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Rolling Stone Names 40 Greatest Rock Documentaries, from Dylan and The Band to 'Woodstock'

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood August 18, 2014 at 2:19PM

Who better than rock mag Rolling Stone to give ace movie ranker "Sight & Sound" (which recently listed the top 50 documentaries of all time) a run for its money? Rolling Stone has ranked the 40 greatest rock documentaries (of all time, natch). What's number one?
Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back."
Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back."

Who better than rock mag Rolling Stone to give ace movie ranker "Sight & Sound" (which recently listed the top 50 documentaries of all time) a run for its money? Rolling Stone has ranked the 40 greatest rock documentaries (of all time, natch).

To cut to the chase: at the top of Rolling Stone's list, the king (or queen!) of rock docs is "Don't Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 film about Bob Dylan's 1965 tour through the United Kingdom. As Rolling Stone puts it, "Don't Look Back" is the "permanent blueprint for the public's image of mid-Sixties rock & roll": Pennebaker's film helped to turn Dylan into the icon of a generation, and as one of the earliest films on the list, it set a standard that inspired other docs for many years to come.

Pennebaker's got another top 10 spot with number seven's "Monterey Pop," the 1968 chronicle of flower-power at its height, featuring performances by the Who, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.  (He's also got the David Bowie-centered doc "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" at 28 and "Depeche Mode 101" at 16.)  Other top 10ers include Martin Scorsese's 1978's "The Last Waltz," about the Band's final performance in San Francisco in 1976, the Rolling Stones' traumatic paradigm shifter "Gimme Shelter," "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A." and, of course, Michael Wadleigh's iconic "Woodstock," an Oscar winner and a box office hit--which, incidentally, launched the long-time collaboration of Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Reading through the band names in Rolling Stone's top documentaries list is like attending a celestial dinner party of rock and roll's greats: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Madonna, Radiohead.  It's the kind of list that makes music lovers--and even more importantly, music and film lovers--dream about building a time machine.  As James Gunn showed us in "Guardians of the Galaxy," the music of the last fifty years is so evocative that it feels just as natural in the depths of space as it does down here on Earth.

Check out Rolling Stone's full list here, plus a clip of Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," below.

This article is related to: Documentary, D.A. Pennebaker, Martin Scorsese

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.