From Britney to the Beatles, it was a watershed year for music documentaries

A photo collage with Sly Stone, Paul McCartney and Britney Spears.
Sly Stone, left, in the “Summer of Soul,” Paul McCartney in “Get Back” and Britney Spears in “Framing Britney Spears.”
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photographs from Searchlight Pictures; Apple TV; FX)

The chase for eyeballs has been a boon for eardrums.

With a flood of money pouring in from such streamers as Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ and Disney+ as they chase subscribers, artists young and old are cashing fat checks for the screen rights to their lives, on and offstage (so long as they retained final cut). Meanwhile, acclaimed directors including Peter Jackson (“Get Back”), Todd Haynes (“The Velvet Underground”) and Edgar Wright (“The Sparks Brothers”) were drawn to music docs in ways not seen since Martin Scorsese fixed his lens on the Band for “The Last Waltz” or Jonathan Demme shot the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense.”

2021 produced so many first-rate music documentaries that a film on the “Black Woodstock” (Questlove’s revelatory “Summer of Soul”) was quickly followed by one on the mutant Woodstock (HBO Max’s “Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love and Rage”).

Below, some great moments from this year’s bounty.

Best New (Old) Artist
This time last year, the Los Angeles sibling duo were better known in Europe than in the States, purveyors of curiously smart art-rock for nearly 50 years. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael roared back into pop culture consciousness in 2021 through Wright’s loving documentary “The Sparks Brothers” and “Annette,” the Leos Carax-directed, Sparks-penned musical psychodrama starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.

Trailer for Edgar Wright’s ‘Sparks Bros.’ documentary


Best Use of a Stroller
“DMX: Don’t Try to Understand”
When the late hip-hop star DMX, then recently released from prison, pushes a stroller occupied by his toddler son into the Universal Music building in Manhattan in the film, the scowling, growling rapper vanishes and in his place arrives your average dad embarking on a take-your-kid-to-work adventure. Like all compelling biographical music documentaries, “DMX: Don’t Try to Understand” reveals the person minus the mask.

Best Historical Corrective (and Document of Live Music’s Power)
Summer of Soul
Harlem, 1969: A professional documentary crew captures a summer-long gospel, soul, jazz and R&B concert series that featured artists including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone. The summer ends and, aside from a relatively unremarkable TV special that aired shortly thereafter, the canisters are archived. More than 50 years later, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s earth-shaking resurrection of that footage became one of the musical events of the year. Best, not only does the film present transfixing live performances but Thompson also uses the music and performances to explore race, cultural segregation and America’s selective memory.

Best Songwriting Tutorial
The Beatles: Get Back
One thing’s for certain: The success of Jackson’s doc, which traces the band’s final days through the precise culling and editing of 60 hours’ worth of filmed footage into eight, has legacy groups scouring their archives for their own documentary studio footage. Chances are, they won’t be as revelatory as this three-part, eight-plus-hour document, which offers a virtual TED Talk on the ways in which flesh-and-blood, tobacco-tethered humans transform stored energy into timeless music.

‘Summer of Soul’ trailer

Best #FreeBritney Movie
“Controlling Britney Spears”
That the pop star was the subject of four(!) feature-length documentaries in 2021 shouldn’t be surprising, and a look at any of them — “Framing Britney Spears,” “Controlling Britney Spears,” “Toxic: Britney Spears‘ Battle for Freedom” and “Britney Vs Spears” — offers evidence of our collective obsession. Crucially, though, all that coverage was driven by a grass-roots social media campaign, #FreeBritney, that successfully sought to help Spears escape a court-sanctioned conservatorship overseen by her father, Jamie Spears. The most effective of the documentaries was “Controlling Britney Spears,” which offers not only a blow-by-blow account of the court proceedings but also the ways in which devoted fans can effect real-life change.

Best Superstar Origin Story
“Listening to Kenny G”
You’re not really a superhero sax romancer until you come up with an equally memorable name, so when Clive Davis of Arista Records signed a curly-headed tenor saxophonist named Kenneth Gorelick in 1981 and suggested he come up with a snappier identifier, the young man did just that. “That was the moment little Kenny Gorelick became the G-Man,” says the musician and meme in “Listening to Kenny G.” The revelatory documentary offers a deep, multidimensional look at a critically maligned but immensely popular artist. “I don’t think I’m a personality to people. I’m a sound,” he notes at one point.

Best Use of Archival Footage
“The Velvet Underground”
Haynes’ loving, innovative ode to the Velvet Underground makes up for the band’s lack of archival performance footage with a feast of experimental films of the era from directors including Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. The result is a cascading flow of tightly edited moving images that provide unspoken context and fuel the documentary’s visual momentum.

Rick James doc

Best Hair-Related Epiphany
Rick James, “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James”
“I went ‘Bam, there it is. That’s the vision. That’s what I want,’” narrates the late funk superstar in “Bitchin’,” of his signature bangs-and-braids cut of the 1970s. The historic occurrence, which occurs after we see James gunning for a label deal for more than a decade (including with a teenage Neil Young in Toronto), offers one of those shock-of-recognition moments where everything gels. Adds one member of James’ backing band of the braided mullet: “I had beads and everything in mine. Everybody thought we were f—ing crazy.”


Best Understatement by Interview Subject
“Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage”
“There’s no question that a few incidents took place,” says Woodstock ’99 co-promoter John Scher to the camera in this harrowing documentary about the riotous festival, which featured an aggro-heavy roster including Metallica, Limp Bizkit and Korn. Scher then goes on to blame scantily clad female victims for being sexually assaulted, artists for inciting the crowd and MTV for negatively reporting on issues such as the pools of raw sewage and the volumes of patrons being treated for heat exhaustion. For Scher and Woodstock founder Michael Lang, everyone was at fault, it seems, except for those charged with ensuring the festival’s safety.

Best Absolution after Watching “Woodstock ‘99”
The Jesus Music
As if in its own parallel universe, contemporary Christian music has enriched the lives and playlists of millions of Americans while being treated as a musical asterisk by secular tastemakers. Directed by the faith-driven sibling team the Erwin Bros., “The Jesus Music” cites the music’s metaphorical Bethlehem as being the Orange County ’burb of Costa Mesa. From there, the film surveys the ways in which people, for example, the poop-covered Woodstock ’99 dudes, might wash away the stench of sin and soak in the clean, warm comfort of eternal salvation.

Best Brotherly Advice
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.”
As a teenage Eilish stands sidestage in the moments before her high-profile Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival debut in 2019, her older brother and collaborator, Finneas, offers her one final bit of advice: “If anything’s going wrong, act like it’s not.” Those sage words were among the last Eilish heard before that life-changing performance. As proved by her recent gig as both host and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” the note apparently has served her well.

“Karen Dalton: In My Own Time” official trailer

Lost Genius Award
“Karen Dalton: In My Own Time”
Most notable documentaries released in 2021 focused on artists who achieved commercial success at some point in their creative lives — and were captured having a few laughs somewhere along the way. Not so with “In My Own Time,” the melancholy exploration of the singer and songwriter’s rough and tumble life. Cited by Bob Dylan as his favorite among the early ’60s folksingers he shared the stage with in Greenwich Village, Dalton transformed seemingly basic blues and folk songs into masterful expressions of emotion. Dalton suffered from addiction brought on by lifelong depression, but the pair of studio albums and extant home and live recordings have, in the time since being set to tape in the ’60s and early ’70s, become evidence of a lost genius.

Best Illustration of Mother Nature’s Wrath
“Under the Volcano”
“I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanoes,” Verdine White, bassist for Earth, Wind & Fire, says of the band’s stay on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, in this film about the famed recording space AIR Studios Montserrat. Opened in the shadow of an active but long dormant volcano by Beatles producer George Martin in 1979, the famed compound offered acts including the Police, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder an immersive recording experience in a tropical paradise. The problem? For one, Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the island and the facility in 1989, forcing it to close. Six years later, the volcano erupted. It’s now a ghost compound.