Concert films are ubiquitous in their appeal. The marriage of live music and the moving image offers some sense of enjoyment for most, if not all, viewers. The canon of the concert film is well established, but everyone has their favorite and the reasons for loving them are always different.
Cinema, like music, is intensely subjective, and both forms of art are distillations and expressions of human emotion and, more importantly, the human experience. Thus, compiling a list of the best concert films is like parsing every nook and cranny of what it means to understand, love, and view human expressivity.
Below are my picks for the 10 best concert films that, when put together, create a tapestry of what it means to express emotion through the audiovisual arts.
10. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005)
Michel Gondry‘s lively and expressive documentary pairs the immensely smart and gonzo comedy of Dave Chappelle with the varyingly emotional nature of rap and soul music. Chappelle explains that this is the concert film that he has always wanted to see. Block Party takes place over one rainy night on a sleepy side street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the film is set up as the presentation of a free neighborhood block party. The energy is kinetic and free-flowing. Performers come and go, genres shift, and comedy gives way to music and vice-versa.
The film’s structure fluctuates between the preparation for the concert and the concert itself, and the duality of the documentary’s temporal structure gives a nice cause-and-effect look at what happens when plans come together. The block party is spirited and intensely watchable. Chappelle is a constant presence here and if he is not seen, then his tastes, perspective, and emphasis on culture are always felt.
9. Monterey Pop (1968)
Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker‘s Monterey Pop set the precedent for the concert film in a pre-Woodstock film, and the rip-roaring liveliness is still infectious to this day. Pennebaker’s gaze, unlike with his previous, deeply human and unfiltered look at Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, is almost too objective. He captures the performances of the artists on stage in such a way that the viewer feels not let into the world of the musicians but that of the festivalgoer. Whether or not that’s the point, it completely works. Every performance crackles and writhes with matter-of-fact energy, zaniness, and the blissful ignorance of that “Summer of Love.”
Many legendary artists are featured in the documentary, from Otis Redding to The Who, but Monterey Pop will forever belong to Jimi Hendrix. His performance here is the stuff of rock legend, as he does things with a guitar that seems impossible. But to him, it is all-natural and freely felt. Pennebaker’s eagerness to focus on the artists pays off here in such an awe-inducing way, and his occasional cuts to the astonished crowd say more than words ever could. They were witnessing history in the making, and now the viewer gets to witness history through amplifiers and soaring guitar riffs.
8. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)
Back-to-back Pennebaker on a top 10 concert films list shouldn’t be surprising, as his music documentaries are quite special. And Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is no exception. This film is all thrills — gaudy, glamorous, and as distinct as David Bowie‘s cheekbones. It captures the otherworldly charisma and persona of an artist at the peak of his fame. The concert itself was to be Bowie’s last as the character Ziggy Stardust, and he and Pennebaker send the alter ego into the cosmos with a rip-roaring bang.
Pennebaker’s film is a love letter to one of the strangest eras of rock — everything was sexualized, burned out, fried, and bursting with love. The setlist of the concert dabbles a little in the bizarre storyline of the album of the same name, but each song, as performed, is transfixing all the same. The staggeringly confident version of “Moonage Daydream” is the highlight of the film. It shoots for the stars and finds a new galaxy, leaving an old one behind as Bowie left Ziggy in England when he left to reinvent himself in America.
7. Woodstock (1970)
Woodstock, the 1969 music festival, is a thing of legend. Over the decades, it has grown into a festival of mythic proportions. If it weren’t for the fact that Woodstock was so well documented, one would have a hard time believing it ever happened. It would be just another tall tale told by boomers to help them believe that their generation reigns supreme over all others. Yet, Woodstock happened, and better yet, Michael Wadleigh chronicled the festival in his three-hour-long concert film epic, Woodstock.
Three days, 400,000 people in attendance to see some of the greatest musicians of all time, and a farm in upstate New York. That was Woodstock, and through Wadleigh’s film, one can relive the audacity and monolithic nature of the festival to their heart’s desire. Yes, Woodstock is a concert film — Hendrix, Joan Baez, Country Joe, and countless others perform to their fullest of their artistic capabilities. But more importantly, Woodstock is a testament and a time capsule to a specific time and place. It may always be remembered as an important document of the music festival to end all music festivals, but the way that Wadleigh’s 16 cameras capture the tumultuous nature of 1969 (Vietnam, youth in revolt, political upheaval) gives this film a temporal texture that is impossible to copy or recreate. Woodstock transports the viewer to that specific time and place.
6. Fade to Black (2004)
Fade to Black is a brilliant concert documentary about rapper Jay-Z at arguably the peak of his hip-hop career. Known more now as a producer, businessman, and the husband of Beyonce, Jay-Z spent the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s as one of the freshest voices in the world of rap music. Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren‘s documentary is an insightful and invigorating look into his Black Album era, and through beginning the film not on stage but in the pre-show process (both backstage and in the studio), the viewer sees Jay-Z as more than just a performer on a stage.
Still, the best and most memorable parts of the film happen when Jay-Z is on stage at Madison Square Garden. He plays the crowd as if they are one collective instrument. They bounce when he urges them to bounce, and they rap along and move to his affecting music. It is a concert film through and through, as nothing truly revelatory is added to the already-brimming genre. But Jay-Z’s performance is one for the ages and the backstage stuff is as humanizing as it is gaudy.
Being from 2004, Fade to Black has not aged well in one key aspect. Jay-Z performs on stage with R. Kelly, whose nature as an abuser and possible trafficker of underage and adult women has been outed many times over, most recently in the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly.
5. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Jonathan Demme may be better known for the revelatory Stop Making Sense (more on that in a moment), but his capturing of the persona of Neil Young in Heart of Gold takes the concert film to a different place — more understated and personal, utterly fitting for Young and his music. The curtain opens and he stands alone, weathered by age, and he looks like a cowboy out of time. He is the cowboy of the past stuck in the inevitable now, who peers uneasily at the future to come. Yet, his music will always be timeless, transcendental even.
Demme portrays Young and his rotating cast of familiar faces (Ben Keith and Emmylou Harris) as they are, his cameras never shying away from the aged faces and bodies on display. Instead, he chooses to champion them; these monoliths of the territory between rock and folk still exist, and they are still larger than life, even if their music is of this earth. The tracklist plays like an almost autobiographical look at the life, career, and many shades of Neil Young.
Like all of Demme’s work, color is paramount. Colors change with each song to match the emotions on display, and like Young’s vocal delivery, Heart of Gold is trimmed of any and all fat. No words are wasted. There is little before and after the concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. There is just an old man, an old suit, a weathered cowboy hat, and the beautiful sounds that come from Young’s guitar.
4. Gimme Shelter (1970)
Of all the concert films on this list, Gimme Shelter is the one that leans closest to the classic documentary form. But it is the emphasis on the fateful and harrowing Rolling Stones concert at Altamont that makes this film worthy of being on this list. Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin‘s cameras capture the band’s 1969 tour across America. The band, by now, is well mythologized for their hard-living and death-defying attitudes. But at one free concert at a speedway in northern California, death came within an arm’s reach of the stage. The dichotomy between Woodstock and Gimme Shelter being on this list shows the peak and the death of the 1960s Love Generation. Gimme Shelter sees the free-flowing nature of the decade laid bare — mass violence, anger, confusion, and fear.
In 1969, the Rolling Stones were at the height of their power. Their music was affecting, sexy, and as catchy as it was well crafted. The band’s frontman, Mick Jagger, was at his androgynous, über-sexual peak. In turn, the Stones’ live performances were transfixing. Yet, what occurred at Altamont would forever follow the group like a dark shadow. Upon entering the Altamont venue, which was billed as the Woodstock of the west coast, Jagger was sucker-punched in the face. Youth in revolt, the band would push on.
Later, during their performance, the festival’s security, which was made up of members of the Hell’s Angels biker gang (who were paid in beer!), stabbed a man to death in the crowd. The entire altercation was captured on camera and is featured in the film. Gimme Shelter is both an important and unfiltered look at an era that is easily viewed through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia. The final shot of Jagger’s unnerved and scared face is a truly disconcerting and unforgettable sight.
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: God is in the House (2001)
Nick Cave is a cult of personality in and of himself. He has honed himself into a specific persona that is both reflected by and reflexive towards his music. He seems mythic, more than a man, but his music could only be made by a human being. His lyrics are concerned with the dark side of the human condition but also that of what it means to love, be loved, and yearn for the love that cannot be. Furthermore, his fanbase is near-religious in their devotion to Cave and his group, the Bad Seeds. The crowd hangs on to every word, every piano key, and every guitar chord. In this, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: God is in the House comes to roaring and elegiac life.
Directed by Fabien Raymond, the documentary is as bombastic as it is intimate. The concert, held in Lyon, France, is mostly comprised of music from the latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album at the time, No More Shall We Part. It is a slower record, one focused on God, death, and love, but it too has moments of intensity. The performance of “Oh, My Lord” cackles and undulates with an energy that sees Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as their truest selves — conductors of cacophonic madness.
Raymond’s camera captures the performance of each song as if it were being performed to a crowd of one. No matter how bombastic or stripped-down, they are played with the expressivity and gusto that has made Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds so mythic. Their live concerts are viewed as quasi-religious experiences, and this film certainly makes the argument that, well, maybe they are.
2. The Last Waltz (1978)
Final shows are a common theme among concert films, yet none has been as well-covered and revered as that of the final performance of The Band. The Last Waltz is directed by Martin Scorsese and the film’s title is quite fitting as it firmly suggests finality but also a sense of elegance, maybe even reverence. What is captured on film is the performance of a lifetime. From Dylan to Young to Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, the line-up of guest performers here is incredible.
And the irony comes through the fact that they are playing for, with, and to a band that was so normal that they just named themselves The Band. It is a larger-than-life film for a humble group, but the feeling of friendliness and warmth that comes through the screen seems synonymous with what The Band was: simple musicians playing music that they loved. They toured for 16 long years, and with the help of Scorsese and a bevy of iconic artists, they decided to call it quits in an immensely grand fashion.
The Last Waltz is a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll and folk music. Every performance is stellar, everyone looks like they are having fun, and the occasional interviews with The Band come off as simply melancholic, as they realize that after the film is over The Band will be no more. Instead, The Band will blow into the wind and new bands and solo acts will come to be. The film rambles on at its own pace due to all of the performers involved, but that is the point. The Band may be calling it quits, but they will ramble on long after they are gone.
1. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Talking Heads were a revelation for their time — iconoclasts, trendsetters, and trend breakers. Jonathan Demme lands on this list once again, as his collaboration with the group’s frontman, David Byrne, makes for what is assuredly the greatest concert film of all time. Yet, it is also quite deconstructive of the genre, a response to the concert films that came before it. The 1970s were full of overlong and bloated examples that revel in bombast. Stop Making Sense is deceptively simple. It opens with Byrne alone on a large stage, just him, his guitar, and a radio. He says that he wants to play a song for the crowd, and he does just that. As each song progresses, another member of Talking Heads is introduced until the entire band is on stage. And once fully brought together, their harmonic energy comes to life.
Demme directs the film in a reserved, voyeuristic manner. His camera merely observes, and long, steady shots allow the wild mannerisms and intense dance moves of Byrne to be shown in their full unfettered beauty. There are no reaction shots of the crowd, and the stage is painted a simple black. All that matters is the music and those who perform it. Stop Making Sense is the closest one can get to seeing a live performance and feeling as if they are attending one without ever having to leave their home. Stop Making Sense shows what a concert film can truly be when it is trimmed of the excess and grandeur found in most — all that is needed is an assured vision, great music, and affecting artists who love what they play.