Published on May 13th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Top Five: Concert Movies
After recently reviewing Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, I was reminded of how powerful a filmed concert performance can be–and also how it often captures something very spontaneous for a much wider audience to experience. We’ve all had great memories of live shows, whether from a dive bar or a packed outdoor stadium, but typically if you weren’t there you can only hear legends. The 1970 epic Woodstock is largely credited with pioneering the modern concert documentary, but you won’t find it on this list because it’s frankly too much of an undertaking to make my top five.
For this countdown, I’m only including movies that are documents of a single live performance from one venue, not a collection of various performances (such as 2003’s phenomenal Led Zeppelin) **A note about this, and all Top Five’s: these are my personal favorites, not necessarily the greatest of all-time–I’m not going to pretend I’ve seen every concert film ever made, so there could just be one out there that could be a new #1!
Honorable Mention: Cunning Stunts 
This film directed by Wayne Isham and Adam Dubin featured a manic 1997 performance from Metallica. The band was in another transitional state, between their genre-bending Load and ReLoad records–meaning that fans were doubting their dedication to the metal genre they helped put on the map. Singer James Hetfield’s voice cracks more than once but the setlist basically covers their entire history and is worth a watch alone for the dramatic “Enter Sandman”, which featured a choreographed on-stage explosion featuring stunt men catching fire and being rushed off-stage by paramedics! You could never do something like this in a post-9/11 world, but audience members were reportedly rushing out to call police because they thought it was all real.
#5: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Live in New York City 
You shouldn’t expect anything but powerhouse when it comes to arguably the greatest live band in music history. This Madison Square Garden performance was part of Bruce’s 2000 reunion tour with the legendary E Street Band–and you can see the excitement on everybody’s faces as they rip through a list of classics and new live-only material. “Out in the Street” is a 7-minute celebration, “Atlantic City” features the mandolin talents of Steven Van Zandt, “Youngstown” proved that cuts from The Ghost of Tom Joad could be live anthems, and the controversial “American Skin (41 Shots)” is a somber showstopper. It’s hard to argue when a band is having this much fun onstage.
#4: The Central Park Concert 
Like our previous entry, this film features a performance in New York City by a band with a legendary live prowess. The Dave Matthews Band leave it all onstage during this monster 2 hr. 45 min. set before over 100,000 fans. The Central Park Concert was a free show put on by the band and its setlist kicks off with the in-your-face “Don’t Drink the Water”, runs through DMB classics like “Warehouse” and an 19-minute “Two Step”, and a beautiful cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” with Warren Haynes on guitar and the sun setting overhead. Not many deep cuts are included, but as a bonus you can get a contact high just from watching the DVD!
#3: Live at the El Mocambo (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble) 
This live set was released over a year after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic death but documents a single performance from July, 1983 at Toronto’s El Cocambo club. I never got to experience SRV live in person but this show, on a tiny stage where the audience is right on top of him, is pure fire. He and Double Trouble rip through a pair of instrumentals to get the Canadian crowd nice and loose before launching into a set of early originals and blues covers (including a spacey rendition of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun”). This show marks an incredible performer that was on brink of mainstream success, and after being loudly booed in Canada less than a year earlier (his 1982 Montreux set is also a DVD classic!) it’s safe to assume he had a chip on his shoulder.
#2: The Last Waltz 
Martin Scorsese’s seminal document of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco has long been hailed as the greatest music doc ever made, and it’s easy to see why. If you’re a rock & roll fan, The Last Waltz is required viewing. The Band is joined onstage by a who’s who of rock royalty, including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, and Eric Clapton. Plus, where else are you going to see Neil Young perform with a big blob of coke hanging out of his nose? This movie is a bit heavy on the interview segments to be classified as simply a concert film, though.
#1: Stop Making Sense 
This one has it all–a storytelling concert performance, memorable set pieces, iconic costumes, a setlist mixing familiar and new tunes, and solid filmmaking. In 1983, Talking Heads performed in Hollywood and hired director Jonathan Demme to make a movie on a budget they had raised themselves. Stop Making Sense manages to tell the band’s story without using any offstage interviews, but instead through subtle onstage arrangements. At the start, David Byrne stands alone performing “Psycho Killer” on a barren stage which, by the end is full of backing singers, African percussionists, and of course his fellow bandmates. When Byrne broke out the big suit (video below), ironic hipster culture was born. Their style may not be for everyone, but if there’s a better concert film out there, I haven’t seen it yet.
What’s your favorite concert film? Submit it via email to TheClintDavis@gmail.com or via Facebook/Twitter (@Overdue_Review)!