Music & Tragedy: 7 Heartbreaking Documentaries

While I was watching Richard Lowenstein’s moving and immersive documentary film, Mystify: Micheal Hutchence, I started to wonder: who would want this life? Sure, there are many things worse than being famous but who would actively seek an existence where your every move is scrutinized, judged and debated?


While Mystify paints a compelling picture of the life of Michael Hutchence and reclaims the  talented, charismatic INXS frontman’s legacy from the toxic tabloid stories that plagued him,  it also tells a disturbingly familiar tale.


How many times have we heard the story of the sensitive musician who finds unexpected joy and acceptance in performance and is “discovered” by the music industry? Success is exciting at first. However, all too soon, things turn sour. 


While surrounded by the trappings of fame, the musician is pushed to the point of exhaustion - every move analysed by a judgemental industry that, all too often, sacrifices its young.


Seriously, who would want this life?


In far too many cases, these stories end in tragedy and death. This is, of course, devastating for the family and friends of the person whose life has ended in heartbreaking circumstances. It is also an incredible loss for music. 


It leads us to wonder… could something have been done? 


The answer is both simple and incredibly complex. If the musicians in the following seven documentaries (and many others) had been better protected - and prized over their monetary value - perhaps their lives could have followed a different path.


We will never know. However, while acknowledging this tragic pattern, these documentaries also honour the musician's legacy and remind us of the joy that they brought into the world. 


Mystify: Michael Hutchence

Mystify is an incredibly intimate documentary about the life of Michael Hutchence. The film was born out of love for a man treasured by those who knew him, misunderstood by many who didn’t - a gifted musician with so much left to offer.


Director Richard Lowenstein emphasises the lasting impact of a life-changing event in Michael’s life. Many reviews have called this discovery Lowenstein’s “smoking gun”. However, there is no dramatic big reveal here - just an incredibly sad realisation that more could have been done to help or at least understand what Michael was experiencing.


Click here to read more about Mystify: Michael Hutchence



Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary brings Amy Winehouse to life on screen and puts her firmly at the centre of her own life story. We are reminded of her extraordinary talent. Meanwhile, in many uncomfortable and devastating scenes, Kapadia explores the events that led up to her death and questions if anything or anyone could have saved the singer.


Click here to read more about Amy




Kevin Macdonald was not a Whitney Houston fan. He certainly wasn’t interested in making a documentary about the singer. However, all that changed when he met Nicole David - Whitney’s long time agent. 


David explained that she loved Whitney but never understood her. More than that, she couldn’t comprehend why her life ended in the way that it did. David asked Macdonald to make a documentary to help her understand what happened to Whitney.


The raw emotion behind her request was enough to inspire Macdonald. He become a detective (and, at times, a psychotherapist) as he sought to unravel the mystery of Whitney Houston. His documentary is an intimate and deeply moving portrait of a phenomenally talented, yet deeply troubled woman.


Click here to read more about Whitney


Cobain: Montage Of Heck

While making his fascinating and moving documentary, director Brett Morgen had incredible access to many of the key people in Kurt Cobain’s life. He was also able to use home video footage and extracts from the musician's diaries and notebooks to reveal the person behind the tragic icon that Cobain would sadly become.


Click here to read more about Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck


Janis: Little Girl Blue

Featuring letters and interviews with her family and friends, Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, explores the life of 1960's rock legend, Janis Joplin and reveals a heartbreaking story about a hugely talented, yet truly fragile soul.


Sid & Judy

I first saw Sid & Judy at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival the day before watching Renée Zellweger portray Judy Garland in Judy. While I enjoyed both films (and Zellweger’s performance is very impressive), Stephen Kijak’s documentary is my favourite by far.


A compelling blend of the unpublished recollections of producer, manager and Judy’s third husband, Sid Luft, with film clips, rare concert footage and Judy's own inimitable words, Kijak reveals a woman who - despite being exploited by an industry that she helped build - showed tremendous resilience and who possessed a truly extraordinary talent.


What Happened, Miss Simone?

Using never-before-heard recordings, archive footage, diary entries and interviews with family and friends, Liz Garbus’s documentary film explores the life of a legend.


Nina Simone really did live a remarkable life. This documentary reminds us (as if we could ever forget) just what a voice she had - so rich and so powerful. Hear it anywhere and you instantly know who is singing. 


The film also highlights her phenomenal skills as a pianist. Her talent is truly breathtaking. Nina's hands fly over the keys at such an amazing speed. She hardly seems to notice - her ability is effortless.


However, as is the case with many artistic geniuses, Nina Simone’s wonderful musical abilities belied her troubled personal life. 


Click here to read more about What Happened, Miss Simone?



Over To You...

Have you seen any of these documentaries? If so, what did you think about them? What films would you add?


Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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