This Friday (September 29), the 4K re-release of Stop Making Sense will remind us what the concert film is capable of as a medium. Whilst the Talking Heads’ imperious classic is very much the gold standard, modern music’s history is littered with examples of the concert film’s ability to accentuate, and lend a deeper meaning to, what makes the very best artists tick. Here, we take a look at ten essentials, all of which are masterworks in their own right.
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
Perhaps more than any other documentary, The Last Waltz captures a genuine moment in rock history; the film opens with a title card that implores the viewer to turn up the volume, and not for nothing. It is a rarity to watch a band voluntarily bow out somewhere close to the peak of their powers, but that’s what The Band did when they brought the curtain down on their initial stint together with this epic show in San Francisco in 1976. Who better to document it than Martin Scorsese, who was recommended to Robbie Robertson by a long-time tour manager who saw Mean Streets and grasped that the now-legendary director has a gift for finding beauty amongst the grit. The film, visceral and dramatic, is as much a testament to as it is to Robertson and his bandmates; after the latter passed away earlier this year, now is the perfect time to revisit this handsome document of his legacy.
The Beatles: Get Back – The Rooftop Concert (Peter Jackson, 2022)
Such is the enduring appeal of The Beatles that Get Back, Peter Jackson’s slow-burning and often workmanlike arrangement of many hours of rehearsal footage for the sessions that led to Let It Be, felt like a genuine cultural event when it landed on Disney+ towards the end of 2021. What might be the jewel in the crow of Jackson’s project, however, almost felt like it was lost among the noise, as a postscript to the four-part series; The Rooftop Concert, which was beamed to IMAX screens around the world, takes the footage of the band performing together for the last time on the roof of their London offices in 1968 and adds colour and punctuation, revealing the extent to which the local constabulary went to try to shut down the show and hinting at the strained relationship between the group’s members as they play, and then stop, and then start again. Not that it mattered: when John Lennon howls out ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, the magic is undeniable.
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Questlove, 2021)
When Joe Lauro, a film archivist at the Historic Film Arvhives, stumbled upon the existence of forty hours of footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in 2004, he must have felt as if he had discovered the Holy Grail. Highlights of the event had aired shortly after the festival itself in 1969, before the tapes, inexplicably, were sent to sit in storage and obscurity for decades to follow. To see the film, lovingly helmed by Questlove, is to be truly baffled at how such stunning performances could have been consigned to the dustbin of history for so long; Sly and the Family Stone are utterly electrifying, Stevie Wonder is at the very top of his game, and Mahalia Jackson is on imperious form, to name-check just three of the performers. The festival stood as a black counterpoint to the same summer’s Woodstock and the politics of the time are intelligently threaded through the film by Questlove, making Nina Simone’s show-stopping one-two of ‘Backlash Blues’ and ‘Are You Ready’ at the film’s denouement all the more powerful.
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (Beth McCarthy, 1994)
Unquestionably the high watermark of MTV’s Unplugged series, Nirvana’s show at Sony Music Studios in November 1993 captured the genius of the stripped-back concept; take a band who normally pride themselves on walks after wall of scuzzy reverb and present them with little more than acoustic instrumentation to hide behind. The results are raw, revealing and beautiful, as Kurt Cobain, by now beyond disillusioned with the machinations of the music industry, reaching for truth in covers of songs he loved by Meat Puppets, The Vaselines and David Bowie. His pared-back takes on his own material, meanwhile, are impassioned and stark, reminding us of how powerful his voice was, in more ways than one.
Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack, 2018)
There are bad days at the office, and then there is Sydney Pollack at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. Sensing that something special was in the offing with Aretha Franklin scheduled to record a live gospel album over two nights, the producers drafted in a heavyweight director to oversee the filming of it. Pollack captured magic as Franklin laid down what would become the best-selling live gospel record of all time, only for the footage to be rendered unusable by his failure to use clapperboards, meaning that it was impossible for the audio and video to be properly synced. Not until after Franklin’s death did the film, made possible by technological advances, see the light of day. It is a stunning tour-de-force of emotion, not least when Franklin delivers the title track, after which the leader of the gospel choir backing her, James Cleveland, implores the crowd to come back the following night: “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” So brilliant is Franklin that you wonder why he felt the hard sell was necessary. Occasionally, the camera drifts to the back of the church, and lands on Mick Jagger, who was in town applying the finishing touches to Exile on Main St. Normally the consummate poser, he looks stunned by what he’s seeing.
Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, 1970)
“Who’s fighting, and what for?” asked an exasperated Mick Jagger from the stage at the Altamont Speedway in California in December 1969. The Rolling Stones’ frontman landed at the venue in a helicopter and was punched in the side of the head within seconds of disembarking; the day only got worse from there. After sets from Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Stones took the stage amidst a febrile atmosphere, one that would culminate in the death of a concert-goer in the hands of the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security. That, and much more, was captured by the Maysles brothers, who released their unerring documentary on the debacle a year later, with a young George Lucas having been one of the camera operators. The film depicts the death of the hippie ideal and the sixties counterculture; years later, reflecting on it in Brett Morgen’s Crossfire Hurricane, the famously unflappable Keith Richards admitted to having been scared. It must have been bad.
The Song Remains the Same (Peter Grant and Joe Massot, 1976)
“For the first time, the world has a front row seat on Led Zeppelin,” read the lofty promotional materials for the band’s classic concert film, released in 1976. It captures them on such incendiary, all-conquering form that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been early realisers of the power of the music movie and had masterminded The Song Remains the Same accordingly; in fact, though, the plan to shoot their Madison Square Garden concerts came together on the fly, with director Joe Massot hurriedly assembling a crew. A torturously long post-production process, that led co-director Peter Grant to describe the film as “the most expensive home movie ever made”, proved worth their while; of only one document of hard rock can be included in a time capsule for future generations, it would surely be this one, which captures the genre – and the band – in all its swaggering glory.
Homecoming (Beyoncé, 2019)
Written, directed, narrated, starring and – perhaps most crucially – with music by Beyoncé, this searing Netflix documentary captures the singer’s earth-shattering 2018 headline set at Coachella and relays it with verve and ferocity, the concert footage intelligently interspersed with political and personal ruminations. Beyoncé enjoys a reputation on a level beyond superstar; the critical consensus around her often spills over into the sort of territory that she might be some sort of gift from God. Homecoming provides compelling evidence as to why – it is the work of a visionary.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, 2012)
When James Murphy decided that it was time to bring the curtain down on LCD Soundsystem, he quite literally made a massive song and dance of it. An epic concert at Madison Square Garden would provide a logical endpoint for the band, a bastion of 21st century New York cool that came to epitomise the city’s modern-day contribution to music and culture, both backwards and forwards looking, referential and radical. At the time, Murphy really thought this was it, so he played a three-hour-plus set that included but was not limited to the 45:33 project in its entirety, a duet with Reggie Watts, vocal backing from Arcade Fire and a scintillating tour of the band’s back catalogue. The film intersperses commentary from Murphy in the form of a revealing interview with journalist Chuck Klosterman, and captures, crucially, the morning after, as well as the night before. That LCD have since reconvened has done little to lessen the film’s power.
David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, 2020)
With the focus now on Stop Making Sense, it might be easy to forget that David Byrne, forever an innovator, conjured up a spiritual successor in 2018 when he took his American Utopia show around the world. A dedicated people-watcher, Byrne had noticed that it is the musicians on stage, not the accoutrements, that truly draw people to live shows. Accordingly, he made it so that his backing band doubled as dancers, a collective symphony in perpetual motion as they shimmied and strutted their way through both Byrne solo cuts and Heads classics; a theatrical ‘Once in a Lifetime’, in particular, emotionally channels Jonathan Demme’s film. The show was lovingly documented by Spike Lee when it ran on Broadway; don’t be fooled by his car-crash Q&A with the Heads at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month – he understands what makes Byrne tick, and shoots him accordingly. Perhaps the highlight is an incandescent cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, reminding us that beneath Byrne’s eccentric exterior lies a searing political streak.