The music documentary resurgence is alive and well and set to continue into 2021 with an insatiable appetite for weird and wild movies about bands and artists. The release over recent years of films such as Amy and Searching For Sugar Man kicked off a trend that has been amplified by interest from the streaming services.
This year, there have been fantastic rock docs including Laurel Canyon, The Beastie Boys Story, The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne, The Go-Go’s, Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine, The Changin’ Times of Ike White, Coachella: 20 Years In the Desert, The Bee Gees: How You Can Mend a Broken Heart, Blind Melon’s All I Can Say, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, Song Exploder, Other Music and Zappa.
While there has been the regular churning of promotional films masquerading as documentaries, there have been more well researched deep dives into artists than ever before. Recognition from record labels has also soared, with many digging into their archives and launching production companies designed to get the most out of their IP.
There are already a slew of anticipated music documentaries scheduled for 2021 featuring The Beatles, Little Richard, Tina Turner and Billie Eilish as well as other oddities. Below, we take a look at some of the films and series that are likely to make noise.
In addition, there’s also a number of projects that we’re hoping to hear more about. Penelope Spheeris recently revealed that she’s making a fourth iteration of her classic punk rock doc The Decline of Western Civilization. Doug Pray, director of influential Seattle scene film Hype! is reportedly making a film about Lizzo. Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s van stories film What Drives Us should be ready, and Bill Simmons has teamed with HBO for a six-part music documentary that sounds like it might be the 30 for 30 that the music world has been calling out for.
Let It Be, the 1970 documentary about The Beatles directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, featured a band on the verge of breaking up. Although not directly shown, the film, which includes footage of the band’s final gig on the Apple rooftop, had a somewhat melancholic feel. The Beatles: Get Back is designed to reverse this. The film is being directed by Peter Jackson, who recently put together the World War I film They Shall Not Grow Old, recutting Lindsay-Hogg’s film to show a lighter side of the band. As shown in the first footage released earlier this month (see it above), the doc shows George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr joking about as they record their final album and, my personal favorite, all four members of the band on drums. Jackson has done so by going through 56 hours of never-seen-before footage with the full blessing of McCartney and Starr and Lennon’s and Harrison’s widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, respectively. “It’s great stuff; we’re about half way through the edit now,” said Jackson.
The film was originally set to be released in September 2020 but was delayed as a result of Covid-19. It is now dated to premiere on August 27, 2021.
Paul McCartney x Rick Rubin
The Beatles: Get Back is not the only documentary project for Paul McCartney. The musician has teamed with Rick Rubin, famed Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash producer, on as-yet-untitled six-part series. The project, which marks the first time that original Beatles masters have left Abbey Road, will go on a magical mystery tour of McCartney’s musical journey with the bassist talking about his time in the Beatles and Wings as well as personal footage. Rubin has previously been involved in the Showtime docuseries Shangri-La about his Malibu recording studio and hosts the Broken Record podcast with Malcolm Gladwell. Endeavor Content is financing and handling international sales with Film 45 producing alongside Frank Marshall, who just directed The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and Jeff Pollack, who produced Frank Sinatra series All or Nothing At All.
The Private Dancer star is getting the feature treatment from the filmmakers behind Searching For Sugar Man, Whitney and LA92. Directed by TJ Martin and Dan Lindsay and produced by Simon and Jonathan Chinn’s Lightbox, the film is set to air on HBO in the U.S. and Sky in the UK. It will tell of Turner’s career, from starting out in The Ike & Tina Turner Revue through to becoming one of the biggest-selling solo performers in the world, via a tumultuous marriage. The film will feature interviews with Turner and her friends and collaborators and is set to include previously unseen footage.
Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Premiering at Sundance 2021 is Questlove’s directorial debut, Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The film features unearthed footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival that has sat in a basement unseen for 50 years. The festival was attended by over 300,000, taking place the same summer as Woodstock, celebrating African American music and culture, and promoting Black pride and unity. The film, which previously had a working title of Black Woodstock, is produced by David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel. The Roots drummer/frontman Questlove, otherwise known as Ahmir Thompson, said he was “damn proud” of it.
The Sparks Brothers
Edgar Wright is best known for directing films such as Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead. But he is now making his documentary directorial debut with a film about “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” rockers Sparks. The film, which is also set to premiere at Sundance, will look at how the quirky band, featuring brothers Ron & Russell Mael, is successful, underrated, hugely influential, and criminally overlooked all at the same time. The film, which has been in the works for the past few years, includes vintage film footage of the band as well as footage of their show at the Kentish Town Forum in 2018. Wright said the film would be a “musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades” on “your favorite band’s favorite band.”
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
Music documentaries have become big business – particularly if they feature an A-list artist at the top of their game. Apple TV+ paid around $26 million for the Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, a film about the “Bad Guy” singer. The film will tell the story of the teenage phenomenon, who has broken through to become one of the hottest pop stars in the world thanks to her songs and a don’t-give-a-f*ck attitude. Directed by Belushi and The September Issue director R.J. Cutler, the film will premiere in February and is produced by Cutler’s This Machine in association with Interscope Films, Eilish label Darkroom and Lighthouse Management & Media, run by manager Aleen Keshishian.
Billie Eilish is not the only current superstar to have a film set about her, nor the only one who has seen the streamers pay millions of dollars to secure rights. Peter Berg is directing a documentary about the “Rude Boy” pop star that will air on Amazon after the streamer paid a similar amount as Apple did for the Eilish doc. Berg, who worked with Rihanna on Battleship, has spent four years on the film, which will explore Rihanna’s life as a pop star, entrepreneur with the Fenty fashion line, and actress. It will feature footage culled from more than 1,200 hours. The film was a hot commodity in Cannes, where it was being shopped by Endeavor Content. Berg, who is also in the early stages of making a doc about Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, is hoping to wrap up in the spring for a summer release, having traveled with the star around the world.
This Is National Wake
It’s not just superstars that get films. Searching For Sugar Man and The Changin’ Times of Ike White prove that some of the most interesting films are about bands that you’ve never heard of. South African afro-punks National Wake fall into that category. The multiracial band were performing in the country during apartheid, when even speaking with someone of another race was illegal. Through never-seen-before Super 8 footage, director Mirissa Neff, who worked on PBS’ Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders, looks at the band’s incredible journey. Supported by by ITVS, the NYC Women’s Fund/NYFA, DCTV’s Doc in Progress Lab and the American Documentary Film Fund, the film will be released with XTR in 2021.
God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines
XTR, the documentary studio founded by RYOT co-founder Bryn Mooser, is also backing God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, the story of a Detroit music scene. But it’s not Motown or even The Stooges-inspired punk rock, but rather techno. It tells the story of how a group of Motor City DJs like Ken Collier, Juan Atkins and Derrick May merged late ’70s Motown and disco sounds with digital ‘80s technology to invent a new kind of music and inspired artists such as Underworld and The Prodigy as well as the EDM scene. Kristian R. Hill directed the doc, which was produced by Jennifer Washington. She told Deadline that she and Hill were huge fans growing up. “After seeing Searching For Sugar Man and a thousand episodes of Behind the Music, I realized this story about Detroit techno was a good, well-kept secret that needs to be told for the mainstream,” she said. The pair are now putting together the finishing touches of the film.
Truth to Power
Promoter giant Live Nation has been aggressively getting into the rock doc world in recent years with Chris Moukarbel’s Gaga: Five Foot Two and Colin Hanks’ Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis. Its latest project is a film about heavy metal and social justice. Truth to Power chronicles the journey of Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, and his role in inspiring massive peaceful protests in 2018 in his native Armenia. The film is set to the band’s music and offers unprecedented access to the singer. Directed by I Am Not Alone director Garin Hovannisian, the doc launches at the Cannes Virtual Market earlier this year. Exec produced by Joe Berlinger — director of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, one of the most notable rock docs in the last 20 years — Michael Rapino, Ryan Kroft, Damian Vaca and Vaughn Schoonmaker, it features appearances from other System of a Down members including John Dolmayan and Shavo Odadjian, manager David Benveniste, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Rick Rubin. Oscilloscope Laboratories will release in theaters and virtual cinemas on February 19.
Jerry Lee Lewis
T Bone Burnett, former member of Bob Dylan’s band and the man responsible for scores for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, and Thelma & Louise writer and Nashville creator Callie Khouri, have teamed up to direct a documentary about rock n roll’s first wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis.
It will tell the story of the famed pianist behind “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” with Mick Jagger as one of the producers, along with Steve Bing, who died in June and is considered responsible for Lewis’ career resurgence.
The doc is being produced by Inaudible Productions, the company behind recent Joan Jett film Bad Reputation, whose founder Peter Afterman has overseen the licensing of the Rolling Stones catalog since 2009 and produced the James Brown doc Mr. Dynamite, along with Jagger and Victoria Pearman, who also produces the Lewis film. Inaudible is a force in the music doc space and is also working on films about Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ good friend Little Richard, who died earlier this year, is also getting the doc treatment with a new film from All In: The Fight for Democracy director Lisa Cortes and executive producer Dee Rees (Mudbound). The film will tell the story of the man known as the Innovator, the Originator and the Architect of rock n roll.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, the “Tutti Frutti” singer is one of the first crossover Black artists who influenced the likes of the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Little Richard’s friends and family are consulting on the project.
The film is being produced by Bungalow Media + Entertainment, which has produced films including A&E’s Paul Simon Under African Skies; Showtime’s Bon Jovi: When We Were Beautiful; and Deadline sister brand Rolling Stone, which will utilize its reporting and archives. Robert Friedman and Liz Yale Marsh exec produce.
Tekashi 6ix9ine, born Daniel Hernandez, is one of the most fascinanting characters in the current world of hip hop. A controversial figure with rainbow-colored hair and a penchant for online trolling, he has had his fair share of celebrity feuds, gang issues and legal battles, including pleading guilty to a felony count of use of a child in a sexual performance and being arrested on racketeering, weapons and drug charges.
This will all be explored in a new three-part documentary series Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine, for Showtime, which is fast becoming one of the key homes for music documentaries.
The series is directed by Karam Gill, who scored an exclusive interview with the rapper after he was released from prison earlier this year, differentiating it from Hulu’s recent film 69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez.
The docuseries is inspired by Tekashi 6ix9ine: The Rise and Fall of a Hip Hop Supervillain, written by investigative journalist Stephen Witt and published in Rolling Stone, which produces alongside Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries and Tina Turner producer Lightbox.
Hip Hop Uncovered / Outlaw: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur
FX is also getting into the music documentary series space with its own hip hop stories. The Disney-owned network is launching Hip Hop Uncovered (above) in February and also preparing a five-part series on Tupac Shakur.
Lightbox and Empire producer Malcolm Spellman are making six-part series Hip Hop Uncovered, an examination of a dying breed of power brokers who operate from the shadows of hip hop and a deep dive into the paradox of America’s criminalization of the genre and its fascination with street culture. Rashidi Natara Harper, who directed a number of Montell Jordan videos, gang leader-turned-community activist Eugene “Big U” Henley, Jimmy “JimBob” Chris, Lance producer Douglas Banker and Black Market with Michael K. Williams producer BJ Levin are also involved.
Also on the FX slate is Outlaw: The Saga of Afeni & Tupac Shakur from Menace II Society director Allen Hughes, who also directed the excellent Dr. Dre/Jimmy Iovine HBO series The Defiant Ones. The five-part series tells the story of the volatile life and legacy of the late hip hip icon/poet, and the Black Panther member mother who raised him with the values that infused his socially conscious music.
Hughes told Deadline last month that he had resumed work on the series, which had been shut down by the Covid-19 lockdown, and revealed in a fascinating interview how the pandemic changed the interviews that he was getting.
The Velvet Underground
Last, but certainly not least, in the movies about bands to look forward to in 2021 is Todd Haynes’ exploration about Lou Reed’s punks The Velvet Underground. The Carol and Velvet Goldmine director has been working on the film for years and, somewhat surprisingly, secured co-operation from living members of the band including John Cale.
The film promises a treasure of never-seen-before live footage as well as films from Andy Warhol, whose Factory had the Velvet Underground as its in-house band.
Haynes himself got his break with a controversial short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which explores her life using Barbie Dolls as actors, but was banned for failing to get a music license. He is working with cinematographer Ed Lachman and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz on the film.
Apple TV+ scooped up the rights to the film, which is being produced by Universal Music Group’s Polygram Entertainment (itself a new mover in the space with the recent Bees Gees film and Showtime’s The Go-Gos doc) with Motto Pictures, Killer Films and Federal Films. Christine Vachon, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn and David Blackman are producers.