The DocBlog Recommends Five Must-See Portraits of Musicians

George Harrison

DISCLAIMER: This post is sponsored by Lionsgate, but all thoughts are our own.

The DVD of Martin Scorsese’s documentary George Harrison: Life in the Material World has been released in the UK and is set to come out in the near future here in North America. I’ve yet to see the film, but I thought (with a little convincing from the fine folks at Lionsgate) that it would be fun to recommend five other great docs that profile musicians. There are TONS of music inspired documentaries to choose from, but I thought I would focus on the ones that look at a single musician and reveal something about that person beyond their songwriting talents. What are some of your favourite docs on musicians? Let us know in the comments section!


Canada, 1962
Directed by Wolf Koenig & Roman Kroitor

Considered to be a cinema vérité classic, Lonely Boy is a candid look at a young Paul Anka, navigating the world of teenage pop stardom. He’s charming, handsome, and certainly knows how to treat his female fans, but he wasn’t always icon material. His personal manager, Irvin Feld, talks about ‘grooming’ Anka. “Paul’s features are excellent. His eyes are great. He has a great mouth.” Yet they still felt the need to adjust his nose with a little bit of plastic surgery. It’s a truly unique look at the creation of a pop icon. The film also gives us a transparent look at the filmmaking process as there is always a sense of the director’s influence on the scene. At one point, Anka gives the owner of the famous Copacabana a gift, which is met with a kiss on the cheek. Offscreen we hear one of the director’s request that the kiss be taken again due to camera issues, which is met with a great laugh from the subjects. A great piece of non-fiction filmmaking (and it’s Canadian!)


USA, 2005
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig

I’ve gone on about my love of The Devil and Daniel Johnston quite a bit around here and my thoughts still stand. It’s got everything. It’s beautifully filmed, the characters are compelling, it’s emotionally devastating, and it’s got dramatic twists and turns. I remember hearing about the film when it first started playing festivals and I had my reservations, expecting something more along the lines of a poorly crafted fan-service fluff piece. Boy was I wrong. I was also caught off guard by how little I knew about Daniel Johnston’s personal issues and just show much I would get caught up in this unique underdog story. It’s truly a beautiful film and I recommend it to everyone.


Directed by AJ Schnack

AJ Schnack’s portrait of Kurt Cobain is probably the least traditional biopic on this list, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. Narrated by Cobain himself, using audio interview clips collected by journalist Michael Azerrad, About a Son gives us an intimate look at the life of a rockstar who struggled with the responsibilities and expectations of being a music icon. Set against images of the towns in which Cobain grew up, Schnack’s film avoids biopic cliche’s by keeping things grounded in a sense of intimacy and honesty, presenting Cobain’s story quite literally in his own words. Nirvana fans should be thankful to have been treated with such a thoughtful presentation and a respectful treatment of this tale of a reluctant music legend.


Directed by Steven M. Martin

Okay, so this one is sort of thinking outside the box as Leon Theremin was an inventor, not a musician. However, he was responsible for one of the strangest instruments ever, the Theremin. If you’re not familiar with the eerie, warbly sounds it generates, you might want to refer to almost any sci-fi film produced in the 1950’s or take another listen to The Beach Boys Good Vibrations. Beyond his contribution to the music world, Theremin’s life plays like a whacked out espionage movie. He invented super-secret spy microphones for the KGB, was rumoured to have been kidnapped by Soviet Officials, and spent prison time in sharashka, a secret laboratory in the Russian gulag. It’s a great story that contains some pretty unusual performances thanks to Theremin and his orchestra of theremin players.


Directed by Todd Phillips

Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Due Date) NYU student film was a fascinating and hilarious documentary about one of the most disgusting, loathsome, and untalented figures in music history: GG Allin. The film attempts to understand Allin’s anarchistic attitude and propensity for violence and chaos, but really ends up working as a real life Spinal Tap with flashes of sadness throughout. It isn’t particularly deep or well made, but it’s definitely an interesting look at the early beginnings of a director who would go on to film some of the biggest mainstream comedies in Hollywood. You can watch the entire film embedded above. Definitely NSFW!


Martin Scorsese’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” is now available on DVD in the UK and will soon be available on DVD in North America. Check out the trailer below.