1. Stop Making Sense (1984), Jonathan Demme
The promotional efforts for Jonathan Demme’s 1984 collaboration with Talking Heads centered on a series of rhetorical questions about the film’s most esoteric moments, like “Where do the odd movements come from?” and “Why a big suit?” But none of these serve as a mission statement as well as a quote Demme gave at the time of Stop Making Sense’s release: “This isn’t a concert film; it’s a performance film.” The movie itself is much more fun than that ponderous response implies. With the help of eight cameras and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner), Demme captured one of post-punk’s greatest acts at the top of its game across three shows at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater. By contrast to the energy pouring forth from songs like “Life During Wartime” and “Girlfriend Is Better” (the latter featuring frontman David Byrne donning the aforementioned big suit), Demme’s direction is slow, sweeping, and singularly intimate—no audience members are seen until the end of the film, and the cameras frequently break from the “odd movements” to dwell on a single band member (usually wild-eyed sideman Bernie Worrell). Steeped in the vocabulary of cinema, with main titles courtesy of Dr. Strangelove designer Pablo Ferro and Byrne’s Breathless-inspired stumbling at the end of “Psycho Killer,” Stop Making Sense synthesizes the fleeting nature of performance and the permanence of motion pictures in the same way the Heads combined funk grooves, world music polyrhythms, and art-rock pretense into a nervy, loose-limbed sound all its own. And it’s doubtful it could’ve done so without Demme at the helm.
2. Gimme Shelter (1970), Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Gimme Shelter is generally perceived less as a concert movie than as a record of an epochal moment in American history: the so-called death of the ’60s at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. That perception has a lot to do with two of the filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Grey Gardens), the founding brothers of cinéma vérité. To be sure, there is plenty of performance footage in the movie, much of it from the Rolling Stones’ Madison Square Garden show a few weeks before the disastrous free concert at Altamont. But the Maysles (and co-director Charlotte Zwerin) are equally concerned with the behind-the-scenes logistics of mounting an enormous outdoor festival in the San Francisco area. The day of the show unfolds like a kaleidoscope of bad vibes, as if Woodstock had been staged in the world of The Road Warrior. The image of cranked-up Hell’s Angels (improbably hired as security for the concert) contemptuously tossing bouquets back into the audience says it all: So much for Flower Power. The sinister vibe of the film’s last half-hour (climaxing with the stabbing of Meredith Hunter and the Stones making a hasty getaway by helicopter as if escaping the Fall Of Saigon is hard to shake, as the pioneers of “direct cinema” capture some of the most indelible, haunting images of the counterculture era.
3. The Last Waltz (1978), Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese actually has a sizeable body of work devoted entirely to rock, from his time assistant directing for the 1970 documentary Woodstock to 2011’s George Harrison: Living In The Material World. But his best known music doc, and considered by some to be the best rock movie of all time, is 1978’s The Last Waltz, which chronicles the final performance by The Band. Although made at a turbulent time in Scorsese’s life, and under guerilla circumstances (almost every camera ran out of film while shooting the concert), the movie is one of his best. It interweaves an incredible live show (featuring Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young, to name a few guests) with shaggy dog stories and staged performances. The film also began Scorsese’s collaboration with The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, who has scored and provided musical supervision for a handful of his films. For anyone unfamiliar with The Band, The Last Waltz manages to be both a biography and a perfect portrait of the group at its peak.
4. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005), Michel Gondry
Shot before, but released after Dave Chappelle made the headlines-grabbing decision to walk away from his lucrative Comedy Central gig, Block Party finds the famous funnyman playing host to a free, daylong hip-hop festival in Brooklyn in September 2004. As emcee of the festivities, Chappelle supplies the personality and the humor, but it’s director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) who gives this chronologically non-linear music doc its celebratory spirit. Cutting between triumphant onstage performances and offstage scenes of its titular celebrity joshing around with local characters, Gondry salutes not just the artists—a dream lineup that includes Mos Def, Kanye West, and a reunited Fugees—but the enthusiastic New Yorkers in attendance too. For Chappelle, the film was an I’m-still-here announcement, a loose reminder that the comic hadn’t lost his mind, just his craving for the spotlight. For Gondry, it was further proof, after the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine, that the music-video vet performs his greatest magic when paired with a strong creative collaborator. Any way you come at it, the title is apt: This is the concert film as blowout bash, a neighborhood party with a killer playlist.
5. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006), Neil Young Trunk Show (2009), and Neil Young Journeys (2011), Jonathan Demme
Unlike Jim Jarmusch’s 1997 Year Of The Horse, Jonathan Demme’s 2006 concert documentary Neil Young: Heart Of Gold picks up Young’s storied career immediately following the singer-songwriter’s brain aneurysm in 2005. Young’s post-surgery vulnerability is reflected in the quieter arrangements—sans his raucous backing band Crazy Horse—and the acoustic-based material he showcases on the intimate stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The cool eye Demme brings to his biggest film, The Silence Of The Lambs, is set aside in favor of the New Hollywood counterculture vibe—and in particular the shaggy twang of Robert Altman’s Nashville—although the director lets things get gloriously ragged on 2009’s Neil Young Trunk Show and 2011’s Neil Young Journeys, which complete Demme’s Young trilogy with a cantankerous crescendo.
6. Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders’ documentary Buena Vista Social Club isn’t precisely a concert film, since it also includes filmed recording sessions and a lot of backstory on the hit 1997 album of the same name. Despite no prior knowledge of Cuban music, Wenders felt compelled to chronicle how producer Ry Cooder (with whom he worked on the soundtrack for The End Of Violence) brought together a group of local musicians in Havana when his plans to record with a Malian Highlife duo fell through. The film’s most affecting scene cuts between a virtuosic rotating shot of Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo recording “Silencio” in a Havana studio, and a concert with the full BVSC lineup. As in Wenders’ Yasujirō Ozu documentary Tokyo-Ga, the material feels like a diary, even as the German filmmaker keeps the focus mostly on the group performances in Amsterdam and New York City.
7. Shine A Light (2008), Martin Scorsese
Underscoring what a self-indulgent project Shine A Light is, unabashed Stones fan Martin Scorsese appears throughout the black-and-white opening segments, in which he plans the film on camera, while Mick fusses over the setlist and the other Stones mainly wait around. But Marty steps out of the way when the house lights come up, and the venerable band breezes through hits and obscurities. The songs are rushed, and augmented with horns and backup singers, making for a live show that’s actually less raw than the records. As a result, the best moments are the rough edges—a duet with a giddy, starstruck Jack White, or Keith Richard’s charmingly ragged vocals on two songs. Rather than conduct interviews, Scorsese intersperses archival footage from several decades of Mick answering the question, “How long will you keep going?” And that’s what makes the whole enterprise work: Jagger keeps going. He never stops moving—strutting, dancing, shaking his hips, waving his arms—and that non-stop energy makes him every bit as magnetic as he’s been over the past 50 years. Did it take the talents of Scorsese to show us that the Stones have gone from old-age laughingstock to ageless wonders? Probably not. But after a few films charting the band’s long decline, it’s nice to see Mick and the boys get a Hollywood ending.
8. Year Of The Horse (1997), Jim Jarmusch
“Made loud to be played loud” reads a title card near the beginning of this scrapbook of Neil Young and Crazy Horse through the ages. It’s a somewhat hubristic claim, considering both that an earlier Young concert film, Rust Never Sleeps, might well be the loudest movie ever made, and that Year Of The Horse was directed by Jim Jarmusch, a director whose work isn’t usually associated with high-volume, raucous energy. Yet rock ’n’ roll has always been central to Jarmusch’s films, from the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins worship of Stranger Than Paradise, to the Elvis-crazed tourists of Mystery Train, to the ethereal guitar squalls on the Dead Man soundtrack. Since the last of those sounds were provided by none other than Neil Young, Year Of The Horse isn’t the unlikely pairing of filmmaker and subject it might at first seem. A deliberately ramshackle affair, it combines performance footage from Young’s 1996 tour with vintage clips dating back as far as the early ’70s and Jarmusch’s interviews with Young and his sometimes prickly bandmates. Jarmusch shot the film on Super 8, 16mm, and Hi-8 video, with the resulting blotchy, grainy images providing a visual corollary to Crazy Horse’s ragged glory. (Hey, it’s not like they’re a particularly photogenic bunch anyway.) Roger Ebert deemed Horse the worst movie of 1997, which is a bit of an overstatement, but it’s definitely a “for fans only” experience.
9. Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll (1987), Taylor Hackford
Documenting a couple of 60th-birthday concerts given by Chuck Berry—and designed at least partially to promote the musician’s autobiography—Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll is a much softer ’50s-nostalgia trip than director Taylor Hackford’s earlier The Idolmaker (1980). Hackford seems cowed by Berry in the interviews and other offstage scenes, allowing him to dictate the shape of the material to a degree that the filmmaker probably wouldn’t put up with from an actor. And in the concert scenes, he focuses on what a wonderful time everyone seems to be having, as if to make up for Berry being past his prime and the highly variable quality of the guest stars. The most exciting moments are the rehearsal scenes with bandleader Keith Richards, mainly because Richards, unlike Hackford, clearly felt that he could best serve his hero by demanding the best he had to give, even at the risk of pissing him off.
10. The Velvet Underground And Nico: A Symphony Of Sound (1966), Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey
Seeing as how Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey were instrumental (without actually playing instruments) in the rise of The Velvet Underground in the mid-’60s, it only makes sense that their Factory-based cinema apparatus would latch onto the group. The performance-film The Velvet Underground And Nico: A Symphony Of Sound was directed by Warhol and Morrissey, and it captures a live performance that eschews the duo’s more avant-garde and pop-art tendencies. In their place is a trancelike document of wavering focus and blurred drones that’s nonetheless linear and coherent (at least by VU standards). It may not be a symphony per se, but A Symphony Of Sound does offer a hypnotic view of a visionary group at the cusp of revelation.
11. Let’s Spend The Night Together (1982), Hal Ashby
Best known for wry, philosophical meditations like 1971’s Harold And Maude and 1978’s Coming Home, director Hal Ashby took the money and ran with his workmanlike Rolling Stones concert doc Let’s Spend The Night Together. Released in 1982 and filmed during The Stones’ 1981 tour of North America, the film is an autofocus snapshot of one of the lowest points of the group’s career—as evidenced by sleepwalking performances and halfhearted banter from Mick Jagger and crew. That said, there’s a perverse allure to witnessing the fractured, muffled magnificence of “the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world” unraveling at the seams, only without enough energy to even truly fall apart. And if anyone knew how to meditate on aging during the afterglow of America’s first youth movement—even subconsciously—it was Ashby.
12. Storefront Hitchcock (1998), Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme’s concert documentaries often have the feel of career summations, but Robyn Hitchcock’s mercurial oeuvre eludes easy summary, not to mention the pomp and circumstance of, say, Heart Of Gold. Storefront Hitchcock is Demme’s simplest doc and one of his most overlooked, but its low-key ingenuity yields a string of delights. The idea is simple: Hitchcock, then two-plus decades into a career that began with The Soft Boys’ post-punk, performs on a stage backed by ground-floor views of a busy Manhattan street. Curious passerby peek in through the windows and an insistent street artist presses his paintings against the glass (although the latter is frequently cut out of MGM’s pan-and-scan home video transfer). Hitchcock’s loopy, free-associative monologues are as engrossing as the songs themselves, delivered in a wry cadence that Demme echoes with the understated ingenuity of his staging. Mixing and matching a series of gels, scrims, candelabra, and dangling light bulbs, as well as a large plastic tomato, he creates a perfect counterpoint to Hitchcock’s matter-of-fact surrealism.
13. Bittersweet Motel (2000), Todd Phillips
Before Todd Phillips built a film comedy empire with the Hangover movies, he turned out a duo of music documentaries on subjects that seem totally opposed. First was 1994’s Hated: GG Allin & The Murder Junkies. Then in 2000, the same year his Road Trip was released, Phillips had his name on Bittersweet Motel, a concert documentary about jam band Phish. Cutting between the band’s goofy backstage chemistry and their free-form live numbers, Phillips captures much of what makes Phish so endearing to its fans. (There’s also some candid footage of Phish fans smoking garbage weed and shotgunning beers, something less likely to endear non-fans to the band and its fan culture.) The concert footage isn’t especially dynamic (guitarist Trey Anastasio lambastes one show as “the worst set we’ve played in six months”), but it jives nicely with Bittersweet Motel’s larger function of documenting Phish’s hairy tour schedule and extended onstage jamming.
14. Yes: 9012 Live (1985), Steven Soderbergh
Most discussions of Steven Soderbergh’s career usually refer to Sex, Lies & Videotape as his directorial debut, but while the 1989 film marked his introduction into the feature-film award circuit, Soderbergh had already received his first nomination as a director four years earlier, courtesy of his effort behind the camera for a live performance by Yes. The opportunity to direct 9012 Live, a document of a concert during the prog-rock band’s tour for its 1983 comeback album 90125, came to Soderbergh after he helmed a short documentary on the band entitled Access All Areas, which can be found on the DVD release of 9012 Live. Although the utilization of effects by Charlex has left a decidedly ’80s-style stamp on the proceedings, the DVD provides viewers with an opportunity to see Soderbergh’s early work as a director in its unblemished state.
15. The Beat Of The Live Drum (1985), David Fincher
With a music video back catalog that includes some surprising entries, including Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” and Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams,” David Fincher isn’t exactly the least-likely director to helm a concert film. But it’s still somewhat jarring to realize that the man who made Fight Club and Se7en was also behind the camera to document a Rick Springfield concert. Fincher’s early career path took him from working behind the scenes for Industrial Light & Magic to directing commercials, but after turning in a controversial but eye-catching American Cancer Society spot that featured a fetus smoking a cigarette, he was hired to direct Springfield as he toured behind 1985’s Tao album, causing his career in commercials and music video to take off in a big way.
16. AMEX Unstaged series (2010—), Various directors
In 2010, American Express teamed up with VEVO to produce a series of concert events to be live-streamed via YouTube, many of which caught the eyes of music fans and film aficionados alike due to the directors hired to shoot the performances. Certain pairings seemed like matches made in heaven (Coldplay and Anton Corbijn), while others seemed to come from out of nowhere (Kenny Chesney and Jonathan Demme). David Lynch teams with Duran Duran, Werner Herzog films The Killers, and Todd Haynes captures the country-tinged live glory of My Morning Jacket. While not every director makes his auteuristic personality known—Haynes, for example, leaves the theatrics to Jim James and company—these still have to be the best-directed, live-concert streams ever.