Listicle
The 25 Best Concert Films
03 Sep 2021 | 10 MINS READ
Curzon

In the years since Jazz on a Summer’s Day was first seen by audiences, the concert film has become a staple of big and small screen entertainment. The films run the gamut in style and quality. Some have redefined the way we watch performance on film, while others have excelled at doing the very thing the format is intended for – to see our favourite band, musician or singer entertain us. Here are 25 of the best concert feature films, from the very first to a stunning recent release.

1. Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958)

It wasn’t the first concert film – that was the 1948 Yehudi Menuhin promotional film Concert Magic, which was shot on a sound stage in Hollywood but tailor-made for cinema exhibition. However, when it comes to the first film of a live event, with an audience in attendance, Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s film claims the title. It’s a richly colourful portrait of an era, with some of the finest artists of the time performing alongside each other, at the fifth edition of the Newport Jazz Festival. More than footage of the cream of the US jazz scene, Jazz on a Summer's Day captures a slice of life in the US as it left behind the detritus of the Second World War and looked towards huge shifts in culture and society.

2. The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

With his 1963 recording ‘Live at the Apollo’, James Brown recorded one of the most acclaimed live albums; not surprising considering the soul performer’s legendary status as one of the great live acts. What is surprising is that there is no corresponding live film. Sure, Brown makes appearances in The Blues Brothers (1980), Rocky IV (1985) and Soul Power (2008, see below), but there is no full record of just how incendiary the Godfather of Soul was on stage. So, we’re left with this early film, which offers an overview of the shifting music scene in the US. Presented by pop surf duo Jan and Dean, it features a wealth of 1960s stars, from The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Supremes, to Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Chuck Berry and Brown. He takes up just a fraction of the film’s 123 min running time, but he makes his presence felt.

3. Charlie is My Darling (1966)

The Rolling Stones have had more luck than most bands when it comes to documentary films about them. They’ve run the gamut, from the incendiary (Gimme Shelter, see below), the illicit (Cocksucker Blues, 1972) and the straightforward (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, 1974; Let’s Spend the Night Together, 1981) to Jean-Luc Godard’s politically-tinged Sympathy for the Devil (1968) and Martin Scorsese’s reverential and retrospective Shine a Light (2008). This film, shot as the group were ascending the ranks of the pop and rock world, documents their two-gig trip to Ireland. Directed by Peter Whitehead, it captures the frenzy the Stones were beginning to attract and also highlights the growing bond between Jagger, Richards and manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Following its premiere, the film was never officially released due to legal issues. All copies were believed to have been stolen until one was found in 2012 and the film was restored and finally released. The wait was worth it.

4. Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)

Starting with the young folk singer’s classic ‘music video’ performance of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (see below), D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking portrait of Bob Dylan’s eight-date tour of the UK tapped into the new documentary movement that had sprung up in the US, UK and France in the early 1960s. The availability of lightweight cameras, mobile sound technology and fast speed film enabled filmmakers to work on the fly, capturing everyday moments with greater ease. Pennebaker had worked with Robert Drew on Primary, an account of the 1960 Presidential election Democratic primary between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy in Wisconsin. That film defined an aesthetic known as direct cinema in the US, observational cinema in the UK and cinéma vérité in France. Don’t Look Back is one of the key examples of this, with Pennebaker capturing Dylan, his friends and colleagues backstage before performances and in hotel rooms as they toured the UK. But such was the chameleon-like nature of the singer, by the time the film was released Dylan had changed both his image and, more crucially, his sound.

5. Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special (1968)

This NBC TV special not only rejuvenated the rock and roll star’s career, it found him a new generation of fans. The set-up was simple – Elvis appeared in a variety of scenarios, from crooner and rocker to rhythm and blues band member. The latter, in particular, was hugely effective, taking Elvis back to the roots of the music he loved. Las Vegas, glitz and excess would soon follow (along with a bizarre request to President Nixon to be a member of the FBI), but this show found the singer at his most vibrant and charismatic.

6. Monterey Pop (1968)

The counterculture, in terms of concert films, began here. D.A. Pennebaker’s follow-up to his Bob Dylan doc was a record of the 1967 concert that started the Summer of Love in California. Filming alongside Pennebaker was fellow Direct Cinema alumni Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles. And performing at the festival was Jimi Hendrix in his first major US concert (where he famously set his guitar on fire), as well as The Who. It also launched the career of Janis Joplin and brought Otis Redding to a wider audience. Alongside them were Ravi Shanker – another US débutée – Grateful Dead, Laura Nyro, The Mamas and the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane, whose performance so impressed French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard that he flew to the US to make a film about them. (He started shooting in New York, but the noise the band made was so loud the NYPD shut down the shoot. Only scraps of footage remain.)

7. Woodstock (1970)

Two major music festivals were captured on film in 1970. The Isle of Wight festival saw The Who at the height of their powers and Miles Davis transformed into a rollicking jazz rocker. Hendrix was on fire while both Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen soothed audiences late into the last night. Across the water, Woodstock would become one of the defining moments of the late 1960s. The festival was inspired by its producers watching Monterey Pop, which remains the better film. But it's impossible to understate what this festival represented. And the film is a rich compendium of the event. It also saw one of the earliest collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, who were editors on the film. 

8. Gimme Shelter (1970)

If Woodstock represented a 1960s full of hope and promise, The Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California, just a few months later, on December 6, 1969, ended the decade in darkness. Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s film deconstructs the events that took place around the show, from the organisation of the event to the haphazard nature of the concert itself. It also includes the moment that gun-wielding audience member Meredith Hunter is stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel biker. Skilfully assembled, the film captures the chaos of the concert, which became a harbinger for the darker mood of the 1970s. 

9. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972) 

With no audience in attendance, the prog-rock group, nearing the height of their grandiosity, perform in the volcanic ruins of the Italian city. The set was the same the band had played on their 1971 tour, but the setting was meant to add another dimension. The film was well-received by fans and critics. But watching it now one can’t help feeling that Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer might have been thinking about the film when they devised the Stonehenge sequence for This is Spinal Tap (1984).

10. Wattstax (1973)

Founded in 1957, Stax Records (which became the label’s official name from 1961) was the brainchild of siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. It was one of the few racially integrated music companies, whose in-house groups – including the legendary Booker T. & the M.G.’s –also comprised Black and white musicians. More than any other label, Staxx was responsible for defining Southern and Memphis Soul. To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the label organised a concert to raise money for the African American community that was affected by it. The show took place in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and featured dozens of acts, from The Staple Singers, Little Sonny and Eddie Floyd to Albert King and Isaac Hayes. The film was directed by Mel Stuart and remains one of the key Black music festivals of the 1970s to be recorded on film. The testimonies by Jesse Jackson, Fred Williamson and many others also expressed the feelings of a community that still felt the racism of a society that continued to remain deeply divided.

11. Amazing Grace (1972/2018)

Aretha Franklin was at the height of her creative powers and commercial success when she turned up at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles on 13-14 January 1972 to record two nights of gospel and soul music. She was introduced by the Reverend James Cleveland and accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir. The album of those nights would become the biggest selling gospel album of all time. A film had been commissioned by Warner Bros. with Sydney Pollack directing. However, without the use of clapperboards, the image and sound were out of sync. It took over 35 years for the technology to develop to the point where director Alan Elliot, editor Jeff Buchanan and sound editor Serge Perron could successfully sync the film. Franklin was against it being released and so it was delayed until after her death, eventually released with her family’s blessing. The film is extraordinary. Franklin’s voice is electric, her interaction with the choir adds to the power of each track and Pollack’s footage has a rough-and-ready immediacy to it. The highlight is Franklin’s soaring interpretation of the title track.

12. Soul Power (1974/2008)

The world championship heavyweight boxing much between reigning champ George Forman and Muhammad Ali was billed as the fight of the century. The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, as Ali described it, was to be fought in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was less a straightforward sporting event than a huge carnival of culture. One of the highlights was to be a music festival – Zaire ’74 – a three-day music festival featuring some of the greatest acts from the African and African American music scene: Miriam Makeba, James Brown, TPOK Jazz, Bill Withers, B.B. King and Tabu Ley Rochereau. It was intended to take place on the eve of the fight, but a cut above Forman’s eye sustained during training resulted in a six-week delay in the match. The concert went ahead from 22 - 24 September. Footage from the concert featured in Leon Gast’s riveting When We Were Kings (1996). But this belated release brings together more of the footage, with context about the challenges faced by the organisers. 

13. The Last Waltz (1978)

Regarded by many as the greatest concert film ever made, Martin Scorsese’s record of the farewell concert of The Band, which took place at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on 25 November 1976, evinces the filmmaker’s passion for the group, but also his skill at immersing his audience in a world. Opening with the title card ‘This film should be played loud!’, The Last Waltz intermingles interviews with band members and footage of the concert that included a wealth of special guests: Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young. There are also sequences filmed on a sound stage with Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers. Scorsese’s intention was to not only capture the group on their final date but to explore the rich terrain of Americana that their music drew from, as well as their own rocky journey to success.

14. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Another contender for greatest concert film, Jonathan Demme’s record of the four nights Talking Heads played at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983 is a marvel of economy and innovation. It was the first film to employ digital audio techniques, but the visuals are simple. Opening on a bare stage, with Byrne performing ‘Psycho Killer’ along with a guitar and a beatbox, the band gradually join him over subsequent songs. At one point, Byrne dons the iconic oversized suit, but this is a show mostly free of gimmicks, instead focusing on a band at their peak. And they deliver an electric set.

15. Rendez-Vous Houston: A City in Concert (1986)

Is there anything that captures the bombast of the 1980s as thoroughly as Jean-Michel Jarre’s outdoor show in Texas? It didn’t so much use downtown Houston as a backdrop as much as it employed the vast skyscrapers as playthings – visual notes responding to the music Jarre played on his plethora of keyboards, computers and laser harp. Yes – a laser harp! The TV film of the event (see below) conveys why the Lone Star State was the perfect venue for Jarre’s vision; it’s a place that thinks big. With a live audience of over one million, many crowding closed highways overlooking the concert space, and more watching live from around the world, Jarre zips through his back catalogue – ‘Oxygene’, ‘Equinox’, ‘Magnetic Fields’ and ‘Zoolook’ – as well as his mostly insipid recent release, ‘Rendez-Vous’. The music and visuals now sound and look painfully dated, but the ambition of Jarre and his team is impressive. There is also a plaintive note in the show. Astronaut Ron McNair was meant to record a saxophone accompaniment from space for the event, but he was one of the casualties of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster that took place earlier that year. Jarre plays the track with Kirk Whalum, while images of McNair are projected onto the side of a building. 

16. Prince: Sign O’ the Times (1987)

Even fans of Prince might have been wary venturing back into the cinema to see him on the big screen after the debacle of Under the Cherry Moon (1986). They needn’t have worried. The film record of the concert tour promoting his eponymous album is a stunning showcase of his skills as a live performer. 

17. Rattle and Hum (1988)

At the end of their mammoth tour promoting ‘The Joshua Tree’, U2 announced that they were going back to the drawing board in order to rethink their next move. It turned out to be one of the most astonishing reinventions in rock music and the subsequent ZooTV tour a marvel of the pre-Internet age of 24/7 news and TV. But before they did that, they got bogged down in a mire of po-faced earnestness, egotistical grandstanding and more than a smidgen of hubris. Rattle and Hum showcases some of the worst excesses of this moment in their career. But it also highlights how, when they’re at their best, U2 could be a formidable live act and brilliant studio band. There’s a lot to skip past, but there are some fantastic performances here.

18. Nirvana: Live at Paramount (1991/2011)

Belatedly released, this film of the band performing at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, just weeks after the release of ‘Nevermind’, shows why they have continued to be held in such high regard. They were formidable in front of an audience, but it was the combination of their songwriting and their on-stage charisma that made them so electric. It’s the only concert of them that was filmed on 16mm and save for their MTV Unplugged gig, it’s the best visual record of them performing.  

19. In Bed with Madonna (aka Madonna: Truth or Dare) (1991)

Madonna was too unconventional for her film to comprise solely concert footage. Instead, it’s presented as a glimpse into every aspect of her life. Ever the performer, she transforms her film into a provocative work of performance art. Not everyone is game – current beau Warren Beatty’s lack of enthusiasm is one of the film’s many highlights. But what Madonna and director Keshishian achieve is a fascinating snapshot of fame, with all its glamour and less attractive drawbacks.

20. Awesome; I F*****n’ Shot That! (2006)

A simple idea achieved spectacular results. At their 9 October 2004 concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, the Beastie Boys handed out 50 camcorders to fans in the audience. Their one instruction was to keep filming. At the end of the gig, the cameras were handed back and the footage they shot eventually became this film. It’s a brilliant fan POV movie that captures the thrill and excitement of the fabulously foul-mouthed group.

21. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016)

Jonathan Demme had a pretty impressive film career. Directing a solid collection of features in the 1970s and 1980s, he finally achieved Oscar success with The Silence of the Lambs (1991). At the same time, he had a second career as the director of concert films, capturing live Talking Heads (see above), Robyn Hitchcock, Neil Young (twice) and, shortly before his death, this stunning record of Justin Timberlake’s show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Demme had apparently been so impressed by the singer’s performance in The Social Network (2010) that he contacted Timberlake, who told him that Stop Making Sense had been an influence over his work. The film is dedicated by Timberlake to Prince, who died during the film’s post-production and the completed film is a testament to Demme’s brilliance in capturing a performer at their best. 

22. Rolling Thunder Review (1975/2019) 

It’s a toss-up as far as Martin Scorsese-Bob Dylan collaborations are concerned. Some might opt for No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). But there’s no denying the sheer madness of the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue that Scorsese captures in his film. Less a conventional concert tour than a vast, cameo-laden carnival, Dylan’s show proved an unmitigated disaster commercially. But it was a rich creative experience, if a little emotionally overwhelming. Scorsese keeps an iron grip on the narrative and yet the film feels just as freeform as the tour that Dylan conceived. Scorsese doesn’t always get as much credit as he deserves for his documentary work (outside of The Last Waltz): from his collaborations with Fran Leibowitz, an intelligent exploration of Elia Kazan’s life and career and an involving account of the New York Review of Books, through to his rich trove of music and concert documentaries. That this film came out in the same year as Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece The Irishman is even more remarkable.

23. Homecoming (2019)

Not content with appearing in the show she conceived, Beyoncé also co-directed (with Ed Burke) the film of it with. Her 2018 appearance at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was always going to be a major event. (After all, she pretty much wiped out all who had gone before when she headlined Glastonbury 2011.) What hadn’t been expected was the level of detail and the sheer scale that she achieved. Celebrating Black achievement, she paid tribute to historically Black universities and colleges in the US, drawing from them for her huge on-stage team, comprising a massive band, choir and a small army of dancers. As impressive as the concert must have been, the film version of it goes even further in its embrace of Black culture in the US. Unsurprisingly, it has already achieved the status of a classic concert film.   

24. American Utopia (2020)

Some 35 years after his landmark Stop Making Sense, David Byrne took his ‘American Utopia’ album on tour. He stripped his show down to basics, found a way to make every member of his group mobile and created a riveting stage show. In doing so Byrne outdid the ambitions of his original album. Combining songs from the entirety of his career, Byrne’s show could easily have been an entertaining retrospective. Instead, it was a timely analysis of the juncture the US found itself. Grappling with the prejudice, racism and cultural myopia of the MAGAverse, what better filmmaker to direct the film version of the stage show than Spike Lee. The partnership is just as exciting as Byrne’s previous collaboration with Jonathan Demme, with Lee clearly attuned to both Byrne’s music and his vision. And for all the issues the show deals with head on, what’s so remarkable about it is the sense of euphoria you feel when you watch it.

25. Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

No one saw it coming. In the summer of 2021, just as we were emerging from another lockdown and almost 18 months after cinemas had shuttered their doors, an archive film about a mostly unknown 1969 music festival in Harlem proved to be the perfect seasonal tonic. Without a doubt, the best film of this summer, this record of the Harlem Cultural Festival is a musical, cultural and social wonder. The directorial debut of Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, who pieced together a rich trove of archive footage and combined it with fascinating contemporary interviews with surviving performers and audience members, Summer of Soul is not only a superb record of a time, it’s one of the best concert films ever made. Watch it for the grooves of Sly and the Family Stone, the soul of the Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, the exuberance of The Edwin Hawkins Singers and the devil-may-care charisma of Nina Simone. There’s also the charismatic presence of promoter Tony Lawrence (the montage of the outfits he wore over the course of six weeks alone is worth watching the film) and the moving testament of Jesse Jackson to his friend Rev. Martin Luther King. Questlove’s achievement is to successfully challenge this period of musical and cultural history in the US. Woodstock no longer stands as the monolithic symbol of that era. It is matched – and often outdone – by this outstanding celebration of black music and culture.

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