More than ever, rock stars were TV stars in 2023 — in the form of subjects for television documentaries — and so were their brethren in pop, hip-hop, K-pop and Latin music. Some of these TV films or docuseries were vanity projects used to promote new albums, of course; others started off as “making of” projects and ended up catching a star in a moment of real psychological crisis. It wasn’t all cinema verité; historical overviews capturing the full breadth of an artist’s career or even a genre still had their place in the pop-doc landscape.
Four films or limited series stand out in the subgenre of docs that were initially commissioned to capture an album or tour and, through circumstances, evolved into something deeper or darker. “Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me” (Apple TV+) was going to be a tour documentary, but then, when an emotional breakdown caused her to pull off the road, it became a portrait of a singer coming to terms with mental illness.
“Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed” (HBO Max) initially focuses on the recording of Isbell’s “Reunions” album, before schisms develop between the artist and his singer-songwriter wife, Amanda Shires, making this a portrait of a marriage finding its way forward.
In “Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All” (Disney+), the pop superstar ends up writing a batch of material deeply based in themes of mortality when one of his best friends dies and his pregnant wife is stricken with cancer.
“Wynonna Judd: Between Hell and Hallelujah” (Paramount+) had its origins in something that was expected to be far lighter, as well — a Judds reunion tour — until Naomi Judd died by suicide before the project got seriously underway, leading to a narrative about how Wynonna Judd continued on with the planned tour with special guests, even as her grief was unresolved.
Not everyone tempted fate to throw such severe life experiences at them by inviting a camera crew in. “Love, Lizzo” (HBO Max) is as celebratory as its body-positivity-evangelizing star. “J-Hope: In the Box” (Disney+) established that there is life after (or at least on break from) BTS. “Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby” (Netflix) portrays the ongoing rise of a rapper who’s experiencing nothing but net.
In “Halftime” (Netflix), suspense over whether Jennifer Lopez will rise to the challenge of being triumphant at the Super Bowl is not too nerve-wracking, given the rah-rah outcome. And with “Bono & the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman” (Disney+), director Morgan Neville found a way to leaven wisdom with wisecracks.
Several traditional career overviews found big audiences, from “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” (HBO) giving viewers a true last dance with the warm but sometimes conflicted queen of disco to “Personality Crisis: OneNight Only” (Showtime) allowing Martin Scorsese, who co-directed with David Tedeschi, to do a very deep dive into a subject slightly more offbeat than Bob Dylan or George Harrison: New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter.
But what about documentaries that eschew individual personality crises to paint a portrait of a genre — or a studio? In “If These Walls Could Sing” (Disney+), director Mary McCartney’s dad Paul was just one of dozens of musician subjects seen as contributing to the legend of Abbey Road Studios. Few rap titans were better equipped to curate the 50-year history of the reigning musical form of today than Public Enemy’s Chuck D, with “Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World” (PBS). And how about defending the most maligned of genres — vintage “soft rock”? A filmmaking team dared to sail that particular yacht into port with “Sometimes When We Touch” (Paramount+).