The Must-See Music Documentaries of the '90s

Following grunge gods, Green Day and pre-Gorillaz Damon Albarn

While the music world is abuzz over the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, explore these other essential ’90s Rock docs, which cover addiction, adulation and ascension from obscurity.

The Punk Singer

Aliya Naumoff

Kathleen Hanna revolutionized the female rocker as front woman for Bikini Kill and brought feminism to dance music with Le Tigre. The Punk Singer delves deeper into the queen of riot-grrrls, collecting commentary from band mate Kathi Wilcox; admirers Sleater-Kinney and her husband, Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. Not only does it highlight the triumphs— it also shines a light on Hanna’s struggle with Lyme Disease.

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1991: The Year Punk Broke

Geffen Films

“It’s not a clone, it’s not a fake; it’s just fucking live, man!” shouts Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore in this ramshackle film about his band’s landmark European tour. The outspoken artist quips that punk would soon be popping up in glossy magazines such as Elle, but he wasn’t too far off. The movie also showcases Nirvana just before they blew up in the mainstream.


Metallica - Some Kind of Monster

Paramount Pictures

Being in a band is like being married to three or more people. You fight, you bicker, you make up, you have beautiful moments. And sometimes you wonder what’s kept you together at all. Metallica’s is the pinnacle of marriage counseling between musical behemoths and their producer, Bob Rock. At times humorous (drummer Lars Ulrich’s whiny tirades) and heartbreaking (leader James Hetfield’s nearly yearlong alcohol rehabilitation), this televised therapy session is a stunner.

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Farm League/Reprise

We could have easily selected Broadway Idiot as the essential Green Day documentary, but ¡Cuatro! is less of a Billie Joe show than that one. Here, the pugnacious punk-pop trio (plus longtime auxiliary player Jason White) tries to one-up its twin epics, 2004’s American Idiot and 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, with three near-tandem releases in 2012. It’s an ambitious, sprawling project that sees singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong spiral into booze and pill addiction. It’s a relief that this film was a snippet of time and not a prescient downer.

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Palm Pictures

Don’t let the good-natured vibe of the trailer fool you— Dig! is a modern-day Hatfields vs. McCoys battle between former cohorts the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols. Both staples of the underground rock scene in the late 1990s, this doc peers at their divergent paths: The Dandies relish in minor hits like “Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”; the Massacre implode under Anton Newcombe’s drug abuse and egoism.

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Meeting People Is Easy


Radiohead’s 1999 documentary is its robotic track “Fitter Happier” in action. Amid the crackling bleeps and bloops of its groundbreaking 1997 album, OK Computer, the British band jumped on its own downtrodden conveyor belt of concerts, interviews and posed gratitude toward the press. Watching enigmatic leader Thom Yorke try to deliver an NME acceptance speech shows just how uneasy these musical wizards were in the digital age— which they’d ultimately steer with Kid A and In Rainbows.

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Hit So Hard

Well Go USA

As confrontational and sensational as ’90s alternative rock was, there was an overlying element of sadness, too. Hole drummer Patty Schemel lets viewers in on her anguish in Hit So Hard, a warts-and-all revelation. It’s equal parts celebration of the women pioneers of the genre and lamentation of the toll drugs took on the scene. The film will make you grateful such a talented master of rhythm survived her darkest days.




It’s telling that when an interviewer asks the Smashing Pumpkins what keeps the band together, the members bust up laughing. The 1994 video Vieuphoria takes fans on a behind-the-scenes journey through Billy Corgan’s Siamese Dream and its subsequent tour. Interlaced with the chaotic, spellbinding performances are surrealistic skits that pay homage to Alice in Wonderland and James Iha’s beloved dog, Bugg Superstar.

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No Distance Left To Run


Before he went ape with cartoon band Gorillaz, Damon Albarn conquered the Brit Pop world with Blur. The versatile group had its share of ups and downs but was generally known for elated hits like “Song 2” and “Girls & Boys.” Here, the foursome relive that elation circa 2009 when wayward guitarist Graham Coxon rejoins the lineup. It’s a testament to the power of positivity, from a decade that relied heavily on heartache.


Pearl Jam Twenty


What better director to helm this commemoration of Seattle’s finest than Cameron Crowe? After all, he gave Pearl Jam a big break in his love letter to grunge, Singles. Combining archive footage of the band’s beginnings and raucous concert clips, this doc is a no-nonsense yet engaging portrayal of rock music at its core elements. It’s gritty and whimsical, valiant and mature.

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More must-watch docs?

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