10 Musical Documentaries to see (before you die, before we all die)

By Shameelah Khan

This was a tough one to decide on. There are a plethora of films to see around the topic of music, from films with award-winning scores to the all-time musical hits or even the films about music. I wanted to write a review on my most favourite genre of all time- Documentary. There are soooo many documentaries to see about music or musicians but here are 10 to begin with (don’t worry, for all of you who love a good documentary, I included some more recommendations at the end)

  1. Beats of the Antonov (2014) Directed by Hajooj Kuka

This is a co-production between a South Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka and Steven Markovitz. This documentary reflects back to us a society which has gone through great political strife in Sudan. It is a comment on the socio-political conflict on how the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains grapple with their everyday lives in a civil war. Along with the severe trails and tribulations, a society manages to use their music as a way to march on.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Amandla: a Four Part Harmony (2002) Directed by Lee Hirsch

“Amandla”, a sound that echoes through South African homes as translated from Zulu and Xhosa which means power. But for all of us who constantly feel the pangs of Apartheid, this word means so much more. It means an entire liberation movement, it means death, massacres, 1976, The abolishment of the Group Areas Act, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, the Youth, poverty, racial segregation, hatred, our search for democracy and our long walks to Freedom. This documentary depicts the struggles of black South Africans against the Apartheid regime and the role in which music played. If there is one thing (of freedom) that any household can speak about during Apartheid as a saviour, an escape, a political statement-it was our music.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Searching for Sugarman (2012), directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Two devoted South African fans go out in search of their favourite musician Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger, who had a short musical recording career. Little did he know that he would be an iconic musical figure in South Africa. What unfolds in this documentary is a story of lives lived in different parts of the continent and a heartwarming discovery of love, friendship and musical prowess. This film also won 1 Oscar with 43 other wins and 33 nominations.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Listen to My Song (2020) Directed by Glenn Ujebe Masokoane

“This lovingly made documentary explores the South African jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s through the music of the iconic maestro Gideon Nxumalo. The film aims to dispel crude misunderstandings of the aesthetics of jazz and its relationship to traditional African music, while documenting the complex and powerful musical form and acknowledging its roots in African-American culture. Featuring interviews with some of the leading figures in the jazz scene, the film offers insights into a world that has now faded from view but whose cultural legacy lives on in some of the most vibrantly beautiful music ever to be recorded. This is a must-watch for serious jazz fans, while it will open the eyes and minds of those for whom jazz has become synonymous with generic elevator music.” (taken from the Encounters website)

You can also watch a QNA with the Director on the Encounters Website here: https://encounters.co.za/film/listen-to-my-song/ 

(unfortunately, I don’t think there has been an official trailer released yet- but keep an eye out for this amazing documentary. It had me glued to my seat during the Encounters Festival. Truly, an ode to Jazz in South Africa and a gift to all the Jazz lovers out there.)

  1. Amy (2015), Directed by Asif Kapadia

The news of Amy Winehouse’ death had shocked the world. To this day, her death is still quite shocking and like many other musicians who had suddenly left us- we remain in mourning for their musical talent. I remember watching this documentary and weeping. I remember that it wasn’t just a sadness for the musician but after having seen Amy, I realized that I wept for a human who battled with addiction, longed for her father and never truly felt loved by her partner. She was hard on herself and she had deeper battles that she needed to overcome. This is a documentary that explores Amy’s memories, childhood and the demons she had to overcome through her music.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Black Power Mixtape (2011) Directed by Göran Olsson

One of the best documentaries I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. Moving. Riveting. Exceptionally gripping. A Group of Swedish Journalists (sadly, but no judgements, Göran is an amazing filmmaker, also see Concerning Violence, another successful documentary)- where was I…. a group of Swedish filmmakers take us on a musical journey into the lives of those involved in the Black Power Movement. From the likes of Stokeley Carmichael, Talib Kweli, Quest Love, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte…. And many many other powerful Panthers.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) Directed by Liz Garbus

Now there are many documentaries made about Miss Nina Simone (except features featuring Zoe Saldana, let us all just erase that one from our cinematic consciousness). I was particularly moved by this one, What Happened, Miss Simone? It depicts to us the intricacies of Nina Simone and her life as she too battled with so much, so much- I wish I had the words to write about just how much she had to endure in her life and what music really meant to her. Amidst the civil rights era in America in the 1960s, Nina struggled to reconcile her identity as a black woman and the types of crowds she had to perform for alongside her identity as a free and uninhibited musician or her own making. The doccie spans from her childhood years to the last years of her life and her move to Liberia in West Africa.

You can watch the documentary here:

  1. We Loved Each Other So Much (2003) directed by Jack Janssen

Fairuz is probably one of the most famous Lebanese musicians and probably one of the most loved musicians in the Arab world. This documentary follows some members living in Beirut, from all backgrounds as they explain the ways in which Fairuz is deeply loved and became a symbol of love, hope and peace. She was loved among Christians, Right-Wing Extremists, Muslims, Communists and she remained in her country when war broke out. Outside of all of this, she is extremely, flawlessly beautiful.

You can watch the trailer here:

  1. Palestine Underground

Released by Boiler Room, a 25-minute documentary which explores something that I find has not been discussed that much in light of the news and media we experience about Palestine. I remember sitting with a friend (whom I absolutely adore) and she spoke to me about the nuances of Palestinian life (having lived there for some time). She spoke about the parts of Palestine that people don’t always get to see. The Bustling everyday life, the mouthwatering, the warm tea, food, the art, the music, theatre, skateboarding and even down to the extraordinary way in which Olive Oil Soap is made. Here is a very unique political documentary that will definitely spark a rather heated conversation around borders, boundaries, access but also- what is the Palestinian Art scene and who really has access to it? I would be very keen on my Palestinian friends to share their thoughts and feelings on this one. I was quite interested in this conversation that this short documentary sparked. Though, where are the lines of being a part of something and being silenced because silence is the best way to speak?

“The documentary follows Jazar Crew, a Palestinian music and arts collective from Haifa in the North of Israel, who have been travelling to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank to play parties with Saleb Wahad, Bltnm, Oddz and Sama.”  (The Wire)

You can watch the documentary here: https://www.thewire.co.uk/news/53025/boiler-room-documentary-palestine-underground

  1. Music of the Mystics (2020), Directed by Tahir Qawwal

Though I am not a fan of these kinds of stories told through a Western and often White gaze (which feeds into the theoretical conversation of Orientalism), I am a fan of Qawwali. I have seen many documentaries here and there on youtube which you can find if you look into it, but here is the much spoken about documentary series on Qawwali. Though we should still be extremely critical of what this is saying in the broader scheme of things between the West and the east, I want everyone to know about the beautiful sounds of Qawwali and the importance it holds in the East.  According to Alchemiya, this is the ultimate Qawwali documentary series which spans across 20 years.

You can watch the trailer here:

Because this was so difficult to simply state 10, here are a few more that were on my list and deserves to be watched (before you die and before we all die):

  • Finding Fela (2014)
  • Scratch (2011)
  • Miles: Birth of the Cool (2019)
  • 7 Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
  • Umme Kulthoom: a Voice like Egypt (1996)
  • Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
  • Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1998)
  • Something from Nothing : The Art of Rap (2012)
  • Afro-Punk (2003)
  • Marley (2012)
  • The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (2000)
  • BTS: Breaking the Silence (2020)
  • Zulu Man in Japan (2020)

There are so many more though, we might all just die before we actually get to see them…