From the Band to Beyoncé: concert films to fill the live music black hole

Ahead of what would have been Glastonbury weekend, we pick the documentaries that best recreate the magic of gigs and festivals

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Since live music in the UK entered suspended animation on 16 March, even the most mundane aspects of gig-going have acquired an exotic tang. While revisiting the concert movies below, I found myself gazing longingly at arena corridors, stadium loading bays and festival burger vans, let alone musicians and crowds. I get giddy at the thought of watching a mediocre band play an early afternoon slot on the third stage of a minor festival. The noise, the spectacle, the people, the ritual of it. Spirit me to a performance by someone I genuinely love and I might faint.

This is live music’s lost summer: a packed calendar wiped clean in one swoop. The festival season is a black hole. Shows that were optimistically shunted back to autumn have now been kicked into 2021. The concert industry is worth more than $30bn a year, so its temporary disappearance is economically devastating for musicians and worse still for road crews, stage designers, caterers, venue staff and so on. For punters the loss is more intangible: an absence of joyful new memories; the phantom sense of what might have been. Every week my Google calendar tells me about another great night out that I should be having. Next weekend was meant to be Glastonbury. So much for that.

In this unprecedented drought, concert movies become precious escapism. Many are aimed at the fanbase and add nothing to the form, but the ones I’ve chosen tell stories – about historic events, or Herculean achievements, or bittersweet swansongs, or the white heat of fandom – that will hold your attention even if you can take or leave the music. They reveal what it takes to put on a memorable show and how it can become more than just a show. These documentaries have never been as transporting as they are now. For the first time ever, they are the only access to live music that we have.

Monterey Pop

Directed by DA Pennebaker, 1968

Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey festival.
Spellbinding: Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey festival. Photograph: Getty Images

I’d say we wouldn’t be talking about Monterey today without the movie,” said festival promoter Lou Adler on its 50th anniversary. In 1967, Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas staged the first rock festival, with the goal of giving rock’n’roll the same artistic status as jazz and folk, and hired Pennebaker, hot from his Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, to film it. Pennebaker allowed his crew to film whatever they liked, however they liked, and collaged their different perspectives, during a marathon, sleep-deprived editing session, into a kaleidoscopic narrative that became the perfect advertisement for the concept of the rock festival and an inspiration to the organisers of Woodstock. It’s especially moving because its standout performers were all gone within four years. Janis Joplin holding Mama Cass spellbound; Otis Redding vibrating with charisma; Jimi Hendrix humping his amp with such gusto that ABC television dropped the movie like a hot rock – all memorialised in their glorious prime.

Watch it on: Criterion DVD (UK), HBO Max (US)

Gimme Shelter

Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970

Fans in the audience watching the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, in December 1969.
Fans in the audience watching the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, in December 1969. Photograph: Alamy

When the Maysles brothers began covering the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, neither they nor the band had any inkling that the final show, at California’s Altamont Speedway, would become the anti-Woodstock, rivalling the Manson murders as the symbolic terminus of the 1960s. The irony of Mick Jagger telling a press conference that Altamont would “set an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings” is unbearable.

It was Zwerin who suggested filming the Stones in the edit suite so that they became viewers as well as participants. We see Jagger strutting like a camp superhero at Madison Square Garden; Jagger pleading “Don’t let’s fuck it up” as the Hells Angels go rogue during a ragged Sympathy for the Devil; then Jagger, like a weary detective, numbly asking one of the Maysles to rewind the part of the tape where a young black man, Meredith Hunter, loses his life and a rock concert becomes a crime scene.

In later concert movies such as Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend the Night Together and Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light, the Stones appear untouchable. Here they are hubristic young men who have unleashed dark forces that they cannot comprehend. This is one concert that you won’t long to have attended.

Watch it on: YouTube

Wattstax

Mel Stuart, 1973

‘The self-proclaimed black Moses’, Isaac Hayes, performing at Wattstax.
‘The self-proclaimed black Moses’, Isaac Hayes, performing at Wattstax. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Every summer following the 1965 Watts uprising in Los Angeles, residents held a festival to remember the 34 dead and celebrate the rebuilding of the community, but the seventh year was on another level thanks to Memphis record label Stax. Timed to coincide with Isaac Hayes’s 30th birthday, Wattstax was great promotion for Stax but it was also genuinely philanthropic, with the label underwriting most of the expenses and the $1 ticket price. They even arranged with the LAPD to have only unarmed black officers on duty at the LA Coliseum, and asked Jesse Jackson to bookend the six-hour event with rousing speeches, since sampled by Public Enemy and Primal Scream.

The movie’s white director, Mel Stuart, underlines the event’s cultural importance, jugglingterrific performances by the likes of Rufus Thomas (hilarious) and the Bar-Kays (eye-popping), the manic comedic riffing of Richard Pryor and barbershop conversations about aspects of black life, from racism to relationships. Headliner Hayes, the self-proclaimed black Moses, looks like a king but Stuart keeps cutting away to scenes of street life, as if to say that the movie’s real star is the city of Watts. The film closes with Jackson leading 112,000 people in a simple declaration of human dignity: “I am somebody!”

Watch it on: YouTube

The Last Waltz

Martin Scorsese, 1978

Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson on stage for the Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’ concert.
‘Weird vibes’: Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson on stage for the Band’s The Last Waltz concert. Photograph: Larry Hulst/Getty Images

There’s a decadent air to The Last Waltz. The Band invited so many stars to join their seven-hour farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland in November 1976 that Scorsese’s film ended up depicting a generation of rock royalty – Bob, Joni, Neil, Eric, Van – on the verge of being dethroned by punk. Inevitably, it fizzes with cocaine. A conspicuous white crumb was removed from Neil Young’s nose in post-production but his gurning during the climactic group singalong speaks for itself, while Van Morrison’s crazed, high-kicking energy cannot be attributed to adrenaline alone.

The interviews, shot several months later, strike a dissonant note, too. None of the Band seem keen to talk except the mesmerising, insufferable Robbie Robertson, who sometimes seems like an actor playing the part of Robbie Robertson. It was the guitarist, who later became Scorsese’s music supervisor, who unilaterally pulled the plug on the group’s touring career (“it’s a goddam impossible way of life”) and used the movie as a bridge to Hollywood. Yet for all the weird vibes, The Last Waltz looks and sounds extraordinary. Scorsese deployed rigorous storyboarding, 35mm film and seven cameramen, including the cinematographers behind Easy Rider, Deliverance and his own Taxi Driver, to give a fraught and patchy concert the golden glow of myth.

Watch it on: Amazon on demand

Stop Making Sense

Jonathan Demme, 1984

David Byrne in typical pose during Stop Making Sense.
David Byrne in typical pose during Jonathan Demme’s film of Stop Making Sense. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

The best concert movie ever made? Not according to Demme. “This isn’t a concert film,” he said at the time. “It’s a performance film.” The director wanted the film itself to be an “experience” rather than the record of “an event that happened once”. Hence no special effects, no fancy lighting, muted applause and minimal audience shots. This radical approach chimed with frontman David Byrne’s ambition to wrap up Talking Heads’s live career with a meticulously choreographed, ever-changing spectacle, although he neglected to inform his bandmates that this would be the end.

Demme shot three shows at Hollywood’s Pantages theatre and, with editor Lisa Day, finessed the footage into one seamless performance. In 2020, the narrative arc from solitude to community becomes a poignant metaphor for the return of live music: a socially distanced Byrne begins by singing Psycho Killer alone before other members of the nine-strong touring band gradually turn the stage into a carnival. Behind the scenes, Byrne’s emotionally chilly perfectionism drove his bandmates to distraction but on stage, and on screen, this is ecstasy.

Watch it on: BFI Player and on demand

Depeche Mode 101

DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and David Dawkins, 1989

Stadiums here we come: Depeche Mode in the late 1980s.
Stadiums here we come: Depeche Mode in the late 1980s. Photograph: Paul Natkin/WireImage

Twenty years after Monterey Pop, Pennebaker made his masterpiece about musicians and the people who love them. Depeche Mode 101 is effectively two parallel road movies. One follows band and crew en route to their first stadium show, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and documents the peculiar mixture of strain, boredom and elation that characterises the final stretch of a long tour. Singer Dave Gahan, on the cusp of stardom, wonders if he was happier stacking shelves in Essex.

Simultaneously, the coast-to-coast bus journey of eight likable, telegenic fans becomes a love letter to fandom. When they all reach the Rose Bowl, we appreciate the concert from both perspectives, converging in the moment when Gahan crouches low, holds out his microphone, and invites the crowd to sing the final refrain of Everything Counts over and over again. This movie established Depeche Mode as a credible global stadium band, while the relationships between the “bus kids” inspired MTV to launch pioneering reality-TV show The Real World. Pennebaker, meanwhile, considered the film a career highlight. “At the end, everybody waving back at David was such an extraordinary thing to film,” he said shortly before his death last year. “I’ve never got over it.”

Watch it on: YouTube

The Chemical Brothers – Don’t Think

Adam Smith, 2012

Light show: the Chemical Brothers performing in 2015.
Light show: the Chemical Brothers performing in 2015. Photograph: PA

However much they invest in innovative stage design, most artists still want to be the centre of attention, but Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons became one of the world’s best live acts by deciding that they were quite happy to be eclipsed by Adam Smith’s visuals. His film of their headlining set at 2011’s Fuji rock festival is a rhythmically edited 85-minute trip through mind-frazzling psychedelic imagery (clowns, robots, dancers made of light), punctuated by the faces of crowd members in various states of abandon. Towards the end, one wide-eyed fan wanders away from the melee, evoking the festival experience so viscerally that you can practically smell the distinctive aroma of wet grass, hot food and cigarette smoke. Small wonder than when it was released in cinemas in Dolby 7.1 surround sound, it had audiences dancing in the aisles.

Watch it on: EMI DVD

Shut Up and Play the Hits

Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, 2012

Early retirement: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden in 2011.
Early retirement: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Photograph: Theo Wargo/WireImage

“When you start a band do you imagine how it will end?” journalist Chuck Klosterman asks LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy in this documentary about Murphy’s premature retirement from music. Cutting between the band’s farewell performance at Madison Square Garden, the Klosterman interview and the melancholy morning after, Southern and Lovelace’s film is coloured by Murphy’s melancholy ambivalence about his decision to go out on a high at the age of 41. He admits that stopping might actually be his “biggest failure”.

The fly-on-the-wall scenes evoke the uncertainties of middle age and the ceaseless reinventions of New York City while the concert footage is thrillingly kinetic. Seeing the ecstatic faces of the crowd and band members, you wonder why anyone would want to give this up. The last shot captures one weeping fan, frozen in place as the lights go up and the venue empties, unable to say goodbye. Murphy’s U-turn in 2016 showed that, in the end, he couldn’t either.

Watch it on: Apple on demand

Amazing Grace

Alan Elliott and Sydney Pollack, 2018

In full voice: Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace, a performance filmed in 1972 but not released until 2018.
In full voice: Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace, a performance filmed in 1972 but not released until 2018. Photograph: Courtesy Amazing Grace Film, LLC

By far the most intimate performance on this list took place over two days in January 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. Five years into her reign as the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin wanted to prove that she had not forgotten her gospel roots and put together a hybrid show that functioned as a musical memoir: an R&B band playing with a community choir; hymns from her childhood mixed with recent hits by Carole King and Marvin Gaye; her preacher father in the front row and two Rolling Stones at the back. Pollack caught every detail, from the beads of sweat on Franklin’s brow to the Reverend James Cleveland’s tears of emotion.

Unfortunately, a technical blunder meant that the music couldn’t be synchronised with the images and the film gathered dust even as the audio recording went double platinum. Even when Alan Elliott bought the rights in 2007 and used digital technology to reconcile sound and vision, Franklin blocked its release. Only after her death in 2018 did her estate give the film its blessing and enable Aretha, finally, to take viewers to church.

Watch it on: Amazon Prime

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé

Beyoncé, 2019

Complete control: a scene from Homecoming: a Film by Beyoncé.
Complete control: the leading lady gets ready to perform in Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé. Photograph: Parkwood Entertainment

“I wanted us to be proud of not only the show but the process,” says Beyoncé in this blockbuster account of her two nights headlining the Coachella festival in 2018. As director, writer, producer and star, she is in full command of Homecoming’s narrative. The concert footage and the supposedly candid rehearsal clips are designed to tell the same two stories about excellence and endurance.

One is Beyoncé’s arduous return to the stage after giving birth to twins. “It takes a village,” she says as she marshals hundreds of people across three sound stages during four months of rehearsals. While most big-budget concerts depend on screens and structures, the stage design here consists of people: more than 200 dancers and musicians, including Jay-Z, who appears endearingly awestruck by his wife’s achievement. The second narrative, which elevates Homecoming above self-hagiography, is the pride and struggle of black women: lines from Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and Nina Simone place the shows in the tradition of unapologetically black art. “The charge on you,” says the late Maya Angelou, “is to make this country more than it is today.”

Watch it on: Netflix

Contributor

Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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