BEYOND NOSTALGIA: The Best Music Docs of 2021

BEYOND NOSTALGIA: The Best Music Docs of 2021 February 3, 2022

With Covid still cutting into our concert going, I’ve increasingly turned to documentaries for musical inspiration. Remarkable concert footage continues to be unearthed even fifty years after it was first recorded. The splendor of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace (2020) is rivaled by the unbridled joy captured in the Summer of Soul (streaming on Hulu). While Woodstock got the headlines, Harlem hosted an equally significant musical celebration circa 1969.  In his directorial debut, director Questlove opens this treasure trove with Stevie Wonder on the drums, heralding the classic artists to follow including Gladys Knight, Sly Stone, and Nina Simone. Mahalia Jackson and a young Mavis Staples transport us with a heavenly Gospel rave up. The question of why this festival was nearly forgotten and such robust history erased makes this time capsule remarkably relevant today.

Despite its nearly 8 hour running time, I was enthralled by the Beatles creative process documented in Get Back (on Disney+).  Rather than the wistful tone of Let it Be, director Peter Jackson’s recut allows us to see glimpses of the band’s alchemy in action. Paul McCartney emerges as the glue holding the Beatles together even as George Harrison pursues more freedom of expression.  This extended recording session was worth the triumphant London rooftop finale. McCartney 3, 2, 1 (on Hulu) also goes back to the source tapes, with producer Rick Rubin breaking down the musical elements behind the Beatles’ greatest songs. These nostalgic riffs on classic tunes were music to my ears during a second year of Covid imposed shutdowns.

Filmmaker Todd Haynes draws upon vintage footage from Andy Warhol’s factory to explore the enduring influence of The Velvet Underground (on AppleTV).  The punk attitudes of Lou Reed and the Velvets stand in such contrast to the hippie vibe of the era. Form and function coalesce as the film reflects the Velvets distinctive look and sound. John Cale emerges as the underappreciated key to the Velvets’ haunting vibes.

VH1’s “Behind the Music” established the formula of sex, drugs, and burnout that characterizes far too many careers (and music docs). Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James (on Showtime) shows how the drive for stardom can also lead to self-destruction. Despite his status as forerunner of the Punk Funk style, far too many of Rick’s proceeds went up his nose in a hail of cocaine. Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage (on HBO) unflinchingly displays the musical lows unleashed by bands like Limp Bizkit. It also chronicles the misogyny in music that made the “Me Too” movement so necessary. Woodstock ’99 is a cautionary tale that offers a frightening preview of the white, masculine aggrievement that characterizes so much of our politics over the past twenty years.

While many music docs celebrate rock stars’ self-immolation, two of my 2021 favorites elevate staying power. Tina Turner’s survivor spirit comes through in her authorized documentary, Tina (on HBO). It serves as a thank you to her fans and a triumphant farewell to performing. The Sparks Brothers (on Netflix) chronicles the unrelenting generativity of Ron and Russell Mael across several decades. They made some of the more intriguing and influential albums you’ve never heard. While Sparks never quite reached mainstream success, their indefatigable spirit presses on.

Listening to Kenny G (on HBO) invites the best-selling saxophonist to reflect upon his legacy as the progenitor of smooth jazz. While Kenny never apologizes for making sounds that are easy on the ear, he does acknowledge the ways he glossed over the African American roots of jazz. I came away impressed by his commitment to his craft, even if I’ve never owned a Kenny G album in my life.

I was most encouraged and energized by two peeks into the inner lives of young performers.  Director R.J. Cutler is given access to Billie Eilish’s bedroom before she breaks big in The World’s a Little Blurry (on Apple+). The intimate vocals that her brother Finneas captures in their family’s ramshackle Los Angeles home come across as painfully authentic.  We see the insecurities of any teen in Billie’s crush upon Justin Bieber as well as the anger she feels when an older boyfriend ignores her pleas. As her records ascend the charts, we also see the toll that constant touring, promo appearances, and demanding fans exact on her body and soul. My respect for Billie and Finneas’s artistry skyrocketed via this doc (as well as my empathy for the next generation).

Comedian Bo Burnham captures the manic mood swings that arose during the pandemic. How does a performer deal with isolation? Bo Burnham: Inside (on Netlfix) leans into the self-referential circle endemic to social media that the shutdown accelerated. In one hilarious musical send up after another, Burnham punctures our pretensions (including his own). Satire this smart stings, yet the mental and social struggles he expresses turn this home movie into a haunting portrait of our troubled times. Summer of Soul reveals a forgotten moment of past glory. Bo Burnham and Billie Eilish provide an insightful soundtrack to what it feels like to be young and confused right now.



  1. Summer of Soul
  2. Bo Burnham: Inside
  3. Billie Eilish: The World’s a LIttle Blurry
  4. The Velvet Underground
  5. The Beatles: Get Back
  6. McCartney 3, 2, 1
  7. Listening to Kenny G
  8. The Sparks Brothers
  9. Tina
  10. Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James
  11. Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, and Rage



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