13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

17 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Office Space

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Twenty years ago (yes, you’re really that old) Office Space forever changed how we look at cubicle life. Like a much funnier Dilbert meets Beavis and Butt-head meets the then-largely misunderstood world of Silicon Valley, the comedy movie from Beavis creator Mike Judge ably skewered everything from didactic middle-management bosses to chain restaurant uniforms. And it gave us a charming Jennifer Aniston love story plus a rap mini-music video dedicated to the destruction of malfunctioning printers.

For all that and more, the 1999 film that originally performed poorly at the box office has become a widely quoted cult sensation. Here are the interesting facts and references to look for the next time you watch Office Space.

1. It was shot very, very far from Silicon Valley.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space keeps its setting purposefully vague, but the opening driving shots clue a perceptive viewer into the location: Notice the sign for Preston Road on Highway 289 in the background, which indicates that we’ve been dropped around Plano, Texas. The movie was shot in and around Austin, where Mike Judge lives, making him something of a Hollywood outsider. But Office Space is clearly attuned to the rituals and lingo of Silicon Valley’s tech scene. In fact, Judge worked as an engineer in the California area in the 1980s, which would go on to inform much of his satire, especially his popular HBO show Silicon Valley.

2. It was Mike Judge's first foray into movies ... and it didn't work out as planned.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starting out as a self-taught animator in Texas, Judge made his name in entertainment with cartoons that aired on Saturday Night Live and, eventually, turned into his own MTV show. Beavis and Butt-head premiered in 1993, when the cable network’s scripted offerings were still in their infancy, and quickly became both a commercial hit and a cause of nationwide controversy. He went on to co-create Fox’s slightly more family-friendly King of the Hill, but Office Space marked his live-action directorial debut in film (he previously helmed the movie adaptation Beavis and Butt-head Do America). Made on an estimated $10 million budget, it earned only slightly more than that at U.S. theaters. Sadly, that failure has become something of a pattern for Judge’s movie work: Future efforts Idiocracy and Extract failed to catch on with initial audiences, though the former has also grown into a cult hit.

3. It didn't exactly make Ron Livingston a household name.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space had all the makings of a breakout for its handsome, top-billed star, who was coming off a smaller part in the comedy phenomenon Swingers. But given its early commercial disappointment, he continued to seek out smaller parts and interesting, left-field projects like Adaptation. and The Cooler. He finally got his mainstream cred as the boyfriend of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City (he's the one who broke up with her via Post-it note) with the massively popular horror flick The Conjuring. He's currently starring in two series: A Million Little Things and Loudermilk.

4. Initech has a very symbolic statue.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The statue outside the Initech office shows a square peg in a round hole. No coincidence, it’s a reference to the common idiom referring to an individualist who doesn’t fit into a particular social mold. That could describe Livingston’s Peter, his co-worker friends, Jennifer Aniston’s Joanna—or, more self-referentially, Judge himself, who has always made movies and series about outsiders.

5. You can tell a lot about Bill Lumbergh from his vanity plate.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Everything you need to know about Division V.P. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is established in an early shot of him pulling into his reserved parking space at Initech in a blue Porsche with a customized license plate that reads, “MY PRSHE.” Low-key. (Also notice the lack of any regional designation on the license plates in the film.)

6. "TPS" has a real meaning.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Lumbergh’s single-minded obsession with the details of “TPS reports” drives much of the cubicle-set humor, but what exactly is a TPS report? Potential meanings abound, especially given that companies love an abbreviation, but Judge revealed that TPS refers to Test Program Set reports, which dated back to his engineering days.

7. The food at Chotchkie's sounds less than appetizing.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A sign at the restaurant promotes its “shrimp poppers,” a food name that leaves a lot to the imagination. Later, chipper server Brian highlights “pizza shooters” and “extreme fajitas.” Whatever a pizza shooter is, it can’t be good.

8. Diedrich Bader had a very specific look in mind for Lawrence.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Diedrich Bader, who plays everyone’s favorite beer-guzzling neighbor Lawrence, came to his Office Space role with clear inspiration. “What I really wanted to look like was somebody who loved the Allman Brothers,” he told The A.V. Club in 2012. Sounds about right.

9. There's a real Milton out there.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Judge based the vengeful staffer, also the focus of several of his animated shorts, on one of his real-life co-workers when he was an engineer. Judge asked the man how he was doing, and he responded that he was going to quit his job because his desk had been moved around too many times.

10. Jennifer Aniston helped the movie get made.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The cast of Office Space has one instantly recognizable name: Jennifer Aniston, who was by then of course already a superstar for playing Rachel on NBC’s Friends. In a reunion for the film, Judge thanked Aniston just for signing on (though he added that she was great in the part), saying, “It helped us put the studio at ease a little bit—at least they had one famous person."

11. Michael Bolton has embraced the punchlines about him.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter’s co-worker Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) hates the fact that he shares a name with a musician who is, in his words, a “no-talent ass-clown." While the real-life Bolton initially seemed peeved about the mockery, he now signs Office Space DVDs for fans.

12. Chotchkie's is a thinly veiled TGI Fridays.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The chain restaurant by the office is notable not just for its fried food but for its emphasis on “flair” worn by the servers (15 pieces of flair is the minimum). Office Space is clearly mocking TGI Fridays, whose staff used to dress with seemingly endless buttons and ornamentation. TGI Fridays actually phased out flair by 2005, supposedly as a result of the movie.

13. Y2K makes a cameo.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter tells Joanna while having lunch that in his job he updates software for the “2000 switch.” In 1999, the impending change of the millennium was in fact a massive headache for tech companies and their programming of dates, a phenomenon that became known as Y2K.

14. The movie reintroduced red Swingline staplers.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton’s beloved red stapler was actually painted that color by the prop department, so that it would pop on the screen. As it was one of the more hilarious throughlines in Office Space, viewers started to seek it out in real life. The brand Swingline, which had phased out red staplers, decided to bring the product back. Design-minded executive assistants everywhere can thank Judge.

15. Mike Judge is hiding in plain sight.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In an uncredited role, the writer and director plays Joanna’s boss at Chotchkie's, reprimanding her about her lack of flair. (Though it’s hard to recognize him under the mustache and wig.)

16. Judge is a not-so-secret hip-hop head.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hip-hop is repeatedly played and referenced throughout Office Space, particularly gangsta rap, which was ascendant in the '90s. The famous printer-smashing sequence is set to the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” Also notice Michael Bolton rapping along to Scarface while driving in the movie’s opening. Judge has cleverly curated hip-hop in much of his work, from rap videos in Beavis and Butt-head to a collaboration with Danny Brown for Silicon Valley.

17. Milton foreshadows the climax a lot.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton mentions the possibility of burning down the Initech office several times before actually doing it, making it perhaps the least surprising act of arson depicted in film.

15 Facts About Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Its 30th Anniversary

MGM
MGM

In 1989, a couple of slackers from San Dimas, California hopped inside a time-traveling phone booth and gathered a gaggle of key figures from the past so they wouldn’t fail their high school history class. In 1991, they were at it again. Now, 30 years after Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter first cemented their place in sci-fi history as the lovable duo, the long-awaited threequel—Bill & Ted Face the Music—has been officially confirmed. Here are 15 things you might not know about the most excellent original film.

1. Bill and Ted were born in an improv class.

The idea for the characters of Bill and Ted came about in 1983, when UCLA classmates Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson formed a student improv workshop with a few of their peers. “One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” Solomon recalled to Cinemafantastique in a 1991 interview. “The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” (Solomon played Ted, Matheson was Bill.)

2. Originally, it was Bill & Ted & Bob.

When the skit originated, there was a third character, Bob. But “Bob” wasn’t as into it as Solomon and Matheson, so the trio became a duo.

3. Bill wanted to be Ted and Ted wanted to be Bill.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Keanu Reeves playing Ted Logan, or another actor besides Alex Winter in the role of Bill S. Preston, Esq., but each actor actually auditioned for the opposite role. But when Solomon and Matheson saw their audition tapes, they thought the opposite would work better. In an online chat with Moviefone, Reeves claimed that he didn’t even know their roles had been switched until after he had been cast. “I got a call saying that I got the part,” Reeves recalled. “So I went to the wardrobe fitting… assuming I was playing Bill, and I get there and Alex Winter, who eventually played Bill, went to the wardrobe fitting thinking he was playing Ted. Then we were informed that that wasn't the case.”

4. Pauly Shore also wanted to be Ted.


Getty Images

Pauly Shore was among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Ted. In 1991, Shore hosted an MTV special, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Premiere Party, in which Shore corners Reeves in a back room to talk about his failed audition. Lucky for America, Shore did go on to find fame apart from Bill & Ted, and bring the phrase, “Hey, Bu-ddy!” into the popular lexicon.

5. No, Bio-Dome is not Bill & Ted's threequel.

Speaking of Pauly Shore ... For years, rumors circulated that the script for 1996’s Bio-Dome—starring Shore and Stephen Baldwin—was actually written as the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise. In 2011, Winter laid this rumor to rest when he told /Film that the story is “total urban legend as far as I know. No one involved in that movie had anything to do with Bill & Ted. So unless they were just going to try and reboot the franchise with that concept and different actors, I can’t see a connection.”

6. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren't quite nerdy enough.

The casting of Reeves and Winter posed a problem for the script. “Bill and Ted were conceived in our minds as these 14-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bellbottoms and heavy metal T-shirts,” Solomon told Cinefantastique. “We actually had a scene that was even shot, with Bill and Ted walking past a group of popular kids who hate them. But once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe.”

7. George Carlin was a happy accident.


Getty Images

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Alex Winter called the casting of George Carlin (as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor) “a very happy accident. They were going after serious people first. Like Sean Connery. And someone had the idea, way after we started shooting, of George. That whole movie was a happy accident. No one thought it would ever see the light of day.”

8. The time machine was originally a van.

In Solomon and Matheson’s original script, it was a 1969 Chevy van that served as Bill and Ted’s time machine. But in the course of rewriting the script for Warner Bros., who showed early interest in producing the project, there was concern that a motor vehicle as time machine would ring too closely as a rip-off of Back to the Future, which arrived in theaters in 1985. It was director Stephen Herek who suggested a phone booth, as he thought it could lend itself to something akin to a roller coaster in the visuals. (The phone booth’s similarity to Doctor Who’s TARDIS was apparently not a big concern to the studio.)

9. Some Nintendo lover has that phone booth.

As part of a promotion for 1991’s Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, Nintendo Power magazine gave away Bill & Ted’s phone booth as a contest prize. The lucky winner was one Kenneth Grayson, who Reddit tracked down for an AMA in 2011. Grayson spent much of the chat answering questions about whether or not any X-rated activities had ever taken place in the phone booth.

10. The script was written in four days. By hand.

In 1984, Solomon and Matheson wrote the script over the course of just four days. They wrote it by hand, on note paper, during a series of meetings at a couple of local coffee shops. The 2005 box set, Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection, features some of their handwritten notes.

11. Sci-fi wasn't part of the plan.

Keanu Reeves, Dan Shor, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
MGM

Though Matheson is the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, he didn’t intend for Bill & Ted to be a science-fiction movie. “I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away, but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad,” Matheson told Starlog Magazine of the inevitable fantasy elements that emerged. “He’s a great writer and craftsman, and always has suggestions.” In fact, it was the elder Matheson’s idea that the time travel story be its own movie. “We were going to write a sketch film, with this as one of the skits, but my dad said, ‘That sounds like a whole movie,’” Matheson recalled, “And he was right!”

12. Bill and Ted almost traveled straight to television.

Shortly after principal photography on the film was completed in 1987, the film’s financiers, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. A straight-to-cable release was the most likely path for the time-traveling comedy until Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment bought the rights in 1988 for a 1989 release. Because of the delay to theaters, references to the year—which had been filmed as “1987”—had to be dubbed for 1988, resulting in a few scenes where the actors’ lips don’t quite match the sound.

13. Their journeys continued in a variety of media.

In addition to the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the Bill & Ted franchise includes 1990’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, an animated series for which Reeves, Winter, and Carlin provided the voices. It lasted for one season. The title was revived as a live-action series in 1992, which included none of the original cast and ran for just seven episodes. In 1991, Marvel Comics launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, written by Evan Dorkin.

14. Back in the late 1980s, you could eat Bill and Ted.

As a tie-in to the animated series, you could—for a short while—actually start your morning with a bowl of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, which was touted as “A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure.”

15. Bill and Ted will ride again.

Over the past several years there has been a lot of buzz about a third Bill & Ted movie coming to theaters. In 2011, Winter tweeted that the script had been completed and that he was getting ready to read it. When asked about the possibility of a threequel in 2013, Reeves told the Today Show, “I'm open to the idea of that. I think it’s pretty surreal, playing Bill and Ted at 50. But we have a good story in that. You can see the life and joy in those characters, and I think the world can always use some life and joy.” Several references to the possible project have been made since then, and it's now been confirmed that the third film, Bill and Ted Face the Music, is currently in pre-production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, via a report from the Cannes Film Festival, Matheson and Solomon co-wrote the script and Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) is attached to direct. Reeves and Winter will, of course, be reprising their roles, which "will see the duo long past their days as time-traveling teenagers and now weighed down by middle age and the responsibilities of family. They’ve written thousands of tunes, but they have yet to write a good one, much less the greatest song ever written." Excellent!

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