June is Black Music Month, and if you’re looking to take your celebrations further than just jamming out to your favorite artists, we’ve got you covered.
As people around the country look for ways to educate themselves on Black history and the plight of African Americans in the United States, there are plenty of music documentaries available to stream that tackle a wide range of topics. From the creation of some of today’s most beloved genres to stories of artists using their platforms for political activism, these documentaries are bound to cover something that piques your interest – and most importantly, helps you learn.
This documentary details the extraordinary life of entertainment mogul Quincy Jones. Co-directed by his daughter, Rashida Jones of “Parks and Recreation” fame, this film covers the artists’ over 70-year career influencing the music and film industry.
“THE BLACK GODFATHER”
From music to movies, politics and even sports, there was one man pulling all the strings beginning in the late ‘60s: The Black Godfather. Hailing from Greensboro, North Carolina, Clarence Avant quickly rose to prominence as one of the most influential behind-the-scenes producers, mentors and advocates for Black talent across popular culture. Avant built record labels, radio networks and helped establish beloved artists, athletes and politicians.
While this one is a series and not a singular film, it treats each episode like its very own miniature documentary. The series’ first season features eight episodes where each one takes a look at how a different rap artist got to where they are today. With rappers like Logic, T.I., Rapsody, and 2 Chainz, to name a few, this docuseries examines each artists’ history and their impact on the culture of hip-hop.
“MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN”
This documentary recaps the Godfather of Soul’s ascension to the top of the music world, from his humble beginnings in gospel straight to the funk. With Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney at the helm, Brown’s legacy is in good hands here.
If you’re looking for something with a North Carolina tie, then look no further. High Point’s very own John Coltrane revolutionized jazz for over two decades in the mid-1900s, and this is his story. Narrated by Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington and featuring interviews with artists like Carlos Santana, Common, and even former president Bill Clinton, “Chasing Trane” provides an engrossing look at the beloved saxophonist.
“MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL”
Miles Davis, the trumpeter and composer proved himself to be one of the most influential artists in jazz music throughout the course of his nearly 50-year career. Now, demystify fact from fiction with this documentary, breaking down the man behind the legend through never-before-scene footage and interviews.
Hosted by MC and journalist Shad Kabango, this Netflix docuseries profiles some of the biggest names in hip-hop and explores how the genre became the world’s most popular style of music. “Hip-Hop Evolution” takes viewers from its roots in the ‘70s through to present time through the eyes of influential artists like Run-D.M.C., Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West, Pharrell, and many more.
“20 FEET FROM STARDOM”
In 2006, “Dreamgirls” chronicled three Black female background singers’ journey from obscurity to taking center stage– but real life doesn’t always work that way. Just beyond the spotlight, these background performers are relatively unknown even as they bring harmonies to some of the biggest names in the world of music. Hear from background singers still searching for their big break and those who have given up the dream. Plus, stars like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder pay tribute to some of the supporting acts who paved the way for their iconic hits.
“WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?”
Heralded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Nina Simone was on top of the R&B and jazz world. Then, during the 1970s, she walked away from it all, not only as an entertainer but also a political activist during the civil rights movement, Simone abandoned her performing career and moved to Liberia to escape the vitriol of America. The Oscar-nominated doc explores Simone’s upbringing and the events that led to her shocking decision.
“HOMECOMING: A FILM BY BEYONCÉ“
If you weren’t able to make it to Coachella 2018, “HOMECOMING” has you covered. That year, Beyoncé brought it to the Valley in a celebration of African American communities, HBCUs, feminism and activism. Now, Queen B’s critically-acclaimed documentary takes viewers behind the scenes every step of the way, from the beginning of the creative process all the way to the show-stopping performances. The recognition for the film speaks for itself: “HOMECOMING” was nominated for six primetime Emmys and took home the Grammy for Best Music Film.
“REMASTERED: DEVIL AT THE CROSSROADS”
Through just two recording sessions and 29 songs, Robert Johnson cemented himself as the master of blues, influencing generations to come. But at 27 years old, Johnson died of poisoning, and the musician’s short and poorly documented life and career led to the inception of many legends. The most prominent of these tales is that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar– and this documentary does its best to solve the mystery and shed light on who Johnson really was.
“REMASTERED: THE LION’S SHARE”
“A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh.” It’s one of the most universally-recognized tunes, and everyone knows the words to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but where did the song really originate? The Tokens get most of the credit thanks to their 1994 rendition, but this documentary chronicles South African journalist Rian Malan’s discovery of Solomon Linda, the song’s true scribe, and the subsequent fight for compensation.
“REMASTERED: WHO SHOT THE SHERIFF?”
Part true-crime mystery, part music documentary, “Who Shot the Sheriff?” has something for everyone. In the 1970s, Bob Marley was on his way to becoming one of the biggest and most influential names in music, and by 1975 he was a star on the global scale. That’s what made the assassination attempt on the reggae icon the following year so shocking. This documentary explores the hunt for the shooter and the political motives behind the attack.
“CLARENCE CLEMONS: WHO DO I THINK I AM?”
If you’ve ever listened to Bruce Springsteen, you should know who Clarence is. Clarence Clemons was Springsteen’s famed saxophonist in the E Street Band, known for blasting powerful sax solos. But do you really know who Clarence is? That’s a question Clemons explored himself in the final years of his life as he searched for his place in the universe.
“REMASTERED: THE TWO KILLINGS OF SAM COOKE”
Dubbed the Father of Modern Soul Music, Sam Cooke was one of the most prominent artists in the 1950s and ‘60s. But Cooke wasn’t satisfied with simply being a musician– he wanted to use his platform to advocate for Civil Rights. Speaking out at that time was threatening to those seeking to maintain the status quo, and Cooke’s murder at just 33 years old and the subsequent cover up still remains a mystery.
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
“WU-TANG CLAN: OF MICS AND MEN”
In honor of Wu-Tang Clan’s 25th anniversary, Showtime put together a four-episode docuseries looking back on the hip-hop group’s path to superstardom. Widely regarded as one of the best hip-hop groups of all time, get to know all nine members through exclusive interviews and never-before-heard stories detailing the group’s inner workings.
“A BAND CALLED DEATH”
In 1975, three brothers recorded a seven-song rock album, only it wouldn’t be heard for over 30 years. Due to the band’s name, Death, Columbia Records dropped the Hackney brothers and the group disbanded, fading into irrelevance. But in 2009, the album was rediscovered and finally distributed. This is the story of Death’s unlikely return.
Directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald, “Whitney” takes you beyond the chart-topper and tabloid headlines to shed light on the realities of Whitney Houston’s life. Utilizing archival video, never-before-seen private footage, and over 70 interview subjects, Macdonald examines Houston’s legacy from every angle.
There aren’t many topics documentarian Ken Burns hasn’t tackled in his 50-year career, so it’s not surprising to see nearly 20 hours dedicated solely to jazz music. The mini-series earned five Primetime Emmy nominations for its thorough exploration of the genre from its humble beginnings in 1917 all the way to present day.
In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded her gospel album “Amazing Grace” live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The album went on to become the highest-selling gospel album of all time, but the video footage that accompanied it never saw the light of day. Originally planned for release in 1972, and then multiple times since then, legal battles prevented the film’s long-awaited arrival until 2018, when the concert film finally hit the big screen. While your TV and speakers at home can’t even come close to comparing with those lucky enough to witness the album live, it’s still powerful enough to earn a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
“HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN”
Get a blast of nostalgia by heading back to the Detroit roots of Motown. Featuring interviews with Berry Gordy, the label’s founder, as well as superstar talent like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, “Hitsville” provides viewers with unparalleled access to the studio. From its start in Detroit and through its eventual relocation to Los Angeles, “Hitsville” will take you every step of the way.
There’s a reason the Apollo Theater is on the National Register of Historic Places, and this HBO original shows you why. Weaving together the landmark’s rich history in music, comedy and dance through a combination of new interviews, archival footage and behind-the-scenes access with the operators of the theater, it’s easy to see how the Apollo Theater has maintained its foothold at the heart of American culture for nearly a century.
The Staple Singers used their voices to advocate for civil rights, as well as create beloved soul, gospel and R&B music, and lead singer Mavis Staples was at the forefront of both. Thanks to her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., Staples and Co. became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Through interviews, live performances and archival footage, “Mavis!” examines the singer’s nearly 60-year career and her impact on music.
“FADE TO BLACK”
In 2004, Jay-Z released a documentary chronicling his rap career and detailing his plans to retire from the music industry. The film was incredibly difficult to find, but now, it’s available on Tidal, Jay-Z’s own streaming service so fans can finally witness the intimate story of Shawn Carter and what was thought to be his final performance.
“NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC”
Nas’ 1994 album “Illmatic” has long been the standard for rap music and social commentary, and this documentary dives into the process and circumstances that led to its creation. Released on the 20th anniversary of the album, “Nas: Time is Illmatic” tracks the rapper all the way from his childhood to the record’s release, examining the lasting impact.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.