Film Feature: Best Music Documentaries of 2022
By Noah Schaffer
2022 in music documentaries: 10 worth streaming, plus a disappointment.
2022 saw several music documentaries that had started production well before Covid finally took hold as well as a few that seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was no Oscar-worthy masterpiece like Summer of Soul or crossover hit like 20 Feet From Stardom. But there were a number of films worth catching when they hit streaming services.
The days of Amazon and Netflix showcasing independently produced and released offbeat documentaries are for the most part over. That means docs are often faced with making lengthy journeys from the festival circuit to niche streaming services, on demand viewing, or, for the lucky few, PBS or CNN. Given the state of things, my criterion for this list was to note standout films that I saw during 2022. Some can be found on YouTube, while others will be harder to track down. If a film isn’t currently available, the best strategy is to follow its social media pages or join its email list for news of the next screening or streaming opportunity. Also, if you like being ahead of the music documentary curve, six of these films appeared as part of the DOC NYC festival, which has continued to offer streams of its selections. (That’s how I caught good films about Ellis Marsalis, Louis Armstrong, the doomed ’70s songwriter Judee Sill, and Cuban Carnival teams.)
Brooklyn Cowgirl: The Mimi Roman Story – This film couldn’t be more bare bones — it’s built around an audio interview with its subject along with a trove of archival footage and photos. Who cares about production values when the story is this incredible: Mimi Roman is a Bronx Jew who became part of the ’50s country and rockabilly circuit. Roman has outlived nearly all of her contemporaries, aside from Wanda Jackson, and she now happily resides in Connecticut. Hopefully the interest generated by this film — and a recent Sundazed reissue of her old recordings — will spur the performer into getting out her guitar and gracing the stage one more time. The film is streaming for free on YouTube.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On – After an unhappy Massachusetts childhood, Buffy Sainte-Marie went on to an iconic life as a protest folk singer, Indigenous rights activist, Sesame Street star, and soft rock hit songwriter. She has finally settled into her current role as a matriarch of socially conscious art. All of her ups and downs are vividly captured in this film, which is streaming on the PBS website.
Cesária Évora – Cape Verde’s queen of morna music was one of the biggest world music breakout stars of all time. The filmmakers unearth gritty archival footage to show how her spirit and voice contributed to her unlikely journey, from a poverty-stricken bar singer to performances on global stages. The film is clear-eyed about how Évora’s success couldn’t stop the alcoholism and health battles that led to her death at the age of 70. Let’s hope this film will be in wider distribution when the diva’s old band mates reconvene for a US tour of the Cesária Évora Orchestra, a trek that includes a Boston date in April.
Dusty & Stones – The enduring popularity of country and western music in Africa would make for a good documentary. In the meantime, there’s this sweet portrait of a twangy duo from Eswatini, the southern African country formerly known as Swaziland. The pair think they’re about to hit the big time when they get invited to the Texas Sounds International Country Music Awards. If you’ve never heard of that event, you might have an inkling of how the story unfolds.
Everything: The Real Thing Story – Even devoted 70s R & B fans might be surprised that there’s a documentary about this group, which made much more of an impact in its native UK than it did on the US charts. But Everything is as much about the cultural rise of Black Britain as it is about the group. The Real Thing’s rise and fall (including a gig with a segregated South African audience at Sun City) is surprisingly compelling. I saw a 90-minute version, but there’s a 60-minute version now streaming for free on YouTube. For another interesting R & B tale there’s Who You Gonna Call, which is available for on-demand streaming purchase. It’s the story of Ray Parker Jr., who was a top session player and the creative force behind Raydio before he hit pay dirt with the Ghostbusters theme. I didn’t include that as one of my top picks because the doc, weirdly, ends with Ghostbusters instead of letting us know what Parker has been doing in the intervening four decades.
Lee Fields: Faithful Man – There have already been documentaries about the late Daptone Records soul revival stars Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Both Jones and Bradley were almost total unknowns before they recorded for Daptone. Fields, on the other hand, had been making records and scuffling along the chitlin’ circuit for decades before gaining the recognition and brisk tour schedule his talent deserves in recent years. Unfortunately, his career trajectory is a bit muddled in this doc. It plays down the years before he was embraced by a wider (and whiter) audience, the era of his huge Southern soul hit “Meet Me Tonight,” and his time appearing at famed Black music venues like Lamont’s in Maryland. Still, there’s lots of nice footage of Fields belting it out with his band The Expressions; what’s more, his irrepressible spirit and determination come through in the interviews. I watched it with someone who had never heard of Fields and immediately wanted to see him live, a sign that the film did its job.
The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile – Carlile got a lot of attention this year for engineering Joni Mitchell’s return to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival. But a few years earlier she had co-produced (with Shooter Jennings) While I’m Living, an extraordinary comeback album by Tanya Tucker, whose reputation for partying and one-time marriage to Glen Campbell at times unfairly overshadowed her tremendous talent. She has spent most of her recent years on the casino circuit. The film very effectively alternates between Tucker’s life story and her time in the studio with the savvy Carlile. I wish the film had explored how the album was an artistic collaboration between a progressive out lesbian (Carlile) and a staple of Republican National Conventions who’d sung at a Trump inaugural event (Tucker), but The Return of Tanya Tucker should go a long way toward giving this veteran performer her due.
Roberta – This isn’t the first documentary about Roberta Flack — there was a solid 2014 effort for Showtime and the BBC. But this new film, which will be shown on PBS’s American Masters in January, perfectly contextualizes why Flack’s music has held up so well along with explaining why she’s been so underrated by mainstream critics despite never losing her Black fan base. Sadly, its release comes as Flack herself has announced her retirement from performing due to the onset of ALS.
Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes – Jazz’s preeminent bass player doesn’t offer the kind of scandalous life that often makes for music documentary fodder. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, and he seems to be adored by his family and band mates. Of course what Carter has done for decades is make music of the highest caliber — despite, as the film details, obstacles like racism and the rigors of touring life. Filming started before Covid and shows how Carter dealt with the shutdown before making his most welcome return to the stage and studio. Contributors to their local PBS station can watch the film online.
The Key Man: Dave McKenna – Jazz pianist McKenna’s distinctive style of playing was so nimble it was dubbed “four-handed,” but he didn’t care for life on the road. He ended up becoming a staple of the Copley Plaza Hotel’s lounge for most of the ’80s. The film doesn’t shy away from looking at McKenna’s sometimes abrasive personality and alcohol abuse, but it makes its case that McKenna should have a place on any short list of jazz piano greats. It’s streaming on the Qwest service, which charges a modest monthly fee.
JazzFest: A New Orleans Story – Yes, this big budget ode to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival serves up plentiful footage of all the lively music, enticing food, and colorful parades that have made JazzFest a destination for decades. But, while locals like the Marsalis family, Irma Thomas, and Big Freedia shine, we only see a few seconds of their fine performances. Instead, far too much of the film is devoted to the national headliners like Jimmy Buffett and Katy Perry. They may sell the tickets, but they’re not the heart of JazzFest.
Noah Schaffer is a Boston-based journalist and the co-author of gospel singer Spencer Taylor Jr.’s autobiography A General Becomes a Legend. He also is a correspondent for the Boston Globe and DigBoston, and spent two decades as a reporter and editor at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Worcester Magazine. He has produced a trio of documentaries for public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, and was the researcher and liner notes writer for Take Us Home – Boston Roots Reggae from 1979 to 1988. He is a 2022 Boston Music Award nominee in the music journalism category. In 2022 he co-produced and wrote the liner notes for The Skippy White Story: Boston Soul 1961-1967, which was named one of the top boxed sets of the year by the New York Times.