I like using iTunes’ shuffle mode, and every now and then, it pops up something I hadn’t heard in a while, giving me an Aha! moment, reminding me to spin a (virtual) disc that hasn’t been heard recently. Today, the one that set me off was Born Under the Punches, by Talking Heads. Listening to this, I was reminded of their great concert film Stop Making Sense, and that made me think of a few of the greatest concert movies of all time.
A great concert movie isn’t just a film of a great concert; it has to be more than that. Stop Making Sense (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is one of the best as much because of the innovative approach to the concert itself, as the way it’s filmed. And the music’s great too.
It starts with David Byrne coming on to a bare stage, alone, carrying a boom box and an acoustic guitar. He presses a button on the boom box which starts playing a rhythm track – it’s not really the boom box playing that track, but who cares? – then goes into an acoustic version of Psycho Killer. Another band member comes out for each of the next few songs, until the full complement is on stage. From then on, it’s a rocking show, with foot-tapping rhythms and powerful beats.
I remember seeing Talking Heads on this tour, at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, in Queens, New York, and it was an awesome show. It’s great to have some of that tour on film.
The Last Waltz (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a film of The Band’s 1976 retirement gig at Winterland, in San Francisco. Held on Thanksgiving day, this epic concert featured the A-list musicians of the time: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, The Staple Singers, Paul Butterfield, and Eric Clapton.
Filmed by Martin Scorcese, it features a few interviews, and a couple of songs shot on a soundstage, but the essential of the movie is (parts of) the live gig. The movie itself is only about two hours, but the concert lasted from evening until dawn; after it was over, promoter Bill Graham treated the audience to a Thanksgiving dinner for breakfast.
The Band’s music is great, but the movie shines because of all the guests who play some of their best songs. And there are great jams with a pantheon of rock musicians on stage at the same time.
Everyone knows about Woodstock. Maybe your parents told you stories about it… If you’re old enough to remember it – I was a bit too young to go, but I heard about it at the time – it was a major event, especially to those of us in New York City. When the movie and albums came out, it was a magical experience, seeing all those great musicians performing in such epic surroundings. The movie shows not only the music, but the creation of the event as well. Some of the interviews can be a bit boring, but they do set the scene, helping viewers realize the scale of the festival.
With the director’s cut released in 2010 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), we now have a lot more footage. At just under three hours, there are also two hours of songs that had never been shown before (including a huge 39-minute Turn On Your Love Light by the Grateful Dead) on a bonus disc.
Back in the 1970s, there was a cinema near where I lived that had midnight showings of concert films on weekends. I saw numerous great movies there: two of the three I mention above, and films such as Yessongs, The Grateful Dead Movie, The Song Remains the Same, Pink Floyd at Pompeii, Gimme Shelter, and lots of others. But the three above stand out as the best marriage of music and filming, and, in the case of The Last Waltz and Woodstock, huge events.
It’s commonplace now for bands to film their performances, and concert films are a dime a dozen. But none of them have improved on these three classic films. Woodstock is pretty old now, and The Last Waltz is from the 70s, but if you like that music, you’ll love the movies.