10 great concert films

With a new behind-the-scenes documentary of Pulp’s farewell gig raising the curtain on this year’s Sheffield/Doc Fest, we go backstage in the annals of film history to select 10 of the best concert movies.

Ashley Clark
Updated:

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014)

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014)

On 7 June, the annual Sheffield Doc/Fest – Britain’s largest festival of documentary film – kicks off with a screening of Florian Habicht’s Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets.

After years of beloved cult obscurity, Jarvis Cocker’s arch pop outfit came to wider prominence in the mid-1990s with anthems like ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’. A quarter of a century on, they returned to their beloved hometown Sheffield for their final UK concert. Habicht blends footage of the band’s triumphant show with spoken contributions from Cocker and colleagues, and esoteric, specially-staged tableaux featuring a selection of ordinary Sheffield folk.

The film is not just an invaluable record of an influential live band going out on a high, it also reveals the deep affection that the inhabitants of Sheffield (a fitting location for the film’s premiere) have for the band.

To tie in with the screening of this unorthodox piece of work, here is a collection of 10 more concert films which soar above the point-and-shoot pitfalls of the live music genre. Whether through cinematic artistry, superhuman performance, socio-political relevance – or a combination of all three – these concert films all deserve their reputations as classics of the form.

Monterey Pop (1968)

Director D.A. Pennebaker

Aptly described by film critic Armond White as a “perfect, fortuitous match-up between rock and cinema”, Monterey Pop – helmed by ‘Direct Cinema’ veteran D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, The War Room) – is a landmark audiovisual record of the Summer of Love’s defining early moment.

The three-day Monterey Pop festival in California – brainchild of LA producer Alan Pariser – was designed as an event to validate rock music as an art form, and embody the 60s’ counter-cultural current. The festival is notable for the first major American appearances by Ravi Shankar, Otis Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, and Janis Joplin, all of whom were captured by Pennebaker’s keen camera. (Notable absentees were the Beach Boys, whose cancellation permanently damaged their reputation and popularity in the US.)

Among many canonical highlights in the film are two egregious instances of guitar abuse: Jimi Hendrix torching his axe; and Pete Townshend opting for plain and simple destruction. Monterey was a key forerunner to the more famous Woodstock festival in 1969. Michael Wadleigh’s epic, Academy Award-winning record of the latter event (1970, co-edited by Martin Scorsese) also deserves a place on this list.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Director Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

This deeply disturbing film documents the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US concert tour, from the upbeat appearances at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving weekend, to the nightmarish free concert on 6 December at the Altamont Speedway in California. Here, while the Stones played, a so-called security team of Hell’s Angels wreaked chaos, and murdered a young black man named Meredith Hunter mere feet from the stage. Amazingly, the act was captured on film.

Thanks to its grim reputation – and the fact that its second half focuses almost solely on the incident and its fallout, Gimme Shelter is rarely classified as a concert film. Yet the performance-heavy first half, which features superbly intimate, handheld camerawork by Albert Maysles, showcases just why the Stones confidently declared themselves the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world. Gimme Shelter also offers fascinating insights into the behind-the-scenes machinations of making the free concert happen: there’s compelling footage of fast-talking attorney Melvin Belli negotiating by telephone with the management of the Speedway; little can he have known just how ill-fated the end product would transpire to be.

A record of a band in their prime – as well as the death of a decade’s dream – Gimme Shelter is matched by few music films for sheer, thunderous force.

Wattstax (1973)

Director Mel Stuart

While an aerial camera circles in slowly from a great height – and the vast Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum creeps closer and closer into view – the words of civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson thunder out into the sky: “This is a new day. This is a wonderful day. It is a day of black awareness. It is a day of black people taking care of black people’s business. Today we are together … and together, we got power!” This spine-tingling moment prefigures singer Kim Weston’s magisterial rendering of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ (aka ‘The Negro National Anthem’), and encapsulates the film’s riveting blend of music and proud African-American self-actualisation.

Director Mel Stuart captures thrilling performances from soul superstars like Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, but what gives the film its crucial extra dimension are the contributions from the brilliant, radical comedian Richard Pryor – who appears as a ‘host’ figure in connective scenes (no doubt inspiring 2006’s superb Dave Chappelle’s Block Party) – and the gritty documentary snapshots of life in Watts, the economically-depressed, predominantly black LA suburb later memorably portrayed by Charles Burnett in Killer of Sheep (1977). It all adds up to a stunning record of music as politics in a post-1960s civil rights movement context.

The Last Waltz (1978)

Director Martin Scorsese

A Rolling Stone article dated 1 June 1978, offers some insight into how The Last Waltz – a record of the Band’s final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving 1976 – simply had to be for director and super-fan Martin Scorsese:

“I hit on him at the worst possible time,” grinned [the Band guitarist Robbie] Robertson. “He had the play thing coming up [directing Liza Minnelli in The Act], then the little film he was going to do with Steve Prince [American Boy]. I just told him what was going to happen, and he said, ‘Holy Jesus!’ I told him, ‘I realise you’re in a bind; if there were anybody else, I’d ask them. I have to come to you.’ He said, ‘I can’t afford to pass it by.’ There was no ‘Let me think it over.’ It was ‘When do we start?’”

This sense of urgency is more than apparent in the euphoric final product: a sharply edited, beautifully shot and emotionally involving musical celebration. In addition to a murderer’s row of guest performers like Van Morrison, Dr John, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and long-time Band collaborator Bob Dylan, The Last Waltz takes a probing, intimate look at the quintet’s sometimes fraught history. The results are simultaneously thrilling and poignant.

Fela in Concert (1981)

Director Claude Lambert

The Nigerian founder of Afrobeat was once described by Focus Features CEO James Schamus as “the most globally influential pop artist outside the Beatles in the last 50 years” – and he wasn’t exaggerating. Fela Kuti’s jazz-inflected grooves, incantatory political thrust and relentless pursuit of the perfect rhythm have shown up everywhere from the fierce hip-hop of Public Enemy to the polyrhythmic playfulness of 80s-era Talking Heads, and the preppy pop of Vampire Weekend. Kuti even received the Broadway treatment with Bill T. Jones’ award-winning FELA!, which debuted in 2008, 11 years after its subject’s death from AIDS-related complications.

Kuti is the subject of Alex Gibney’s enjoyable upcoming documentary Finding Fela, but the best way to learn about the man is to simply watch him in action. Claude Lambert’s invaluable document, filmed in Paris in 1981, captures Kuti in his explosive prime. While his band Egypt 80 tease out lengthy, mesmerising renditions of classics like ‘Army Arrangement’ and ‘Zombie’, 15 (!) of the singer’s wives provide a memorable dancing spectacle.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Director Jonathan Demme

Drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Japanese kabuki dance-drama, and the overtly stylised lighting of New York stage practitioner Robert Wilson, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne designed his group’s 1983 touring show as an unabashedly theatrical, borderline Brechtian experience. Jonathan Demme introduced his own distinct cinematic sensibility when directing the filmed version (shot over three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater), and the wondrous widescreen result is one of the greatest music movies of all time.

The gradual dressing of the stage during the band’s performance is designed to mirror their real-life development from spartan, scratchy anti-punk to swaggering, polyrhythmic funk revue. Contrast the Byrne + boom box + bare stage opener ‘Psycho Killer’ with the euphoric closing sing-along of ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ – by this point a further eight musicians have joined the party! The film’s crowning moment is the swooning rendition of ‘This Must Be the Place’, during which Byrne dances blissfully (and skilfully) with a lampshade like a silent movie star. Look out, too, for the brief expression of pure joy on Byrne’s face when he nails a three-part harmony with backup singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt near the end of the song. (Oh, and it would be a gross oversight not to mention Byrne’s iconic, oversized suit: oddly enough, it never caught on as a fashion statement.)

Sign o’ the Times (1987)

Director Prince

The diminutive, Minneapolitan musical genius Prince tried his hand at film directing in 1986 with the melodramatic Under the Cherry Moon. This monochrome oddity featured the screen debut of one Kristin Scott Thomas, not to mention some seriously ripe dialogue (“I got waylaid.” “No, you got la-aid!”; “Cabbage head!”); audiences and critics, sadly, weren’t so keen.

A year later, however, the artist who would come to be known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince found himself on much safer ground when he helmed the concert film version of his sprawling, brilliant double album Sign o’ the Times. Initially intended as a documentary record of his 1987 performances in Rotterdam and Antwerp, the film had to be almost entirely reshot at the star’s own Paisley Park Studios due to technical gremlins. The film is practically one extended, rhapsodic highlight, but the euphorically impassioned finale of ‘The Cross’ lifts it to an even loftier spiritual plane. Surprisingly, Sign o’ the Times belly-flopped at the US box office, but went on to become a huge VHS hit.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)

Director Paul Justman

Paul Justman’s terrific, Oscar-nominated documentary takes a peek inside Berry Gordy’s Motown factory to champion the Funk Brothers, the band of crack session musicians who expertly backed such 60s R&B legends as Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5, to name but a few.

This amusing and poignant film explores the Brothers’ career through a combination of interviews with surviving band members, compelling archival footage and photography, and a range of dramatised re-enactments. However the film’s best moments arrive in the thrilling new live performances of Motown hit songs, with the Funk Brothers backing up a range of stars like Chaka Khan (‘What’s Going On’), Bootsy Collins (‘Do You Love Me’), and Meshell Ndegeocello (‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’.)

Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006)

Director Nathaniel Hörnblowér (ie Adam Yauch)

This groundbreaking, bluntly monikered film came to fruition when Beastie Boy Adam ‘’MCA’’ Yauch – who has since tragically died – gave out camcorders to 50 fans to film a sold-out concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 October 2004, and later cut together their footage. (To keep the costs low, all cameras were returned to the place of purchase for a refund.) The amateur cinematographers were instructed to keep the cameras rolling at all times, and they captured a fierce, celebratory set, culminating with the a rambunctious rendition of the rocky classic ‘Sabotage’.

A similar trick – crowdsourced filming – was intermittently employed by the makers of Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), the riveting document of the final gig by NYC dance-punk scenesters LCD Soundsystem – another great concert film that narrowly missed inclusion in this top 10.

Soul Power (2008)

Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s exhilarating time capsule Soul Power focuses on the Zaire ’74 music festival in Kinshasa (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which ran parallel to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in October of that year. The film was stitched together from hundreds of hours of cinéma vérité archival footage (including work by Gimme Shelter’s Albert Maysles); other footage shot at the time which focused on the fight was edited to create Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning boxing doc When We Were Kings (1996). Together, the films forge a riveting, culturally historical whole.

There are magnetic performances in the film from James Brown at his militaristically funky zenith, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and Miriam Makeba, among many others. Also notable is a powerful current of Black Power spirit and sentiment, with staunchly political views voiced by a number of the participants in candid interviews.

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