From Michael Jackson to Japanese Glam Rock: Here Are the Ten Music Docs You Need to See in 2016

After 'Amy' and 'Montage of Heck,' the world of music documentaries is peaking, and 2016 is set to have you frothing at the mouth like a dog gargling Alka Seltzer.

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Jan 6 2016, 1:05pm

As January starts to gather steam, so too do the wheels of the Academy Awards, the yearly ceremony celebrating the best in film. Who will be snubbed this year? Will Leonardo DiCaprio’s beard-strewn heroism finally see him win the Best Actor award true Leonites swear he should have won for The Basketball Diaries back in the 90s? Will Johnny Depp’s Black Mass clean up quicker than your roommate’s rambles through the leftover cleaning when they can’t get to sleep in the dim-light of Sunday morning? These are important questions. But goddammit, this is Noisey.com not Empire Magazine. So while we’re not about to rev ourselves into a frenzy over the visual effects in Ant Man, January brings an opportunity to look forward to the world of music and film.

Last year saw the release of two well-received documentaries: Amy and the Kurt Cobain archive-extravaganza that was Montage of Heck. And 2016 is looking to be no different. There’s some fascinating stuff on the way. Spike Lee directing an exploration into Michael Jackson’s early days? Sure. A look into the world of a Norwegian rapper trying to get famous by rapping in a language only 20,000 people speak? Why not. A Missy Elliot documentary? If the rumors are to be believed, then yeah, that’s coming too. And even if it’s not, the next 12 months are going to be like a collective raid on the gilded tomb of music documentary, simply because there’s so much stuff to look forward to.

So with that in mind, and as a way to whet your appetite and have you frothing at the mouth like a dog gargling Alka Seltzer, here’s a round-up of the best music documentaries that are definitely coming out in 2016.


TURN IT AROUND: THE STORY OF EAST BAY PUNK

The scene that arose from San Francisco’s East Bay area saw bands like Green Day, Rancid, and AFI become international punk superstars. This film focuses on the mid-80s and the 924 Gilman Street collective who helped spawn the careers of Billie Joe Armstrong et. al. and how their peace-loving, sober attitude (rock on!) to DIY rock sparked a movement that still influences and tops festival bills today. With Green Day themselves on production duties, it’s looking like a no-stone-unturned situation. Wait: What do you mean that sounds like a terrible film? It’s becoming harder and harder to deny the cultural impact the East Bay Punk scene had at the time, so don’t skip out on this just because now in your 20s you regret spending three months learning all the words to Dookie. The film also features everyone from Kathleen Hanna and Miranda July to Iggy Pop and Ian Mackaye. So there's a roll call.

SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY

I don’t know about you lot, but I’m a massive sucker for film soundtracks. Blade Runner? That shit is dope. Toy Story? Hell yeah, baby. My boy Randy Newman has it on lock. Mention Ryan Gosling’s Drive and chances are I’ll start to develop a cold sweat on the back of my neck, a result of my mind drifting into College’s “Real Hero.” So I guess what I’m saying is, yeah: Film soundtracks can be for nerds, but they also stand up as great albums. Born out of director Mark Shrader’s appreciation for The Dark Knight and Finding Nemo DVD featurettes that focused on the film’s soundtracks, this Indiegogo-funded documentary is all about the music that plays throughout your favorite films. Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and John Williams all feature (Gladiator; Lord Of The Rings; Star Wars, respectively).


FOREST HILLS DRIVE: HOMECOMING

Is J Cole an introspective rap genius? Or is he the lead cornball running the ultimate expedition to the mountain peak where every Reddit using hip-hop head is born? This HBO documentary probably won’t resolve any arguments on rap’s most divisive chart-topping mega-star, but it is going to be one great learning experience. Using his 2015 hometown gig as the hook, the documentary traces the life of Fayetteville’s finest from the diaper era to the here and now. With cameos from Jay-Z and Drake (at this point, a name big enough to sell some people into watching it), it’s the beadiest look we’ve had yet into the man who may or may not be the greatest (thing to happen to nerds).


FREE TO ROCK

Taking the 1991 Monsters Of Rock concert in Tushino Airfield, northwest Moscow as its spark, Free To Rock examines the role of rock and roll in bringing down the dastardly Iron Curtain. Jimmy Carter and Mikael Gorbachev might sound like the worst back to back DJ set of all time, but taking up positions as talking heads they offer enough to pitch this one a little higher than your average BBC3 retro I Love The 90s retro spaff-fest. Also, Kiefer Sutherland on the narration steez.


MAKING JESUS FAMOUS: LIFE BEHIND THE JESUS MUZIK

Religion in rap goes all the way back to Grandmaster Flash and "The Message": “God is smiling on you but he’s frownin’ too / Because only God knows what you’ll go through.” But there’s a difference between talking about the Big Man and preaching about the Big Man. Making Jesus Famous explores America’s religious acts: taking the culture of hip-hop, twinning it with a Christian message, and taking it out into the streets. This is Bible-bap.

MICHAEL JACKSON'S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL

Spike Lee’s played with Michael Jackson once before: the film Bad 25, which documented the making of Jacko’s Bad album. Yet this time round Lee is spinning back to Off The Wall, MJ’s first truly epochal record that spawned the likes of "Rock With You" and "Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough." The trailer has been kept under wraps for this one, with a very exclusive showing at Sundance in 2015, but the film’s synopsis says it will "explore the seminal album, with rare footage and interviews from those who were there and those whose lives its success and legacy impacted." So just about everyone, then. Looking forward to the chapter where they interview all the artists who are trying to build a career by imitating MJ’s voice!


WE ARE X

Image via We are X Facebook

The guys in X Japan probably wouldn’t be too aggrieved if we were to suggest most Noisey readers haven’t heard of them before now. Yet somehow the purveyors of a neon mélange of glam rock and heavy metal have been around for 30 years or so, and sold 30-odd million albums along the way. Oh, and like the good ole rock bands of yore, they’ve battled the obligatory personal and spiritual demons to get to their current Madison Square Garden/Wembley Arena headlining status where they’re at today. Via Beatles levels of fandom, this Gene Simmons-featuring doc tells the story of the biggest Japanese band you've never heard of.


FLASHBACK: THE HISTORY OF UK BLACK MUSIC

Flashback’s list of interviewees runs like a who's who of vintage stalwarts of black British music, from Norman Jay to Eddy Grant to Jazzie B to, of course, Trevor Nelson. The film focuses on the experience of Afro-Caribbean artists and the prejudices they’ve faced within the industry, and the political and social changes that have taken place to ensure that the UK now has one of the most thriving multi-cultural music scenes on the planet.


ARCTIC SUPERSTAR

Nils Rune was born in the the tiny 350-person village of Masi in southern Finland. Growing up idolizing Eminem, he dreamed of making a living through rapping in his native tongue. Not so ridiculous a dream, you might say, until you discover said native dialect is Sami; spoken by just 20,000 people. This documentary follows Nils—rap name Slin Craze—as he battles his linguistic demons to carve out the career of his dreams. As the tagline says, "100 words for snow, no words for 'Yo!'"

EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN QUESTION

Frank Zappa’s position as freewheeling musical polymath is virtually uncontested, and this documentary uses TV interviews to explore the many sides of his onscreen and offstage character. Bearing in mind that this was a man who rallied against the American establishment for its attempts to censor music, was a chief critic of the War on Drugs, and briefly acted as a cultural ambassador for the Czech Republic, pure musician he ain't.

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