Concert Films – Top 10

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Iconic image from Woodstock

Iconic image from Woodstock

With Roy Orbison, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones, Getintothis’ Jessica Borden takes a look at the ten concert films that steal you away to places and moments past. 

Gigs are an incredibly personal moment, the connection with the audience and the chance to gain a true reaction to the music. The heart racing and the bass running throughout the entire body, sweat running down the walls and floors shaking. When this magic is then captured on film, if done well, it can become a time capsule as a memory for those there or a lesson in historic moments for those who weren’t so fortunate.

Artists from The Rolling Stones and The Band to Prince and Talking Heads, even the documentation of festivals such as the iconic Woodstock have all took part in the creation of a concert film. However it has also become somewhat of a stepping stone in a musicians repertoire, along with a live album and ‘best of’ album of course. And some of these have become very watered down, cliché filming of gigs from the view of the queuing crowd screaming to the Hollywood pristine edit the glazes over the appearance.

When we were younger and unable to get to the majority of dream gigs, concert films where my way in, watching them on repeat until we knew the set list, audience/artist interactions and specific shots off by heart. Dreaming of the day we would be in the crowd or at the side of the stage singing the words full pelt.

From glimpses into the crowd or the backstage bustle before, after or interspersed within the film allows to add a whole level of character and narrative to what could be as simple as a once through recording of an artist playing their latest set list. It shows the icons that have been lost and the people on their top form. The visual representation of a concert rather than just a live album is so important because the visual and the audio feed into each other and during a gig both are just as integral to each other in creating an atmosphere and a show, from the lights they use to maybe smoke cannons or the artists logo or album art work projected somewhere, it all works together.

Here are ten of the best concert films which you must check out right now, combining the melodies that are known and loved with the incredible cinematography here is the list of films that put others to shame.

If you like reading lists of things we like, conveniently rounded up to an even 10, then you are in luck! Check out our past Top 10 lists by clicking here.  

10. The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (directed by Emmett Malloy)

This concert film / documentary contains footage from their 2007 tour across Canada, showing both their on stage performances and off stage interactions. This film demonstrates the raw and passionate side of The White Stripes, from the explanation of stage set up just to make things more difficult to the beautiful rendition of White Moon by Jack White which leaves Meg White in tears.

The beauty behind the filming of this piece, is how it still remains for the majority to The White Stripes three colour restriction of black, white and red, shows the dedication they put forward into the styling, the music and the overall package of the band and everything they did.

The White Stripes were always a slightly mysterious band with their complete focus and direction of focus on the music, this film feels like being let in back door to just observe a great band do what they are best at and their interactions as it happens.

9. The Cure: Trilogy (directed by Nick Wickham)

Over a two night stint in Berlin’s Tempodrome, The Cure played three (hence the name Trilogy) of their albums; Pornography, Disintegration and Disintegration and Bloodflowers. As a huge fan of The Cure, this set list is the holy grail of all set lists for this writer. The film plays through as a simple concert film focusing on The Cure and the performance leaving the audiences as a background character as it plays out. All three albums played in their entirety in the correct album running order, this alone does sound self indulgent and not for the faint hearted or the occasional listener, but for the people who are passionately in love with the lyrical and vocal stylings of Robert Smith.

The film doesn’t do any fancy shots or try to be an elaborate staged performance, it is them standing on a stage playing to adoring fans and not much more is needed. These Trilogy performances were supposed to be the swan song of The Cure, but they never could stay away (thankfully!). And so this will more than likely be played on repeat during November whilst this writer weeps over not having tickets to see them in Manchester.

8. The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter (directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin)

Documenting the moments that killed the 60’s, The Rolling Stones free concert in Altamont would forever go down in history for all the wrong reasons and this film shows the moments where the ideas of the 60’s which were highlighted at the pinnacle just months before at Woodstock were torn apart by violence, climaxing with the (on-screen-ish) killing of 18 year old Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels who had been bafflingly hired to provide security.

The raw filming shows The Rolling Stones at possibly the top of their form and in turn captures the distressed and tormented side of a time which is often looked at through rose tinted glasses. This is often seen as an obvious choice and for very good reason, but the balance from how positive and the celebration of the music which is the normal of the concert films compared to the dark and aggressive nature of this film sets it apart. It seems almost more honest for showing the awful things that happen rather than just glossing over it and putting a film together of a different concert.

7. Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night (directed by Tony Mitchell)

Roy Orbison and Friends, an all star collection of musical icons, from Elvis Presley’s band to Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits and K.D Lang, all there to perform with the legend that was Roy Orbison. The entire film (originally a TV special) is filmed in black and white – possibly an ode to the name and the attire of the guests – but it creates an air of the 1950’s and the era of the Rat Pack. The pure joy that exudes from the artists, Springsteen in particular, when they get to perform with Roy Orbison who is clearly one of their idols is such an incredible sight. The love of his music seems to transcend through the evening and the room and through the screen. It is almost impossible to not be captivated by the sterling performances from Orbison’s vocals to Elvis Costello’s harmonica to Springsteen’s guitar. The music swirls lifts the entire atmosphere and dances through the air.

6. Woodstock (directed by Michael Wadleigh)

Obviously this needs no introduction. The pinnacle of the 60’s, the moment where everything fell together in the perfect combination of puzzle pieces (before being dropped and torn apart a few months later, see Gimme Shelter) and it was all caught on camera.

A concert film where the audience is just as important as the performances, it captures the icons of the time at the best moment possible, from Jimi Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner to Jefferson Airplane with Saturday Afternoon, Arlo Guthrie Coming into Los Angeles, Janis Joplin Work Me Lord, Roger Daltrey‘s locks and Sly Stone making everyone else seem dull in comparison. The energy and atmosphere is heightened by the raw filming of the event and in turn creates what I can only assume is the most honest representation of Woodstock.

Woodstock as for many music lovers is the idea of a heaven, the line up, the atmosphere, the place and it is the same for me. This iconic moment in history is often in my if we could travel back in time to any place list (along with an assortment of other gigs). This film at least for a short time lets everyone experience that.

5. David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture (directed by D. A. Pennebaker)

The final concert performed as Ziggy Stardust before Bowie decided to kill off the persona. This film, containing minimal back stage footage and rich in abundance of on stage performance, demonstrates the connection between Bowie and his audience, with the clips of audience members singing every word and weeping.

The spotlight and close focus on Bowie show an adoration for Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust character, the shots in this film frame the entire concert in the most loving of natures in complete awe.

Ziggy Stardust was such an iconic character and the music even though it was about much broader things (space) but it connects to people on a personal level and the capturing of the final show of this character is such an important moment, it is the swan song of this idol.

4. George Harrison: Concert for Bangladesh (founded by George Harrison, Ravi Shankar)

The first of the Charity concert event, George Harrison created a genre of event whilst also getting some huge names to perform on the same stage from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan.

This film captures a moment of music literally being there to help people as it does in many lives personally, this was the first moment where people used it to raise money for causes and put on a hell of a show whilst doing it.

The filming focuses primarily on the performance and rightly so, but this night was historic and in all accounts a dream gig. From Ravi Shankars’ performance which is then transported into the headline acts, the entire concert seems a whirlwind of icons on stage and seems even magical that they were all on the same stage at the same time playing together.

3. The Grateful Dead: The Grateful Dead Movie (directed by Jerry Garcia and Leon Cast)

In 1977, The Grateful Dead released their concert film, a combination of psychedelic animation, audience interviews, backstage snippets and incredible live performances. The sum of all of these things make a raw and real film that documents and incredible gig and makes possibly the best visual representation of The Grateful Dead and their fans. It makes the audience and fans just as an integral character to the narrative as the band themselves. The music fills whatever room it is in with an uplifting energy, and the film does an incredible job of transporting you to the actual gig, so for just over two hours you can pretend at least to be there

2. Prince: Sign “O” The Times (directed by Prince)

The raw energy that exudes in Prince‘s Sign “O” The Times shows exactly why he was such an iconic and legendary performer, with a show that was probably at his height of his worldwide fame.

This film follows this show in a way that unravels like a narrative from a play or a musical, the high impact energy and force with which Prince played was myth making. Some footage was damaged, so certain scenes and performances were re-recorded at Prince‘s then-new home of Paisley Park, but that doesn’t matter. It still proves how amazing of a performer he was.

The Sign “O” The Times album was much more successful in Europe than in the US, and the screams of the Dutch crowd prove this even with minimum audience shots throughout the film.

1. The Band: The Last Waltz (directed by Martin Scorsese)

An iconic film of the end of an era, with an array of incredible cameo appearances for performances such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young (blob of cocaine hanging out his nose removed in post-production) and the incomparable Staple Singers. These performances add the tribute aspect to the film as an homage to how great of a band The Band were.

This film intersperses great live performances with moments of backstage sincerity with the band being interviewed on life on the road and as The Band. The room and the crowd become essential in the narrative of the film, as the style of setting sets a tone for the love around this classic Americana band.

The finish is that of a raw and real at heart documentation of the end of an era both in music and for the musicians. It became a moment in time that was a celebration of the music that happened not a commiseration of what was ending, and this came across beautifully in the personal documentation style of filming.

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