographical music film. It will be released in the United States on August 13th, 2021, by United Artists Releasing. The film shows Aretha Franklin’s life and her journey to find her voice in the turbulent social and political landscape of 1960s America. She was not just a music legend but also fought for civil rights. Not by chance, the 1967 hit Respect became the anthem of the civil rights campaign and the feminist movement.

The two films examined above are about the same artist, Aretha Franklin, whose life and music are portrayed in different ways. However, what these two movies have in common is the passion and the strength they convey, as well as the impact their music had on the masses. 

Making a music documentary or a biographical movie might entice showing passion, history, and tracing connections and bonds between the screen and the public. It could be an intimate journey through the artists’ music, but it might also involve much more. It could represent a subculture at a given point in time, a musical event – such as Woodstock, a film about the homonymous hippy festival of 1969. On the other hand, if you wanted to know more about the mysteries of music-making, Song Exploder (2020) would be perfect: a documentary series where musicians reveal the creative processes behind their songs.

When it comes to what happens behind the spotlight, there is always something to discover, examine, and learn.


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