CATEGORIES FeaturesLet's be fair: most concert films fall into the same middling range of Adequate to Watchable that show an act going through the motions and simply mimicking their albums wholesale.
Some, however, have elevated the simple genre of concert film into high art. The upcoming release of 'This Is It,' detailing Michael Jackson's rehearsals for the planned tour of the same name, prompted a nostalgic look back at some of the concert films that shattered preconceptions, paved new sonic or technological directions or simply looked revolutionary and mind-bending. Let's be fair: most concert films fall into the same middling range of Adequate to Watchable that show an act going through the motions and simply mimicking their albums wholesale.
Some, however, have elevated the simple genre of concert film into high art. The upcoming release of 'This Is It,' detailing Michael Jackson's rehearsals for the planned tour of the same name, prompted a nostalgic look back at some of the concert films that shattered preconceptions, paved new sonic or technological directions or simply looked revolutionary and mind-bending.
But first, the rules: the films had to be predominantly centered around the live show and not a equal mix of performance and documentary filming (we still consider 'Gimme Shelter', 'Don't Look Back', 'Let It Be', 'Buena Vista Social Club' and 'The Night James Brown Saved Boston' required viewing, just not for this list). Also, made-for-TV specials were nixed, otherwise Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special' or 'Elvis In Concert, 1977' would have surely made it.
Everything else is fair game, though, so let the debate begin:
15. 'Urgh! A Music War' (1981)
The definitive post-punk and New Wave film, this collection of live performances augments tracks from more ubiquitous bands (The Police, The Go-Go's) with a who's who of sonically adventurous groups such as Magazine, XTC, Devo, The Cramps, X, Dead Kennedys, and Oingo Boingo (featuring a young Danny Elfman). Narration and context are virtually non-existent, but this still remains essential viewing for anyone interested in some of the most forward-thinking music of the period.
14. 'Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll' (1987)
Taylor Hackford ('Ray', 'An Officer and a Gentleman') documents two concerts-cum-birthday parties thrown by Keith Richards for rock pioneer and personal Richards hero Chuck Berry. With special guests Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray and Julian Lennon on hand to celebrate, Berry and company run through the classic tracks that helped lay the sonic template for rock music. What's equally fascinating, though, is Berry's offstage personality, as Hackford doesn't shy away from the legend's notorious mean streak.
13. 'Awesome: I F&!#in' Shot That!' (2006)
This 2004 Beastie Boys concert at Madison Square Garden makes the list for the most democratic way of filming a concert: give 50 of your fans camcorders for the show, then instruct them to never stop shooting and return the cameras for a full refund. The result: a dizzying yet exhilarating film directed by member Adam Yauch showcasing the exciting (the concert), the brilliant (one cameraman's bathroom break) and the awkward (Ben Stiller dancing in the crowd.)
12. 'Dave Chappelle's Block Party' (2005)
In 2004, at the peak of his fame, comedian Dave Chappelle staged and emceed a free all-day concert in an undisclosed part of Brooklyn, NY and invited a select group of his friends to perform -- namely hip-hop icons Mos Def, The Roots, Erykah Badu, dead prez, Kanye West and a reunited Fugees. Director Michel Gondry ('The Science of Sleep') eschewed his usual sense of whimsy and let the talent speak for themselves, augmenting musical performances with Chappelle's hysterical, spontaneous thoughts onstage and off.
11. 'The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus' (1968)
Shot in 1968 but only released in 1996 -- thank Mick Jagger's restraining order over what he felt was a poor performance by his band -- this unique special features The Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal and The Dirty Mac (an one-time-only supergroup featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell) performing in, naturally, a giant circus stage. Jagger wanted to break free of the more traditional concerts the group had been performing, and while it's no one's finest musical moment, 'Circus' still remains a bizarre and mesmerizing document in rock history.
10. 'The Grateful Dead Movie' (1976)
How could you not include a Dead movie on the list? Chronicling the perpetually touring band's five nights at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, the movie, co-directed by Leon Gast ('When We Were Kings') and Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, is as celebrated by Deadheads for its free-form style and trippy animation sequences as it is for the band's amazing sets. Everything you've experienced (or heard) about the band is contained here, from the extended jams to the usual gaggle of rabid fans. While 2003's 'Festival Express' is equally required viewing, it's this one that best captures what it's like to be with the Dead.
9. 'Fela in Concert' (1981)
Nigerian bandleader and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti isn't as well-known as others on this list, yet his contributions rank him as one of the most influential figures in music. Combining irresistible funk, free jazz and polyrhythmic African drumming into songs that routinely lasted longer than some television shows, the outspoken political leader's concerts became known as much for their raucous, sexually charged energy as their length. This film, shot in Paris during an all-night concert, captures the revolutionary virtuoso in all his charismatic glory.
8. 'Led Zeppelin' (2003)
While we're fans of 1976's 'Song Remains the Same' only because it exemplified every 1970s rock music cliché (we're still laughing at those dream sequences), this set gets the nod for showing the band in all its various incarnations, including a triumphant 1970 show at London's Royal Albert Hall and Knebworth 1979 one year before drummer John Bonham's death. If you ever want to know why Zeppelin were the most popular group of the 1970s, look no further than this.
7. 'Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars' (1972)
Donning kimonos, heavy makeup and futuristic costumes, then 26-year old David Bowie dominated London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 for what would turn out to be his last show as alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Directed by celebrated documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, the singer's mix of cabaret, hard rock, glam and opera had already made him a god, but it's Bowie's limitless energy on 'Ziggy' (note the girl overcome with emotion during 'Space Oddity') aided with guitarist Mick Ronson's unbridled histrionics, that cemented Bowie into the rock and roll canon.
6. 'Wattstax' (1973)
To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, legendary Memphis record label Stax staged a 1972 concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum dubbed as the "black Woodstock." The show, attended by more than 100,000 people, featured label heavyweights The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Albert King and Isaac Hayes (along with interludes by a then up-and-coming comic named Richard Pryor). Helmed by director Mel Stuart ('Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'), the film not only was a watershed moment for African-American unity, but remains a pre-eminent document of soul music in its prime.
5. 'Monterey Pop' (1968)
A crucial record of the wealth of late 1960s musical talent, 'Monterey Pop' may have been eclipsed by the sonically similar 'Woodstock' in terms of size, but rivals the New York festival for historical importance. D.A. Pennebaker's account of the 1967 festival in Monterey, Calif. mostly focused on the music, an incredible array of musicians that included Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and The Mamas and the Papas. The festival also made overnight superstars out of Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, the latter turning in one of the most celebrated live performances in rock history.
4. 'Woodstock' (1970)
We're going to assume you're at least somewhat familiar with 'Woodstock', the granddaddy of concert films that featured, well, virtually every musician around at the time. The history of the movie is almost as storied as the concert itself but suffice to say, lots of decisions were made on the fly, 120 miles of film were exposed and yes, Martin Scorsese (a fellow NYU film student of director Michael Wadleigh) was a supervising editor on the film. Scorsese summed up the film better than anyone: "Without the film, the concert would not be more than a footnote to the social and cultural history of the 1960s."
3. 'The Last Waltz' (1978)
When legendary 1960s rock group The Band decided to call it quits in 1976 after nearly a decade together, the group decided to throw its own funeral at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom with Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Neil Young among the eulogizers. Using 35mm footage for the first time in a concert film, the film's gorgeous look, flawless direction (by Martin Scorsese) and celebratory, yet sad, nature of the event, continues to earn 'Waltz' the title of "Best. Concert. Film. Ever!" among many viewers.
2. 'Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii' (1974)
Since forming in 1965, Pink Floyd have never been one to adhere to convention and orthodoxy. So when it came time to shoot a live concert, the British quartet nixed any traditional footage and decamped to an ancient amphitheater in Pompeii. There was no audience, the film crew regularly appears on-camera and performance footage was juxtaposed with images of exploding volcanoes, a group cliff walk and random shots of ruins and masks. Nothing and everything makes sense. Still, the group's hour-long concert stands as a near-perfect combination of sound and image.
1. 'Stop Making Sense' (1984)
We really wanted to be contrarian, but facts are facts: Jonathan Demme's debut documentary still stands as the gold standard on which all other concert films should be based. Stylistically, 'Sense' plays out as the antithesis to 'Ziggy Stardust'; the minimalist masterpiece's sole props are a lamp and one oversized suit. Demme's direction--long camera shots and a perfect mix of on-stage shooting and mounted shots--perfectly captures the exuberance of the music and a band at the height of its power. And while slightly awkward, frontman David Byrne's strangely hypnotic, spastic dance moves augment the film's joyousness on every song. Even non-fans have to marvel at the incredible energy levels maintained throughout the film.