This is a golden age of documentaries on any and every topic, but we’re particularly spoiled for music documentaries. Whether a superstar is rolling out a new album with a companion film, a scrappy group of unknowns are documenting an offbeat project, or a veteran band is burnishing their legacy, it seems like everyone with a song to sing wants a camera crew around to help tell their story in a visual medium. And in the streaming era, there are hundreds of rock docs new and old just a click away.
If you love music documentaries but you’ve already watched the Oscar darling Summer of Soul a couple of times and want to sink your teeth into something new, here are a few recommendations from the past couple years for a toe-tapping doc to spend an afternoon with.
We Are the Thousand
Fabio Zaffagnini wanted his favorite band to play his hometown, Cesena, but the small Italian city off the coast of the Adriatic Sea was not remotely a priority on the Foo Fighters’ touring itinerary. So in 2015, the marine biologist hatched an ambitious plan to get Dave Grohl’s attention with a viral stunt: 1,000 musicians playing the band’s 1999 hit “Learn To Fly” together all at once. The spectacle of hundreds of drummers, guitarists, bassists and singers playing together with surprisingly smooth coordination became a sensation on YouTube, garnering tens of millions of views, and the Foo Fighters quickly accepted the invitation to stage a concert of their own in Cesena.
Anita Rivaroli’s documentary We Are the Thousand shows Zaffagnini’s plan coming together from day one. And even if you know how the story ends, you feel everyone’s nervous apprehension as they struggle with the logistics to get his absurd idea off the ground. At first, the hundreds of amateur musicians sound like a mess together, but a conductor and ear monitors with a click track soon get everyone in sync, and Rivaroli’s triumphant aerial drone shots capture the strange grandeur of 250 drummers playing in perfect unison.
We Are the Thousand climaxes with the Foo Fighters making good on their promise to play Cesena, but the charming array of Italian musicians, of all ages and all walks of life, speaking about their own musical hopes and dreams, are the real stars of the movie. At the show, Zaffagnini crowd surfs up to the stage to stand with the Foo Fighters. And Grohl spots one especially recognizable mohawked drummer from the viral video and asks him to come on stage as well, joining the band on a cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure” while drummer Taylor Hawkins sings lead.
Watching the film now and seeing Hawkins, who died in March, adds a little unintended poignancy to the film. For most of the Foo Fighters’ existence, the band has swung for the fences with multimedia projects like the Sonic Highways miniseries and the musical horror comedy Studio 666. We Are The Thousand is a little different: a big ambitious idea that Foo Fighters fans brought to them for once. And with the band’s future now sadly uncertain, We Are the Thousand feels like a bittersweet glance back at an era that just came to a sudden end.
Where to Watch: We Are the Thousand makes its theatrical debut on June 3rd in select theaters, and is also available for purchase on VOD. Get all the details here.
Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner has had many opportunities to tell the story of the iconic rock magazine and control the official narrative. But perhaps the best and most refreshingly honest look at the magazine’s glory days can be found in Suzanne Kai’s documentary about Ben Fong-Torres, a staff writer who penned countless Rolling Stone cover stories from its ‘60s inception until the early ‘80s, when Wenner moved the offices away from Fong-Torres’s hometown of San Francisco.
Throughout Like A Rolling Stone, Fong-Torres reunites with rock stars he’d interviewed back in the day like Elton John, as well as photographer Annie Liebovitz, whose pictures often accompanied his stories, and Cameron Crowe, who made Fong-Torres a character in his autobiographical movie Almost Famous. But Kai’s film also digs deep into what made Fong-Torres an incisive interviewer, the novel ways he’d structure some of his articles, his Chinese-American family’s history, and the tragedy of his brother Barry’s unsolved murder.
Where to Watch: Like A Rolling Stone is streaming now on Netflix.