I’m one of those unfortunate children of the seventies who was old enough to know about Woodstock as it was happening, but way too young to attend. This cruel injustice stuck in my craw then, but the pain has eased with repeat viewings of the seminal documentary shot in and around this incredible “happening” exactly forty years ago, come this weekend.
Watching this and other similar titles, I’ve found that if you’re equipped with a decent home theatre and quality speakers, it’s hard to go wrong with a rock concert film. On a fundamental level, if you like the music, chances are you’ll be entertained. And since great rock is also timeless, you’re also likely to draw in the younger generation, and thus end up with a real crowd-pleaser. Here now are ten rock concert/performance films I always swear by:
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)- With this landmark film, director Richard Lester unveiled the inner workings of a rock n’ roll band experiencing unprecedented super-stardom. The disarming charisma and spontaneous energy of the Beatles made no traditional plot necessary. It was sufficient to portray a day in the life of the world’s most talked about rock band. Lester’s documentary-style shooting makes the proceedings feel breathtakingly real- all four Beatles were natural performers, especially John and Ringo. The Fab Four are also matched here with fine British character actors like Norman Rossington (as their manager), and Wilfrid Brambell (as Paul’s incorrigible grandfather), who provide additional comic support and flavoring.
All these years later, “Night” remains a breathtaking musical ride. The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1967)- It was 1967: the Summer of Love was in full swing, and the “Sergeant Pepper’s” album had just hit store shelves. This was a charged moment when you could sense that rock ‘n’ roll was evolving in daring new directions, fueled by psychedelic drugs, the sexual revolution, and a new generation finding its voice. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker covers the Monterey Pop Festival like a blanket in this feature-length concert film- really the first-ever filming of everything and everyone at a large rock event, and showcasing landmark performances by immortals Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and The Who, among others. Drinking in all the pungent sights and sounds makes you regret you weren’t actually there, but also makes you doubly glad that Pennebaker was.
A toe-tapping treat. Gimme Shelter (1970)- Master documentarians the Maysles Brothers were on hand to record the soon-to-be-infamous free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, which along with the Manson murders, brought the decade of flower power and free love to a dark, ominous close. We see not only the fateful concert itself, but much of the planning leading up to the event. Given what the camera actually captured here, “Gimme Shelter” remains a uniquely powerful, often disturbing film document. Scenes of the advance work for the Altamont concert impart a queasy feeling of dread. Then, coverage of the concert itself juxtaposes fabulous renditions of Stones tunes with the emerging reality of a volatile situation just off-stage.
There, drugged-out Hell’s Angels bikers start beating audience members, causing one fatality. Jagger’s numbed expression as he later views the video playback of the incident is unforgettable. This fascinating, frightening film records a tumultuous moment in our popular culture, and a turning point in the history of rock. Elvis: That’s The Way It Is ((1971)- The king of ’50’s rock-n’-roll is still kicking in Denis Sanders’s rousing tribute, which finds Elvis at a crossroads. With the waning of his movie career allowing him to get back to live performing, Presley rehearses for his much ballyhooed Las Vegas opening, yukking it up backstage with his band, and traipsing around with his entourage until his big-night debut. Elvis still looks (and sounds) terrific in this docu-portrait of the Memphis legend’s bid for glitzy Vegas glory.
Beyond the force of his charisma and talent in full blossom, we get a glimpse of the star’s comical, playful side, which humanizes this larger-than-life entertainer. “Way” culminates in a predictably triumphant opening-night performance, with such luminaries as Cary Grant and Sammy Davis, Jr. in attendance. Elvis fans should be delighted, because “That’s the Way It Is” lends poignancy to this last moment when the King appeared at his very best. The Last Waltz (1978)- Continuing a tradition begun with his co-editing of “Woodstock” close to a decade earlier, Martin Scorsese captures “The Last Waltz” for posterity. This was The Band’s final 1976 tour, after a back-breaking sixteen years on the road. To mark the milestone as a celebration, not a wake, the group assembled a veritable rock hall-of-fame to join them, including Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, and Neil Young.
The rest is music history. Often hailed as the greatest concert movie ever, it may just be. Robbie Robertson, the film’s producer and guiding light behind The Band, is charismatic off-stage, electric on. All the guest musicians sing and play at the top of their games. Highlights include Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, Waters’s earthy, soulful “Mannish Boy”, Dr. John’s dreamy “Such A Night”, and Clapton’s jaw-dropping guitar work on “Further On Up The Road”. Stop Making Sense (1984)- Filmed over the course of a three-day stint at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, this concert documentary celebrates the inspired pop energy of New Wave pioneers Talking Heads- David Byrne, Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison- as they are joined onstage by a succession of phenomenal players, including keyboardist Bernie Worrell.
Director Jonathan Demme’s infectious first outing captures the ecstatic fervor of the Talking Heads at the very peak of their fame, but it is much more than a filmed performance. Working from an idea hatched by super-quirky frontman David Byrne, “Sense” opens with Byrne’s solo rendition of “Psycho Killer” (accompanying himself on boom-box) and builds, song by song and player by player, to a roof-raising climax with “Burning Down the House.” The result is an uplifting, concept-driven dance party that avoids all the clichés. Roy Orbison: Black and White Night (1991)- This star-studded 1987 concert by the groundbreaking rock-and-roll singer Roy Orbison, filmed at the Coconut Grove in downtown Los Angeles, features the falsetto-voiced pop star at the peak of his powers.
Joining Orbison onstage are Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and many others, singing gently rocking ballads like “Pretty Woman” and “Crying” in a rollicking hour of delightful, swinging collaboration. Originally aired on Showtime, “Night” evokes a 1940s nightclub environment complete with art-deco set design, gorgeous black-and-white photography, and Orbison’s trademark shades. But aside from the nostalgic, ever-inviting aesthetics, it is the musical performances that remain so compelling. Orbison sounds like he hasn’t lost a beat (or missed a note) since his Sun Records days, and his duets with Elvis Costello, K.D. Lang, Tom Waits, and producer T Bone Burnett feel warm and rich, rather than like a stale imitation of previous successes. Who else can croon “Only the Lonely” so hauntingly?
Festival Express (2003)- This intimate doc showcases a memorable 1970 rock tour which traversed Canada by train. Complementing the live performances and fly-on-the wall sequences of the tour are current interviews with surviving participants. The impressive line-up of musical talent includes Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, The Band, and The Grateful Dead. This under-exposed performance film recreates the heady times of 1970, when the memory of Woodstock was still fresh. Grateful Dead fans in particular will enjoy seeing the late, great Jerry Garcia in his prime, Joplin breaks your heart offstage (and dazzles you on-), and you simply can’t go wrong with those other acts. “Festival Express” is a must-see for any true rock fan. Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005)- Martin Scorsese’s ambitious two-part documentary covers the enigmatic balladeer’s rise, focusing on Dylan’s artistic courage in shifting from folk to rock-infused songs in the mid-sixties, and his steadfast refusal to play a broader cultural role in these tumultuous times.
He wanted simply to make music, and let the music speak for itself. Scorsese fashions a masterful portrait of a pivotal crossroads in Dylan’s career, leading up to the serious 1966 motorcycle accident that signaled a prolonged hiatus from touring. This intimate, insightful film makes it clear that Dylan would likely have taken a break from public performances anyhow, as his mid-sixties tour in England was met with hostility every time the singer picked up an electric guitar, further straying from his sacred folk roots. “No Direction Home” constitutes a fascinating sixties time capsule, and a revealing meditation on artistic integrity and the pitfalls of fame. (It’s also a perfect companion piece to D.A. Pennebaker’s earlier Dylan profile- 1965’s “Don’t Look Back”.)
Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006)- In the fall of 2005, legendary rocker Neil Young debuted a suite of new songs, “Prairie Wind,” at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. This exquisite concert film captures Young performing these and a few older chestnuts with his pals, including Emmylou Harris, wife Peg, and a who’s who of country session players. Evocative backdrops, moody set lighting, and Jonathan Demme’s fluid camerawork only add to the experience. This lovely, deeply affecting music doc gets the red-carpet treatment from “Stop Making Sense” director Demme, who briefly introduces each of the players on their way to the show before literally zooming in on Young’s remarkable performance. Singing folk-country songs about mortality, empty nests, and aged parents, Young’s choppy rhythms and images of swaying Canadian cornfields harken back to his early ’70s work on “Harvest” and “Comes a Time.” It’s obvious he’s enjoying himself, and his between-song banter is tart, concise, and utterly charming. If you don’t come away from “Heart of Gold” humming, you better have your ears checked.
A final word on these films: they were all meant to be played loud. So crank it!
After a long stint on Madison Avenue, John Farr left to devote himself to spreading his love and passion for outstanding films. He’s following a Quixote-like quest to have people appreciate the stories and excellence of the world’s best movies, most of them now accessible on DVD, or even for downloading. After all, if our kids read literary classics to understand the tenor of a certain time and culture, why not do the same thing with great movies?