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The Punk Singer
Honing in on Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, this documentary, released in 2013, is made by a woman, about a woman, and for women – or at least, it feels that way. Tracing Hanna's staunchly feminist politics through the wider context of the Riot Grrrl movement, the film features relatively few men. "I want women to be the experts. I don't want these male experts to come in to make it legitimate," said Hanna, who was involved throughout production.
The film talks to punk legends ranging from Kim Gordon, to Carrie Brownstein, to Joan Jett. Watch the clip to the right if you want to get an idea of the film's format: a mixture of talking heads, inserts of old band artwork and live footage taken of the women on tour. It's DIY, it's punk, and it's rousing.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Thanks Netflix – because this is a really great way for fans both new and old to wriggle their way into the depths of Nina Simone's complex personality. The film opens with Simone on stage, blowing the socks off a majority white audience, before delving into the singer's own opinions on race, music and performance. "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" says the jazz singer.
Featuring insight from her daughter, this 2015 documentary is the closest we're gonna get to Simone. It also features revolutionary voices like James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael on why Simone was the most badass person in music at the time (let alone the most badass woman). You'll be re-listening to her back catalogue for some time after watching, trust us.
Dream of Life
Dream of Life is the story of singer Patti Smith and a little bit the story of her friend and lover, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The film is like a floating compilation of Smith's spoken word poetry, footage of her creating art and talking head shots whereby she guides us through her possessions. In one scene, Smith plays with a cat on her windowsill while birds sing outside, and she sings a cappella to the camera.
You have to already be pretty into Patti Smith to enjoy this one, since it's not very linear and lacks the usual narrative structuring of the other films on this list. If you are a Smith fan, enjoy lofty quotes like: "I wondered through the debris of the 60s – so much joy, so much malcontent." Oh, Patti.
Oh God. Amy doesn't bear thinking about. If you were in any way a fan of the artist (and who on this earth can deny an appreciation of that voice), the film most likely left you in floods of tears. And if you haven't seen it yet, beware of the same. Although Asif Kapadia's 2015 film was steeped in controversy – mostly, who came out of it as most to blame for the singer's untimely death: her dad, her ex-boyfriend, or the paparazzi – it gave us a unique, stripped down look at her character.
The most uplifting scenes are the ones in which Winehouse is messing around with her friends on holiday, the most tragic are those where she is coming out of clubs, high on drugs, being hounded by the press. The most moving are those of her in the studio, such as this one (right), singing and recording with Mark Ronson, like it's the only thing she knows how to do.
Hit So Hard
As music documentaries go, Hit So Hard doesn't stray too far from the ordinary; it tells the tale of a musician who unexpectedly rose to global stardom, got lost on a destructive path, and eventually found redemption. Except, Patty Schemel of the band Hole is one of the most likeable protagonists imaginable, and her story isn't just one of addiction, it's one of being an openly gay, female musician in a largely straight, male world.
Following Hole's successes, from small town punk rock group in Seattle, to the band's antics at the Lollapalooza festival, the film also features some incredibly weird interviews with bandmate Courtney Love and rare home videos of Kurt Cobain playing with his daughter. All this makes Hit So Hard an entertaining "rockumentary" overall, and one that is sure to please any so-called grunge era fan.