David Byrne courts a lighting fixture in Stop Making Sense.
The Friday release of the Tragically Hip doc Bobcaygeon got us thinking about what works in concert films. Here is a list of the best concert docs - the movies with the best performances - as distinct from best music docs, a list that would include the great Gimme Shelter. (See the Woodstock entry below for more on that.)
1. The Last Waltz (1978)
Martin Scorsese redefined the concert film when he shot The Band's final performance for The Last Waltz, deploying ridiculously overqualified camera operators Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance) to capture the musicians - not just the Band, but special guests like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, even Neil Diamond - in a state of musical ecstasy. Sure, most of them were doped out of their gourds (Scorsese famously had to employ an optical effect in post-production to obscure a glob of coke dangling from one of Young's nostrils), but that just adds to the intensity of the moment.
2. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Jonathan Demme's concert film captures one of the most fascinating American bands of the 1980s, the Talking Heads, at the peak of their powers. It's also a textbook example of how to shoot a live performance. Working with Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Demme reduces the band to its essential components, grouping and regrouping people and instruments around David Byrne until the stage is throbbing with activity. It all comes to a glorious release with that magnificent cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River. If you've seen the movie, you're probably humming it right now.)
3. Woodstock (1970)
Michael Wadleigh captures the three-day concert - a pop-culture milestone - in a monumental three-hour doc that distributors never believed would find an audience. The joke's on them. Sex and drugs feature prominently, but what matters are the performances - footage edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, who netted an Oscar nomination for her work - that cemented the reputations of the Who, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix as live acts and launched the careers of Santana, Sha Na Na, Joe Cocker and others. By comparison, the Mayles Brothers' anti-Woodstock pic Gimme Shelter (1970) - about the Rolling Stones disastrous appearance at Altamont, where an audience member was fatally stabbed - may be the best music doc ever made, but as a concert doc it doesn't quite cut it. Except for a sequence at Madison Square Garden in which Tina Turner fellates her microphone, the performances themselves are forgettable, taking a back seat to the tragedy.
4. Heima (2007)
In Dean DeBlois's chronicle of Sigur Rós's 2006 concert tour through their native Iceland, the band uses its glorious ambient sounds to honour history and the environment. One show doubles as a protest against the construction of a dam devastating the country's ancient rock formations, another includes members of a choir that's had a hundred-year history. As the band performs, Icelanders gather, play - a shot of red kites against a blue sky will blow your mind - and the country's spectacular landscapes change, perfectly synched to the music, thanks to some precision editing. Heima is astonishingly beautiful and definitely not for fans only.
5. Shut Up And Play The Hits (2012)
Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern's documentary, framed around LCD Soundsystem's bittersweet farewell gig at Madison Square Garden, has impressive live footage of the band. It also shines a light on band leader James Murphy, who made some of the most era-defining music of the early 21st century, then calmly pulled the plug at the height of the band's career. Chuck Klosterman, who conducts the interviews, may not be the cultural figure you'd first connect to the band, but he's dogged in refusing to let Murphy dodge touchy questions.