10 music documentaries to watch online
While clubs have been closed during the pandemic, there has been an abundance of excellent dance music documentaries to fill the void left by their closure. Below, we outline some of the stand-out non-fiction films that have been released during the past year. Some explore sounds like that of Baltimore’s burgeoning club music scene, while others spotlight artists that have made a huge impact, focus on the power of community, or examine some of the most difficult topics within dance music. All are essential viewing
Whether celebrating individuals and movements that helped shaped where dance music culture is today, or commemorating everything coronavirus took from us in spring 2020, the past year and a half has seen the release of an abundance of non-fiction films spotlighting artists, industries and scenes.
Some were produced during the pandemic, catalysed by a need to remember what was, in order to help make it through what is. Others were already slated for release before lockdowns commenced. While great music documentaries open eyes and minds, the best also illicit emotional responses, which is where this list is focused.
In the titles below we’ve got the first full-length documentary about Birmingham’s decade-spanning grime scene, biopics on genderfluid disco icons, and intimate insights into contemporary South American legends. Others raise serious questions about the way the industry works, investigating gender imbalance and sexual assault. Another doc asks us to consider how cultural history can be put at risk of being erased. All are deserving of your time. None should be missed.
MOBO-nominated Hugo Jenkins offers a love letter to Britain’s electronic music scene, a tale we might all have assumed had been told enough times already by now in films such as Jeremy Deller’s politically charged Everybody In The Place and Channel 4’s Chemical Generation.
Better Days establishes itself as a worthy addition to this canon. A pandemic production, it opens with club shots and quotes about how music is as good as it ever has been. Things quickly turn less upbeat as masked youths discuss missing “the best years of your life”, and the realities of a nation locked down are laid bare. Rewinding to the formative years of rave, what follows is an insight into the nuances that make dark rooms and big beats so enticing, from the sense of belonging to the yearning for escape. Adding to all that, the Overmono-scored soundtrack is expertly crafted.
Watch on: YouTube
South and Central America are home to the fastest growing music markets on the planet, so says international industry body IFPI, and J Balvin is one of the region’s biggest stars. Commonly known as The Prince of Reggaeton, his tracks combine dancehall, hip-hop, Latin and Caribbean styles, and have garnered sales of 35million. The star has five Billboard Latin Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards, and two Grammy nominations also under his belt.
Matthew Heineman’s documentary unfolds over a week in the life of Balvin as he prepares for a much-anticipated 2019 show at Estadio Atanasio Girardot, in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia. During that time we’re given a heart-on-sleeve insight into the artist’s battle with depression and anxiety, reiterating the idea that it can be hard, and often very lonely, at the top. What makes The Boy From Medellin unique, though, is the politics; the artist is encouraged by fans to speak out about police brutality, rampant inequality and the government corruption that catalyses the public unrest that remains rife in Colombia today.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Home to one of the most regionally unique, aurally individual, and logically-named dancefloor sounds, Baltimore club music combines elements of hip-hop with house music and ramps the tempo up to 130 BPM plus. Part of the trinity of East Coast club music — made up of Baltimore club, Jersey club, and Philly club — it’s a sample and loop heavy jolt of energy, and has a rich history spanning three decades. Directed by TT The Artist, Dark City is one of the only documentaries that explores this scene properly.
Visually arresting, the film is as much an ode to the strength and resilience of community as anything else, and doesn't shy away from Baltimore’s reputation for deprivation and violent crime. It celebrates an attitude that makes the city its own. Memorable appearances include TSU Terry, of the Team Squad Up dance group, and MC Uneek, both of who reinforce the idea that creative expression can be a powerful weapon to inspire and refocus people away from crime. The film is also a performance piece in its own right, cutting to spectacular staged and impromptu scenes of freestyle raps and footwork routines.
Watch on: Netflix
At the risk of understating it, Sylvester was nothing short of a trailblazer. Raised in Watts, Los Angeles, his vocal talents first became evident while singing in the gospel choir of a Pentecostal church. Ostracised and rejected by the congregation because they disapproved of homosexuality, this star-in-the-making found a place in an experimental drag troupe, the Cockettes, before relocating to San Francisco, then the US capital of gay and counter culture.
Tabak’s film celebrates the voice behind iconic anthems such as ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat)’, bringing those famously high-pitched vocals, flamboyant sense of style and unapologetic performance ethic to the fore. Meanwhile, comments from various TV presenters that hosted Sylvester on their shows give viewers an insight into just how rife prejudices were at that time. As the legendary singer Billy ‘Finally Ready’ Porter explains: “He crossed over. He was a gender fluid, Black man, in mainstream music. That hasn’t happened since.” This is his story, condensed into an enticing 15-minute form that will leave you wanting to delve deeper.
Watch on: YouTube
Investigative journalist Tamanna Rahman presents horrifying accounts of sexual abuse and assault within the music industry, as told by those with first hand experience, in this important documentary. There is a large segment on the late Erick Morillo, about whom over 10 people shared accounts of rape, sexual assault and harrassment in 2020. A scene in which Dave Lambert, who worked closely with Morillo in the '90s, discusses the negligible action taken after early reports of the DJ's violence against women is as telling as it is deeply troubling.
Music’s Dirty Secrets raises the alarm on an entire industry that has long been known to cover up such crimes as well as make excuses for its stars and decision makers. One of the most troubling topics laid out in the documentary is the juxtaposition of how victims are often forced to leave the industry, while perpetrators — almost exclusively high powered men — are allowed to continue their work in studios, label offices and green rooms across the world. If you take one thing from this documentary, it must be that enough is enough, and that there should be nowhere left to hide for guilty parties in 2021.
Watch on: BBC iPlayer
It has been ten years since celebrated music documentarian Roony ‘Risky Roadz’ Keefe stopped filming MC talent on Britain’s streets. Once known for recording early rhymes from soon-to-be stars like Giggs and Skepta, set against the backdrop of London’s estates, this time he heads a little further north to Birmingham — telephone dialling code 0121 — alongside director Toby Robson. Birmingham is arguably home to the UK’s loudest grime scene, which is currently in rude health both underground and on a commercial scale
Big names like Lady Leshurr, Jaykae and Mist all make appearances, but in many ways the most important takeaways here relate to grassroots infrastructure, and lack thereof. Big Mikey talks about hosting radio shows and the decline of local broadcast, while the crews behind P110 and JBZ Media expound on the rise of digital content as a means for artists to market themselves. Muna Ruumi also makes a big impression as an formidable young force in the A&R world.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Released as part of Doc'n Roll's 7th annual film festival in 2020, Sisters With Transistors celebrates electronic music's female pioneers who, in the face of discrimintation in a patriarchal industry, pushed the boundaries of sound to new, groundbreaking heights.
Narrated by legendary avant-garde artist and composer Laurie Anderson, this proudly tech-nerdy doc focuses on a number of pioneering artists, namely BBC Radiophonic Workshop musician Delia Derbyshire, modular synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani, Pauline Oliveros, Clara Rockmore — perhaps the greatest thereminist of all time —, Laurie Spiegel, Wendy Carlos, Éliane Radigue, Bebe Barron, Daphne Oram and Maryanne Amacher. Described as a film that "reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music and society at large", Sisters With Transistors is absolutely essential viewing.
Speaking about the doc, Spiegel explained: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”
Watch on: Metrograph
In 1969 the US was entrenched in the Vietnam War, readying rockets for the moon, and plotting Woodstock. Meanwhile, in Harlem, New York City, respected lounge singer Tony Lawrence was planning his own gathering that would represent and elevate the local community, and reflect a proud new perspective for Black culture in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement
The free-to-attend Harlem Cultural Festival drew a staggering 300,000 people across six weekends, with sets from the likes of gospel blues legend Pops Staples, R&B pioneer Stevie Wonder, funk aficionados Sly & The Family Stone, soul queen Nina Simone and many more. All the events were filmed, but the video footage has never been used until this directorial debut from Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson. In addition to its truly amazing live performances, the film documents the birth of Afrocentrism in the US, draws links between the struggles and sounds of Black communities in New York at that time, and raises important questions about the role of the media in suppressing and erasing Black history.
Watch on: Limited Theatrical Release / Hulu
With well-publicised initiatives like Keychange launching in the last few years on a mission to achieve greater representation for women and minority artists in music, one might think that the misogynistic and woefully imbalanced nature of bookings, radio play, press coverage and employment in the industry was improving. Sadly however, as Underplayed makes clear, there is still a very, very long way to go
Underplayed focuses primarily on festival and club line-ups. Handing over the reins to women from across the scene, interviewees such as EDM stadium filler Rezz, techno alchemist Nightwave and jungle-footwork supremo Sherelle reveal the shocking realities facing many female artists. Some discuss being ignored or dismissed in studios, others talk about unfounded criticism they have faced online, which, at times, has turned into threats. And that just scratches the surface. This is a documentary that every promoter, venue owner, artist and raver needs to see.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
After 16 months away from the club, any film celebrating the power of collective movement beneath brilliant disco lights is always going to resonate. With scenes filmed in London, Paris, Ibiza and New York before coronavirus hit, in some ways Where Love Lives is a video relic from a bygone era that ended with the chaos of the pandemic, and is still yet to return for many people.
Produced by Defected’s Glitterbox, the emphasis here is on club culture’s significance to queer communities. It also touches on the importance of dance music during the AIDS crisis. Most segments are dedicated to a small number of artists who have helped establish the brand behind the movie as a global name in the international house scene. Talking heads include Defected Records boss Simon Dunmore, house star Honey Dijon, New York maestro John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez, Billy Porter, Kathy Sledge, Kiddy Smile and performance artists The Mx Fit, TeTe Bang and Lucy Fizz.
Read our full review of Where Love Lives here.
Watch on: Amazon Prime