Back in December, AEG Live, Action 3D and Cinedigm released Larger Than Life in 3D. The 90-minute theatrical concert movie featured performances from Dave Mathews, Ben Harper and Gogol Bordello from the 2009 Austin City Limits Festival. It was a limited one-week run to test out a new kind of theatrical concert experience filmed and presented in full 3D HD. Did it successfully usher in a brand new bread of concert film or did it's lack of cinematic storytelling rock fans to sleep?
Larger Than Life was the first of several other 3D theatrical concerts AEG Live plans to release in 2010. When I heard the news last fall I thought that they had captured footage from 2009 music festivals like Lollapalooza, All Points West and Mile High Music Festival, I thought about all the ways this could revolutionize how we relive our favorite concerts experiences, or even influence what we expect from real live concerts. I initially considered it a move that would forever change the art of the concert film, too. I also wondered if Larger Than Life would be an improvement on the U2, Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus or even the Micheal Jackson This Is It IMAX concert experiences.
In reality, my hopes were raised as high as any live music fan could have them raised. Then my hopes came crashing down and sadly found their place on the sticky and popcorn-littered theater floor.
Then three months, and two Avatar viewings, later I've put everything in perspective and readied myself for round two as AEG Live and Action 3D get set to unveil the next installment of 3D concerts, notably Phish in 3D at Festival 8 from 2009, which will hit theaters this April.
Now, since I saw Avatar a week after Larger Than Life, it makes sense to talk about them together. Because after I saw Avatar I was able to figure out exactly why I felt so disappointed with Larger Than Life. And, no, it had nothing to do with the fact that Dave Matthews didn't sing in Nabi. Larger Than Life's downfall was its lacking of one of the most important thing we expect from movies: a story.
Yes, Larger Than Life was never (ever) going to be as good as Avatar. And I know comparing the two seems silly and completely unfair because the production processes of making a concert film is completely different from making a Hollywood feature film. All technical differences considered, Avatar superbly used 3D technology to tell a story and left my jaw on the floor, while Larger Than Life rocked me moderately and left me wanting more.
When I think of concert films like the Beastie Boy's Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That or P. A. Penebaker's Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop Festival, I'm reminded how those concert films pushed boundaries in the way that they told the stories behind each concert experience. Whether it was giving cameras to fans so they could film the concert or using cinema verite to put us right in the middle of the action, those three concert films creatively merged technology and cinematic style to tell a live concert story that worked well on the big screen and as feature films.
Moreover, what makes live music so amazing and life-changing is that it's a multi-sensory experience. But when you're seeing a concert film in a theater you obviously can't have the same experience as you would seeing the show live in-person. Knowing that fundamental difference between live and theatrical concerts I expected, Larger Than Life, to have some sort of story or fan experience element to it, so that it could make up for it not be a real live concert. I also expected AEG Live to use the 3D technology to enhance or at least re-contextualize the live concert experience, but they didn't. Furthermore, the ticket cost might be less than paying for a real concert, as promoters boasted, but the cheaper ticket price didn't cover the cost of being short-changed in other areas.
AEG should have used the 3D technology to make the Austin City Limits festival more engaging and memorable whether you were there or not. Like Avatar, AEG should have dug deeper into the fan and band experience and told a more compelling story. Like Avatar's 3D sci-fi real world mashup, they should have found a way to seamlessly weave together the 3D technology and the concert's story to enhance what fans feel physically and emotionally at concerts.
It seems that AEG Live forgot the fundamental difference between a live concert and a concert film. When fans go to a live concert we're not necessarily expecting to be told a story. We're expecting to be rocked by the music and the collective vibe of the crowd around us. In contrast, when we go to see a feature movie, we experience a story that captivates us. So naturally when we go to see a concert movie in a theater we expect to be told some sort of story because seeing a concert movie is not the same as seeing in live in person. This is the reason why 3D concert movies -- if they continue to be made like Larger Than Life -- will never replace live music. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Besides the lack of storytelling, the predictable production and less-than-inspiring cinematography forced me to look at my watch and think about dozing off a few times. One thing's for sure, I didn't go to see Larger Than Life just to have a steady diet of 3D images of keyboards, drums kits and ends of guitars pop out at me. I came to be immersed in the live concert experience in a new way -- not sit through 90 minutes of predictable four vantage points that got repetitive and almost irritating when the music and the performances were actually really good.
Sure, I loved seeing the drum kits and amps rumble to the rhythms and watch the beads of sweat drip from Ben Harper's forehead in High Def, but all that doesn’t makeup for a lack of narrative. Those flashy effects didn't improve the concert performances either -- in some cases the 3D technology actually made the performances worse. I felt connected sonically, but disconnected visually and emotionally. The whole thing felt almost voyeuristic, too, which is ironic because that's the exact opposite of how fans should feel at a concert.
When I see the next batch of AEG Live's 3D movies, I don't want to feel like an outsider to the concert experience. I want to experience a great performance and be told a compelling concert story -- about the bands or the fans. And I want that story told in a way that pulls me in and captivates me as if I was at the show myself.
Let's hope things will be a lot better with 3D Phish at Festival 8. I'm hoping that the movie does capture the essence of a Phish concert because Phish concerts personify the communal and connective feelings concert fans live for. In a few short weeks, we'll get to see if AEG Live has successfully rebounded from Larger Than Life's mistakes.
Most of all, I hope AEG improves things and uses the 3D technology to build on the wonder of the live music experience, not detract from it. Because, as fans, we should expect nothing less than to feel like we're a part of something fresh and exciting. I'm not saying I want to be transported back to Pandora, but I'm still keeping the bar high and waiting to see if AEG Live and company can successfully usher in the next evolution of the concert film and deliver an experience that truly is larger than life.