[6 August 2014]
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.
Really, within the frame of my stipulations for this article, it’s possible the highly unique The Song Remains the Same concert/feature film makes more sense here, but the Led Zeppelin double DVD set is such a piece of historical gold, documenting the iconic rock band through four concerts over a ten-year timeframe. If you’re new to Led Zeppelin, you can start here; if you’re a fanatic, this is your bible. It comes off like a textbook as the quartet’s history and evolution unravel before your eyes. And, since Zeppelin basically called it quits after drummer John Bonham died in 1980, it feels like more of a trip back in time compared to old footage of some of the group’s counterparts who are still playing. Meaning it’s also been more subjected more to the test of time, since less live footage of the band exists. It unsurprisingly continues to stand its ground and it will continue to do so.
The slow, rhythmic, heartbeat-like percussion during the intro to Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii paired with quick cuts of the ancient city is like slowly rising up the first big hill of a roller coaster. But, instead of dropping, it just continues to float upward for an hour, with a whirlwind of ominous, heavy songs and imagery that leave you in limbo between fidgeting in your seat and being in a trance. It’s the closest a concert documentary has ever gotten to an acid trip. Director Adrian Maben’s idea is so good that it seems almost too obvious when thinking about it in hindsight: have one of the most spacey, creepy bands of that time play in a city that was leveled by a volcanic eruption and lost for 1,500 years. The theatrical version, which splices in live studio versions of Dark Side of the Moon tracks, dilutes the concept a bit in the name of making it more digestible, but, either way it’s a fantastically weird film that captures Pink Floyd in a special place and time.
The impact of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s The Concert for Bangladesh is incalculable. It’s the godfather of large-scale humanitarian concerts. And even though it initially struggled with financial problems, it did earn $250,000 for refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War and eventually sent millions of dollars in relief. It’s easy to see why this thing made so much money in royalties: George Harrison and Leon Russell share the mic with Bob Dylan—who had not performed live for two years at that point—on “Just Like a Woman”, Billy Preston, with his unmatched energy, steals the show, and, in general, all these musicians—many of whom were at strange or reclusive points in their careers—just get on stage and kill it. But, maybe most importantly though, The Concert for Bangladesh showed how a night of intercontinental friends getting on stage and jamming could bring instantaneous household attention to a really sad situation. Clapton said it best: “These things will always be remembered as times we could be proud of being musicians; where we actually just weren’t thinking of ourselves for five minutes. We were doing something for a bigger issue. And we need that.”
It seems impossible that one man in a khaki suit with a boom box and an acoustic guitar who plays a song called “Psycho Killer” while looking vaguely like a psycho killer could make the most unequivocally cool and iconic intro in concert documentary history. It would be hard to explain to someone who is unaware of Talking Heads. But, it’s perfect. This is one of the many reasons David Byrne could compete for the title of coolest man on Earth. Like a great studio album, Stop Making Sense is a cohesive product: Byrne begins the set by himself; then, one by one, another musician walks on stage for each successive song, until every member of Talking Heads and a few guests fill the stage, culminating with everyone together playing an unforgettable version of “Burning Down the House”.
Although Levon Helm looked like he wanted to punch Robbie Robertson in the back of the head, Neil Young was pale as a ghost, and Bob Dylan had to be negotiated with to get on stage—because he had his own film, Renaldo and Clara, coming out—The Last Waltz, which served as the Band’s 1976 “farewell” concert, captures nothing short of brilliance. Some of it is actually because of its flaws: the numerous stories and myths add to the larger-than-life legends, while the vulnerability and tension humanize them. But, once you get to the core of the thing, it’s the collaborations, performance, and energy that makes The Last Waltz the best concert of all time. Most of those performances still send shivers down my spine, even after being dozens of watches deep.