12 Music Docs Dominating the 2024 Emmy Race, From ‘The Beach Boys’ to ‘Milli Vanilli’

More than a quarter of the documentary-special category is made up of music films, including ones on Paul Simon, James Brown and U2

Milli Vanilli (Credit: Getty Images)
Milli Vanilli (Credit: Getty Images)

Watch out, true crime: You may not be the undisputed favorite genre for nonfiction storytelling on TV. Sure, programs like “Tiger King,” “The Tinder Swindler” and “The Jinx” have seized attention in recent years – but nonfiction shows focused on music are awfully popular, too. And this year, they’re dominant on the list of documentaries that qualified in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category.

The 45 entries contain films about Paul Simon, James Brown, the Beach Boys, U2, Jennifer Lopez, Lil Nas X and even the disgraced Milli Vanilli, among others. There’s a film about the recording of a single song, one about a concert at Hoover Dam and one in the aftermath of the murder of a singing star. (True crime meets music, you could say.)

Of the documentaries that qualified in the category, 12 are music related, a 27% share that is almost four times the proportion of music films in the 2023 Oscar-qualifying documentaries.

As voting goes on in the Emmys’ nomination round, here’s a guide to the music docs that are in the running.

The Beach Boys
Disney+

“The Beach Boys” (Disney+)
Directors: Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny

Veteran producer Marshall has directed a string of music docs in recent years, including “Carole King & James Taylor: Just Call Out My Name,” “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” and “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” He joins forces with longtime music-doc director Zimny (“Springsteen on Broadway,” “Willie Nelson & Family,” “Elvis Presley: The Searcher”) for this look at the long-running Southern California band, which focuses far more on the first 15 years of the band’s career than the 50 or so years since then. The center of the film is tortured mastermind Brian Wilson, who is not in shape to talk through the career – so the film relies on archival interviews and footage of Wilson and his late brothers, and new interviews with bandmates like Al Jardine and Mike Love, who comes across as more measured and less embittered than he has sometimes seemed.

“Billy Idol: State Line” (Veeps)
Directors: Vincent Adam Paul and George Scott

This 93-minute doc is billed as showcasing “the first-ever live concert in front of the world famous Hoover Dam,” which may be a rather arcane first except for those who are big fans of “White Wedding” and “Eyes Without a Face.” The film, which received a brief theatrical release in late 2023, sets up the unusual event but focuses on footage of the show at which the veteran punk and new-wave musician was joined by his longtime guitarist Steve Stevens and by special guests Alison Mosshart, Steve Jones and Tony Kanal.

“The Greatest Love Story Never Told” (Prime Video)
Director: Jason B. Bergh

J-Lo is double dipping at the Emmys this year, with her special “Apple Music Live: Jennifer Lopez” competing against concerts by Lady Gaga, Audra McDonald, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Hozier and Maren Morris and others in the Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category. This documentary about the making of her “This Is Me … Now” album, is part of the multimedia barrage that accompanied that album and also included the Apple Music concert and a musical film on Amazon featuring Post Malone, Keke Palmer and others. Jane Fonda is part of this film, and so is Ben Affleck.

The Greatest Night in Pop
Netflix

“The Greatest Night in Pop” (Netflix)
Director: Bao Nguyen

In an all-night recording session in January 1985, almost 50 pop and rock stars recorded a single called “We Are the World,” a Lionel Richie/Michael Jackson song written to raise money for relief efforts in Africa. “Be Water” director Bao Nguyen was too young to remember when the song was released, and he wasn’t really a fan of sentimental composition (“quite corny,” he says), but he found the rush to get it written and recorded to be “like a cliffhanger. It felt like a ticking-time-bomb sort of story.” Participants including Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis and Sheila E. participated in the doc.  

“In Restless Dreams:  The Music of Paul Simon” (MGM+)
Director: Alex Gibney

“In Restless Dreams” is the first film about an entertainer that Oscar-winning director Gibney has made since his two-part Frank Sinatra miniseries “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” in 2015. The two-part, three-and-a-half-hour film is an intimate look at the recording of Simon’s last album, “Seven Psalms,” using that meditative album as a jumping-off point for an examination of Simon’s entire career. TheWrap’s review said, “’In Restless Dreams’ captures an important artist at a crucial time in his life, and finds a way to do so with humor, pathos and a sense of wonder.”

“James Brown: Say It Loud” (A&E)
Director: Deborah Riley Draper

Draper’s previous work included the film “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” and doc series “The Legacy of Black Wall Street,” both of which focused on the reverberations of specific events. This four-part documentary is about a single person, the titanic singer and performer James Brown, but his life and career also reverberated throughout popular culture and helped change society and art. She told TheWrap that she approached the film fascinated by a question she saw on the cover of a 1960s issue of Look magazine: “Is James Brown the most important Black man in America?”

Kiss the Future
Screenocean/Reuters Pictures/Damir Sagolj

“Kiss the Future”
Director: Nenad Cicin-Sain

The talking heads in this film set during the Bosnian war in the 1990s include Bill Clinton and Christiane Amanpour, but the focus is on a group of people who refused to let the siege of Sarajevo stop their defiant art and music, and on the massive rock group, U2, who shined a spotlight on that siege during the concerts on their huge ZooTV tour. TheWrap’s review of the film after its 2023 premiere at the Berlin Film Festival called it “a portrait of a city and a people who used culture to fight back; it’s also the story of a rock ‘n’ roll band exploring the limits of how its music can impact the real world. Above all else, though, it’s a rich and moving chronicle of the use of art as both a weapon and a means to salvation.”

“Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” (HBO)
Directors: Carlos Lopez Estrada and Zan Manuel

As as openly queer Black artist, rapper and singer Lil Nas X has been a trailblazer but also faced a homophobic backlash, possibly including a bomb threat that delayed the Toronto Film Festival premiere of this film. “Long Live Montero” is a chronicle of Lil Nas X’s first tour that takes the form of a diary and delves into his relationship with his audience and his family.

“Milli Vanilli” (Paramount+)
Director: Luke Korem

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the German pop group Milli Vanilli went from hitmaking artists to a pop-culture punchline with lightning speed when it was revealed that they lip-synced on stage and didn’t sing on their records. Members Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus could never recover from the humiliation, with a couple of failed comeback attempts preceding Pilatus’ suicide in 1998. But filmmaker Luke Korem, who said what really happened “is more bizarre than anyone knows,” lets Morvan tell the story in this documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2023.  

“The Secret Song” (PBS)
Director: Samantha Campbell

This film isn’t about a specific artist; instead, it’s about a teacher, Doug Goodkin, who taught music to children for 45 years in San Francisco. The documentary follows Goodkin during his final year as a teacher – a year that turned out to bring the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed schools and forced Goodkin to find new ways to create community through music.

Selena Quintanilla and Yolanda Saldivar (Credit: Oxygen)
Selena Quintanilla and Yolanda Saldivar (Credit: Oxygen)

“Selena & Yolanda: The Secrets Between Them” (Oxygen)
Director: Billie Mintz

The story of Tejano star Selena Quintanilla Pérez and her murder at the hands of her fan-club president Yolanda Saldívar has been told in the 1997 movie “Selena,” the 2018 series “Selena’s Secret” and the 2021 Netflix series “Selena: The Series,” among other places. This new two-part doc series tells the story from inside the Texas prison where Saldívar is serving a life sentence, with the convicted killer giving her first English-language interview in decades from behind bars.   

“Wham!”  (Netflix)
Director: Chris Smith

This 93-minute film is a zippy travelogue through the relatively brief career of the hit duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley that doesn’t expend much time on the lives that came before (they get together and make their first record by the six-minute mark of the film) or any time on Michael’s solo career that came after. The extensive concert footage can be amusing (those short-shorts!), but the film can be surprisingly touching with the help of some archival interviews in which Michael speaks openly about his struggles as he remained in the closet for his entire Wham! career, only coming out as gay a decade into his solo career.

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