7 must-see music festival documentaries

Finished the new Woodstock 99 series and looking for another fix? Check out our essential festival documentary picks

This month saw the release of Trainwreck: Woodstock 99, which charts a lofty attempt to reinvigorate the utopian ideals of the original 1969 festival breaking down into a kind of biblical mayhem. Intoxicated youths driven crazy by mob mentality, chronic sun exposure, dehydration and a general lack of welfare turn into frenzied tribes; “It’s like Lord of the Flies“, as one attendee puts it.

Like Fyre before it, this Netflix series has reignited a hunger for the music festival documentary format, which can capture the highs and lows of some of these landmark moments in pop music history, as well as mythologizing them in the process. Here we’ve put together some more essential festival documentary viewing.

Woodstock (1970)

Just as Woodstock is the mother of all music festivals, so too is its accompanying documentary, which was released seven months after the event. Directed by Michael Wadleigh, this three-hour film was a deep dive in to the event’s cultural significance, rolling thematically and not linearly to tap into the lived experience, rather than the history, of the event. Split screens and montages allowed Wadleigh to present and contrast imagery together, and also included effects like karaoke lyrics to creative and playful effect. This film has contributed hugely to the legacy and mythology of Woodstock and became a benchmark for filmmakers interested in capturing the music festival.

Woodstock - Original Theatrical Trailer

Fyre (2019)

Woodstock may be remembered as the apex of counterculture and the music festival in its perfect form, there is also an undeniable pleasure in witnessing the complete opposite. Released back in 2019, Fyre told the story of con-artist Billy McFarland and his failed attempt (to put it politely) at creating an uber premium, influencer-centric music festival. Put together with sleek Netflix pace and intrigue, and with so much filmed footage at their disposable, this is probably the most moreish film on the list. There’s a great selection of talking heads, too; not least the diligent event producer Andy King.

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Having seen the significance and scale of Woodstock just months earlier, The Rolling Stones decided to put on a free one-day festival in California in December 1969, which some dubbed the ‘Woodstock West’. The event would feature the likes of The Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and of course The Stones. However, the event spiralled into chaos when a young man called Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hell’s Angel right in front of Mick Jagger’s eyes. Albert and David Maysles’ documentary does a great job of capturing the anticipation in the air and ultimately the deflation as the sixties ended both literally and spiritually.

Gimme Shelter (1970) ORIGINAL TRAILER [HD 1080p]

Summer Of Soul (2021)

Mark Kermode has said that Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be the best music festival documentary of all time. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2021, Questlove’s film is an enlightening look at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, an event often forgotten about in the shadow of Woodstock despite featuring the likes of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Sly and the Family Stone and more. Unrivalled footage and insightful interviews show how empowering this event was for the African American community at the time. Essential viewing for those interested in popular music history.

Summer of Soul - Official Trailer (2021) Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder

Homecoming (2019)

Such is the spectacle of Coachella today that it’s often forgotten about how much work goes into preparing for a headline performance – especially one as historic and grand in scale as Beyoncé’s. Thankfully, Homecoming charts this intense and exhausting journey with a fly-on-the-wall perspective. But beyond just an exclusive glimpse of rehearsals and on-stage performances, the film has a wider objective, tapping into the lineage and community of Black creativity and expression.

Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé | Official Trailer | Netflix

Wattstax (1973)

Mel Stuart’s Wattstax chronicles the one-day festival of the same name, organised by Stax Records and held at the Los Angeles Memorial Colliseum in 1972. What makes this film stand apart is that its musical performances feel like an afterthought, with a focus on street level interviews with members of the crowd and community, reflecting on the 1965 Watts Riots that the concert is in aid of. But it’s also celebratory, sassy, funky and soulful. Its historic significance is such that in 2020 it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.

WATTSTAX - Original Trailer Film (1972 "Black Woodstock" Concert, Memorial Coliseum L.A.)

Glastonbury, 2006

Directory Julien Temple clearly took influence from Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock when approaching a film about the UK’s own most historic and mythologised festival. It too has carnivalesque rawness, not shying away from the earthy, primal side to the experience and the heady vibrancy of the crowds. In fact, the film drifts between the different types of festival go-er, as if the viewer is attending for themselves and making friends with whoever they meet.

Official Trailer - Glastonbury The Movie

There are still plenty of festivals coming soon or ready to book for 2023. Discover them here.