There’s definitely not a shortage of concert footage floating around. From esteemed directors to random people waving an iPhone in everyone’s face, there’s a ton of material to shift through, but, now that watching your favorite band live from behind a screen is so easy, there’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what separates someone capturing a night when a band is on fire from a great concert documentary? Because there is a difference. And what bridges the gap is an underlying storyline. Some sort of innovative, emotional, or humanitarian connection that changes the way we think about, talk about, or listen to one or multiple performers. Something that makes it feel cinematic. Or stranger than fiction.
Since music documentaries are often a mixed bag of footage from on and off the stage, to qualify for this list, the documentary had to be at least approximately 70 percent of actual concert material. Which leaves out some of my favorite music-related documentaries like Warren Zevon’s Keep Me in Your Heart—a VH1 special that follow’s one of the greatest American songwriter’s through the process of making his last album after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer—and Heartworn Highways, which followed what could possibly be considered the first wave of alt-country artists. (A sequel to Heartworn Highways is set for release sometime this year). But, anyway, that was my criteria: mostly live with some sort of hard-hitting added depth that has/will stand the test of time.
When Shut Up and Play the Hits—which follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy during the outfit’s 2012 farewell show—hit my local movie theater, it was the first time I’ve ever seen people stand up and start dancing to the big screen. And, as a whole, the film documents one of the most graceful and calculated final bows ever: from the how it follows Murphy for 48 hours, from the day of the last gig to the morning after, to choosing journalist/author Chuck Klosterman to interview them, to how its US theatrical release was a one-night only affair. There were probably a lot of us that were dancing in unison.
Leave it to Dave Chappelle to come up with and host one of the most clever and ambitious concerts and documentaries in music history. In 2004 he got his friends—Kanye West, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and the Roots, among others—to play a secret-ish show in Brooklyn. It also featured legends like Big Daddy Kane and up-and-comers like John Legend, who, at that time, had not yet released his debut, Get Lifted. Featuring some of the most socially conscious and talented rappers of the decade in a setting with a deep history in the genre, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party remains a classic. And it was one his last bits of brilliance before he disappeared.
The White Stripes are one of the most important bands of the last 25 years. No matter what you think of them, it’s a hard thing to argue against. Under Great White Northern Lights, which follows the duo through Canada on their final tour in 2007, unknowingly catches their last stand. At times on stage they seem untouchable; at others they seem like a ticking time bomb. But their chemistry is insane, and it shows here. From the documentary opening with “Let’s Shake Hands”, the garage-punk gem that put them on the map, to it closing with just the two of them siting alone in a room, while Jack plays a piano version of “White Moon” that makes Meg cry, it makes me mad at myself for never seeing them live, but glad someone caught them on camera before they imploded.
Take away the legendary video footage here, and you still have audio from one of the best outlaw country concerts of all time. Cash is on top of his game, both musically and in attitude, throwing a cup of water that a guard gave him, getting roars to lines of his song “San Quentin”, which he plays twice in a row, and being joined by his wife, June, who always added the perfect amount of sweetness to his grit. He’s confident, funny, and rebellious. It’s hard to say that he’s in his prime, because, looking back, it seems like he had three of them, but in 1969 he seemed to be peaking.
I can’t think of a performer that I would say is clearly better than David Bowie, and I can’t think of a stage persona that is clearly better than Ziggy Stardust. This is a once-in-a-career era with a once-in-a-generation individual. And maybe that’s an understatement. The androgynous, science fiction-inspired Ziggy is probably the most memorable character in rock ’n’ roll history, and on July 3, 1973 he marked his place by announcing his “‘retirement”. Just before finishing the set with “Rock ’n Roll Suicide”, Bowie said, “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” The press freaked out. Of course, it was only Ziggy that was hanging up his hat and we got plenty more Bowie.