The 20 best electronic music movies and documentaries to watch right now.
From point and laugh festival disaster capers, to in-depth biographies of beloved dance music icons, this list of music-related films will keep any housebound DJ, producer, or synth-twiddler entertained during this period of state-sponsored self-isolation.
Simply search out, stream, download, or buy any of the following online. It should make for a welcome break from planning out your daily meals, or putting off working on that ‘breakthrough’ album. Enjoy!
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Director: Chris Smith | Year: 2019 | Type: Documentary/Comedy/Tragedy | Runtime: 1h 37
So, you can’t go to the music festival of your dreams this year? The punters at the ill-fated Fyre festival know your pain all too well, bro.
Scores of influencers and social media powerhouses thought they’d bagged the ticket to the hottest gig on the planet; jet skis, bikini babes, Ja Rule – this event had it all. In fact, it looked too good to be true. Spoiler alert: It was.
It’s schadenfreude central as the preening and privileged totter around a war zone of a festival site, where nothing lives up to the five star luxuries they were promised (boo hoo).
Point and laugh (and be glad it’s them, and not you).
What the Future Sounded Like
Director: Matthew Bate | Year: 2007 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 27m
Absorbing short doc, profiling the post-war UK electronic stable, EMS. The Electronic Music Studio were the tinkering team of synth boffins behind the VCS3 – the UK’s answer to the mighty Moog. Massively ahead of their time, they’d play a key role in morphing the musical palette of a generation of musicians, and help introduce the sound of the future for many that followed. Respect the architects.
Modulations: Cinema for the Ear
Director: Lara Lee | Year: 1998 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 15m
Pretentious title? Footage of DJs smoking behind the decks? Fresh-faced producers dreaming of the future? Ah, the late ‘90s.
Take a trip back in time with filmmaker Lara Lee, as she traces the evolution of dance music.
It’s a worthy companion piece to Peter Shapiro’s book, where a similarly heavyweight cast of luminaries also toss their two cents in. This trumps it, though, as a soundtrack chock full of golden era jungle, house and breakbeat keeps the energy levels from flagging.
The Distortion of Sound
Director: Jacob Rosenberg | Year: 2014 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 22m
You can make music in a million dollar studio on a warm and cherished analogue desk, but it still might end up getting played on iPhone speakers as a shitty lo-res download.
This mini film balks at this horrendous new trade off of quality over connivance – as it should, as it’s all paid for by the consumer electronics company Harman International.
Still, something for all you DJs out there to think about before spinning that YouTube rip “in da club”.
Director: Dave Grohl | Year: 2013 | Type: Documentary/Music | Runtime: 2h 32m
Dave Grohl stops fighting Foo for a second and shares his love affair with a legendary recording studio.
Within the unassuming and scuzzy walls of Sound City in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, over 100 gold and platinum albums were created and recorded, including works by the little-known grunge outfit, Nirvana.
Grohl honours this building’s legacy by telling its story, and ultimately nicking a hallowed mixing desk for his own studio, some nine miles away.
Pump Up The Volume
Director: Carl Hindmarch | Year: 2001| Type: Documentary | Runtime: 2h 26m
Spot-on TV series, chronicling the history of house music. From the dawn of the disco era and underground Chicago basement scene, to the international mainstream explosion that followed.
Full of evocative club scenes captured on film – years before camera phones made it a norm – and oral history lessons with the people that were there, man.
Not to be confused with the 1990 Christian Slater movie of the same name, which is also rad.
Director: Bruno Natal | Year: 2008 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 15m
The bass-heavy sounds of late-’70s Jamaica caused a sonic boom that still ripples through the next generation of musicians today.
From hip-hop to jungle, the dub pioneers’ DNA runs rich, as this studious and exhaustive, Soul Jazz-endorsed film will testify.
Help is provided by the likes of futurists such as Kode9 and Congo Natty, as well as the true originators, King Jammy and Bunny Lee.
Buy now from Soul Jazz Records
Tower Block Dreams
Director: Adam Smith | Documentary | Year: 2004 | Type: | Runtime: 3h
Three-part BBC series profiling the real-life trials and tribulations of a cast of inner-city yoots, trying to make it in the grime biz.
The pirate radio beef story finds our hero, Killer, tearing down his rival’s antennas, driving to court appearances in untaxed vehicles, and generally kicking right off on account of his hair-trigger anger. All while his long-suffering missus sagely reminds us that he just doesn’t like being “mugged off”. In short: The real Kurupt FM.
Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution
Director: Rob Johnstone | Year: 2008 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 3h
After the war, Germany was a country looking to rebuild its culture and identity. This is the story of a certain band of officious krautrockers and their ilk who strove to soundtrack the clean lines of modernity now beginning to shoot out and aim for the endless horizon.
Back home, Kraftwerk are pretty much gifted the same respect everyone else dumps at The Beatles’ feet. And to electronic musicians everywhere, they are simply the gold standard by which all other acts are judged.
Daft Punk Unchained
Director: Hervé Martin-Delpierre | Year: 2015 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 25m
Everything you wanted to know about this right pair of helmets. From their pre-fame come up as noisy rockers, Darlin’, to their eye-popping LED pyramid stage shows. It makes for a great French touchy-feely look at Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and their impact on global electronic music.
Worth the ticket price alone to see them as fresh-faced teens, with the world at their feet.
Plus, the reels of rare footage, talking heads with chums, and cracking performances will tickle long-time fans, as well as those new to the usually enigmatic dance duo.
Director: Doug Pray | Year: 2002 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 32m
What is a DJ if he can’t scratch? That’s the question at the heart of this feature-length look at the birth and growth of hip-hop turntablism.
Respect is paid to the founding fathers like Grandmaster Flash and Grandmixer D. ST., who set the tone on wax, as well as the next wave of twisted individuals like DJ Qbert and MixMaster Mike, who would really begin to play that turntable like a musical instrument.
Jaw-dropping deck skills abound, and regular contributions from the likes of the hilarious DJ Z-Trip make it a hoot for super nerds and baby scratchers alike.
We Are Your Friends
Director: Max Joseph | Year: 2015 | Type: Drama/Romance | Runtime: 1h 40m
Very much the Gleaming the Cube of dance music-centered melodramas, this Zac Efron stinker tries so hard to be an earnest take on the EDM Cinderella story, but turns out to be a DJ fail on every level.
It’s like the script has a sync button as it squarely hits all the story beats of a made-for-TV-movie, with yawn-inducing predictability.
Will wannabe superstar DJ Cole Carter make the big time? Or will you pass out from rolling yours eyes back in your head so hard every time he pulls ‘that face’ when mixing?
It makes for the perfect douchey cringe-fest for you and your well-cool DJ mates to aim snide remarks at, while intermittently checking in on your Soundcloud plays.
Shut Up And Play the Hits
Directors: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace | Year: 2012 | Type: Documentary/Concert | Runtime: 1h 50m
Join James Murphy on the morning after LCD Soundsystem’s “last ever show”, as he clears his head, strokes his dog, and contemplates a life without playing live music.
As painfully relevant and contemplative as it is thrilling, the hangover footage cuts back and forth with show-stopping performances by an electronic outfit at the height of its powers.
It makes for a timely meditation on musical relevance, safeguarding your legacy, and knowing when to retire gracefully… or not, as the band’s eventual comeback would attest.
It’s also fun spotting famous faces at the Madison Square Garden show, which is as close you might get to a live gig for quite a while, so enjoy it…
The Man from Mo’Wax
Director: Matthew Jones | Year: 2016 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 49m
Covering the rise and fall of a seminal record label, as well as that of the man behind it – James Lavelle.
Part heartbreaking redemption story, part cautionary tale of what it can be like to disappear up your own arse, this trip-hop odyssey isn’t afraid to shine a light on the good times and bad.
Lavelle, once a young genius, with a flair for putting the right people in the right rooms, is worthy of such scrutiny and celebration. And his story is told via a treasure trove of candid camera pieces, and interviews with those he sent mad, or alienated, along the way. All set to a killer soundtrack of neck-snapping ‘90s beats, too.
Director: Alex Dunn | Year: 2015 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 47m
To the untrained eye, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer may be a drab-looking box of blinking lights and knobs. But to those of us who know the significance of this studio workhorse, and the vital role it played in shaping modern music, it’s a thing of beauty.
There’s certainly no shortage of the latter in this film, either, as everyone from Phil Collins to Pharrell Williams happily step up to gush about their love for this machine.
Elsewhere, we trace its birth, moving through the boombox era of hip-hop and electro, and then onto house and techno, finding that the 808’s boom runs through them all, making it truly the Fender Strat of electronic music. Tune in and pay your respects.
I Dream of Wires
Director: Robert Fantinatto | Year: 2014| Type: Documentary| Runtime: 1h 42m
If you’ve ever found yourself so consumed with synth twiddling that it haunts your sleeping mind, then don’t worry! You’re in excellent company. The list of fellow Moog mashers and Juno jugglers in this one reads like a who’s who of the great and good in EDM.
From Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Gary Numan, to Carl Cox and Erasure’s Vince Clarke. They all line up here to explain their fascination with these mighty machines.
A warm, analogue glow fills the screen each time they, and the filmmakers, celebrate the rise, demise, and rise again of the synthesizer, and those who seemingly spend every waking moment making their circuit’s sing.
Director: Dan Forrer | Year: 2012| Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 25m
The Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache is the quintessential bboy break. A funk song that was first cut up and doubled on wax by hip-hop first wavers like Kool Herc, before the ‘get down’ sections soon graduated to prime spots in samplers, forming the backbone of countless pieces of music along the way.
This film spotlights the celebrated old-school track, its unlikely original inspirations, and the key players that brought it to life and helped make it one of the most iconic samples in modern music history.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Director: Justin Krook | Year: 2016 | Type: Documentary | Runtime: 1h 19m
Ahead of the biggest show of his career to date, world famous DJ Steve Aoki bares his soul, letting us, the humble fan, into the world of one of the most celebrated EDM artists filling stages today.
Hardly a warts ‘n’ all dissection of what it means to be one of the most visible disc jockeys out there, though, and more a massive ego-polishing puff piece on the planet’s foremost cake thrower – sorry, ‘daredevil showman’.
24 Hour Party People
Director: Michael Winterbottom | Year: 2002 | Type: Musical/Drama | Runtime: 1h 57m
Along with that one episode of Spaced, and Justin Kerrigan’s life-affirming raver flick Human Traffic, this is one of those rare times that the exact feeling of clubbing has been captured on film. And it helps that the club in question here is the legendary Haçienda.
Steve Coogan plays the suave Svengali, Tony Wilson, as he steers that venue, the in-house record label, and a bonkers cast of nutters, mavericks, and freaky dancers, into Mancunian musical folklore.
Made In Sheffield: The Birth Of Electronic Pop
Director: Eve Wood | Year: 2005| Type: Documentary | Runtime: 2h 08m
The Steel City birthed a legion of forward-thinking synthlords in the ‘80s, marking the region out as the UK’s very own Detroit or Chicago as a place of interest on the dance music world map.
This lovingly pieced together film covers that boom in great detail, alongside other breakout genres, eras, and acts from the region.
It covers the early DIY electronics of Cabaret Voltaire, the chart dominance of Human League and ABC, the Warp years, and the later raggatronics of Toddla T. Sheffield has plenty to be proud of, and this film does a great job flying the flag.
Honourable mentions: more great electronic music films
Land of the Rising Sound
Profile of Roland, the Japanese electronic hardware company responsible for some of the best grey plastic boxes ever created.
A Cross the Universe
Tour documentary of the Other French Dance Music Duo, Justice.
Steal This Film
A look into the copyrights and wrongs of online music theft. Or, “A Huzzah for Kazaa”, if you will.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
The rap doc that had Native Tongues wagging. Worth the watch for Tip’s dope outfits alone.
BBC 2 profiles the nascent UK drum ‘n’ bass scene, visiting the record shops, clubs, and bedrooms of the upstarts that make it.
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