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Docs to Watch: Women Revolutionising Music

Tuesday 15 December, 2020

Turn up the volume for this selection of music docs about fearless women artists breaking the mould.

Inspired by Sona Mohapatra, the incredible Indian singer and star of Deepti Gupta's new doc Shut Up Sona (free screening plus recorded Q&A on Thursday 17th!), we've cast our minds back to some of our favourite music docs about women musicians.

Whether they used their voices and platforms to call out misogyny, shed light on racism, or simply refused to conform to someone else's idea of how a woman singer should look, act and sound, these artists all inspired as much as entertained. There is tragedy in a lot of their stories as well as flare, talent and steely determination. 

James Erskine's new documentary about Billie Holiday fits perfectly into this list, and if you missed our recent screening of it, you can rent it on BFI Player, Amazon or Google Play, and then see Erskine and co-producer Shianne Brown discuss making Billie in our recorded Q&A

Find out more about Shut Up Sona and reserve your ticket for the 17th here.

THE PUNK SINGER / Sini Anderson / 2013 / 82 mins

Kathleen Hanna's rousing vocals as lead singer of Bikini Kill and later Le Tigre have captivated audiences around the world. The Punk Singer follows Hanna's story, charting her meteoric rise to become one of the leading figures in the punk feminist movement 'Riot Grrrl' that swept across North America in the early 90s.

While Hanna may have been a reluctant leader she undoubtedly helped create a world where young women grow up believing they can achieve anything.

Girls to the front! 

Online watch options here

HOMECOMING / Beyonce / 2019 / 137 mins

As concert films go, Homecoming is up there with the best. It has both big spectacle and revealing intimacy; it sweeps you up in the sheer energy of the performance and looks behind the scenes at the emotions and the hard graft that go into creating it. 

Beyoncé wrote, executive produced and directed this documentary of her performance at Coachella 2018. Unashamedly political, and bravely personal, her vision is stamped all over this, making it clear why the show (along with this film) became a landmark cultural moment.

Beychella forever! 

Watch Homecoming on Netflix.

Betty - They Say I'm Different / Phil Cox / 2017 / 54 mins

Betty Davis changed the landscape for female artists in America. An aspiring songwriter from a small steel town, Betty arrived on the 70’s music scene to break boundaries for women of colour with her daring personality, iconic fashion and unforgettable funk music. A pioneer of feminism and Black Power, she became the first black female artist to perform, write and manage herself. Then suddenly – she vanished.

Creatively blending documentary and animation, this movie traces the path of Betty’s life, how she grew from humble upbringings to become a fully self-realised superstar.

Watch on Vimeo on Demand.


MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. / Steve Loveridge / 2018 / 96 mins

From inflammatory music videos challenging mass execution or women’s rights in the Middle East, to performing live at the Grammys on her due date, London-based hip-hop artist M.I.A. is known for her provocative challenges to the assumed norm.

Starting her life in Sri Lanka, where her father founded the armed Tamil resistance, M.I.A. came to London as a 9-year-old refugee fleeing from a violent civil-war. She attended art school at Central Saint Martins but soon found expression in music, where she could pull together samples and references from every corner of her experience and find a voice for human rights.

This captivating portrait compiles archive footage shot by the artist over 22 years to glimpse the reality behind her music, from the immigrant experience to the power and pain of the spotlight

Online watch options here

Mama Africa / The Queen of Africa: The Miriam Makeba Story / Mika Kaurismäki / 2011 / 72 mins

Forced into exile for exposing the realities of the apartheid system, South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba was the first African musician to win international stardom, bringing African music to a Western audience as her career flourished in the US. 

Mika Kaurismäki's profile of 'Mama Africa' traces her life and music using rare archive of performances, interviews and intimate scenes.

Watch this Storyville film on the BBC iPlayer

PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE / Steven Sebring / 2008 / 109 mins

This portrait of the legendary musician, artist and poet Patti Smith explores love, grief, politics and how creativity works. Known as the godmother of punk rock, she emerged in the 1970s, with her own unique style of poetic rage, magnificent music and open creativity.

Narrated by Patti Smith herself, Steven Sebring's film follows her over 11 years of international travel, through her performances, interviews, paintings, and photographs, revealing a complicated, charismatic personality. 

Online watch options here


Mavis! / Jessica Edwards / United States / 2015 / 81 mins

Gospel and soul music legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples has been thrilling her fans for over 60 years, performing with her family as The Staple Singers, and later as a solo artist.

From the freedom songs of the ’60s and hits like “I’ll Take You There" in the ’70s, to funked-up collaborations with Prince and albums with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Mavis has stayed true to her roots, kept her family close, and inspired millions along the way.

Mavis! tells her story and captures her irrepressible zest for music, performing and life. 

Watch the film on Amazon

GRACE JONES: BLOODLIGHT AND BAMI / Sophie Fiennes / 2017 / 116 mins

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami takes the viewer on an intimate and electrifying journey that moves between cinematic layers – performance, family and artist – to explore the fascinating world of this pop cultural phenomenon.

Here we see her behind the mask as a daughter, mother, sister and grandmother, alongside taking to the stage for a specially commissioned performance, with legendary hits including Pull Up to the Bumper and Slave to the Rhythm.

Larger than life, bordering on cartoon, wild, scary and androgynous – Grace Jones plays all these parts.

Online watch options here or on the BFI player

A life in Waves / Brett Whitcomb / 2017 / 75 mins

If you watched television, went to the movies, or listened to the radio in the 80s and 90s, you've probably heard Suzanne Ciani's work, whether you knew it or not.

A Life in Waves explores the life and innovations of Ciani, a composer and electronic music pioneer, from her earliest days learning the piano, to her multi-million dollar advertising ventures, her successes in the world of New Age music to her recent re-connection with her beloved Buchla synthesiser.

Marrying a wealth of archival footage with Ciani’s back catalogue, A Life in Waves offers a compelling look at one woman’s journey to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated art form. 

Online watch options here.

MISS AMERICANA / Lana Wilson / 2020 / 85 mins

For a long time, Taylor Swift may not have seemed like the obvious choice for a list of revolutionary women singers. Her huge fanbase crossed all political lines and covered all bases. Although the prodigiously talented singer and musician always wrote her own songs, she was careful to keep away from politics at risk of alienting fans.

Lana Wilson's up close portrait of a more mature Swift follows her as she writes, rehearses, collaborates, plans and performs during an interesting time: Swift is taking her first steps towards sharing her views on feminism, homophobia and President Trump.

Miss Americana shows not just a teen sensation reaching maturity in her career, but a young woman daring to test out her political voice.

Watch on Netflix