In 2021, Music Documentaries Are Finally Getting Good
Films about Billie Eilish, the Notorious B.I.G. and Britney Spears are offering honest glimpses of their subjects
Published May 18, 2021Music documentaries are typically a mixed bag at best. For every fascinating Searching for Sugar Man, there are a dozen fawning puff pieces that essentially act as feature-length commercials for their own subjects.
But in 2021, some artists are finally bucking the trend and actually sharing a raw version of themselves onscreen. From harrowing portraits of life under the celebrity microscope to thorough historical examinations, these films feel less like self-mythologizing and more like authentic glimpses into the lives of music superstars.
The year's not even half done and there are already several must-watch documentaries. Here are the five best so far.
5. Framing Britney Spears
Directed by Samantha Stark
The viral doc — a 74-minute episode of the New York Times' docuseries on Hulu — splits into two parts, which are gripping for very different reasons. First is a riveting glimpse into Britney's rise to fame and the way tabloids pushed her to the breaking point; next is a look at the overzealous #FreeBritney movement, as fans attempt to decode her Instagram posts and campaign for the end of the conservatorship she has been living under for the past 13 years. Paparazzi and well-intentioned fans alike place Britney under intense scrutiny, leaving her imprisoned by her own fame. Let's all #LeaveBritneyAlone.
4. Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell
Directed by Emmett Malloy
This tender tribute from family and friends offers insight on the man behind the myth, including in-depth interviews with Sean "Diddy" Combs and wife Faith Evans, plus formative stories from the rapper's mom Voletta Wallace and Biggie's childhood friends. The rapper's crew had a tendency to film everything they did on camcorders, meaning that the access is unparalleled. I Got a Story to Tell is not so much about the rapper the Notorious B.I.G. as it is about the man Christopher Wallace. The moment when Wallace dominates a sidewalk rap battle is particularly unforgettable.
3. The Sparks Brothers
Director Edgar Wright
Hollywood heavyweight Edgar Wright's tribute to Sparks is a classic prestige rock doc — but the real fun comes from the fact that the brother duo of Ron and Russell Mael aren't actually all that famous. While most music films celebrate the successes of their subjects, The Sparks Brothers is one long series of left turns. And thanks to the Maels' surreal humour and snappy quips — not to mention Ron's Hitler moustache and bizarre deadpan — it's one of the funniest music documentaries you'll ever see. A-listers like Beck, Flea and Jack Antanoff all gush about Sparks, lending credence to the thesis that they are brilliant but underrated.
2. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Directed by Questlove
In 1969, one of the greatest-ever music festivals was filmed and then never released. The Harlem Cultural Festival has been largely forgotten, but this Questlove-directed film — featuring archival performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone, and more — makes a strong case for why it was every bit as important as Woodstock (which took place concurrently just a couple hours' drive Upstate). Summer of Soul finally brings this concert to light while also painting a vivid portrait of a pivotal era in Black American history.
1. Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry
Directed by R.J. Cutler
Unlike so many other music docs, The World's a Little Blurry never feels like it's pulling the strings. Instead, it's a fly-on-the-wall look at the first couple years of Billie Eilish's career; we see her and her brother FINNEAS recording songs in their childhood home, hear about Billie's litany of medical complaints, watch her romantic relationship unravel, and her see her rise to staggering levels of fame. She comes across as a fairly ordinary kid in a truly extraordinary situation — she's creative, moody, in love with Justin Bieber, and a little crabby toward her mom. Pop star docs don't get much better than this.