Off the charts: Music documentaries that offer a look at the artist beyond the fame
While AP Dhillon gets a salutary documentary on OTT, lives of music icons make for immersive viewing in these music documentaries.
Music documentaries are like little time capsules—capturing not just the artist but also a slice of the music industry of the time. From Amy (2015) by Asif Kapadia, Searching for Sugarman (2012) by Malik Bendjelloul to the classic Don’t Look Back (1967) by D.A. Pennebaker, these elaborate audio-visual tributes show the person beneath the fame and fortune—their popularity, vulnerability, and capacity to outlast trends and cycles of time.
With the explosion in OTT content, filmmakers have become bolder with the kind of stories they tell. And while some of these documentaries are captivating from beginning to end, others are not so much.
Case in point: AP Dhillon-First Of Its Kind, a docu-series on Amazon based on popular Punjabi music artist A P Dhillon.
The docu-series begins well with glimpses of Dhillon’s growing up years in Punjab and move to Canada to seek better opportunities. It holds up until the story of making the viral hit ‘Brown Munde’. The song was put together by a bunch of young boys like Dhillon in a garage with auto-tune to enhance the track.
When the narrative moves towards his preparation for a packed concert, it slackens in interest and insight as it barely offers much information about Dhillon as an artist or the actual making of his live concerts. The docu-series on Dhillon leaves you wanting for more insight than adulation.
There are multiple music documentaries on OTT, with some becoming near-licensed celebrations of the stars while others focus on a sensational side of their lives. A few of these documentaries also stand out for honest treatment and engaging narrative.
YS Life has curated a list of music documentaries that offer genuine insight into the lives of their subjects.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
In this documentary, recalling his choice of wearing face paint and masks during the roadshow-cum-concert tour, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan says, “When you wear a mask you can tell the truth.”
Dylan’s casual remark, like most of his poetry, underlines the chaotic, indulgent, and insightful elements of his life that are in focus in this documentary.
In 1975, having played in packed concerts, and live acts and having carved his space as a music legend, Dylan decided to go on tour. Only this time, he didn’t want the press scrutiny, thundering crowds, or packed auditoriums.
Cobbling together a musical group of artists that were either past their prime, or less popular than him, he put together a floating carnival of sorts. He called it the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Is it a coincidence that the name resembles former US president Richard Nixon’s term for the first carpet bombing exercise launched on Vietnam? Maybe or maybe not.
Managed by a friend of Dylan’s, who went on to become a boss at Paramount Pictures, Rolling Thunder Revue had jam sessions and performances with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, the violinist Scarlet Rivera, and Bob Neuwirth, among others.
Poet Alan Ginsberg features in the documentary with his evocative verse and borderline arrogance in portions, as does a young Sharon Stone, who toured with the revue for some time.
The most revelatory parts are the backstage interactions with the singer and his crew, their impulsive way of making music.
Scorsese structures this documentary from archival footage of this tour, using real and fictional characters in the narrative, at times, confounding the viewer. While a straightforward narrative would have made this documentary more fruitful, the filmmaker uses this technique from Dylan’s playbook, where some people are imagined to be someone else, just to get the audience to connect with his stage performance.
The Revue played in small towns and economically backward American cities, with flyers being handed out to absolutely stunned local people a day before the concert. On some days, Dylan would drive the tour bus himself.
The documentary focuses on his song titled Hurricane (1976), which coincides with the wrongful incarceration of the American boxer Rubin Carter Hurricane in the same year.
Dylan’s music, and that of his revue partners captures the sentiments of American youth of the time. Unimaginable in times of monetised music-making, these performances spoke to audiences and brought them solace at a tumultuous time when the Vietnam War and Watergate had shaken America’s value system.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Duration: 2 hours and 22 minutes
Miss Americana (2020)
With its cinema-verite style of filmmaking, this documentary is captivating right from the word go. It begins with a scene showing singer-songwriter Taylor Swift at 19, alone at home, and waiting to hear from her producer on the number of Grammy nominations that she has won. When she doesn’t get too many, she simply states, “I’ll just have to make a better album.”
In Miss Americana, Swift’s control over her emotions contrasts with her loneliness, as she says to herself, “Shouldn’t I have someone to call right now?” Surrounded by ‘besties’ and groupies, no one is around her when she is at the top.
Through this documentary, director Lana Wilson captures the evolution of Swift from a young, vulnerable girl to an artist who harnesses her voice for tolerant and inclusive politics.
In 2018, Swift spoke up against an ultra-conservative Republican senator in her adopted home state Tennessee. The music icon has also said she regretted not having harnessed her fandom to vote against Donald Trump.
As grown men control her life at multiple levels—her managers, music producer or the elders of her family—Swift argues to make herself heard through her music.
She also doesn’t hesitate from shooting a video favouring queer people (You Need to Calm Down, 2019).
Recalling the moment in 2009 when Kayne West questioned Swift’s wins, she regrets not having spoken against his behaviour as she didn’t want to be judged. At 19, Swift had matured enough not to take such a situation lying down. Today she is a cultural icon for youth in the USA, with her tours drawing in billions of dollars in revenue for cities. This documentary un-packs the transformation of Swift into this grown up and confident artiste.
Where to watch: Netflix
Duration: 1 hour and 25 minutes
My Mind and Me (2022)
Selena Gomez is a reluctant superstar. She loves to sing, has lived in the spotlight since childhood and has made a lot of money as a young artist. My Mind and Me by director Alek Keshishian captures her at her most vulnerable time.
Transitioning from being a Disney star to a popular performer and successful businesswoman, Gomez shows her insecurities with last-minute stress over her first world singing tour. John Janick, the owner of the record label, has signed her on and regrets having taken on a ‘Disney kid’ while calming her panic attack.
Her ‘Revival’ tour takes off to a great start until it’s canceled after 55 performances. Gomez checks into a mental health facility and is diagnosed with a host of disorders. What begins as self-realisation of cumulative mental health and physical health challenges at 23, make her seek a different life at 30, when the documentary is released.
Gomez has had a kidney transplant due to auto-immune disease Lupus. She has also had to end the high-strung relationship with Justin Bieber and then had to go back to a treatment facility to deal with bipolar disorder.
This documentary doesn’t soften her image, or gloss over her issues. Instead, it steadily focuses on her road to recovery after two decades of stardom, showbiz, and a disconnected existence from the real world. She reconciles with her family, returns to her roots and often gets sarcastic with the media with her cynical responses.
For a star whose life was mostly even, and featured a high profile relationship before her health issues came to the fore, My Mind and Me shows a fallible human being.
Gomez almost got it shelved for it was so raw and honest, but agreed to release it to pursue her aims around mental health awareness. While having incredible stardom and wealth should, theoretically, be able to solve all problems, sometimes they aren’t enough. She has made a successful return to acting on TV and music now, and is comfortable with her body image. This documentary shows this transition without making it seem easy or swift.
Where to watch: Apple TV +
Duration: 1 hour and 35 minutes
Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All (2023)
Sheeran is a contemporary rock star who has crossed over to pop, EDM, and folk music listeners globally with his original albums. Reclusive in real life and focused only on presenting his music to people when he is on social media, Sheeran offers a surprisingly candid and open look at a vulnerable time of his life with the docu-series Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All.
Sheeran, who always aspired to be a music star, is married to his high school sweetheart Cherry Seaborn, and is happy making his music at his own pace. When life throws curveballs at him, his resilience and staying power show up in full form. In this series, he is seen dealing with two huge personal emergencies, while balancing his career.
With four episodes that centre around love, loss, focus and balance, it looks at four difficult years of Sheeran’s life.
While Sheeran carries on with his passion for making music, his perception towards it shifts, through a series of unfortunate events. David Soutar, a music videos specialist, directs this four-part docu-series.
The making of his studio album Subtract shows the difference in his approach between 2018 and 2022. A vulnerable moment that has him crying at a private concert also presents a personal aspect of a celebrity who has kept his life off-limits for the most part.
Sheeran lets cameras access his most difficult moments because he wants to share his experiences with the world. Be it dealing with an emerging mental health issue, or his inability to grieve a close one’s passing away, he continues to do his work and be a father to his kids. The documentary is emotional and insightful, while closing with an optimistic outlook.
Where to watch: Disney + Hotstar
Duration: Four episodes, each episode around 30 mins
Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti