The music industry, just like everything else, has been beleaguered in recent times for obvious reasons that warrant no further explanation for everyone’s sake. The virus and its resultant lockdown have lingered over the last year like an ominous cloud, but it is a cloud that music, unlike almost anything else, can embalm in the sanguine glow of the promise brighter days beyond.
Whether summoning colour back into dimming memories, blasting out the glory of days yet to come, or offering simple comfort that ‘All Things Must Pass’, music has been the constant benevolent companion of suffering throughout history and it has far from abandoned us during this latest patch of passing bad weather.
Amidst the constant bombardment of this, that and the other, it can be easy to feel trapped in more ways than one during the lockdown. However, music has offered refuge away from the gloomy insular world of our own domains and with the simple tap of a play button, drop of a stylus or strum of a guitar, our suburbs, cities and countryside abodes can rest like a sleepy ocean as guitar solos, drumbeats and soaring vocals offer a small but mighty escape in a coracle of unimpeachable hope and exultation.
Amongst the melee of the inviolable sanctity that music offers up as a balm of triumphant alchemy, there is one form that can permeate into our private lives like an assegai of exuberant joy: the concert film. Shots of sweaty faces, bulging blood vessels and the near-tangible perception of electrified airways just gives the concert film that visceral malaise eviscerating edge. Whilst scenes of thousands of people sharing the same sweat may prove bewildering, and images of incumbently forbidden ‘good times’ might have just a slight hue of frustrated yearning, for the most part, they serve up music at its humanised best that reaches right out of the sonic itself and into the senses.
In short, concert films conquer any lingering touch of ‘what-could-be’ with a big bastard bludgeon of hope. Hope that live shows will be back before we know it and when the live experience returns it will be vivified and reenergised as the masses pour into music venues clutching ticket stubs in a grateful grasp of gladdened appreciation. And before we get into the films, there is a small, fevered part in our imagination that thinks that return might be something like this:
Thus, with Elbow-pumped enthusiasm in the veins, let’s take a look at the best concert films ever made, ideal for filling in the last few weekends before the euphoria of the real thing returns. (And if it seems like fanboying or straight pandering on our part that the top order is very David Byrne heavy, then we make no apology and will personally take our hats off to anyone who forms a convincing argument against it.)
10 greatest concert films:
10. Woodstock – Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez and more
It’s a cliched appraisal of the concert film to say, “it makes you realise what it would have been like to be there.” Whilst Woodstock might not achieve the impossible feat of transporting you back to the era-defining festivities, is serves up enough peace-and-love-addled carnage to at least offer a glimpse.
The show itself represents a pivotal moment in music. Few concerts in history continually pop up in the discourse of culture, quite as frequently as Woodstock. Upon release, it was rightfully acclaimed as a fine piece of counterculture filmmaking featuring some spellbinding performances, but now the film has been imbued with the fascinating edge of retrospect.
Woodstock not only features Jimi Hendrix at his spellbinding best and an ensemble of other performers from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Joan Baez and The Who, but it is also a wonderful kaleidoscopic encapsulation of a moment in time, that transfigures the film a piece of art to the heights of an important historical document – “with a cast of half a million outrageously friendly people.”
9. Flight of the Conchords: Live in London – Flight of the Conchords
Making comedy songs actually funny may not quite be a Promethean feat, but it certainly isn’t far off. With their own dry yet whimsical brand of humour the Kiwi duo of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, changed the face of comedy in a very subtle way; they didn’t so much cause a shake-up, rather a gentle reverberating rock.
This wholesome brand of comedy serves as a perfect accompaniment for these trying times. Unlike a lot of films on the list, it is not the sort that is going to turn your lounge into a dancefloor or have you gulping booze in a transfixed state of wonderment, but in its own little way, it is as vital as ever.
The pair stroll through classic songs from the TV series and add a showering of new numbers, like ‘Father and Son’ which may be their best, and dry intermission chats. Humour has a vital place in our lives and there is no reason ‘the biggest band in New Zealand in terms of members’ shouldn’t rub shoulders with the poignant giants who search for the same level of exultation just in a more serious manner.
8. Under Blackpool Lights – The White Stripes
The beauty of live music is multifaceted. Going to a concert is not merely about the 90 minutes, give or take, that the band is on the stage. The main event is built around a series of rituals, routines and hysteria. The very notion of Jack White’s southern drawl ringing out over the sleepy seaside town of Blackpool is a surreal concept that sings of the unifying notion of music.
Inside the famed Blackpool Empress Ballroom, Meg and Jack White set the gaff alight as though Guy Fawkes had succeeded. The place is ablaze with unadulterated blues-rock and director Dick Carruthers captures it all on shaky super-8 film.
Under Blackpool Lights is a film drenched in sweat, soaked in the hue of the iconic historical venue and smashed towards rapture in a kick-drum blast of two musicians aiming to shake the rafters.
7. The Song Remains the Same – Led Zeppelin
The drawback of watching concert films at the best of times, never mind during the lockdown, is that frequently you find yourself drawn to a wistful yearning and niggling frustration that you were somehow born in the wrong town at the wrong time. The Song Remains the Same rams that feeling home. However, it simultaneously doubles up as a boon, as that lingering frustration is basked in the sanguine hue that live music will return soon and you may well end up witnessing an atom-splitting show yourself.
John Bonham is the eponymous thunder on drums, Jimmy Page cuts the figure of an underworld overlord casting spells upon his guitar, John Paul Jones is just being his enigmatic self, and Robert Plant is the picture of an archetypal frontman. All this comes together in a bludgeon of heavy blues-rock.
There may not be any flourishes or artistic embellishments beyond the bizarre intro, but with a front and centre moving like a juggernaut they’d simply be blown away in the maelstrom anyway.
6. Nina Simone: The Legend – Nina Simone
Nina Simone was an artist whose life was beleaguered by wrongdoings. She was discriminated against, misused and belittled at every turn and all she bore that with was immense grace, spiritual emancipation and a swaggering stiff upper lip. In the opening prologue to Frank Lord’s concert film, that stiff upper lip slips and in a moment of deeply affecting vulnerability as Simone is seen weeping in the back of a car.
Interspersed with completely frank and candid autobiographical interview footage, this French-made film glorious celebrates the star both behind and in front of the parted curtain.
Through the heavy atmosphere that settles on the interview sections, shines the beaming light of her stage performances. The footage is by no means crisp or to the professional standard of many on this list, if anything this helps to transcend the boundary of the camera and captures the footage with all of its warts and nuances in a film that shows what it is to live with struggles.
5. 20,000 Days on Earth – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it,” Nick Cave gorgeously poeticises before the film’s crescendo, a rollicking performance of ‘Jubilee Street’ so intense and ecstatic that it could give goosebumps to a blade of grass.
“Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world,” Cave’s hopeful eulogy continues, “a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold on to that flame great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world-changing – all held up by the tiniest of ideas.”
It is worth its place in the champions league spots of this list for that scintillating finale alone. However, the exultant crescendo is merely the goal that steals the glory from the wonderful team play throughout. Filmmakers Jane Pollard Iain Forsyth spelunk into the depths of Cave and paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of a creator who has delved into the mire and emerged with a singular voice of ink, music, beauty and rage.
4. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
In the 1960s thing were not simply happening, musicians were making them happen. From 1964 up until the close of the decade the band produced ten studio albums. It’s a work rate that sends a clear message to today’s contemporaries, that if you want to change the world then your profundity best be propagated profusely.
By the time that 1970s Gimme Shelter came around the band had been off the road for a relative lifetime of two years. The comeback show documented in the film is summed up perfectly by one of the best official loglines ever written: “When three hundred thousand members of the Love Generation collided with a few dozen Hells Angels at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway, the bloody slash that transformed a decade’s dreams into disillusionment was immortalized on this film.”
The film is both a figurative and literal riot that stands up today as not only a hellraising watch of triumph and turmoil but as a fascinating document of history that seems to capture the prelapsarian death of the glossy-eyed sixties in real-time.
3. The Last Waltz – The Band
If any group could be described as the distilment of a generation then The Band are it. The band garnered as much mystique as they did musicianship from 16 years travelling the rough roads with Bob Dylan and the likes, eventually infusing their own music with everything they had learnt.
Martin Scorsese teamed up with them for a farewell concert in San Francisco and lent his expert cinematic craftsmanship to the show. The gig itself is an important chapter in the history of music, the bill featured an array of wrongfully forgotten musicians including the likes of Bobby Charles, and in a way, it captured the night that the seventies finally drove the sixties down.
The film is simply a fantastic document of superb musical performances from, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and more, but the gleaming jewel in its crown is the teary-eyed tear down of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ which features musicians at the culmination of a journey, giving it absolutely all they’ve got.
2. American Utopia – David Byrne
36 years on from his part in the seminal Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, (of course, it features on the list below) David Byrne was once again not only reinventing the wheel but somehow coming up with a superior way around it.
“What if we could eliminate everything from the stage except the stuff we care about the most,” is the premise that David Byrne had in mind for his wireless and restriction-free concert film. With the help of legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, he managed to take that innovative idea to exultant new heights and disavowed the gimmicky potential of the quirk by transfiguring it into the most deeply humanised live film ever made.
In the 36 years since Stop Making Sense was made nobody has ever tried to replicate it owing to the fact that the idea is so original there is no way you could without it coming off as blatant plagiarism. It would seem likely that the same fate will follow American Utopia. Beyond the innovation, however, is Byrne and a frankly awe-inspiring collection of musicians and dancers at their very best. He tackles the world head-on, but in typical Byrnian fashion, he accomplishes an uncompromised view of America without ever succumbing to cynicism and celebrating the simple joy of life and unity and the potential that creates for positive and meaningful change. In short, this is not only one of the greatest live shows of all time, but the film that the world needs right now.
1. Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads
The camera opens on a pair of espadrilles peeking out of the bottom of billowing grey trouser legs. They belong to David Byrne who strides out onto the stage alone, with a boombox in one hand and his acoustic guitar in the other. “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play,” he declares, and so begins the greatest concert film of all time.
What follows that iconic introduction is an hour and a half of pure creative freedom as Jonathan Demme expertly captures a band taking to song like a bird to flight, leaving in their joyous wake a chem-trail of pure eudemonia for adoring audience to lap up in total rhapsodic bliss.
The band and filmmakers construct the show in front of the audience’s eyes, starting with Byrne’s solo acoustic rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’ before Tina Weymouth joins him on bass and the pair casually impart an almost hymnally spiritual version of ‘Heaven’ and they continue to race through hits as the show gathers like a rising sun behind them.
Captured over the course of four nights worth of shows at Hollywood’s Pentages Theatre in December 1983, the film is a celebration of artistry, crafted by amazing people at the peak of their creative powers. Enjoy it with a bottle of wine on Friday or Saturday evening and it’s just about as good a time you can have in your own living room – it’s a thing of total joy.