Music

20 incredible music films you can stream online right now

Take in some music history or just sing along to some of the best on-screen musicals, all from the comfort of your own home.

Take in some music history or just sing along to some of the best on-screen musicals

The 2015 Academy Award-nominated Nina Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? is available to stream online right now. (AFP/Getty Images)

As people all over the world continue to stay at home, helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases, music has played an integral role in helping us stay calm, entertaining us and acting as a momentary escape.

Some have been proactive by picking up an instrument and learning to play, hosting a live stream performance for others or writing and recording new tunes. But you can also sit back and just take in music by streaming albums, watching and supporting said live streams, and of course watching movies about music.  

Music films have the power to transport viewers into an entirely different world, whether that's backstage with some of the world's biggest stars or in a fantasy world where you can convey your most inner thoughts through melodies. 

If you're looking for something to watch, here are 20 music films, broken down below into three categories: documentaries, fictionalized biopics and musicals. To help guide you through the long list of streaming services, we have also noted where you can find each of these films. 

What are some of your favourite music films of all time? Share with us @CBCMusic.


Documentaries 

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (2019)
Available on:
CBC Gem 

With more than 10 million albums sold during his 60-plus years in music, Gordon Lightfoot is undoubtedly one of Canada's greatest singer-songwriters. This 2019 film works as both a guide to the folk-rock star's successful career over the decades as well as a unique inside look into Lightfoot's life as directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni were given unprecedented access to the singer. 

 

The Last Waltz (1978) 
Available on:
Crave

Considered by many as one of the all-time greatest concert films, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz follows what was then touted as Canadian-American band the Band's final live performance. The film also includes a number of guest appearances from Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr and more. For diehard fans of the Band, Crave is also home to last year's Toronto International Film Festival opener, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, a documentary about the life and career of the iconic group — which was co-produced by, and features an interview with, Scorsese. 

 

Mavis! (2015)
Available on:
CBC Gem

This 2016 Peabody Award-winning documentary follows the life and career of one of the most iconic soul singers ever. From growing up performing in her family band the Staples Singers to her success as a solo star, Mavis Staples' story is full of inspiration and amazing hits. Paste Magazine dubbed this film "one of the best music documentaries" of the 2010s. 

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Available on: 
Netflix 

Nominated for best documentary feature at the 2016 Academy Awards, Liz Garbus's film about jazz singer Nina Simone takes a deep dive into the music that made her one of the greatest artists ever, as well as the activism that made her a civil rights pioneer.  

 

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)
Available on: 
Kanopy 

Indigenous artists' influence on popular culture has largely been erased from the history books over the years, but this 2017 documentary traces the important role Indigenous musicians played in building the DNA of modern rock 'n' roll. Featuring interviews with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, Charlie Sexton, Iggy Pop and more, Rumble reclaims the genre by shining a light on the stories of iconic Indigenous musicians who changed American music forever.  

 

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2018)
Available on:
Kanopy 

While other documentaries on this list offer a clear, almost encyclopedic rundown of a musician's life and achievements, this 2018 film aims for something more observational than strictly informational. Director Sophie Fiennes followed singer, actress and model Grace Jones over a number of years, acting as a fly on the wall in the private life of the icon. As a result, the film strips back the superstar layers, giving viewers a rare glimpse into the human behind the celebrity. 

 

Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
Available on: 
Kanopy 

In the years since this 2012 film, New York dance-rock act LCD Soundsystem has reunited and even put out an album. But back when its 2011 Madison Square Garden gig was billed as the 2000s breakout act's farewell show, directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace were brought onboard to document the momentous occasion. The film is rounded out by a candid interview between frontman James Murphy and writer Chuck Klosterman.  

 

Amazing Grace (2018)
Available on:
Amazon Prime Video 

This 1972 live performance by Aretha Franklin was shelved for decades after it was filmed, due to technical difficulties syncing its audio tracks with the visual print. There had been many attempts at releasing this footage over the years, but in 2018, a few months after Franklin's death, Amazing Grace was brought back to life by producer Alan Elliott. The final release was edited down to a short 87 minutes, but every note of the concert, which was shot at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is a pitch-perfect revelation. 

Gimme Danger (2016)
Available on: 
Amazon Prime Video

Iggy Pop and the Stooges were one of punk's most influential acts in the '70s, but their rise didn't follow a smooth, linear path. Gimme Danger, directed by acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch, tells the rise, fall and reunion of the Stooges, all leading up to their breakout success.

 

Homecoming: a Film by Beyoncé (2018)
Available on: 
Netflix 

For those mourning the loss of this summer's slate of music festivals — many of which have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19 — then we recommend this look back at pop star Beyoncé's 2018 Coachella set. Homecoming documents Beyoncé's big return to the stage after giving birth to twins Sir and Rumi, and all the hard work and intention that went into one of the festival's most iconic performances. 

 

Biopics

Judy (2019)
Available on: Amazon Prime Video

Back in February, Renée Zellweger earned her second Oscar for her portrayal of the iconic actress and singer Judy Garland. The film follows the last year of Garland's life as she relocated to the U.K. to perform and make money, but continued to struggle with substance abuse issues. While Garland's story has a tragic ending (she died in 1969 from a barbiturate overdose), the film does shine a spotlight on some of her career highlights, as Zellweger takes on hits like "The Trolley Song" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." 

 

Selena (1997)
Available on: YouTube, to rent or buy  

This 1997 film about Latin-American singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was Jennifer Lopez's breakout role. The film chronicles the rise of Quintanilla-Pérez in the late '80s and early '90s, as she became one of the most successful female artists in Latin music history, but also her tragic murder in 1995 when she was shot by Yolanda Saldívar, the president of Quintanilla-Pérez's fan club and manager of the singer's clothing boutiques. 

 

8 Mile (2002)
Available on: Netflix 

Rapper Eminem's only foray into acting came in the form of his 2002 film, 8 Mile. (While this is a fictionalized film, 8 Mile takes lots of inspiration from Eminem's life growing up in the Detroit suburbs.) Eminem plays B-Rabbit, an aspiring rapper looking for his big break. The film's breakout hit, "Lose Yourself," earned him an Oscar for best original song in 2003. While he wasn't there to accept the award, he showed up at the ceremony years later, in 2019, to give a surprise performance. 

Walk the Line (2005)
Available on: Amazon Prime Video

Regarded by Rolling Stone as one of the best biopics of all time, Walk the Line tells the story of country music legend Johnny Cash, his rise to fame and his relationship with his wife, June Carter. Led by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film earned five Oscar nominations, including a win for Witherspoon in the best actress category. 

 

Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Available on:
Crave

When Behind the Candelabra premiered on HBO in 2013, it was noted as director Steven Soderbergh's last film. Spoiler alert: it was not. But if it was, it would've been a notable swan song. The film, which was based on the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Liberace's partner Scott Thorson, follows the last 10 years of the pianist's life, played by actor Michael Douglas. 

Musicals

La La Land (2016)
Available on: Netflix

Many will remember La La Land as the film that almost won best picture at the 89th Academy Awards, but this Damien Chazelle musical is an incredible film despite all of that controversy. It's filled with bright dance numbers, catchy songs and heartbreaking romance. 

Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Available on: The Criterion Channel  

If you loved La La Land, then we recommend checking out one of the film's biggest influences, the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. A film that also follows the tale of two young lovers (played by Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo) set against a bright colour palette, Chazelle explained in a 2017 Q&A that watching the film "hits you like a ton of bricks." 

 

Wild Rose (2018)
Available on: Amazon Prime Video 

Actress Jessie Buckley stars as a Scottish woman who is newly released from prison and dreams of becoming a country star in Nashville, but is torn between her desires to leave her hometown and her duties as a single mother. While Buckley has landed some big roles since doing this film (she starred in the HBO series Chernobyl and was featured alongside Zellweger in Judy), Wild Rose is the perfect showcase for her amazing real-life singing chops.

A Star is Born (2018)
Available on: Crave 

The film that landed Lady Gaga her first Oscar win for best original song, A Star is Born may be a remake of a classic film that has already been remade many times, but Gaga and co-star (and director) Bradley Cooper breathe new life into this instant classic. 

 

Beyond the Lights (2014)
Available on: Netflix

A fictionalized story about a rising pop singer who struggles with the pressures of superstardom, director and writer Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights tells an emotional love story that doesn't shy away from exploring the difficulties of fame, depression and living up to other people's expectations. The film is led by actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose most recent breakout role was on Apple TV's hit The Morning Show