The Best Films about Music for History and Culture and Where to Watch Them

The world of music is unique because it is dependent on the constant innovation and creation of new ideas, often looking to its freshest and youngest members for the next wave of trends. Being a young musician trying to break into the industry can be a daunting task; the history of music is so dense, and there are a thousand references, influential figures and music politics to keep up with. There are thousands of revered and celebrated musicians and industry who shaped genres, sounds and technology and being able to reference their contributions increases music literacy for young professionals. Below are some of the most educational and exciting films and shows in music today- so sit back, relax, and drink in the history and free game television has to offer. 

Rhythm & Flow (Netflix) 

The hit show Rhythm & Flow gives away free game from celebrity rappers, producers, and musicians in an entertainment experience that is seemingly a mix of Nick Cannon’s Wildin’ Out and The Voice. 1500 Sound Academy students have been featured in the classroom multiple times, and longtime friend of the academy Nipsey Hussle shouted out the academy on one episode. Rhythm & Flow focuses on artist development in the areas of Hip Hop and Rap, and the critique and talent coming from this series is something to pay attention to and follow-up with. 

Trailer here.

Judges T.I., Cardi B, and Chance the Rapper (left to right)

Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix)

Hosted by Hip-Hop aficionado and broadcaster Shad who even studied Hip Hop in college, this Netflix series dives into the intricacies of pre-90s Hip Hop and the origins of the genre. This essential series details the “why” in Hip Hop today and highlights the social-political climate that led to modern music and the influence of Hip Hop today. 

Trailer here.

Echo in the Canyon (Netflix)

A history of Laurel Canyon and Old Hollywood, Echo in the Canyon is told by a few classic old-timers who give insight about the golden era of the Los Angeles music scene of the 60s. With interviews from artists who “shaped the 2nd half of the 20th century”, Echo in the Canyon is a nostalgic ode to west coast history and a must-see for incoming LA musicians. With interviews from icons like Tom Petty, Fiona Apple,and Jakob Dylan there is a wealth of knowledge for the new generation of music stored in this Netflix documentary. 

Trailer here.

Jakob Dylan (left) and Tom Petty (right)

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives (Netflix)

This Industry essential tells the story of one of music’s biggest tastemakers- the unlikely Clive Davis. Clive tells us the star-studded story of how he became known as “the man with the golden ears” and one of the most respected opinions in Hollywood. This must-watch is a tantalizing, behind the scenes specter of success and stardom. 

Trailer here.

Whitney Houston and Clive Davis

The Runaways (Amazon Video)

Telling the story of Joan Jett and her band The Runaways, this film gives a slightly exaggerated and distorted version of one of the most groundbreaking women in Rock and Roll. Another insight into a queer band, this film interrogates gender and desirability politics and the breaking of a female band into a man’s space. In a phenomenally cool performance, Kristen Stewart plays icon Joan Jett (who she had extensive interviews with before the film) and supported by Dakota Fanning, this film kicks-ass and tells a great story of women’s history in the making.

Trailer here.

The Runaways band

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) 

A history of the origin of Blues, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a single-event and one-location film that gives insight to a powerful queer woman who transcends the barriers and stigmas in her time of race and sexuality with her prowess as a musician. Tensions mount between Ma and the studio as the white and black music industry begin to fuse together. Ma Rainey is a testament to the historical contributions she made to Blues and the challenges POC musicians faced in the young American music industry. 

Trailer here.

Bohemian Rhapsody (Amazon Video)

Queen is one of the brightest and most legendary bands of their generation. The dramatic bravado in their music has made them iconic but their story has made them legendary. Following the magnetic Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody tells a story of the grandeur and sorrow that comes with superstardom. This film is a great example of how external and internal factors can affect a band as a group and as individuals and tells a tale that changed music forever with this boundary-pushing group. 

Trailer here.

Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek)

Nas: Time is Illmatic (Netflix)

One of the most referenced and iconic rappers of all time, this documentary provides staple information on the way Nas changed Hip Hop and rap forever. This is a great documentary for those of us who aren’t Nas experts because it casts a wide net and captures many details about his life and the creation of Illmatic. With deep delves into the creation of two of the tracks “The World is Yours” and “NY State of Mind” this is an essential hip-hop staple film. 

Trailer here.

Remake of Nas' famous Illmatic album cover

Sound of Metal (Prime Video) 

Although Sound of Metal is based on a fictional plot, the sound design in this film is as real as it gets. An award-winning, compelling film that will soon be a classic- watch this one for the love of music and pay attention to the auditory experience. This film touches on themes that are a reality for many artists such as addiction, recovery, band break-ups, and knowing when to retire. 

Trailer here.

Ruben Stone (played by Riz Ahmed)

Whiplash (Starz, or rent on Prime Video)

With show-stopping performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, Whiplash tells the story of classically-trained musicians in the quest for greatness. Besides being an absolutely killer movie, Whiplash personifies the anxiety and hustle that musicians face in an often cut-throat and one-shot industry. The film gives us an inside look into the buttoned-up world of music institutions, concert halls, orchestral and band competitions, and the best symphonies in New York. The iconic drum solo at the ending scene of the movie has garnered 6 million views on one YouTube video alone. Overall, Whiplash is a film that highlights abuse of power from authority, manipulation, exploitation and the desperation to “make it”, and deserves a second and third watch. 

Trailer here.

Miles Teller (left) and J.K. Simmons (right) playing jazz student and teacher

Fyre (Netflix, or Fyre Fraud on Hulu)

A wild peek into festival planning and ventures-gone-wrong, this document follows Ja Rule and “Entrepreneur” Billy McFarland in their over-zealous endeavor to create a festival for influencers and the rich. Hulu and Netflix raced to create the first expose on the festival, and both revealed a perspective on millennial internet culture, class and exploitation in a slightly different way. This documentary is a great insight into festival ethics, workers’ rights, and the incredible amount of planning and money that goes into the production that is a music festival.

Trailer here.

Billie Eilish: World’s a Little Blurry (Apple TV)

One thing about the celebrity of Billie Eilish- the world can’t get enough of her. Her sardonic sense of humor, her prodigy, and her half-closed eyelids that rest on her magnetic blue eyes have created a hysteria around her. Her personal life, her body and her sexuality have all been kept out of the spotlight and this documentary is a carefully-crafted peek into a chaotic teenager’s early career. Because filmmaker R.J. Cutler started filming this documentary when Billie was sixteen, this documentary observes a superstar-in-the-making creating an album that will change her life. Watch this documentary for insight into what makes a star, what having “it” really means, and to experience the genesis of one of the most loved and awarded artists of her time. 

Trailer here.

Billie Eilish February 2021

Miss Americana (Netflix)

A riveting account of the morals and upbringing that make Taylor Swift, this documentary delves into the politics and drama of the music business. An artist whose dynamism has shined through into her songwriting for over a decade now, Miss Americana humanizes an idyllic figure who was launched into the music industry at 15. In an age of one of the biggest upsets in music politics, where Scooter Braun’s dynasty is going up against Taylor Swift and her supporters, this documentary peers into the inner workings of sexism, exploitation, and social media pressure that shapes a female artist and asks us why do we love to hate Taylor? 

Trailer here.

Taylor Swift in Miss Americana Documentary

Rocketman (Amazon)

Another film, coming out right after Bohemian Rhapsody, that depicts the artistry of an older generation’s beloved-by-all, superstar-prodigy- Elton John. The music biopic dives into his struggles with his sexuality and his steady downward, mad genius spiral that is tragic but not uncommon among superstars. 

Trailer here.

Young Elton John (played by Taron Egerton)

Other must-see films:

All Eyez on Me (Amazon Video)

Amy (Amazon Video)

Kurt Cobain- Montage of Heck (Amazon Video)

Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amazon Video)

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