5. Sign O’ The Times (1987)
Is Prince the greatest live performer of all time? Probably. Very impressively directed by Prince himself, Sign O’ The Times is a companion piece to the double album of the same name. Although the 1984 movie Purple Rain was commercially more successful than Sign O’ The Times, the latter is easily a better showcase for the phenomenal musicianship of Prince and his exceptional band.
Shots of performances from the Netherlands and Belgium are integrated with footage from Paisley Park Studios. As a production it feels bigger and bolder than Purple Rain. The film also manages to capture the sensuality of Princes performances better than any other, as he and his mostly female fronted band dominate every inch of the frame.
Short and sweet at 84 minutes, this is an endlessly watchable portrait of one of the best performers of all time at the peak of his career.
4. Woodstock (1970)
In August of 1969, 400,000 hippies descended on a small field in upstate New York for a weekend of music, drugs, and celebration. Nothing would ever be the same again. Woodstock is more than a concert film. It’s a firsthand insight into the defining moment of 1960’s counterculture.
Director Michael Wadleigh supposedly ended up with more than 120 hours of footage over the weekend, masterfully capturing every performance from every possible angle. With the help of then editor Martin Scorsese, Woodstock became a 185 minute feature, packed to the brim with the best of the best. The footage would later become iconic. Jimi Hendrix’ performance of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ made him immortal.
Woodstock is more than a movie. It’s a beautiful, entertaining, and enormously important trip to the 1960’s. No concert movie will ever capture a place and time more comprehensively.
3. Gimme Shelter (1970)
Gimme Shelter is one of the most important concert films of all time. Knowing the tragic outcome of the infamous Altamont Speedway gig in no way diminishes the horror of watching it unfold. This concert film is just as much about the death of the sixties counterculture movement as it is about The Rolling Stones 1969 US Tour.
Hypnotic pacing and direction from Charlotte Zwerin and the Maysles Brothers makes it impossible to look away as the tension builds throughout the film. There seems to be a tendency to overly romanticize the late 60’s (partly due to the summer of love, Woodstock, etc), but ‘Gimme Shelter’ proves that attitudes and ideals were quickly changing.
There was a dark side to the counterculture that was attempting to spread a message of love and peace. 1960’s idealism died on camera on December 6th 1969.
2. The Last Waltz (1978)
Before a single note is heard, a title card insists that “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!”. Indeed it should. Even if The Last Waltz didn’t go on to become the gold standard for any concert movie, it would still probably be known as the single most impressive ensemble of musicians ever seen on a stage together.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, Canadian-American band ‘The Band’ played a show advertised as their farewell concert appearance in Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco. Guitarist Robbie Robertson recruited Martin Scorsese to direct The Last Waltz after being impressed with Scorsese’s use of music in his debut feature ‘Mean Streets’.
The film effortlessly cuts between concert footage, interviews with the band, and studio segments. Before saying goodbye The Band are joined on stage by Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison (who arguably steals the show, delivering the performance of the night with ‘Caravan’), Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan.
In an interview segment Robbie Robertson explains to Martin Scorsese that “We wanted it to be more than just a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration.” There lies the film’s greatest strength. All 116 minutes of its running time feels celebratory and collaborative. The Last Waltz is a triumph. A fitting goodbye to one of the great bands of its time.
1. Stop Making Sense (1984)
The definitive concert film. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 masterpiece is still the undisputed pinnacle of what can be achieved within the genre. Stop Making Sense has often been likened more to a musical than a concert film, as it defies many staples of what has come to be expected of concert films. No backstage footage is seen. The audience aren’t even seen until the final shots of the movie. For once you don’t feel like a part of the audience. You feel like one of the band.
With the help of Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Demme films Talking Heads over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater. Stop Making Sense is essentially a highly ambitious performance art piece. David Byrne begins the show by himself. Members of the band are gradually revealed and the stage is assembled piece by piece right before our eyes, building towards a euphoric finale. The performances are breathtaking. The setlist is flawless.
Byrne is often hailed as the genius behind Talking Heads, but when it comes to Stop Making Sense he’s quick to pay tribute to the genius of Jonathan Demme. “Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends in a sense.” They certainly did.
Author Bio: Stephen Murtagh is a 22 year old writer and touring musician from Co Westmeath, Ireland. After choosing to pursue a career in music as a part of Irish four piece The Academic rather than attend university, Stephen likes to read and write about cinema while on tour. Follow Stephen on Twitter: @stephennuggets.