The concert film – 1968 to present
Music and movies have been permanently bound together since the advent of cinema. Early silent films were generally designed to be played with an accompanying orchestra or band. In fact, the first words ever spoken in a movie were music related. In the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson played a young Jewish man named Jackie who defies the rigid traditions of his devout, religious family by singing popular tunes in a beer hall. The film begins with a young Jackie listening to his father, a Rabbi, teaching children “the songs and chants of the orthodox – the prayers set to music that have been handed down for generations.” Jackie is enthralled, and soon after we see Jackie as a young man about to sing another song to his loving audience now in a cheap saloon. His quote, the first spoken words in cinema, would be legendary, hinting at the new possibilities of this art form: “Wait a minute…wait a minute…you ain’t heard nothing yet!”
And so we hadn’t. Over the 70 years since, movies and music have defined each other in multiple ways, from background scoring to Hollywood musical numbers. In the 1950’s singers and bands found large exposure and instant recognition from television and movie spots, most obviously Elvis and The Beatles. This would evolve in multiple ways, from fictional movie narratives about a band’s origin (A Hard Day’s Night) to modern music videos. Among the most interesting combinations came in the form of the concert film — a loose documentary of sorts usually comprised of three elements: the history of the musical act often with in-depth interviews, the lead-up or preparation for a live performance, and the show itself, the culmination of all the hard work.
In the most notable examples the concert film becomes a comment not only about the band and its music but also on the time and culture it is reflecting. The first breakout in this genre occurred in 1968 with two very different events. During the summer legendary documentary filmmaker D.A.Pennebaker (Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back) released his film about the Monterey Pop Festival in California from the year before. Simply called Monterey Pop, the film chronicles what would be America’s first rock festival. Showcasing performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Otis Redding, and Janis Joplin, this would be most American’s introduction to the California hippie movement and the growing counterculture. Setting the standard, the film doesn’t just show the performances, but catalogs the set-up and creation of the festival, always leading up to show time.
Six months later, on December 3, 1968, audiences around the country witnessed a legendary moment. After nearly a decade of absence from live performances, Elvis Presley agreed to make a television special. Originally planned as a Christmas show, Elvis decided on a much different path. The show, commonly known now as The ’68 Comeback Special in reference to the change it made in his career, was a smash success. It highlighted live performances and interviews surrounded by a semi-autobiographical mini-movie and often dreamy, surreal dance sequences. It would be the most viewed television event of that year, and its format would spawn countless imitations, solidifying the elements that would be expected from any concert film.
Not surprisingly, the subsequent years since 1968 have seen hundreds of concert films, some more intelligent and innovative than others. Most recently the posthumously released Michael Jackson film This is It was released to rave reviews, as were films about Rush and U2 (who, interestingly, have made three concert films so far). Released in the first weekend of February, 2011, the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never set financial records for a concert film, pulling in almost $20 million in one weekend, mostly in babysitting money (hey, it worked for Titanic).
But quality of music aside, concert films have become an increasingly important part of both the music and the film industry. And although most of us will choose which ones we watch based on personal taste, here are ten other concert films that must be seen, not only for their musical panache but also because of their massive cultural importance.
Woodstock – Released in 1969 and partially filmed by up-and-coming filmmaker Martin Scorsese, it chronicles the epic New York rock festival with Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, and many others. Clocking in at almost four hours long, the film, along with Monterey Pop, was the average American’s first exposure to the late sixties youth culture…and mud dancing. Remember, don’t take the red acid.
Gimme Shelter – In 1970 a rather darker look at the counterculture emerged in this film about the Rolling Stones’ disastrous concert at Altamont, when bikers and hippies clashed in bloody showdowns. As Mick Jagger watches footage of one murder, his stunned reactions reflect everything about the coming demise of the ‘peace and love’ movement.
Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison organized a phenomenal concert to raise funds for charity (the first to do this) at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Harrison was joined by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ravi Shanker, who bizarrely steals the show with his unique, psychedelic sitar sound.
Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii – Really more like a long form video, there are no spectators here. In 1972 Pink Floyd quietly (and illegally) set up a show in the middle of the decayed buildings and dead bodies of the partially buried ruins of Pompeii, a Roman town-city destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The music is recorded live, so in essence you are the only audience this “concert” will ever have. This film is a brilliant, heady, and occasionally spooky descent into 60s acid rock.
Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars – Focusing on David Bowie’s July 3, 1973 concert in west London, this live show/movie chronicles the fictional rise of Bowie’s drugged-out alter-ego, the cosmic rock star Ziggy Stardust. Again directed by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, this widely expanded what a concert film could be, making deep comments on the doomed fate of beloved musicians, all the while drenched in 70s glam kookiness and Bowie’s ageless hits.
The Song Remains the Same – Taken from three Led Zeppelin shows filmed at Madison Square Garden in 1973 and peppered with bizarre fantasy sequences starring each band member, this became the definitive late night, acid trip concert flick, as well as the ultimate backstage pass to one of the 70s most beloved live acts.
Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps – Roadies dressed as coneheads and jawas and a stage full of bizarre oversized props set the take-no-prisoners tone for this legendary 1976 show, where Neil Young tears into a performance of unrestrained power, humor, and beauty.
The Last Waltz – Documenting the final concert of The Band on Thanksgiving 1976 in San Francisco, director Martin Scorsese gathers an insane number of rock legends for what might be one of the ultimate concert experiences. Joining The Band is Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, and more. Imagine being in that audience. Enough said.
Stop Making Sense – A stylish and incredibly influential concert film from director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), showing the lead-up and performance of the Talking Heads in Hollywood in December of 1983. Anchored by interviews and outtakes with Talking Heads charismatic front man David Byrne, this closer-than-ever technique of live filming would be the primer on the growing music video genre. MTV grew from this show alone.
The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital – For reasons that seem impossible to understand, somebody somehow thought it would be smart to book the psychobilly punk rockers The Cramps in an insane asylum. And somebody filmed it. Although the film was made in 1978, prints were thought to be lost until the internet age saw its resurface in 1996. The most interesting live concert booking since Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, it still crawls with giddy dementia and uncomfortable power. Unforgettable crazy.
Need something more recent? Try Peter Bogdanovich’s exhaustive six-hour concert film/biographical study of Tom Petty in Runnin Down a Dream. Or the Beastie Boys insane concert experiment with director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) called Awesome! I Shot That! where thousands of video cameras were dispersed to the audience, to capture every moment and angle possible.
Now, let’s jam.
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.