The concert movie is a strange and ambitious thing, marrying live music to moving pictures and permanently fixing a fleeting, one-night-only live event for the masses so that you can recreate it alone, on tape, whenever you like. It’s a noble objective, but a difficult one. If you like, you can just point a few cameras at the stage and leave them running, sure, and many, many concert movies are dull, flatly filmed cash-ins, and almost every band seems to have released a no-frills concert DVD or two at some point. But they’re not all like that, as you’ll find out below, where we’ve selected 10 of the very best.
But the question of which concert movies are “the greatest” is strange in itself, because, although we heartily recommend all 10 of these, there are really only two candidates for “the greatest”, just like there have been a lot of really big wars but only two World Wars. The playoffs are nice and everything, but “Stop Making Sense” (which came out 30 years ago this year and is now available digitally this week on iTunes) and “The Last Waltz” are the guys who get to go to the Super Bowl. There isn’t really any point arguing about this (although, knock yourselves out in the comment section).
There also isn’t really any point in arguing about which of those two is better. They are equal first, and everyone else is bringing up the rear. They also, between the two of them, show us almost everything the concert film can be, because they’re almost as different as two concert movies can be, in style, in approach, in philosophy. Its the long, indulgent dad-rock of “The Last Waltz,” complete with interviews and reminiscences and who knows what else, vs the tight, strict, stripped-down “Stop Making Sense,” shorn of anything but the music. It’s amazing to think that they were made within 10 years of each other: one seems to look back to the mythic roots of rock ‘n’ roll and the other forward to some kind of futuristic music-making with almost no roots at all. They’re also both “documentaries” in the two senses of the word. One of them is an attempt at documenting, in detail, the people and idea behind a band’s last concert, and the other is a document in itself, a kind of contextless artifact from a gig.
Ever since (and indeed, before, for the concert movie has been around for half a century now, as you’re about to learn) every concert documentary has fallen somewhere along the line between the two of them, between the expansive and the focused. If we’re honest, most of them have ended up closer to the expansive end, but the great age of long, high-concept, classic rock concert movies did not necessarily coincide with the age of actually great concert movies, so the list here is a balanced one of those we judge the best, not necessarily the most famous films or biggest bands. On the other hand, some bands are famous for a reason, and famous enough to show up on this list more than once. Anyway, here they are, the 10 greatest (including the 2 very greatest) concert movies of all time. If we’ve missed anything out, we’re sure you’ll let us know.
"Stop Making Sense" (1984)
30 years old this year, Jonathan Demme‘s Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense” has become a classic concert movie, one of the undisputed peaks of the genre, as we mentioned above. But it started life as iconoclasm: a futuristic, minimalist response to the baggy, shaggy, self-indulgent concert documentaries of the ’70s. Demme and David Byrne started by throwing out anything beyond the performance: no fly-on-the-wall stuff from the tour, no warm-up acts, no interview with the band (so, a Talking Heads film with no talking heads). Then they got rid of reaction shots of the audience, painted everything on stage black to keep the focus on the band and banned the use of colored spotlights and the like to keep it simple. Instead the concert starts with David Byrne alone on stage, and grows as each individual band member joins him, while the camerawork stays determinedly minimalist and unflashy, with long, steady shots that look at times as if they’re using black and white film. It sounds like a boring art student’s idea of a concert, but in fact the result is completely, infectiously joyous, with nothing between the viewer and the band’s strange, relentless, uncategorizable New Wave energy. Byrne’s berserk, jerky dancing is hypnotic (“Where do the strange movements come from?” asked posters for the film, without ever providing an answer), and by the time he dons the massive suit—which feels like a sort of satire on the minimalism of the whole affair—and we’re allowed to see the ecstatic audience, we’re already having as much fun as if we were really there with them. To this day, watching “Stop Making Sense” brings you closer to the feel of the actual concert than any of the other movies on this list, and the lack of behind-the-scenes stuff doesn’t feel like a loss at all.
From the Playlist to your playlist: “Burning Down The House” when the fully assembled band takes off; “Life During Wartime,” where Demme’s camera captures bassist Tina Weymouth’s own bafflement at Byrne’s dancing.
"The Last Waltz" (1978)
Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Muddy Waters. Neil Young. Emmylou Harris. Ringo Starr. Dr John. Van Morrison. Eric Clapton. Ronnie Wood. All these stars, and more, perform in “The Last Waltz”—and Martin Scorsese directed it—but it isn’t about any of them, and it’s so much better than any of the many concert movies they’ve had dedicated to themselves. “The Last Waltz” is about a band so generic they were just called The Band, who spent half their time backing people like Dylan and half of it singing the roots-rock your dad likes, existing permanently on tour and permanently on the edge of stardom, the kind of almost famous band “Almost Famous” is about. After 16 solid years of touring, they decided to call it quits, and their tour manager got hold of the young Scorsese—only a few years off “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” but flirting with has-been status in the wake of “New York, New York." Scorsese assembled a team almost equivalent to those onstage: cameras were operated by Michael Chapman (who shot “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver”), Laszlo Kovacs (“Easy Rider”) and Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Deer Hunter”). Baggy and rambling, as is inevitable with that many performers to fit in, the film also detours into interviews with the band members, all tinged with the fact that there isn’t going to be a band to be members of after the gig (inevitably, there were actually various subsequent reunions, but never mind). None of this matters, though, and in fact it adds to the charming, friendly feeling of the film. Scorsese’s interest in the intersection of music and film has continued with recent Rolling Stones tour film “Shine A Light” and documentaries on Bob Dylan and George Harrison, but “The Last Waltz” is head and shoulders above them, and up there with Marty’s best film work, capturing and preserving a moment of poignant, freewheeling musical cooperation.
From the Playlist to your playlist: All the Canadians on stage for “Helpless”; “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; the “I Shall Be Released” finale, with everybody crammed on stage and Dylan taking the mic for a song he wrote with The Band.
"Dave Chappelle’s Block Party" (2005)
Enough has been written about Dave Chappelle as mythologized comedy enigma, vanishing from his own acclaimed show in 2004 until his tentative recent reappearance. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” shot by Michel Gondry shortly before his retreat from the limelight, captured Dave Chappelle as the ordinary guy he has so badly wanted to be, except that he’s the kind of ordinary guy who can decide to throw and fund a free block party in Brooklyn featuring Mos Def, a Fugees reunion (then the first time they’d been seen together for seven years), Erykah Badu, Common, the Roots, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez and Kanye West (back when he was A Very Interesting Rapper rather than God-Emperor of the Known Universe). Also a college marching band Chappelle picked up more or less by accident, on camera, back home in Ohio. They all play a street behind a community centre in Bed-Stuy, and Chappelle is at pains to show how at home he is in urban Brooklyn and in the small-town Ohio of his youth. The result is a freewheeling, fresh-feeling concert movie MC’ed by Chappelle, who does skits and chats directly to camera as he preps the party: Gondry shot much of it handheld, walking down the street with Chappelle at the height of his fame. It’s a slight shame that several of the songs aren’t shown in full, but there’s so much material to get through that it’s an understandable decision. Hip-hop seems like it’s been oddly underserved by the concert movie, but this (and “Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That,” elsewhere on this list) are honorable and enjoyable exceptions. Perhaps Chappelle would like to celebrate his return to performing by throwing another party like this?
From the Playlist to your playlist: Kanye doing “Jesus Walks” backed by the Roots; John Legend and an entire marching band; “Killing Me Softly," following on from the Fugees’ conversation backstage about how they can’t quite believe they’re all back together.
When Michael Wadleigh, having seen D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” film of the 1968 Monterey festival (which just missed being on this list), heard that a few thousand hippies were planning on getting high and listening to some music in upstate New York one weekend in August 1969, he figured someone should take a camera up there and see what was going on. When he got there, he found 400,000 people in a sea of mud and goodwill, slowly realizing that they had all showed up to the defining moment of ’60s counterculture. Wadleigh got to work, and ended up with more than 120 hours of footage, which he eventually wrestled into a 3 hour film with the help of rookie editors Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, whose experience served them well when it came to making “The Last Waltz.” It was Scorsese, supposedly, who came up with the groovy use of split-screen to utilize as much of the footage as possible, and to show the performance and, simultaneously, the audience reaction. Even so, there was so much going on at the festival—and Wadleigh was so keen to get wonderful spaced-out, time-capsule vox-pops from the people in the crowd—that he couldn’t even fit in performances from, for instance, the Grateful Dead, Ravi Shankar or Creedence Clearwater Revival. Still, you’ve got The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash (Neil Young, for some reason, refused to be filmed), Santana, Sly and the Family Stone… and the final, 8 AM-on-Monday appearance by Jimi Hendrix, by which time half the crowd had gone home or passed out. Luckily, we have Wadleigh’s film to record it all for us. If you have the time, the 4-hour director’s cut is, for once, even better.
From the Playlist to your playlist: Hendrix’s segue from “The Star-Spangled Banner” into “Purple Haze”; Joe Cocker’s epic, ultra-heartfelt rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
"Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That" (2006)
The concert documentary is such an obvious idea that it’s difficult to know how to do anything new with it. You point some cameras at a show, maybe shoot some behind-the-scenes stuff, and then you’re done. Attempts to reinvent the wheel can be admirable, but sometimes go wrong—you won’t find Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” on this list because filming a concert played to an empty amphitheater isn’t brilliant, it’s stupid (and so is intercutting slow pans across Roman mosaics—it only looks like it means something). But in 2006, some time after they’d stopped feeling especially culturally relevant, the Beastie Boys had an interesting idea that actually does mostly work: let the audience make the film by distributing 50 camcorders into the crowd and editing together the resultant footage. Then they slapped a title on it that really gets the concept across. Inevitably, it’s scrappy as fuck—even professionals would have trouble getting a decent shot while being jostled by yuppies reliving their misspent 80s summers—but that adds to the energy and immediacy of the whole thing, and the mild ridiculousness of the Beastie Boys themselves is refreshing seen through such a literally amateurish lens: the guys on stage look just as homebrewed as the footage, except for how they’re actually absurdly talented rappers. The fans had fun too, above all the guy who filmed himself taking a bathroom break: he must have assumed that bit would be cut, but hell no it wasn’t. And, indeed, spare a thought for the editing process here too, which must have been nothing short of heroic. Someone ought to repeat this idea, now that you could get not just 50 camcorders’ worth of footage but video from every audience member’s phone.
From the Playlist to your playlist: the sheer shameless fun of “Pass the Mic”; “An Open Letter to NYC” performed right there in the city like it should be.
"MTV Unplugged in New York" (1993)
So we’re cheating a little with this entry—it’s a TV concert after all—but we’d argue that its iconic status and its quality earn it a place on our list. Hard to believe now, but back in the early 90s the entire “unplugged” concept—a live, acoustic set from an ordinarily electric band—was a novel and interesting one. Equally hard to believe is that 20 years ago, music television was an important part of the zeitgeist, and when MTV cottoned on to the “unplugged” idea, they sought out a number of big name bands for the format: none bigger, in November 1993, than Nirvana. Kurt Cobain and co., however, didn’t exactly play ball. Coming off the release of the confrontationally uncommercial In Utero, they refused to play a standard, hit-heavy set list and instead performed minor songs and covers of David Bowie, Lead Belly and The Vaselines, as well as some work by the Meat Puppets (a band whose name might have been invented to unsettle network execs), whose members joined the band on stage. MTV didn’t much like the result, but it aired anyhow—and then six months later Cobain killed himself, and the downbeat performance, for which Cobain had requested stage decorations of lilies, “like a funeral,” became talismanic for bereft fans (and immensely profitable for MTV, which began airing it practically on a loop). It’s a damn good show, though, despite the slightly soppy, soft-focus staging and shooting: there is something undervalued about watching a show where neither the cameras nor the musicians are leaping around like madmen. The recording was directed through multiple cameras and without interruption by Beth McCarthy-Miller, a live TV maestro who went on to direct eleven seasons of “Saturday Night Live." And, at the risk of sounding like a weepy teenager in jeans ten sizes too big, the whole concert is sort of symptomatic of Cobain’s approach to music: gentle, heartfelt and basically misunderstood by an establishment that wanted him to shut up and play the hits in an easy, commercially viable way. The fact that it subsequently became an enormously lucrative album and film after Cobain’s death is not very surprising, really, but it doesn’t take away from the quiet excellence of Nirvana’s performance here.
From the Playlist to your playlist: “The Man Who Sold The World,” then a relatively unknown Bowie tune; the Lead Belly closer “Where Did You Sleep Last Night," after which the band refused to do an encore, not believing they could top their performance of the song.
"Gimme Shelter" (1970)
The day the music died, or almost. If “Woodstock” was the ultimate celebration of the 60s, the same year’s “Gimme Shelter” was its ugly side laid bare. The Altamont Free Concert had been meant to be a Woodstock for the west coast, with a bill featuring the quintessential hippie bands: Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead, topped off by the Rolling Stones. It all went horribly wrong once someone hired the Hell’s Angels to provide security and paid them in beer —the result was chaos, with mass violence and such confusion that no one knew to stop the show, though the Dead did pull out when they saw the way things were going. The Stones didn’t—despite Mick Jagger being punched in the face seconds after arriving at the venue—and as they played to close the concert, things devolved. In the worst moment, 18-year old Meredith Hunter tried to rush the stage, was stopped by an Angel, pulled a gun, and was promptly stabbed to death. The appalled cameramen, under the direction of documentarian brothers Albert and David Maysles, caught it all. Controversially, the (mercifully brief) footage was used, forming the climax of a film that masterfully captures the rising tension on the day, the various concert-goers’ own confusion and dismay, the negotiations that allowed the concert to take place in the first place (featuring flamboyant lawyer and occasional “Star Trek” guest Melvin Belli), and the disbelief of the performers in the subsequent days. In a sense it’s not a great concert movie: the Stones were at the height of their powers and their performance is amazing by any normal standard, with Jagger in full hypersexual space alien/clown prince mode, but they’re obviously unnerved by the atmosphere and unsure if they should keep playing (they didn’t realize someone had genuinely died until the next day). But “Gimme Shelter” is a great movie, and a great document of a strange and easily romanticized time.
From the Playlist to your playlist: The opening “Jumping Jack Flash” is pretty good, as is the title track that plays over the credits but, inescapably, the real essential moment of the film is Hunter’s stabbing.
"TAMI Show" (1964)
The fact that even the people who put on the show and made the film of it couldn’t decide if T.A.M.I. stood for “Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International” should clue you in to the fact that this is a concert film from before a time when people were sure how to spell teenager, and that there was no such thing as the Teenage Whatever Awards: the title was the invention of clever concert promoters in Santa Monica in 1964, who assembled a bill of Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Rolling Stones and James Brown, and then gave away free tickets to local high schoolers. They had cameras at the ready—operated by unknowns—and two months later released to theaters what is arguably the first modern concert film. The result ought to have been a cheap, B-movie experience (and the hacky MCing tips into this at times), but the sheer force of performance turns “TAMI Show” into an extraordinary document of mid-60s music, capturing the greatness not just of the young Stones—who have been on film plenty of times, including elsewhere on this list—but the R&B and Motown of a slightly earlier pop era: the Supremes at the height of their powers are a blast, Chuck Berry is manic, the Beach Boys are clean-cut and weirdly old-looking, and then a young man named James Brown takes the stage. Along with his backing band, the Famous Flames, he tears it up with ridiculous theatrics and music that immediately makes the rest of the show feel old-fashioned. The Rolling Stones, who appeared after him to close the show, were for once in their lives completely upstaged, and ended up regretting doing the film (not that their performance is bad or anything). “TAMI Show” is remembered now for launching Brown’s career, and he’s the obvious stand-out, but the whole thing is exuberantly good, like watching the show at the beginning of “Dreamgirls.” We’re celebrating 30 years since “Stop Making Sense,” but it’s also 50 years since “TAMI Show” and concert movies as we know them.
From the Playlist to your playlist: Every second James Brown is on stage, but especially his antics during “Night Train”; the dancers rightfully ceding the stage to the Supremes, who are then shown in close-up for the finale to “Where Did Our Love Go.”
"Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (1973)
Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker almost got onto this list several times, with his Dylan movies and with “Monterey Pop.” Ultimately it’s his record of David Bowie’s concert at the Hammersmith Apollo in 1973 that makes the cut, for capturing an artist at the peak of his impossible charisma and an era of fascinating excess without falling into the trap of actually displaying that excess (that trap is the reason many, many 70s movies in the style of “The Song Remains The Same” aren’t on here). Pennebaker gives us a straightforward set-list that doesn’t bother getting into the silliness of the Ziggy album’s “storyline,” and a straightforward film that doesn’t bother with too much behind-the-scenes stuff. Instead it’s a starkly lit, savagely beautiful pattern of blood-red lights, jagged-edged glam and Bowie’s extraterrestrial cheekbones, gradually stripping off one outlandish outfit and displaying another as the gig goes on. The key moment comes just before the final song, “Rock n Roll Suicide,” when Bowie announces that “not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” No one saw it coming (even most of the band members hadn’t been told), and no one in the howling crowd understands that Bowie means it’s his last show as Ziggy: he appeared to be genuinely retiring (which, of course, was what he wanted people to think). Ziggy leaves the stage to the mocking sounds of “Land of Hope and Glory”: Bowie was off to America to immerse himself in soul and become someone entirely new, leaving behind “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” as the final document of one of rock and roll’s richest, strangest eras.
From the Playlist to your playlist: “Rock n Roll Suicide,” in this context, is tremendous; the storming version of “Moonage Daydream” is also a highlight.
Undoubtedly the most straightforwardly beautiful film on this list, “Heima” covers ethereal, poetic post-rockers Sigur Ros as they return home to their native Iceland in 2006. The symbiosis between the band, the island and the islanders is extraordinary and lovely, as a series of free concerts and studio sessions unfolds against the Middle Earth-like landscape: the visit to a man who makes xylophones out of slabs of local volcanic rock really takes it over the top. The fact that the band sings partly in Icelandic and partly in a made-up language—so that the English viewer will be doubly uncomprehending—adds to the beauty too, and though Sigur Ros’ delicate, complex, sculpted sounds are the kind of thing that seem like they’d only work in a studio, they lose nothing live, and gain hugely when joined by local string bands, choirs and adorable Icelandic toddlers. The landscape photography is just as lush and alien as the music, empty vistas balanced beautifully by warm, grainy newsreel footage of Icelandic fisheries swarming with people in the 40s and 50s. The band, too, turn out not to be art-rock cloud-cuckoolanders but warm, nerdy, personable types who are constantly humble in the face of their countrymen’s obvious adoration. For the film’s main concert, the climactic night in Reykjavik, the aesthetic switches back from lo-fi gigs in fields to a complex light and sound spectacular, but by this point it feels earned, arising organically out of the island itself. “Heima” is a startlingly good piece of recent concert movie-making.
From the Playlist to your playlist: “Gitardjamm,” with the footage of the abandoned fisheries; “Staralfur.”
Like we said, many are the no-budget concert docs lazily put out to cash in on one tour or another, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other worthwhile concert films that didn’t make the cut here. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop," as noted, is a document of 60s hippie revelry almost up there with “Woodstock," and his two Bob Dylan tour films—“Dont Look Back” and “Eat The Document”—are straight-up masterpieces that don’t quite qualify as concert movies, since most of what they cover is not the gigs but the stuff that happened in between them. “The Song Remains The Same," though overblown, is an impressive relic of Led Zeppelin at the height of their powers; and The Who’s “Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970” is another over-the-top but enjoyable dad-rock document. Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese have come back to the format at times, too: Demme‘s “Heart of Gold” and Scorsese‘s “Shine A Light," both from the last 10 years, depict Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, respectively, artists who themselves appear in their youth on this list, older and wiser, but still altogether cool. Younger artists are still putting out good concert films too, as can be seen in the White Stripes’ “Under Great White Northern Lights,” LCD Soundsystem’s (brilliantly named) “Shut Up and Play The Hits” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Beside You In Time." Finally, mention also should go to Jay-Z’s 2004 “Fade to Black,” mostly because it badly makes you wish he’d do another film covering more than the first few years of his career.
Now go start a band.