Last week, we published an article about what the world was missing in the void of live music. Immediately following that, Coachella released their 20 Years in the Desert documentary featuring never before seen footage, thus adding to the stress unalleviated by the only outlet that could relieve such a thing. The twenty-first installment of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival would have taken place these past two weekends, and just earlier this week, it was announced that live music events probably won’t return until Fall 2021 “at the earliest.” Well fuck us then. Sadly, it is not merely a switch that we can flip on and off at our convenience, much to our dismay. As a result, we’ve compiled a list of the best concert films ever made to watch from quarantine. Surely this won’t last you until Fall 2021, but it’s a start. Here are our top 10 concert films of all time.
10. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
If you want a concert film that really emphasizes the communal gathering of strangers to experience music, then Dave Chappelle’s Block Party might be the holy grail. Lensed by Michel Gondry slightly before Chappelle retreated from the limelight, the idea was started on a whim by Chappelle himself – a block party thrown in the summer of 2005 for which he gave out free tickets (such great sequences include him going around his hometown in Ohio inviting strangers, even coming across a high school marching band by chance and offering them a spot to play.) The party featured sets by Mos Def, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, the Roots, a then unknown Kanye West, and a then unexpected reunion of the Fugees. But what makes this concert film special is the gut impulse people felt to want to attend an unknown block party in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. It wasn’t advertised, it wasn’t promoted, but stood merely as an impromptu gathering to experience the gift of what live music can draw.
9. Under Great White Northern Lights
Much has been mythologized about the White Stripes ever since their breakup in 2011, even more so than when they were together, but no document or concert series delves more into their peculiar dynamic than Under Great White Northern Lights. Documenting their brief tour of Northern Canada following the release of Icky Thump, the doc shows the band holding concerts in small, rural, isolated towns that normally wouldn’t be even considered by mainstream acts – they held impromptu shows in town squares, high school auditoriums, old folks’ homes, and in turn, dive deep into a Native American culture unbeknownst to them about what live music represents in these rural communities. But the real star of the doc is the dynamic relationship between Meg and Jack, as the film exposes their working relationship that acts almost as a comedic duo – while Jack wails around full of charisma, Meg is the ball and chain that keeps everything in command and grounded. Neither of them would be who they are without the other, giving us a peek into the toxicity that may have been their ultimate demise.
8. Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!
In the moments before a sold-out Beastie Boys show at Madison Square Garden in October of 2004, 50 audience members were given DV video camcorders to record the show, with just one rule: never stop filming. The result is Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! – a concert film composed entirely of this camcorder footage spliced together from throughout the arena. One would think such a thing would be nauseating to look at. However, the result is much more exhilarating than had it been professionally shot. The bare essence of the cheap footage allows for the humor of the band to come through giving them room to play with crazy editing techniques (which you could tell they had a blast with.) With an endless amount of ideas and the most badass performance of “Intergalactic” you’ll ever see, Aweomse; I Fuckin’ Shot That takes the simplest of resources and shows what the Beastie’s do best – redefine their relationship with cool.
7. Sign O’ The Times
Having received rave reviews and sold out shows for the album of the same name in Europe, Sign O’ The Times saw its sales slump in the United States. So, Prince had a radical idea: make a film that brought the album to a live setting, and deliver it to audiences across the United States. Dropping many of the narrative sequences that inhabited his previous films, the concert film was originally shot at tour stops in Rotterdam and Antwerp, but the film’s footage was essentially deemed unusable from the grain and low lighting, while the film’s sound was eventually deemed unsatisfactory by Prince. As a result, the entire concert was reshot on Prince’s 12,500 sq. foot sound stage at his Paisley Park estate, which also served as the filming location for the film’s narrative interludes. Now, the film serves as quintessential viewing to see how big of a deal it was to see a Prince show. The film features different arrangements of his classic songs like “Little Red Corvette” while also diving into a few covers, with most of the songs linked by a themed narrative. Featuring a badass light show and electronics that hit you like a freight train, the concert film features Prince at the peak of his career, receiving more love after it left theaters and was eventually declared a critical success.
6. Shut up and Play the Hits
Deemed by the band as the “best funeral ever,” Shut Up and Play the Hits documents LCD Soundsystem’s “farewell” show (hah!) before their official breakup. The doc cuts between footage of the show and a day in the life of James Murphy, refusing to indicate if these events are before or after the final show, interpolated with an interview he conducts with Spin Magazine. From the outside looking in, the concert film came off to newcomers of the band as a window view into Murphy’s idiosyncrasies, and why he’d want to walk away from it all. But for fans of the band, the doc served as one long wave goodbye to a music project that not only seamlessly molded genres, but served as a beacon of hope for any twenty-something facing the preeminent threat of adulthood. But that’s why LCD had to end, to sever that tie and get folks to think for themselves, because we should all know better than to get our advice from rock stars. That’s for damn sure.
5. The Song Remains the Same
Part concert film, part Lord of the Rings, The Song Remains the Same begins with a narrative call to action cast among the band members, descending upon Madison Square Garden as if they were summoned by the Gods on any given day to deliver the gospel of rock. Hell, even crotch shots of Jimmy Page shredding is enough to put this film in the top five. But the special thing about this concert film is that it’s not necessarily about the band or the show. Rather, it’s about the experience of going to a live show, and all the events that tie in with it – kids trying to sneak in, cops chasing down a man fucked up on drugs, their manager Peter Grant accusing a merch seller of selling unauthorized tour posters – it’s the pulse around the show that brings the film to life, as if you’re hearing the muffled music from outside the club. You can tell it was one of those shows where it didn’t matter where you were standing, because the good time was all coming from the environment and electricity in the air, a feeling summoned by the band to redefine the effect stadium rock can have on a crowd.
4. The Last Waltz
Documenting The Band’s final show taking place at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, The Last Waltz serves as one of the holy grails of concert films, partly because it was shot by, duh, Martin Scorsese. Including performances featuring Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young (Jesus who ISN’T in this film?), the concert is intercut with interview scenes between Scorsese and Robbie Robertson and other members of The Band, staged in such a way that it could even pass as a Scorsese mob epic, but featured in such a way that it evokes honesty from the band members, seeing them as plain old average Joes. At one part in the interviews, Scorsese asks how they got their name, which mainly came as a result from Woodstock. They describe themselves as a working-class band that just like to “fix things,” like screen doors, particularly during studio time so as to keep company out, because we all know what happens when you have too much company over… At times, The Band seemed like they were born and raised together, but in reality, they were the best session band of strangers to ever exist.
3. Monterey Pop
Before there was Woodstock, before there was Glastonbury, or Summerfest, there was Monterey Pop, the initial blueprint for how all future festivals would be held. It set the precedent for why festivals would be held as well, serving as the beacon for counter-culture to gather under one banner. Originally planned as ABC’s Move of the Week, but deemed unfit by Thomas W. Moore, head of ABC at the time, due to Hendrix “fornicating with his amp,” it proved that festivals, concerts, and mass gatherings were actually worth a damn, signaling that they weren’t just a place for delinquents to gather and “listen to some music.” The term “festival” hence forth became an icon, serving as the template for a young dude named Michael Lang to gather research to encourage investors to start his own festival, which would eventually become…
The be all, end all of festival films. When you look at lists of the best festivals of all time, Monterey Pop and Woodstock are almost always neck and neck. However, for the sake of documentaries and concert films, Woodstock trumps Monterey Pop, solely because it hence forth became the gold standard for live music films and festivals alike. It’s not just a documentary that features music, rather, it depicts a sprawling portrait of the inner workings and communication of the festival, going into pockets of how they managed to pull it off, from the medical tents, to the sanitation, to the military help. It exudes the festival experience as if you were walking into a festival tent and discovering an unknown band. Cut by eight different editors including Martin Scorsese and his right-hand woman Thelma Schoonmaker, the film is told mostly through split screen displaying one image while a story is being told in the other, condensing the staggering three hour run time but also depicting two different opinions and views of the festival from the town’s inhabitants. But the conflicting images prove that the festival was never really about the music at all, but how 500,000 people could gather and communicate and enjoy a communal offering that was always meant to be free in the first place.
1. Stop Making Sense
Arguably the greatest concert film ever made, one that still holds up regardless of what year it is because it’s the only film on this list that is truly timeless. This film is not just a “concert film,” but a story that unfolds on stage, with each movement of David Byrne’s body, each piece of set design acting as a progression forward in the story Jonathan Demme is telling. Shot over two nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, mostly comprised of footage from the second night, it was the last time the Heads played together, with 90% of the footage being improvised and about 10% of it planned. It’s a concert film that was not made for the audience of the concert, rather for the audience of the film (notice how we don’t even see the audience till the very end of the show). It’s cinematic in that it’s a constant building narrative. There’s no room for breaks or empty spaces or banter, or even to check the set list. Much has been mythologized about this film (especially that it was cut at Hal Ashby’s Malibu house, which we all could image what THAT must have been like), and it continues to cast a wide net of influence on concerts to this day (see Nine Inch Nails’ “Twenty Thirteen” tour and Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine XXI” tour). It’s probably the only film on this list that is still constantly borrowed from. And David Byrne’s still at it, now currently on Broadway performing his American Utopia set, which is very reminiscent of Stop Making Sense given that the musicians are detached from any sound source, but it still doesn’t touch the novelty and ground-breaking orchestration of Stop Making Sense. It’s a film that’s so in your face that you even forget you’re watching a CONCERT. Because it’s not a concert. It’s a story about the greatest band from the 80’s performing for the last time (probably because they knew it was the last time) and going out on the highest high any concert could ever dream of conjuring.