19 films every nostalgic 90s music fan should watch

Grieving for grunge? Pining for Portishead? As a new doc about James Lavelle and Mo'Wax hits cinemas, we prescribe 19 more music docs set to send you straight back to the 90s.

In Bed with Madonna (1991)

Director: Alek Keshishian

In Bed with Madonna (1991)

1990 was the year Madonna brought vogueing to the mainstream with the bestselling single of the year, ‘Vogue’ – accompanied by an iconic music video directed by David Fincher. It was also the year she embarked on her Blond Ambition World tour, with director Alek Keshishian following their every move. Cone-shaped bras, sharp suits, corsets and a sexually explicit stage show packed full of (sac)religious imagery marked her move into the new decade. One of the many highlights includes a Pedro Almodóvar-hosted party for Madonna that sees her flirting outrageously with Antonio Banderas.  [KM]

1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)

Director: David Markey

1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992)

Bliss for Sonic Youth fans, this live-wire record of the band’s 1991 European tour also unwittingly captures nothing less than the real birth of the decade – or at least the moment when the zeitgeist passed from the 80s underground to the grunge era. Nirvana appear here (along with Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney and the Ramones) only as a support act for Thurston and co but were just weeks off the release of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, which would send this sound into the stratosphere. The year punk broke out, or the year it broke into pieces?  [SW]

The Making of a Boyband (1996)

Director: James Cohen

The Making of a Boyband (1993)

Pre X Factor, pre-digital, pre-#MeToo, The Making of a Boyband lurks in a creepier, more cynical time. Broadcast on the BBC in 1996, the documentary follows two wannabe Watermans as they audition 7,000 floppy-haired hunks for their new boyband. “It’s a product – you have to package and sell the product,” says the one who made his millions in car hire. The product this time is Upside Down – four really-too-nice-for-this lads who tickled the UK top 20 before hitting their best before date. The boys preen, they pose, they worry that their single is “too black” for the 12-year-olds besotted with them. The quality of the product never matters. It’s designed to break.  [HB]

Welcome to Portishead (1998)

Director: Pascal Signolet

Welcome to Portishead (1998)

There was a rumour in the 90s round my way that Beth Gibbons sang with her back to the audience. Her haunted warbling on Dummy offered an alluring, otherworldly mystique – one that this down-to-earth documentary quashes within minutes. Geoff Barrow explains how they met at an Enterprise Allowance scheme day, with Gibbons cutting to the chase about mystery and fame. Adrian Utley chimes in from the recording studio. Live performances are interspersed with interviews about trip-hop and the difficult second album, with the film taking the viewer on a tour of Bristol.  [KM]

Kurt & Courtney (1998)

Director: Nick Broomfield

Kurt & Courtney (1998)

Kurt & Courtney begins by focusing on one 90s musical icon and ends by confronting another. Exploring the circumstances surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death – including untrustworthy allegations of Courtney Love’s involvement – and with no music by Nirvana (due to Love’s antipathy), Broomfield’s doc enters a downrent world of minor band figures, old friends and scene hangers on, provoking questions of how proximity to fame influences testimonies. The end result is an idiosyncratic account of one musician’s struggle with success and another’s controlling, calculated courting of stardom.  [DM]

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

Director: Grant Gee

Meeting People Is Easy (1998)

Radiohead: the greatest living band in the world or overrated angsty whiners? The alternative indie group from Oxford have always been divisive, and Grant Gee’s 1998 film does nothing to shift opinion either way. This snapshot behind the scenes of their 1997 OK Computer mega world tour is as uncomfortable and disillusioned as the landmark album itself – complete with mundane press junkets, soulless hotels and manic fans gradually breaking their (street) spirit.  [HG]

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Director: Wim Wenders

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

The 1996 album by this Cuban ensemble turned into a surprise, planet-wide juggernaut of so-called world music, and by decade’s end you could barely escape the bloody thing. But the passing of two decades is enough to freshen the sound up again, and Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary stands as a precious record of their two live shows in Amsterdam and New York, following Ry Cooder’s efforts to bring the local legends all back together again. Mix yourself a daiquiri and kick back.  [SW]

Instrument (1999)

Director: Jem Cohen

Instrument (1999)

Documenting the period 1987-96, Instrument compiles filmmaker Jem Cohen’s 16mm, Super 8 and video footage of DC post-hardcore band Fugazi into an enthralling collage that aims to “make something that felt, visually, like music”. Fugazi are electric performers – see Guy Picciotto’s limber antics at a Philadelphia school gymnasium concert – but it’s not just the music, it’s the attitude. Whether chastening violent fans (“You’re bad now, but you were eating an ice-cream cone!”) or espousing commercial independence, Fugazi consistently inspire with their pre-digital era do-it-yourself ethic.  [DM]

Dig! (2004)

Director: Ondi Timoner

Dig! (2004)

An eye-popping insight into the friendship between two bands, and a staggering portrait of a self-destructive, drug-fuelled downfall, this is the story of psychedelic rockers The Brian Jonestown Massacre, their unstable frontman Anton Newcombe and The Dandy Warhols, who went on to become global superstars off the back of a phone advert. Told over a seven-year period, Dig! depicts the battle between artistic integrity and corporate success. It’s a satisfyingly edgy slice of the 90s American indie scene.  [HG]

Hit So Hard (2011)

Director: P. David Ebersole

Hit So Hard (2011)

The story of the drummer from Hole, Patty Schemel, and how she ended up on the streets, is a cautionary tale about addiction in the grunge era. Live Through This was released in April 1994, just a week after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and two months later Hole’s bassist Kristen Pfaff had died from an overdose. Archive footage filmed by Schemel and interviews with Courtney Love, Luscious Jackson and Veruca Salt provide a mixture of celebration of the drummer’s talent and an overview of a community rocked by a toxic reliance on drugs.  [KM]

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)

Director: Michael Rapaport

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)

New York character actor Michael Rapaport gets behind the camera for this lively and squabble-heavy look at seminal Queens hip-hop crew A Tribe Called Quest. Rapper/super-producer Q-Tip and fellow MC Phife are the key protagonists as the band implodes and reunites and implodes again as the pair fall out. Rap luminaries including the Beastie Boys, De La Soul and The Roots line up to praise the band and regret their demise, while sizzling archive footage of the 90s NYC scene give the film vitality.  [LT]

The Punk Singer (2013)

Director: Sini Anderson

The Punk Singer (2013)

An incendiary portrait of Kathleen Hanna, The Punk Singer charts the birth of the riot grrrl movement, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, revealing why Hanna suddenly disappeared from the public eye in 2005. Interviews with Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett all explain what the punk rock feminism of the 90s meant to them and how Hanna demanding “All girls to the front!” at sweaty, intimate gigs drummed up a resounding battle cry.  [KM]

Breadcrumb Trail (2014)

Director: Lance Bangs

Breadcrumb Trail (2014)

Filmmaker Lance Bangs previously did the Pavement doc Slow Century (2002) but here turns his attention to the other best US band of the 90s: Slint. Talking heads including Steve Albini, David Grubbs and James Murphy mingle with family and friends for a disarmingly down-to-earth look at a bunch of talented teenagers who somehow birthed 1991’s genre-spawning Spiderland LP from practice sessions in a Louisville basement. Refreshingly anti myth-making and free of attitude, Breadcrumb Trail doubles as an ode to the post-hardcore scene in Kentucky. As Sean Garrison puts it: “Giant skinheads and weird dudes in dresses; it was fucking heaven.”  [SW]

Sonic Highways: Los Angeles (2014)

Director: Dave Grohl

Sonic Highways: Los Angeles (2014)

Sonic Highways – a giant, boring album by Foo Fighters – was also a vital documentary series. Directed by Dave Grohl, each of the eight episodes sees the Foos exploring the musical heritage of a major American city. Best of the bunch is the LA episode, which spun the dial between glitter punk at The Whisky, the chaos of The Germs and the desert rock lurching out of the Joshua Tree wilderness, typified by the mighty Kyuss. Most can’t tough out the loneliness of the desert, says Kyuss founder Josh Homme. Sonic Highways lets you dip your toe in the sand.  [HB]

Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014)

Director: One9

Nas: Time Is Illmatic (2014)

This reflective documentary looks back at how Nas pieced together the powerful and hugely influential Illmatic – often considered the rap album of the decade. The iconic front cover shows the face of a young Nasir Jones superimposed over a street corner in the Queensbridge housing projects where he grew up, and One9’s film has the rapper, his blues musician father and brother all take a walk down memory lane to visit old friends and recall the rap battles and big breaks that fuelled Illmatic’s creation.  [KM]

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014)

Director: Florian Habicht

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014)

Pulp’s melancholic art pop and wry observations on sex, love and class never quite slotted into the lad culture that defined so much of Britpop. Yet their unique brand of Yorkshire cool never went cold. Documenting the return to the band’s Sheffield hometown for a comeback show, this is as much an ode to the Steel City as anything else. With foot-tapping footage from the gig and interviews from locals, bandmates and fans, there’s an energy and enthusiasm that captures the magic of their final farewell.  [HG]

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)

Director: Bobbito Garcia

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (2015)

As Redman so eloquently puts it: “In the 90s, major radio stations wasn’t the shit, it was all about college radio.” Enter New York-based DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia whose love for unsigned rap artists marked the start of something special. Archive footage of their guests, who included Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, Nas, Busta Rhymes, 2Pac, Fat Joe and The Fugees is the stuff of legend. This is a nostalgia fest, with many of the rappers given a Walkman to listen to their freestyling appearances on the show and being whooshed back to the beginning of their careers. Jay-Z’s reaction to his appearance is delightful.  [KM]

The Art of Organized Noize (2016)

Director: Quincy Jones III

The Art of Organized Noize (2016)

Atlanta producers Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray are the subjects of this doc exec produced by Queen Latifah, who worked with them on the soundtrack for F. Gary Gray’s film Set It Off (1996). They’re the men responsible for launching OutKast (the location for their studio, Headland and Delowe, is namechecked in ‘Elevators’), and they worked on some of the biggest R&B hits of the decade. The film shows their humble beginnings recording in a basement and the room where they produced TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ and En Vogue’s glorious ballad ‘Don’t Let Go (Love)’.  [KM]

Oasis: Supersonic (2016)

Director: Mat Whitecross

Oasis: Supersonic (2016)

Supersonic focuses on Oasis from 1993 to 1996, a period when the Mancunians went from being unsigned chancers to the biggest band in Britain, culminating in two Knebworth gigs in front of 250,000 people. Mat Whitecross’s doc features vivid live and studio archive footage, as well as Noel and Liam Gallagher’s trademark sibling rivalry. The brothers provide hilarious and profane voiceover anecdotes about the creation of the band’s greatest songs and even an ill-fated crystal meth binge. The film ends on a high at just the right moment, before the bright optimism and glory of the Britpop era fizzled out and the comedown really began.  [LT]

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