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17 of the best music-related films and TV shows to watch on Netflix UK

Tick, Tick... Boom
(Image credit: Netflix)

Whether you're in the mood for a  pop culture romp, a biography of an icon or an in-depth examination of a particular genre, Netflix has built up quite a repertoire when it comes to music TV shows and films.

Having already cast an eye over the best music-related films available to stream on Amazon Prime UK, our attention now turns to its competitor. Netflix has produced a volley of its own original music TV shows and documentaries (some of which are included in this list), as well as harvesting some absolute treats from elsewhere.

More than there being something on this list for everyone, we think every music fan will find something in each of these picks no matter their tastes.

Inventing David Geffen

Whether you consider media mogul David Geffen a rags to riches sensation worthy of admiration for his unmitigated success in the worlds of music and film or a ruthless businessman cashing in on the talent of others, the story of his life, as he puts it forth, is a fascinating pop culture ride every bit as entertaining as the acts he represented.

This documentary features Geffen himself recalling his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn before making his way to LA and stealthily working his way up from mailroom boy at the William Morris Agency (a job he obtained by falsifying academic credentials) to talent agent after noticing that "they earn the most while knowing the least".

After going solo, Geffen managed acts including Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. By the time he was 30, he had founded Asylum Records signing artists such as The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell's recollection of writing Free Man in Paris about Geffen and his continued bashfulness about the song gives a brief glimpse behind his carefully constructed facade.

With a life and career that encompasses his eponymous label, home to a diverse roster with the likes of Nirvana, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, Peter Gabriel and Olivia Newton-John; founding Dreamworks film studios; and nearly marrying Cher, there's no shortage of glittering talking heads who gush over – and occasionally critique – Geffen. The result, fact or fiction, is an engaging treat for music lovers.

 Tick, Tick... Boom! 

A musical about the process of writing a musical: if the thought of Broadway legends suddenly breaking into a song about the futility of eating Sunday brunch in a New York diner fills you with dread, then you might assume that Tick, Tick... Boom! is not for you. 

But although Lin-Manuel Miranda's film about composer Jonathan Larson (played by an inconceivably talented Andrew Garfield) before he achieved the mega success of Rent might appear all showbiz jazz hands and heavy vibrato, it's actually an engaging reflection of a musician desperately seeking inspiration while struggling against the brutality of failure and the creative slog.

The narrative only examines Larson's life as he works on Superbia – a failed futuristic rock opera reimagining of George Orwell's 1984. It's interspersed with songs, both staged and interpolated, from what would be his next project, a one-man show called Tick, Tick… Boom! about the existential dread he felt about turning 30 without achieving success in his field, opening with the lament that he would soon be "older than Stephen Sondheim when he had his first Broadway show, older than Paul McCartney when he wrote his last song with John Lennon".

Larson did, of course, go on to be incredibly successful, but he sadly didn't live to see his work become celebrated, dying of a heart disorder at the age of 35 on the day of the first preview of Rent, for which he posthumously won the Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score, as well as a Pulitzer.

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives

Netflix just loves a documentary about media impresarios, and this two-hour feature on Clive Davis is ripe with nine decades-worth of history-making anecdotes that make Forest Gump look like an underachiever.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in 1930s Brooklyn, Davis was still in his teens when his parents passed away in quick succession, an event that both devastated him and drove his unrelenting work ethic, initially as an entertainment lawyer and later as president of CBS Records.

Despite not having a musical background, Davis discovered that he had 'golden ears', a gift that, according to showbiz lore, led to him signing the likes of Janis Joplin, Gil Scott-Heron, Whitney Houston and Patti Smith. Davis' ears not only helped him discover artists but also influenced his shrewd management, allegedly pushing Bruce Springsteen to write Blinded by the Light by repeatedly rejecting his first album until he came up with a hit, and forcing Simon and Garfunkel to release Bridge Over Troubled Water as the lead single for their final album. And then there was his knack for relaunching stars such as Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, who had unbelievably fallen out of favour with the record-buying public.

Don't expect any big personal revelations – there's the odd juicy tidbit such as Davis claiming to decline Joplin's advances, and plenty of scandals involving payola and bitter corporate betrayal – but it's the examination of his relationship with Houston, from first discovering her and guiding her career (apparently insisting that the intro to I Will Always Love You remain a cappella) to his feelings of ineptitude as he witnessed her decline, that is most telling.

Echo in the Canyon

This slightly patchy documentary pays homage to the folk-rock scene that grew out of Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s. It follows Jakob Dillon (Bob’s son) as he gathers some musician friends – Fiona Apple, Nora Jones, Beck and Regina Spektor – together for what is essentially a tribute show to the bands that defined the era, including The Byrds, The Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. 

Be warned: the film’s pacing is uneven, often self indulgently luxuriating over live footage of Dillon’s covers that are presumably a handy device to avoid paying for music rights. And there are pretty conspicuous gaps in the narrative too. There are no mentions of Joni Mitchel, Jim Morisson, Love, The Eagles or James Taylor, though Ringo Starr and his sports car seem to get plenty of screen time. There’s also no allusion to the Manson clan and the notorious murders committed at Cielo Drive that undeniably impacted the spirit of freedom and openness that had permeated the Canyon music community.

But despite these hefty caveats, Echo in the Canyon’s focus on the songs themselves is gently rewarding, as are many of the interviews with Crosby and Stills as well as Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, who gamely divulges on her musical ménage à trois with fellow band members, unapologetically grinning, “I was a very busy girl”.

ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium

Massacre at the Stadium is a very different kind of music documentary about the life of Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer, songwriter and poet in the 1960s. His outspoken criticism of General Pinochet, who became the country's dictator by way of an American-backed coup ousting the democratically elected socialist president in 1973, resulted in his torture and murder by loyalist soldiers. A crime that went unexamined and unpunished for over 40 years.

Despite its graphic sounding title, the filmmakers refrain from getting too detailed on the violence that Jara endured, instead choosing to focus on his life, music and influence as well as the unrelenting activism mounted by his wife Joan Jara in the face of repression and bureaucratic indifference. His songs, both of protest and daily life, take front and centre, with artists including Bono and Bruce Springsteen paying tribute to his talent and bravery.

The Defiant Ones

A four-part series that originally aired on HBO, The Defiant Ones charts the partnership between Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine and rapper and record producer Dr. Dre.

As much as being a music documentary, it's a story of entrepreneurship and how an artform helped build an empire for two pioneering individuals.

The Get Down

Baz Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis's 11-episode drama, cut with real footage from 1970s New York, is a kind of fictionalised retelling of the beginnings of hip-hop.

Executive produced by Grandmaster Flash and narrated by Nas, you tend to feel if these guys don't get it right then there's little hope it'll ever be done.

Song Exploder

This one started life as a podcast before being picked up by Netflix. The idea is that artists pick apart their own tracks, discussing the inspiration and how it was written and recorded; it's the kind of granular insight you just don't get in a normal documentary or biopic.

Now in its second series on Netflix, Song Exploder has featured artists as diverse as R.E.M., Dua Lipa, Alicia Keys, Nine Inch Nails and Lin-Manuel Miranda so far. Long may it continue.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Opening the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, What Happened, Miss Simone? documents the unparalleled talent and uncontrollable personality of Nina Simone.

Released later the same year by Netflix, the film (and Liz Garbus's light touch), won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing.

Sample This

"When Kool Herc found Apache, he was under heavy guard," Grandmaster Flash told What Hi-Fi?. "You would never see the album cover of where it came from."

Described in the film as the most important record in hip-hop, Incredible Bongo Band's Apache has since been sampled hundreds of times by the genre's most seminal artists. Sample This is both its story and a celebration of the culture it unwittingly helped to create.

Quincy

Quincy Jones is the subject of this two-hour documentary created by Netflix, celebrating his extraordinary life as trumpeter, producer, conductor, composer and arranger as well as discoverer of some of the last century's biggest artists.

It might not tread much new ground for those already well-read on the US icon – you try covering more than 80 years in 120 minutes – but it is an undeniably entertaining watch to which you'll often find yourself singing along.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

Though the title of this 2019 Netflix release appears to give it all away, its combination of documentary and fiction is a refreshing take on a music legend who has been the subject of a great number of films already.

Covering Bob Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Martin Scorsese's take mixes real interviews with figures such as Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and Dylan himself, with those of actors portraying characters who were not actually involved in the tour.

Supersonic

Whether you love them, loathe them or remain entirely ambivalent, it's difficult to deny Oasis's early rise was rather impressive. Supersonic avoids later spats, headline-hungry barbs and less than cutting-edge artistry to focus on how the band became the biggest in the UK in just a few years.

If nothing else it is a film harking back to a perhaps more hopeful time, when what we're experiencing now would seem too ridiculous even for a disaster movie.

Miss Americana

Using archive footage from Whitney Houston's 1999 World Tour mixed with testimonies from the singer's family, friends and musical collaborators, Nick Broomfield's documentary aims deep at the troubled yet celebrated life of its subject.

Though touching upon her beginnings as a gospel singer, as well as breakthrough hits and her role in The Bodyguard, this is more a character piece than chronicling of a career.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

If you think two hours is too short a time to cover the extraordinary life and genius of Miles Davis in anything approaching enough detail, you'd be absolutely right.

Birth of the Cool is in no way an 'everything you need to know' documentary, but as an overview of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century it does at least inspire further listening and further reading. We'd recommend watching this and then buying Davis's autobiography Miles.

I Called Him Morgan

Kasper Collin's documentary is a love letter to the stormy relationship between jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife Helen, who was responsible for his murder in 1972.

It's a documentary that has it all, except for the long list of awards it truly deserves.

What We Started

It's happening with dance music just as it is with hip-hop – a kind of gateway into adulthood and acceptance as a serious genre, rubber-stamped 'serious documentary storytelling'.

With focus on and interviews with stars from the genre's past, present and future, What We Started does as well to juxtapose their various paths over time as it does charting the genre's rise.