BLOG: The best rock concert films ever
23rd Apr 2008 | 11:41
A Hard Day's Night
Jimi Plays Berkley
Not being there is sometimes best
The ransom-like ticket prices, the unbearable heat, and those weird naked people next to you - yep, nothing says "good times" quite like a rock concert. So why, then, are concert films such hit-and-miss propositions? There have been many of them, but only a select few have fully articulated the magic of live performance on the big screen.
With the recent release of Shine A Light, Martin Scorsese's winning documentary of The Rolling Stones in concert, and U2 3D, U2's inventively titled look at themselves in 3-D, we decided to assess the best concert films in history - those movies that capture the true essence of music as it happens, its affect on an audience, and why staring at some weird naked people is just so damn fascinating.
1. A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Okay, so it's not really a concert movie, but the four-song wham-bam closer of Tell My Why, If I Fell, I Should've Known Better and She Loves You feels like the best one you've never attended but always wished you'd had. Shot during the full bloom of Beatlemania, the film's denouement sees The Beatles (the band's name is never mentioned, by the way), drunk with success but thankfully not housebroken, ringing in the '60s before a dream audience of girls, all of whom are in a state of sustained orgasm. To miss this is akin to denying yourself food and water.
2. The Last Waltz (1978)
After 16 years of being touted as legends, The Band packed it in to make it official. (They seemed to know, even then, that the only way we could miss them was to go away.) Shot over a two-day blowout in November, 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, under the direction of Martin Scorsese and his stellar crew, the film sees The Band powering through their impressive catalog and holding court with stars such as Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young. Regal, righteous, and filled with indomitable spirit.
3. U2 3D (2008)
Experiments of this sort - let's create the first live-action film shot, produced, and screened totally with digital 3-D technology - have a funny way of turning into disasters. But directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington have trained their cameras on the world's most compelling live band, U2, who, during their 2006 Vertigo Tour, were in splendid, thunderous form. Let's face it: People wearing 3-D glasses will always look like idiots. Thanks to this movie, they won't feel like idiots.
4. Shine A Light (2008)
In 2006, President Bill Clinton turned 60, so he threw himself a couple of parties and invited some senior citizens, The Rolling Stones and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. The resulting throwdowns, anything but sedate, are captured on this rousing documentary which proves, once and for all, that the only numbers a true rock 'n' roll band should care about are 2 and 4. Guest performers Jack White, Buddy Guy, and Christina Aguilera join Mick and the gang on deep cuts such as Loving Cup, but they're mere moons in the Stones' orbit.
5. Woodstock (1970)
Originally touted as "3 Days of Peace and Music," they forgot to add "and Mud." Oh, "and Brown Acid," they could've thrown that on as well. No matter: For anyone who wasn't there, the astute direction of Michael Wadleigh (and editing by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schonmaker) puts you knee-deep and naked in the muck. It also puts you onstage for spellbinding performances by a dizzying array of artists such as Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young), Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and many more. Countless wannabe festivals have been thrown to recreate the Woodstock mystique, but you just can't force a happening - it simply happens.
6. The Who - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival (1998)
By the end of the '60s, The Who didn't need to rely on exploding drums and other forms of instrument destruction - they were slaying audiences with their own combustive abilities, rendered brilliantly on this DVD. It takes major cajones to perform a then-little-known "rock opera" before some 600,000 attendees, but by the time The Who finished with We're Not Gonna Take It/See Me Feel Me, the only question was, What could they possibly do to top it? Riveting stuff - and Entwhistle's wearing that crazy skelton suit.
7. Jazz On A Summer's Day (1960)
With the exception of Chuck Berry, there's not a true rocker to be found. But Bert Stern's loving snapshot of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival greatly affected young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, informing their sense of sound and style - so much so that when the group was to work with Martin Scorsese on Shine A Light, Jazz On A Summer's Day was their touchstone. Years before free-form jazz met rock 'n' roll and became fusion, there were these shape-shifting performances by Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and more.
8. Gimme Shelter (1971)
When The Rolling Stones decided to wrap up their triumphant 1969 US tour with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco, they wanted to give the audience something they would always remember. And by including the murder of an attendee in Gimme Shelter, they went all the way. Directed by Albert and David Maysles, the film, like The Beatles' Let It Be, is a warts and all look at cultural icons. But where Let It Be caught The Beatles grimly winding down, Gimme Shelter sees The Stones wound up plenty. The Madison Square Garden performances that make up roughly half of the picture rank as their best ever.
9. Jimi Plays Berkley (1971)
Shot for the cheap during two performances on May 30, 1970, at the Berkeley Community Theatre, this flick became a midnight-movie/college-circuit classic. So why choose it over DA Pennebaker's more celebrated The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at Monterey documentary? For one thing, Jimi Plays Berkley Berkeley provides some fascinating (and incredibly rare) behind-the-scenes footage, including a limo drive to the venue and at sound check. It also captures one heck of a night for the ultimate guitar god, who would die just months later, as he leads his wrecking crew through such classics as Machine Gun and Purple Haze.
10. Stop Making Sense (1984)
You've got a skinny white guy in a big suit - you're halfway there already, right? Beyond the obvious sartorial conquests, however, Jonathan Demme's look at Talking Heads in concert is proof-positive that the act of live performance doesn't have to remain static: In the beginning, lead singer David Byrne walks on to a bare stage and performs a chilling Psycho Killer; by the film's end, Talking Heads have grown to a gospel choir-strength rock-funk band of nine. Muscular, bravura takes on classic Heads' material, with some engaging Tom-Tom Club thrown in for good measure. How 'bout a reunion, folks? There's a concert doc just waiting to happen.
By Joe Bosso