Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Five Best Concert Movies Ever

As usual, I'm using some attention-grabbing hyperbole here--think "the five best pop/rock/folk/funk concert movies/music documentaries I've seen." But I have to say that lately I've seen a lot, particularly the classics--Wattstax (watchable for Richard Pryor and a surprising appearance by Ted Lange of Love Boat fame), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (shot in such a way that the outrageous David Bowie seemed like a pretty straightforward rocker-troubadour, especially when he does a solo with his guitar of "My Death," while his audience were made to look semi-possessed), Don't Look Back (more iconic than actually interesting; No Direction Home, which covers essentially the same time period, is much better), Depeche Mode: 101 (which basically convinced me of exactly two things: first, DM fans, to use Pretty in Pink, an appropriately 80s measuring stick, as a gauge, were mostly Steffs rather than Duckies; and second, DM's music was better in the studio than live), and more. The concert movie, whether or not accompanied by any documentary interviews or information, is an odd creature: much more than a music video, obviously, but in some ways still inseparable from that distilled art form. To make a concert worth watching, as opposed to simply being a recording worth listening to, the music has to be equal to what's on the cd, but also somehow cinematic: there has to be an added quality to putting live music on film, and seeing it. Anyway, out of my concert movie binge, here are my favorites (in alphabetical order):

The Last Waltz. The praise for this film is well-deserved. Martin Scorsese has few, if any, equals among mainstream American film directors in knowing how to use music to accent a film, and knowing how to make the creation and performance of music itself worth watching (sudden inspiration: Wes Anderson needs to make a Belle and Sebastian movie!), as the presence of his work elsewhere on this list makes clear. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of The Band knows about the disputes between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm over what Scorsese ended up including and what he left on the cutting room floor, but all that is ultimately besides the point: the music-making he got on film during The Band's final concert is simply superb. (Though my favorite moment from the film, a transcendent performance of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers, the greatest mix of folk-rock, country, and gospel I've ever heard, was recorded a couple of days later.)



Rattle and Hum. The story is that U2 didn't care for this film about their American tour almost from the instant it came out, realizing that it was too obvious, too pretentious a work of personal myth-building. Maybe so--but I apologize to no one for still finding its mix of black-and-white and color footage, its obviously constructed scenes as well as accidental moments, its touches of hagiography, all of it, an utterly compelling and righteously entertaining document of a rock band strutting, stretching, exploring, and realizing itself (whether accurately or not) to be as big as all the world. For Bono to make like Mick Jagger here in the closing moments of "Bad" is therefore only to be expected.



Shine a Light. Scorsese makes another appearance in my top five, this time with his beloved Rolling Stones. The concert movie most identified with the band's history is, of course, Gimme Shelter, and I won't deny that film is a must-see, if only to capture Jagger's cock-of-the-walk aloofness in all its youth and relative immaturity, to say nothing of the entertainment of watching privileged rock stars and hippies react bemusedly to a bunch of drunk, violent, blue-collar motorcycle thugs, seeing a murder be committed on screen, and, of course, watching Tina Turner do the best on-camera orgasm until Meg Ryan came along. But seriously, Shine a Light is a great movie; it gives you the Stones as an old, reliable, well-oiled machine, capable of burning rubber on their greatest hits, inventively covering lost classics and even a couple of duds from their 50-year repertoire, and puts it all together in a venue and under the eyes of the camera in a way that makes you think, as cliche as it is to say it, that you really were there. The moment I like best is a comparatively quiet one, with Jagger and Keith Richards plucking out "As Tears Go By," an early song of theirs which they are, at last, truly old enough to finally play right.



Stop Making Sense. If you want to make an argument that this movie is the absolute apotheosis of the concert film, I won't disagree with you. It is, more than any other movie of its type that I've seen, the product of a wholly unified artistic vision; watching the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if I was viewing an actual concert film, or some massive work of performance art, or both. The level of costuming and choreography is stunning, matched only by the minimalist, yet somehow still funky staging. And the music is stunning, equal or superior to anything that ever appeared on any Talking Heads studio release. Just watch "Life During Wartime," and think: here is a punk band, that decided to sing pop songs, who put together a rhythm and blues outfit, staged a big funk show, all in order to do a tune about apocalyptic destruction amidst the strip malls and aerobics classes in early 80s America. Just brilliant.



Woodstock. With few exceptions, there aren't any performances in this film which rival most of what's available in some of the other concert movies I've mentioned here; as a rule, it doesn't look like Woodstock brought out the best in those who performed there. But this is a case where I have to break my aforementioned rules: Woodstock, the movie, may not give us music with some added cinematic component that makes it all worthwhile--but in this case you're watching because the movie itself is what make the concert, and the music which was played there, so historic. It's a document of collective memory in the making--and there was probably no more clear example of that than Jimi Hendrix's barn-burning finale. Our national anthem, and the memory of the 1960s, was probably never the same after this (and good for that, I say).

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