A lot of us miss the visceral thrill of seeing live musicians onstage—but the threat of flying viscera and COVID cooties still keeps most of us safely at home. Yes, there was a tentative return to live music in the Philippines and around the world in 2021. But it was just baby steps, at best.
Add to that the sad demise of many cherished local music venues due to endless lockdown, and the thought of enjoying live music seems to recede forever, like the long fadeout of Hey Jude. In the meantime, 2021 offered these fine documentaries, series, and concert films to stream and remind us of what we’re missing.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Wait… Did we really just see Stevie Wonder plunk down onstage and drop a five-minute drum solo? Was that Mongo Santamaria bringing Latin soul to the heart of Harlem with a smile on his face?
When Roots musician Questlove discovered over 40 hours of concert footage locked away in a vault, he knew he had something special: the 1969 free music festival in Harlem known as “Black Woodstock” was a blast. All this eye-popping footage was rejected by television and Hollywood (people were more interested in white-centric love-in experiences after the success of Woodstock), and ignored for half a century.
From the integrated hard-funk, hand-clapping joy of Sly and the Family Stone, to the hippie-delic soul-pop of The Fifth Dimension (a young Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis in eye-scorching hippie gear), to B.B. King exuding effortless blues power, Sonny Sharrock’s guitar stealing the show from Herbie Mann’s jazz flute flights, and Nina Simone just being transcendent, Questlove’s offering of free music during a hot NYC summer was just the smile-spreading happiness the world needed.
The Sparks Brothers
Baby Driver director Edgar Wright’s overview of thoroughly original American cult band Sparks covers 25 albums over a 40-plus-year career. One thing is clear: their cult status was richly deserved.
With the falsetto-singing brother on the mic and his Hitler/Chaplin-mustached keyboardist sibling arching eyebrows, Sparks always come across as ahead of the curve—from early punky pop to prescient Giorgio Moroder-produced sounds (“No. 1 in Heaven”) that would directly inspire every synth-driven duo in the ‘80s, to MTV-friendly hits like Cool Places with Go-Go guitarist Jane Wiedlin.
Even if you’ve only heard a fraction of Sparks’ vast repertoire, after watching The Sparks Brothers, you’ll be driven to explore their back catalog for gems. It’s like they planned it this way from the start.
Get Back: The Beatles
Written about extensively, but what Peter Jackson’s eight-hour behind-the-scenes look at The Beatles rehearsing captures so well is the intimacy of making music that we so miss—that act of sitting together in a room with instruments, connecting with friends, jamming, intertwining, finding the tune in all that sonic maelstrom.
And then, of course, that cathartic release of playing your new creations to an audience on a stage—or, in the Beatles’ case, on a rooftop. Get Back captures both aspects of the creative process— brilliantly.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything
The soundtrack alone is killer: Marvin, Lennon, Elton, Bowie, Neil, Joni, Sly, the Stones, the Who... How could so many great albums come from a single year? Dust off that vinyl collection and take a trip into the most explosive musical annum yet.
The far-reaching AppleTV+ series goes deep into the movements and trends that made 50 years ago a landmark in live music, studio recording, politics, and culture. The eight-part 1971 contains multitudes.
“I don’t think there will ever again be a time where there was so much interest in music and musicians,” recalls Rolling Stone writer Robert Greenfield, but with a caveat: “We learned that the last people you want to follow anywhere are musicians.” Dig it.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes’ documentary film spins something transcendent out of an ethereal moment—when Andy Warhol’s Factory band tried to transform rock and roll by just being their bad, noisy, dysfunctional selves. Unconventional multiscreen framing and clever use of visuals keep the Velvets’ story fresh, electric, and iconic. Not much live-gigging here, just an eerie electric subterranean pulse.
By focusing on the things that made Tina Turner larger than life in the first place, and what redefined her after the oppressive weight of Ike Turner has been lifted, this HBO documentary is a marvel: incredible live footage from the early Ike & Tina Turner days is intercut with her current state—happily retired, married, living in an Italian villa and looking back over a career that, on paper, shouldn’t make any sense: rising from a poor sharecropper family in Nutbush to owning every stage in the world. And inventing just about every stage move Mick Jagger ever trotted out.
This Is Pop
This Netflix series looks at eight different slices of pop music—from the days of Britpop (focusing on the Blur/Oasis squabble) to the rise of huge concert festivals (Glastonbury and beyond), to the insidious presence of Swedish pop producers in today’s charts, and the dubious but arguably valid merits of Autotune. Each segment is surprising, smart, and revealing about how pop has infiltrated our lives like a live, wriggling earworm.
Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage
More Altamont than Woodstock, this look back at the questionable decision to resurrect the classic free music festival 30 years later says it all in the title—minus the “peace and love,” that is. It’s a case study of greed, testosterone-fueled sexism, and mind-numbing agro-rock, all melting down in a stew of poo, vomit, and bonfire frenzy.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher
This two-part Netflix doc breaks down the mystique of Elvis into predictable halves—inventing rock ‘n’ roll, disappearing into the Army… then everything that came after, including sharp decline and willful comeback. But it offers a deep dive into Elvis Aaron Presley’s relationship with his mother, his manager Colonel Parker, his fans, and his fame and fellow musicians.
It’s sad to see Elvis consumed by the Hollywood machinery, singing songs about clambakes instead of digging deep into the music that made him whole. The focus on his final albums (before keeling over at age 42) is a poignant scramble to recover the mojo of real music sparking between real musicians, without the Las Vegas mantle sitting on his shoulder. But it’s a desperate last-ditch chase: time had caught up with the King.