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Music movies: Checking out some all-time-great concert films

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What are your favorite concert movies of all time? The best concert films make you feel like you’re present in the best seat in the venue with superb sound and visuals. A great concert film can take you from the audience to the stage, backstage, and into the lives of the performers.

Some concert films capture profound historical moments that could never be duplicated, such as “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” set to premiere July 2 on Hulu.

Filmed over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969 at the Harlem Cultural Festival, the event presented now legendary soul, R&B and blues performers at the peak of their powers but the film reels and audio tapes ended up collecting dust in a basement for about 50 years until being resurrected for this film directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots.

Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, B.B. King, and The Staple Singers, among others, took the stage in an event that received scant contemporary media attention compared with the coinciding festival that unfolded about 90 minutes away on Max Yasgur’s Bethel, New York dairy farm, which became the setting for Woodstock.

Why was the historic footage presented in “Summer of Soul” relegated to history’s dustbin? Thompson’s film promises to explore the reasons while also speculating how it might have become a game changer had it been shaped into a movie at the time.

As Thompson said to IndieWire of the footage presented in “Summer of Soul”: “What would have happened if this was allowed a seat at the table? How much of a difference would that have made in my life? That was the moment that extinguished any doubt I had that I could do this.”

Our heightened anticipation over “Summer of Soul” got us thinking about some of our favorite concert films of all time. I came up with a preliminary list which was revised several times as I viewed each film again. I expect most readers will take issue with the fact that I neglected to include one or more of their faves.

Led Zeppelin fans, for example, will notice that I didn’t include “The Song Remains the Same,” a perennial entry on many concert movie best-of lists. It did appear on the penultimate version of my list but when I watched it again recently, it became clear that it doesn’t belong here. It is a significant film in that it was the only official live footage of Led Zeppelin released during the band’s lifetime, but as a movie, it’s a mess.

The best available live footage of Led Zeppelin can be found on the 2003 double DVD set, “Led Zeppelin,” containing over five hours of footage. As that set is an anthology compiled from about nine different concerts performed over 10 years and intended for home viewing, it’s outside of the scope of the films profiled here, which all chronicle either a single show, a festival, a tour, or a series of shows shot expressly for a single film.

As much as I’d love to rhapsodize about my favorite music documentaries, such as The Who’s “The Kids are Alright” or “The Beatles Anthology,” most don’t fit the above criteria, and as such, are not included.

The subjective nature of determining a “best of” just about anything is an exercise in futility. Everyone’s taste is different which is why I expect your list of favorite concert films probably differs significantly from mine. My goal here was to come up with 10 great concert movies to be presented in no particular order of excellence.

In addition, Super Genius assignment editor Allen Adams has selected one of his personal favorite concert films from an artist who helped craft a legendary 1984 rock concert movie with his former band which appears below.

(Editor’s note: It’s true. I have. Although I can’t compete with Mike’s expertise and my pick is definitely a little different from his excellent selections.)

Heart of Gold (2006) Director: Jonathan Demme

Director Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Stop Making Sense”) first worked with Neil Young when the musician contributed a song to the director’s 1993 film “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. 12 years later, Young tapped Demme to direct a film based on his 2005 album “Prairie Wind,” a record of mostly acoustic material that had been inspired in part by the death of his father, Scott Young, the Canadian newsman, sportswriter and novelist.

While working on “Prairie Wind,” Young suffered a brain aneurysm requiring emergency surgery. The emotion-filled songs took on new significance as the musician was forced to accept the possibility that his time on earth was nearly over.

Captured at the 2005 “Prairie Wind” album premiere concert at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, Demme’s film shows us Neil Young at his most reflective and grateful, surrounded by a band largely consisting of players he’d performed with off and on since the Nashville recording of his breakthrough commercial success, 1971’s “Harvest.” Visually striking, the lingering camera shots allow the viewer to absorb the music’s impact as the songs, rehearsed just enough to allow room for danger, wash over the players and audience. “Rust Never Sleeps,” filmed in 1978, is widely considered to be the classic Neil Young concert film, largely because of the epic set-list, split between acoustic songs and rockers performed with Crazy Horse, but “Heart of Gold” as a film show us Young at his most vulnerable and real.

Under Great White Northern Lights (2010) Director: Emmett Malloy

When Emmett Malloy began filming sequences from The White Stripes’ 2007 Canadian tour, he didn’t realize that he was capturing the beginning of the end of this hugely influential band.

Jack and Meg White set out to hit every Canadian province and territory during this tour, playing a mix of full concerts and a series of brief side shows in a variety of unusual venues, including a bowling alley, a fishing boat, a café, a daycare center and a town square stage in Newfoundland and Labrador, where they played a single-note concert, prompting an audience chant of “One more note!”

The film is aesthetically striking, emphasizing the band’s trademark red and white colors with a lot of black and white sequences, offering a sparseness matched by the band’s music – guitar, drum, voice, with occasional keyboard flourishes.

Musically, we’re treated to ferocious versions of some of The White Stripes’ best material, including “Seven Nation Army,” “Fell in Love With a Girl,” “Icky Thump” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

Jack and Meg socialize with locals at most every stop, including a group of Inuit elders, with whom they sample some raw caribou.

While the film doesn’t move the needle much in exposing the real Jack and Meg White, the film’s final and most talked about scene comes close. The two share a piano bench as Jack sings “White Moon” from 2005’s “Get Behind Me Satan,” as Meg first smiles and sways before her eyes fill with tears, prompting Jack to hold her close. Shortly after filming, The White Stripes cancelled remaining tour dates due to Meg’s acute anxiety, officially disbanding in 2011.

Festival Express (Filmed in 1970; Released in 2003) Director: Bob Smeaton

Speaking of unusual Canadian concert tours, this film chronicles a sort of “Woodstock by train” tour of the Canadian provinces that rode the rails during the summer of 1970. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, Mountain, and Tom Rush, among others, packed themselves into 14 train cars for a music-and-booze-filled two-week tour that was seen by the musicians as a most fun working vacation but was ultimately deemed a financial disaster.

The original footage, shot by Fran Cvitanovich, was shelved by a legal injunction and resided for decades in the Canadian National Film Archive before being restored for this movie for which the film’s original surviving participants provided contemporary context.

We see these legendary musicians interacting and performing with the spirit that first drew them to music. The bar car on the train was decked out with instruments and amps that allowed them to jam between cities. There are no pretenses, no egos, no frills, just the joy of sharing music.

Of this journey, singer Tom Rush told The Maine Edge: “It was the best party I’ve ever been to. There was actual discussion that when we finished the tour, we would collectively buy the train and just keep partying. When we run out of money, we figured we’d just do a show and party some more. The shows were regarded as unwelcome intrusions into the flow of the party. It was a bummer to have to get off the train and go do a show. Also, I think the Grateful Dead may have laced the punch at the farewell party.”

Concert for George (2002) Director: David Leland

A breathtakingly beautiful film filmed a year to the day after the death of George Harrison, featuring a band consisting of his closest musical friends largely performing his songs at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Organized by Harrison’s widow, Olivia, and son, Dhani, the evening’s musical director was Harrison’s best friend, Eric Clapton, who performs on most of the material with guests including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jeff Lynne, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and four members of Monty Python, Harrison’s favorite comedy troupe. Even Tom Hanks was present, joining the Pythons as a Canadian Mountie for ‘The Lumberjack Song.’

Director Leland planted a dozen strategically placed cameras around the ornate venue to capture the action onstage from a variety of angles.

The film was made available in two versions: a theatrical edit containing backstage interviews with participants, and a version with the uncut concert. What could have been a somber affair turned into a joyous celebration of Harrison’s life and music.

Stop Making Sense (1984) Director: Jonathan Demme

There are a number of reasons why this movie is routinely cited as one of the greatest rock films of all time. Filmed over four nights at a theater in Hollywood in December 1983, “Stop Making Sense” captures Talking Heads at a creative, commercial and stylistic peak.

From the opening “Psycho Killer” sequence, when we see lead vocalist David Byrne take to an empty stage with a boom-box and an acoustic guitar, to the closing all-out euphoria of “Crosseyed and Painless,” it’s a seamlessly presented concert film.

The tone and backdrops change with each song as does the choreography and camera angles that expertly harness shadow and light, occasionally revealing the joy and surprise on the faces of the band.

Who could forget Byrne’s absurdly oversized suit worn in “Girlfriend Is Better?” Or how the band shifted on a dime to become Tom Tom Club on “Genius of Love?”

“Stop Making Sense” is still a stunner of a movie nearly four decades later.

Monterey Pop (1968) Director: D.A. Pennebaker

This chronicle of the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival was originally intended as an ABC TV special. That was before network execs saw a rough cut with Jimi Hendrix simulating sex with his amp. “Keep the money and get out,” said Thomas Moore, then the head of ABC, according to producer Lou Adler.

That allowed Pennebaker more time for his film when it was blown up to 35mm for theaters with a four-channel soundtrack that pumped out the part enchanting, part explosive soundtrack, featuring a lineup of the era’s pop, rock and counterculture heroes.

Groovy 1960s flower children, part and full-time hippies, curious local ladies and gentlemen, and even the cops running security, all seemed to love the experience that unfolded from June 16 to 18, 1967 at Monterey County Fairgrounds.

The film features indelible scenes, including the American debut of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, seen performing “Wild Thing,” complete with Hendrix on his knees, guitar on fire before he smashes it to bits before a stunned crowd. The Who’s similarly combustible “My Generation” helped set the table for America’s full acceptance of the band when they issued the rock opera “Tommy” six months after “Monterey Pop” debuted.

Spellbinding performances from Janis Joplin (“Ball and Chain”) and Otis Redding (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”), seen here less than six months before his untimely death, reveal how influential their stage presence, confidence and energy became for countless artists in multiple genres.

Woodstock (1970) Director: Michael Wadleigh

It seems almost cliché now to include “Woodstock” in a roundup of the best concert films, but how could we not? It should also rightfully appear on any self-respecting list of the best documentaries of all time. The August 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, and the movie made about it, have become part of Americana.

An estimated 500,000 concert goers braved the rain, warnings about the brown acid, and enjoyed compère Wavy Gravy’s “breakfast in bed” (“If you’re too tired to chew, pass it on!”) with an unbeatable soundtrack of some of the era’s most popular artists, and some whose careers were made by exposure granted by the film and soundtrack.

Sly and the Family Stone, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, John Sebastian, and two dozen other acts took the stage that weekend amid myriad quagmires, threats from the community and even the governor. That the festival actually happened, and an Academy Award-winning movie was made about it, is a minor miracle.

Woodstock organizer Michael Lang told The Maine Edge that the film deal was struck less than 24 hours before opening artist Richie Havens took the stage.

Attempts to recapture the magic of Woodstock have failed spectacularly, including a recent 50th anniversary attempt. Lang said he believes it’s because it isn’t possible to exactly reproduce a moment in time.

“It’s like trying to step twice into the same river, you can’t do it,” Lang told us in 2009. “Things move on. Times change and circumstances change. I think that emotion can be recaptured. Things were not looking good at that time. Many groups were turning violent and then along came Woodstock and this sort of moment of ‘Wow, we really can get along’ happened. I think that those kinds of moments can be recreated you just can’t copy them.”

Gimme Shelter (1970) Directors: Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

Conventional wisdom says that the peace, love and music on full display during “Monterey Pop” and “Woodstock” suffered a brutal demise in the waning days of the 1960s, when some 300,000 fans converged on Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, when The Rolling Stones attempted to stage a similar festival to wrap their 1969 American tour.

In reality, we can probably blame the violence and death that occurred at the December 6, 1969 event on bad drugs and horrible security.

Oblivious to festival planning, the Stones took the advice of the Grateful Dead and hired the local Hell’s Angels chapter to act as concert security in exchange for free beer. In fairness to the Angels, they had been successfully running security for the Dead and Jefferson Airplane for several years and there was reason to believe they would behave in a similarly groovy way for the Stones. Tragically, things turned very ugly very fast when the Angels began bashing concert-goers, and musicians, with pool cues.

Jefferson Airplane was one of five opening bands hired by the Stones to perform at Altamont that day. Late founding member Marty Balin told The Maine Edge in 2016 that when he saw a kid in front of the stage being pounded by a Hell’s Angel, he leapt into the crowd to try to stop it.

“I got into a punch-out with The Hell’s Angels leader,” Balin told us. “I was beating him down in the back of an empty semi at the back of the stage. I remember thinking, ‘I’m really doing pretty good here,’ and then I blacked out. I woke up covered in blood with boot marks all over my body where they had stomped me.”

The violence culminated in the death of 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter who had been violently driven away from the stage area once, only to return with a revolver. When the gun was spotted by an Angel, Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death in front of the cameras and the Stones as they performed “Under My Thumb.” It’s horrifying.

“Gimme Shelter” depicts the lead-up to Altamont with incredible concert sequences filmed at Madison Square Garden but the Stones were clearly over their heads nine days later in California. It’s a difficult film to watch at times because of the violence, and Mick Jagger’s well-intentioned but naïve attempts to stop it are a little cringey, but once the movie begins, you can’t take your eyes off it.

The Last Waltz (1978) Director: Martin Scorsese

A landmark concert film, “The Last Waltz” presents the final concert performed by The Band with their lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson. What Robertson originally envisioned as the beginning of The Band becoming a studio-only outfit culminated in his final night onstage with the group and a lineup of more than a dozen special guests.

On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band served turkey dinner to the audience before taking the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom for a concert lasting more than five hours. Over a dozen friends joined in, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison and Dr. John.

Scorsese’s crew captured the proceedings on seven 35mm cameras, and the resulting film is bewitching, at times bewildering, but ultimately a cinematic triumph.

The music and performances are uniformly excellent, though we don’t really get to hear the show as it was performed. According to producer John Simon, drummer Levon Helm’s exemplary vocals were about the only part of The Band’s performance that remained unaltered by overdubs in post-production.

We know from watching why Robertson became sick of touring but the film never fully explains why “The Last Waltz” marked the actual end of The Band for the time being. They reunited without Robertson in 1983 but never again saw the success they’d enjoyed in their first decade.

T.A.M.I. Show (1964) Director: Steve Binder

The idea was pure - film a rock concert and send it to theaters. Considered to be the earliest rock concert film, the T.A.M.I. Show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International, both were used in the show’s publicity) is an exhilarating feature-length time capsule entry. Filmed in Santa Monica over two days in October 1964, the high energy pop, rock and R&B film featured a dozen hitmakers performing virtually flawless versions of then current and previous hits for an auditorium full of screeching teens.

It’s a swingin,’ go-go dancin,’ finger-poppin’ blast of absolutely live performances from legends like Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Lesley Gore, The Rolling Stones, and the first filmed performance of James Brown and The Famous Flames. The house band happened to be The Wrecking Crew collective of ace Los Angeles session players, featuring Glen Campbell on guitar and Hal Blaine on drums.

In his 2007 autobiography “Life,” Keith Richards said The Rolling Stones’ biggest career mistake was following James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show. “Nobody follows James Brown,” a furious Brown reportedly warned director Steve Binder on the day of the first show. He should have listened.

James Brown pulled out all the stops; dance moves nobody had seen before, repeatedly dropping to the floor feigning exhaustion only to be revived by an aide draping a cape over the future legend’s shoulders as the audience was whipped into a frenzy. “Follow that, MF’ers” Brown reportedly uttered to the Stones as he walked offstage. Darlene Love remembered it took more than hour to calm the audience enough to bring the Stones on.

The recollections may have been colored with time but there’s no denying the T.A.M.I. Show’s impact, immediacy and cultural significance. The film eliminated any possible color barrier by featuring black and white artists performing side by side for an integrated audience.

The T.A.M.I. Show was well filmed and recorded for its time. Producer Bill Sargent utilized his proprietary higher video resolution process called Electronovision, nearly doubling the clarity of projects captured on the most frequently used video recording systems of the day. Video and audio were both edited on the fly with the audio portion mixed live from 4-track to mono.

The T.A.M.I. Show is an undeniably great rock film that went on to inspire countless TV and filmmaking approaches to the presentation of live music on film, including a number of titles profiled in this story.

Honorable mention: American Utopia (2020) Director: Spike Lee

Hi folks! Allen Adams here to make my minor contribution. Mine is by far the newest pick on this list, though I do think it is one that will make its way into the concert film canon in the years to come.

Now, David Byrne’s “American Utopia” isn’t a concert film in the same way that these other brilliant movies are. It is a filmed performance of the Broadway show of the same name featuring songs spanning the breadth of Byrne’s incredible career, from early Talking Heads through work produced specifically for this show/album.

Directed by Spike Lee – whose fingerprints and flourishes are all over the thing – this is a portrait of a brilliant artist telling his story through songs that have moved him. It is visually engaging and beautifully crafted and – unsurprisingly – the songs are all absolute bangers.

In closing, I’ll include a couple of paragraphs from my review of the film from last fall:

“American Utopia” is one of the most compelling and moving viewing experiences I’ve had in a very long time, a blend of songs from Byrne’s “American Utopia” album and a number of cuts from his extensive back catalog, all reimagined with the help of an exceptionally talented band. The music is exceptional, with Byrne both matching the youthful chaos magic of his early work and embracing his current status as an elder statesman of sorts. To bring together such seemingly disparate energies and attitudes is a triumph – one reflected in every joyful moment on the stage. And his interstitial moments are awash in oddball charm, reflecting a sort of optimism that Byrne almost can’t help but convey even as he breaks down some of the bleakness of the present time – even then, the joy remains front and center.

Capturing that joy in an electric live space and successfully conveying it through a screen is surely a monumental task. Luckily, we just happened to get one of the greatest American filmmakers of our time to execute said task. Lee’s own stylistic eye and exquisite instincts are a perfect complement to Byrne’s show; he elevates the experience not by bringing the performance out to us, but by bringing us into the performance. There’s a wild intimacy to what he does – he uses unusual angles and deft cuts, moving from handheld closeups to wide shots at just the right moment. Lee finds perspectives beyond those seen in person, turning the stage show into something cinematic while also maintaining its wonderful theatricality.

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 12:52


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