I’ll give you my personal top three.
Runnin’ Down a Dream. Peter Bogdanovich directed this 2007 gem about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty himself was a sincerely charming and engaging guy, and the story of the band, from their beginnings in Gainesville, Florida, to the top of the charts and beyond, is genuinely absorbing.
It features interviews (current and archival) with the entire band, members of Petty’s family, and musical artists like Jackson Browne, George Harrison, Stevie Nicks, Eddie Vedder, and more. Plus, of course, the music! (You’ll want to have a lot of time on your hands, though — it runs a full four hours.)
No Direction Home. Martin Scorsese’s 2005 PBS documentary covers the life and career of Bob Dylan, mostly between 1961, when he arrived in New York City from Minnesota, and 1966, when he had his infamous motorcycle accident and “retired” from touring for almost eight years, with extra focus on the “electric Dylan controversy”.
There are tons of interview clips with Dylan himself, both from the present day and back when he was just a wee baby Bob in the early 60s, and his crusty charm and cryptic humor are on full display. There are also plenty of concert clips, and interviews with those who knew him at the time, including folk icons like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, Peter Yarrow, and Maria Muldaur. Dylan’s former girlfriend, Suze Rotolo — immortalized on the iconic cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — was also interviewed. It’s a must for anyone who likes or has any interest in learning about Dylan.
If I Leave Here Tomorrow. Stephen Kijak directed this excellent 2018 documentary about Lynyrd Skynyrd, from their hardscrabble beginnings on the poverty-stricken Westside of Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, through their years of going hungry trying to make it, their meteoric rise to fame, and their tragic end in the 1977 plane crash that killed frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines.
The film features interviews with, among others, sole surviving founding member Gary Rossington, former guitarist Ed King (who died of cancer shortly after the film premiered), founding bassist Larry Junstrom, former drummer Artimus Pyle, former backing vocalist Leslie Hawkins, Ronnie’s widow Judy, and producer Al Kooper, who discovered and signed the band in 1973.
There are also archival interviews with founding drummer Bob Burns and backup vocalist JoJo Billingsley (both of whom died before the film was made), and interview clips featuring deceased band members Van Zant, Allen Collins, Billy Powell, and Leon Wilkeson. Rossington in particular makes for a very engaging interviewee, having lost none of his down-home Southern charm over the years.
Tons of rare old photos and live concert clips are also included, and the soundtrack includes nearly every Skynyrd song, from the iconic to the obscure.
My only quibble with the film is Kijak’s decision not to explain what happened to the late band members who survived the plane crash but yet died young (specifically Collins, Wilkeson, and Powell), as well as Burns, who left the band prior to the crash and died in a 2015 car accident.
But that’s just a quibble. Overall, it’s an excellent film, and often very funny as well.