Want to make a concert film? Film a concert, and you’re done! At least, that seems to be the philosophy of most concert documentarians, especially in today’s era of quick MTV specials and smartphone-captured performances on Youtube. It’s probably to ensure that absolutely nothing steals focus from the performer. While those may provide okay substitutes for those unable to attend (exorbitantly-priced) concerts themselves, as filmmaking they end up depressingly pedestrian.
But the best concert films understand that they’re films. They take the music and theatricality of their subject and process it in a way that is uniquely cinematic. Here are the five best examples.
Two gangsters gun down faceless businessmen, who bleed psychedelic colors. Robert Plant sits by a river in the British countryside, watching his two naked children frolic in the water. John Paul Jones reads from Jack and the Beanstalk. These are the opening sequences of The Song Remains the Same (1976), and you’d be forgiven if, for the first fifteen minutes, you thought you’d begun watching the wrong film. But eventually the opening chords of “Rock and Roll” strike in quadraphonic sound, and you’re with Led Zeppelin, awash in the trippy stage lights of Madison Square Garden. What the hell was up with those first few minutes? you may still be wondering. But if you’re anything like me, you hear Jimmy Page blast the lead-in to “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and you’ll forgive the band anything.
Which is good for them, because the bizarre, incongruent fantasy sequences return, and are evenly distributed throughout the live concert. These interludes find the band riding horses, climbing mountains, rescuing medieval maidens, and anything else they could think of that no one bothered reexamine sober. It might understandable if these diversions were at least tangentially related to the music, but it is not so. They just happen, and as the viewer you must take them or leave them. And yet… In a live venue, where Led Zeppelin let their songs expand to hallucinatory, abstract heights, the fantasy interludes start to work. Page’s cosmic chords and Plant’s howling vocals put me in enough of a trance that these silly detours begin to make sense, albeit in an illogical, dreamlike way. When the abstract musical strands begin to coalesce into recognizable songs, we always transition back to Madison Square Garden, and reenter reality.
And if those silly detours never work for you, take solace in the fact that for most of The Song Remains the Same, you get to see Led Zeppelin, the greatest hard rock band ever, making their music right in front of you, in close-up. If you’re not excited by that last sentence, I can’t help you.
The Band look tired, even weary. Twenty years of nightclubs, touring, drugs, and recording are etched right there on Robbie Robertson’s face. It’s almost a miracle that the band—er, The Band—had enough in them left for a farewell concert. But you can see it sink in, gradually, that this is the last concert they will ever perform. Robertson’s energy increases with each guest who joins him on stage—from Dr John, Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and eventually Bob Dylan.
So it was a wise decision on Scorsese’s part to start The Last Waltz (1978) with one of the night’s final numbers, “Don’t Do It.” By then, it seems like the musicians are increasing their set list just to keep the concert going, so The Band doesn’t have to end quite just yet. One of the reasons this film enjoys the cinematic reputation it does is because Scorsese so deftly captures the feeling that we are witnessing the end of a vital, important era. It is not a simple summary of The Band’s achievement so much as a summation. Scorsese’s cameras don’t record the event as some archival document for posterity, but accentuate and underline it. No matter how great a concert is, that’s a service only a film can provide.
R. I. P., Levon Helm.
Gimme Shelter (1970) may be an odd duck on this list, because it is more like a conventional documentary than the other titles I’ve chosen. What was meant to be a simple record of a free concert at Altamont Speedway suddenly transformed into a bone-chilling account of mob mania and brutal murder—a witness to one of rock’s most notorious catastrophes.
If you know what happened at the Altamont Free Concert, there’s no moviegoing experience quite like Gimme Shelter. The exhilaration you feel watching Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones own the stage with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Under My Thumb,” or “Sympathy for the Devil” (an apt song for the occasion) is offset by the sickening feeling of dread that builds and boils throughout the film’s runtime. As the crowd enters Altamont, as petty fights break out, as the Hell’s Angels hired as security lose control, you can only stare at the screen, helpless, waiting for the inevitable. The pre-concert footage provided is absolutely necessary to provide context for what you see during the Stones’ set at Altamont.
And you find it’s pretty much a miracle that the Stones themselves made it out alive.
Stop Making Sense (1984) is a true, filmic work of art. There is an audience present in front of David Byrne and The Talking Heads, but he’s not playing to them; all his force, kinetic energy, and sweat are going straight into the camera, through the film, and right to you. Byrne and director Jonathan Demme have no motivation other than to entertain the living daylights out of you. None. Every single thing that happens on screen is only in service of that singular goal; whether it’s having his backup singers suddenly break into aerobics, donning his iconically oversized suit, or flailing about the stage in volucrine paroxysms, Mr Byrne’s one lone, sole objective is giving you the most potent, natural high imaginable. The only other film I can think of with so narrow a goal is Singin’ in the Rain, and like that classic Gene Kelly film, Stop Making Sense has the power to flip my mood around no matter the circumstances.
The first half of the film seems to deconstruct the very idea of a concert. David Byrne enters armed with only a guitar and cassette player. The stage is completely bare, exposing the gray stone walls and scaffolds typical of the aftermath of a set strike. “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play.” And with that he begins, strumming and singing along with his tape. Song by song, one by one, band members and instruments are added. It is not until the sixth number, the high-charting “Burning Down the House,” that the entire band is finally present. By then, the movie is soaring, and never stops. If you’ve never seen Stop Making Sense, you have homework to do.
And #1? Well, if it’s not Katy Perry: Part of Me, it must be…
Woodstock (1970) is more than a concert film, more than an Oscar-winning documentary. It is an experience. Especially with director Michael Wadleigh’s 3¾ hour director’s cut, you become a citizen of the ad hoc community that sprung up for three days in 1969 on a New York farm. It’s not just that the film is wall to wall with some of the best music ever written—after all, it’s easy to love a movie that contains jaw-dropping performances from icons like Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone. Woodstock was truly revolutionary in its presentation. It was filmed in 16mm, but released in 70mm; this let Wadleigh and his editors (Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) display multiple 16mm images in the same film cell. Never had split screen been used to such astonishing effect, mirroring the sensory overload the actual attendees must have felt with the constant activity around them. We see songs performed from so many angles we understand how anybody experienced them; the result is so immersive, you get lost. Woodstock makes you understand that, for three days in 1969, 500,000 people literally created their own world—a peaceful world of music, fun, celebration. There was no violence. There were no confrontational scuffles or destruction. Just a communal desire for goodwill and harmony.
Make no mistake: Woodstock is not just the best concert film ever made, or one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It is one of the all-time greatest films ever made, period. Woodstock is not a movie you watch. It is a movie you live, for all its nearly four glorious hours.
…Now two quick honorable mentions:
Shine a Light. I avoided Shine a Light (2008) for a few years, because honestly, does anyone need to see the craggly, time-worn faces of The Rolling Stones blown-up to IMAX proportions? Some people you just don’t need to see in Ultra-HD. But what director Martin Scorsese’s oversized film frames show us is that, nearly fifty years on, the Stones have more vigor and passion than musicians half their age. Mick Jagger leaps about the stage like a circus acrobat, with more energy than a bevy of excitable puppies.
Monterey Pop. My beef with D. A. Pennebaker is that his documentaries always seem so half-assed. If you watch The War Room, you’re not likely to learn very much about Bill Clinton or his campaign, but you’ll get a basic idea about the subjects. Pennebaker assembles documentaries like he’s putting together a highlight reel for a TV news program. Monterey Pop (1968) is no exception; watching it you learn little about the festival or how it was organized, and even less about the experience of being there, the tone the festival had as a whole. You get brief performances from some great acts like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin; the aggregate effect plays more like an advert for the festival than a document of it. So why is Monterey Pop an honorable mention? I’m cheating, and really recommending Criterion’s Blu-Ray of the film, which is exquisite. It includes a great number of outtakes whose collective running time surpasses the film—but the real gem is the index Criterion provides of all the artists at the festival. You can play an entire artist’s setlist, then move on to the next, or mix and match. With these raw materials, it’s easy to program a set that’s more entertaining than watching the film straight through.
Do you think I left anything out? (If anyone is going to complain about the omission of Justin Bieber’s movie—well, I did limit it to five, after all.)