As we all hole up, rock documentaries can perk up any living room. But in the list below, I opted to skip the well-known ones. Don’t look for stadium headliners or anything by Martin Scorsese. The emphasis is on lesser-known personalities whose energy is palpable through a screen of any size. Also required was a portrayal of community-building and togetherness — something many of us are craving right now — and a healthy amount of music, preferably loud, live and with a “you are there” quality. Minus the stinky bathrooms, of course.
At a time of rising anti-corporate anger and protests over inequality, here’s a handy primer to a musical movement that raged against the machine in a grass roots, D.I.Y. manner. At the dawn of the 1980s, hard-core took punk, sped it up and spat it back in everybody’s face. Directed by Paul Rachman and written by Steven Blush (adapting his own book), this is a good overview of a raging underground movement — if anything the film is perhaps too ambitious — and how ideas and sounds spread in the pre-social media age. The testosterone-fueled “American Hardcore” is also fascinating (often inadvertently) as a portrayal of male alienation.
One of the best rock docs nobody’s heard of, this hilarious feature tracks the history of the appropriately named Cosmic Psychos. Matt Weston’s film recounts how the Australian group went on to lay waste to clubs worldwide and influence the American grunge scene (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam pays his respects). The heart of both the band and the documentary is the droll bassist and frontman Ross Knight, a big-hearted farmer with a passion for weight lifting and beer, and an open-to-anything outlook. The section about his dabbling in S&M belongs in the rock-doc canon, but beyond it, the film is a wonderful portrait of a down-to-earth man fighting for his music, family and livelihood.
Buy or rent it on YouTube.
‘The Decline of Western Civilization’
When too many documentaries are held together solely by their subject’s charisma, it’s obvious that this 1981 feature was made by someone — Penelope Spheeris — with a deep understanding of both music and filmmaking. Shot in Los Angeles between December 1979 and May 1980, the film zeros in on that city’s punk scene like a guided missile: This is not archival footage, this is life as it’s happening. And it’s one classic scene after another — when the Fear frontman, Lee Ving, fights riled-up audience members, you may dodge reflexively.
‘Descent Into the Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story’
While the first part of this illuminating documentary focuses on the mid-1970s birth of Sydney’s pedal-to-the-metal rockers Radio Birdman, the second is a comically understated portrayal of dysfunctional relationships — think of “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” with a sense of humor, at least in hindsight, instead of fancy group therapy. The dry-witted Birdman members slyly throw shade at fellow Aussie rockers Nick Cave and the Saints (whose frontman is described as having a “balanced personality: a chip on both shoulders”), then engage in rounds of “he said-he said” and deceivingly mild-sounding barbs.
Technically speaking this is not a documentary, but it certainly feels like one. Shot in 1980-1 (though not completed until years later), this dreamlike travelogue follows the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat through a ghost New York — with eerie shots of a bombed-out East Village and Lower East Side. What feels bittersweet right now is the abundance of human connections throughout, with pockets of community flourishing like flowers in sidewalk cracks. The postapocalyptic outside world is juxtaposed with electrifying scenes of bands playing dingy clubs and dingier rehearsal spaces. The funky Kid Creole and the Coconuts and James White and the Blacks are especially incandescent.
‘The Kids Are Alright’
This 1979 classic about the Who seems to have fallen out of sight in recent years, so here’s a reminder: It’s great. The first scene is the Who’s appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967, in which the band destroyed its instruments and Keith Moon’s drum set exploded, leaving burning embers in Pete Townshend’s hair. Amazingly, the rest of the movie keeps up. The director Jeff Stein patched together footage from talk shows, amateur films and concerts, and the result, which abounds in the oft-surreal humor that distinguished so many British bands, moves at a breakneck pace — it’s simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting.
‘L7: Pretend We’re Dead’
Who needs Iggy Pop, David Lee Roth or Steven Tyler when you can have Donita Sparks? Audience pelting you with mud at an outdoor festival? The L7 guitarist and singer flings a freshly used tampon at the crowd. Invited to play a live British TV show? Sparks drops both trousers and underwear. Like Cosmic Psychos, the all-female L7 is a godsend for a documentarian: The band was as unhinged as it rocked hard — and it rocked very, very hard, with mammoth riffs and a pile-driving rhythm section that will make your speakers sizzle. Wild, and wildly entertaining, this film does L7 justice. Caution: Side effects might include rage that the quartet never achieved the commercial success enjoyed by many less-deserving peers.
Fittingly for a documentary about a socially conscious music movement, “Salad Days” — which is subtitled “A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90)” — does a good job of framing its live footage and testimonies in the broader political and cultural context of a particular city at a particular time. The director Scott Crawford was immersed in the scene but still offers a good bird’s-eye view, and at least touches on the issues of race and misogyny that many rock documentaries blithely overlook.
‘Until the Light Takes Us’
Despite being about an ultraviolent scene both on and off the stage, this documentary is the quietest, most ruminative on the list. Those not versed in the history of Norwegian black metal may be a little thrown off at first, as the directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell give a lot of screen time to a couple of men — Gylve Fenris Nagell, a.k.a. Fenriz, and Varg Vikernes, a.k.a. Count Grishnackh — without explaining why they matter. Patience will be rewarded, however, as a portrait of a tight-knit community slowly emerges, one that earned headlines in the early 1990s for church burnings and violent crimes. The film could have used more music, but when it intrudes, it feels like a buzz saw applied straight to your skull.
‘Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour’
The New York trio Le Tigre spent large chunks of 2005 on a world tour, and fortunately the lighting director Carmine Covelli captured a lot of it on video. The band members come across as funny and joyous throughout, both onstage and off — this is probably the most uplifting entry in this list.