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.