No matter what festivities you celebrate in December, one thing is true: the holidays are exhausting. Once all the gifts have been given, parties attended, feasts cooked and eaten, and quality time with the extended (and sometimes exasperating) family spent, you might need to relax. That’s where Netflix and other streaming services come in. We’ve hand-picked the ten best music-related movies on Netflix right now so you don’t have to scroll very long to get your decibel fix. Spanning various musical genres and formats, the list below should have something for any music junkie, whether it’s the untold story of session musicians, a deep dive into the biography of one of jazz’s greatest singers, a kinetic profile of a taste-making record label, or an irreverent tale of a mentally unstable mastermind wearing a gigantic papier-mâché head. If you don’t have Netflix, don’t worry: a quick Google search should reveal a good many of these streaming directly to your web or elsewhere.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Liz Garbus, 2015
Run time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
After a successful run at Sundance, it’s a miracle that What Happened, Miss Simone? found distribution as a Netflix original. Other Simone biographies have floundered due to legal and financial issues, but this sometimes-harrowing documentary tells her story definitively, produced with Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, an actress and singer who has appeared on Broadway in Aida. Cooperation with Simone’s estate meant the vital inclusion of never-before-seen archival footage from performances spanning her entire life, photos from her childhood, and a rare honesty that a more simplified tribute could never hope to capture. The ominous title hints at Simone’s tumultuous personal life – there are candid discussions of her abusive marriage and an intense look at how that affected her own mental health (Simone was diagnosed as bipolar in the late Eighties and was herself given to extreme bouts of violent rage). It also closely details her unrelenting push for Civil Rights. But ultimately, the focus is on her overwhelming talent and her unparalleled influence in the realms of jazz, blues, and popular music.
Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
Michael Rossato-Bennett, 2014
Run time: 1 hour, 17 minuntes
For anyone in search of heart-warming truths about the power of music, look no further than Alive Inside, a tear-jerker from the get-go that presents the inspiring endeavors of social worker Dan Cohen, a man who uses music therapy to commune with nursing home patients suffering from dementia. There have long been associations between music and memory-building, and the late, great neurologist and author of Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, gets a generous amount of screen-time explaining all of the ways a familiar tune tickles human synapses. But what is truly remarkable are the visible effects of music on catatonic patients, suddenly inspired to dance beneath their bed sheets, or the vivid childhood recollections from Alzheimer’s patients. As much as this film is a push for better services for the elderly, it’s also a breathtaking portrait of its subjects, with gorgeously animated vintage photos and deeply personal family interviews.
Lenny Abrahamson, 2014
Run time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
The darkly comedic Frank follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) in an attempt to expand his songwriting horizons as he joins experimental noise band Soronprfbs, isolated with them in the Irish countryside to record their debut LP. The band’s brilliant and charismatic lead-singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender) wears a giant papier-mâché head at all times, eating, drinking, sleeping, performing, and even showering with its dead-eyed gaze obscuring his own appearance. The morose hilarity and measured pace of the film often give way to truly euphoric musical performances – the songs here are truly great enough to stand on their own, based on an amalgamation of the work of several performance-art leaning experimental musicians – as the mercurial bandmates (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carla Azar, François Civil, and Scoot McNairy) find themselves at the brink of ruin, fame, or both.
Hecho in México
Duncan Bridgeman, 2012
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Part documentary, part visual poem, Hecho in México illustrates commentary from some of Mexico’s foremost cultural leaders, critics and intellectuals (including moving commentary from the late Chavela Vargas) with an astonishing variety of contemporary musical performances. There are no title cards until the credits, giving this cultural survey the whirlwind feel of a fever-dream that flies in the face of typical media narratives; when America talks about Mexico, we talk about drug wars and border control, and for too long, that has affected the way its vibrant people see themselves. Under the oppressive monopoly of media giant Televisa, there are a contingent of passionate artists struggling to be heard, and Hecho in México’s music director, Lynne Fainchtein (who previously supervised music for Amores Perros, Babel, Maria Full of Grace and Precious) finally gives them a voice, from the traditional sounds of Los Cojolites, Grupo Mono Blanco and El Venado Azul to Mexican rockers Sergio Arau, Rubén Albarrán, Molotov, and Residente Calle 13, as well as more experimental performers, like Ali Gua Gua, Pato Machete and Banda Baston, who fuse hip-hop and punk, the spoken word of Rojo Cordova backed by string quartet Cuarteto Latinoamericano, electronic trio Los Macuanos, avant-garde drummer Gull, and crooner Adan Jodorowsky (son of famed Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky). In between are a slew of artists who borrow from tradition but create within their own milieu – Lila Downs, Natalia Lafourcade, Mono Blanco, Gloria Trevi, Maria Moctezuma… the list goes on and on, with the film’s soundtrack boasting unique collaborations and original recordings.
We Are The Best!
Lukas Moodyson, 2013
Run time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Adapted from his wife Coco’s graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt (Never Goodnight) about three preteen misfits who start a punk band despite their inability to play instruments, We Are The Best! is a poignant and often very funny coming-of-age tale about three young girls finding their own source of empowerment. The Swedish film earned accolades at festival screenings in Toronto and Venice, as well as in Stateside reviews once it found distribution here via Magnolia Pictures. Our own Stephanie Zacharek called it “brash and sweet,” hailing it as a return to Moodyson’s tender early work (namely, 1998’s Show Me Love and 2000’s Together). Though punk enthusiasts will certainly adore it, its defiant spirit and winking nostalgia have a universal appeal that extends well beyond chosen tribe of its protagonists.
Alex Gibney, 2014
Run time: 2 hours
Before the Tony Award-winning Fela! On Broadway introduced revolutionary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti to mass audiences, the Afrobeat pioneer’s story was known only in relatively small circles. Composing fiery protest anthems against the corrupt Nigerian government throughout the Seventies, Kuti was jailed numerous times for creating political upheaval. Finding Fela chronicles his struggles and triumphs, with stunning footage recorded in his legendary Lagos club Afrika Shrine (where jam sessions and political discourse inspired his twenty-minute long grooves). This is interlaced with a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Fela! as a full-fledged stage production, with side-by-side comparisons of the vintage materials its creators drew upon to come up with the musical’s acclaimed costume and set design. There’s also a cameo from Brooklyn-based Fela revivalists Antibalas, who developed the musical’s arrangements and performed as the backing band in the production’s early years.
Upside Down: The Creation Records Story
Danny O’Connor, 2010
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Throw Records
Jeff Broadway, 2013
Run time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
These two documentaries look at the way record labels have had a hand in shaping culture through their support of groundbreaking artists. Upside Down chronicles a British post-punk imprint’s indelible impact on “indie” music, when founder Alan McGee had a hand in discovering game-changing acts like Primal Scream, Ride, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and eventually, My Bloody Valentine. It also charts Creation’s downfall, mainly spurred by McGee’s burnout after a Sony buy-out and the unprecedented success of Britpop revivalists Oasis, who signed to Creation in 1993. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, meanwhile, tells the story of L.A.-based innovators Stones Throw, founded by crate-digger Chris Manak (otherwise known as Peanut Butter Wolf) to showcase the work of his beatsmith buddies, like the legendary J Dilla. The label generated a cult following as it released acclaimed collaborations from MF Doom and Madlib (2004’s Madvillainy) and expanded its reach to include soul singers like Aloe Blacc, funktronica pioneer DaM-FunK, and Japanese neo-psych project the Stepkids, with talking heads like Common, Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, Mike D, and Ariel Pink extolling its cultural cred.
A Late Quartet
Yaron Zilberman, 2012
Run time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
With a star-studded cast of powerhouse actors (Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Imogen Poots), A Late Quartet uses Beethoven’s Op. 131 as a metaphor for its characters’ complicated, melancholic lives. As one would expect from an Oscar-award winning ensemble, the acting is phenomenal; Walken’s portrayal of a classical cellist resigned to his recent diagnosis of Parkison’s disease acts as a foil for the disarray in which his fellow players find themselves. Hoffman and Keener play spouses whose marriage begins to unravel when a third party strokes the husband’s artistic ego, while Poots, in the role of their daughter, conducts an illicit affair with the quartet’s much older first violinist. Its intricate soundtrack is deftly performed by the Brentano String Quartet, giving the film an added layer of authenticity. A Late Quartet is an examination of human interconnectedness, a celebration of lifelong dedication to music, and a bit of a love letter to Beethoven as well.
The Wrecking Crew
Denny Tedesco, 2008
Run time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Inspired by his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, director Denny Tedesco set out to share the untold story of a group of Los Angeles-based musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, a group of prolific session musicians who played anonymously on some of the world’s most famous recordings. These include iconic Phil Spector productions like “Be My Baby,” several Beach Boys classics, and huge hits from the Righteous Brothers, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Carpenters, among others. These musicians toiled in obscurity but were truly some of the greatest of the century, able to shift seamlessly between genres. Tedesco’s heartfelt portrait of his father inadvertently came to shine a spotlight on the other unsung members of “the Clique” as it was sometimes known, including drummer Earl Palmer, and its sole female member, bassist Carol Kaye.
The Punk Singer
Sini Anderson, 2013
Run time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Kathleen Hanna made waves in the Nineties as the lead-singer of Bikini Kill and one of the primary figures of the riot grrl movement, which married third-wave feminism and punk rock. When her electroclash-inspired dance punk band, Le Tigre (in which she performed with Johanna Fateman and JD Samson) rose to even greater prominence throughout the Aughts, Hanna seemed unstoppable. But as filmmaker Sini Anderson discovered when chronicling Hanna’s life for her documentary The Punk Singer, there was something that could stop Hanna – her bout with long-untreated, often-misdiagnosed, late-stage Lyme disease. Anderson herself suffers from the same affliction, so her unflinching portrait of Hanna’s struggles with the illness remains sensitive and informative; meanwhile, Hanna emerges as the outspoken, unrelenting tour de force that’s made her a hero to so many.