It’s become a pop music rite of passage for all the big acts to try to release a concert film at the height of their popularity. Or at least that’s the way it seems. I can’t help but cynically assume that once a pop star like Justin Bieber or Katy Perry or the Jonas Brothers come out with their concert movies, they’ve lost confidence in their future drawing ability. They figure this is the best chance they’re going to get to draw people out to a theater, perhaps even to shill out enough to cover a 3D ticket in the hopes of getting the True Concert Experience. It’s all downhill after the concert movie. And to be clear, I don’t know if this is an actual, measurable trend, or if it’s merely anecdotal. I also don’t know who “they” are in this scenario exactly, but I do know that at least one of “them” is Scooter Braun.
The latest group to try to buck this trend—which probably isn’t even a trend but instead just an opportunity to allow more people to get a taste of a musical performance at a drastically reduced concert price—is Britain’s pop music pride and joy, One Direction. The interesting thing about their movie, One Direction: This Is Us, is that it actually has a well-known and fairly well-respected director helming it in Morgan Spurlock, whose rebellious attitude has become notorious after works like Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I can’t be the only one wondering what Mr. Spurlock is playing at here. What I do know is that it sounds a least slightly more intriguing that that Beyoncé documentary that was directed by the visionary auteur known as Beyoncé.
Here are 12 of the very best concert movies that have left behind a legacy that One Direction: This Is Us will be trying to live up to.
1) The Last Waltz
Pretty much any list of the best concert movies has to begin with The Last Waltz. And also maybe end with it. It at least needs to be cited, because it is undeniably one of the greatest of all time. It chronicles a number of things: it’s primarily about the final concert performed by The Band in 1976 that featured a cavalcade of guest performers like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and many more. It’s also about director Martin Scorsese and his relationship with the band and its contributions to rock and roll history.
And ultimately, that makes it as much about the passing of a musical era as it is about the passing of one particular Band’s run of it; it’s similar to Almost Famous in its attempt to capture the time when popular music was undergoing a dramatic shift, and the artists that were fighting, in vain, against the changes that were afoot. More than anything, it is one of those films that you know is dated, but it feels like it was made recently. It’s as engaging and well-produced as any concert feature in release today, aided by the remasterings it has undergone over the years, as well as the technical mastery of Scorsese and company. Basically every concert movie, every rock movie, wants to be this movie, but to many, it’s a film that has never been topped and never will be.
2) Don’t Look Back
If The Last Waltz came to define the concert film genre, its predecessor, the music documentary, was previously defined by D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back. Although Dylan appeared in Martin Scorsese’s film on The Band’s final show, as well as being featured in the 2005 Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, it’s Don’t Look Back that is probably the definitive cinematic look at one of the most revered and influential figures in 20th century music. Not only did it provide a behind the scenes perspective on the performance that was Bob Dylan’s public persona, but it served up some of the most memorable images and soundbites of Dylan’s notable career in the public eye in the 1960s.
One of the reasons the movie is so valuable, not just as a concert film but as a piece of film history, is that it’s one of the best, earliest examples of the cinema verité documentary style that gained prominence in the 1960s and onward. The cinematic style of this era, made possible by advances in portable camera and sound technology, consisted of the documentarian involving him or herself as little in the documented events as possible, acting as a fly on the wall observing whatever is unfolding at any given moment. The result is a far more immersive experience, and the feeling that you’re witnessing events transpiring as if you were in the room with the subjects. The great pleasure of Don’t Look Back is that for us today, feeling as though we’re in the same space as 1960s Bob Dylan is a special feeling indeed.
3) Block Party
Dave Chappelle is like a mythical figure today, but there was a time when he was just a beloved comedian and entertainer doing shows and being hilarious and unorthodox. The operative word, of course, is unorthodox; it’s not every day you see a star with the fame Dave Chappelle had going for him back in 2004 inviting people to a party he was throwing in the middle of a Brooklyn neighborhood, featuring some of the biggest hip hop acts of the time.
Director Michel Gondry seems as interested in Dave Chappelle (maybe even more so) than even Martin Scorsese was with Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz. The entire movie seems to take on the spirit of Chappelle himself, sharing in the joy of the quest to organize one of the most ambitious concerts ever, and then the sheer exuberance of seeing it all come together. And one of the elements that is most gratifying is seeing this neighborhood and community of people come together to put this thing on. It’s not the concert itself but the happiness that it produces, the euphoria that results from a simple desire by a man of means to share his wealth with the people around him. The movie reflects the generosity and love for life that defines Dave Chappelle’s life and work.
4) The Song Remains the Same
Concert movies featuring performers from a past long before many of us existed even as thoughts are a particularly special component of the genre. Even those who were alive and kicking during the run of a band like Led Zeppelin can get plenty out of a concert film like The Song Remains the Same, as well as their subsequent concert footage released with their How the West was Won anthology decades later, whether it’s from the pleasure of a close view of a band that one had only experienced at great distance, or just for that general sense of nostalgia that comes with rekindling the love of music from one’s formative years. The value of this particular concert film, though more shabbily made than others on this list perhaps, comes in the visual spectacle that is seeing the group perform live; it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but witnessing the intoxicating atmosphere the band created with the music and performance at the very least offers an explanation for their popularity and wide-sweeping influence in the 1970s as well as today.
5) Pearl Jam Twenty
I’m finding more and more that one of the most interesting and in-depth ways to acquaint yourself with a band or artist’s work is through a feature film. I saw Pearl Jam Twenty at TIFF two years ago, knowing some of the band’s hit songs and the voice of Eddie Vedder on a peripheral basis. They were playing a show in the city around the same time as the screening, so the crowd was supremely amped. If I’m honest, I really only went because there was good buzz around the movie and its director, the great Cameron Crowe. I was even a bit disappointed because Eddie Vedder himself stopped by the theater after the screening to say hi to the audience and for a moment, I thought it was going to be Cameron Crowe and felt slightly let down.
What I’m trying to say is that I am far from a Pearl Jam fanatic, and I still found this film and its various bits of footage of Pearl Jam performances to be gripping and engaging and entertaining from beginning to end. It provided the necessary context for their entire journey from the early 90s to the present, and in so doing served up some golden archival footage that the most die-hard fans would undoubtedly devour.
6) This Is It
This Is It was released surprisingly, almost distastefully soon after Michael Jackson’s death. That was the way it seemed until seeing the actual movie, that is. The movie itself, not the controversy surrounding its release and the lack of approval from the Jackson family, but the experience of watching the movie is really something special. The timeliness of its release is obviously one factor of its financial success, but I think the quality of the movie itself, the appeal it has for both Jackson fanatics and those simply curious about the icon’s creative process, is why the film continues to hold up.
What makes this film unlike any of the other concert movies on this list is that it consists exclusively of rehearsal material; the footage is of Jackson preparing for his 2009 tour before his death. It’s rather extraordinary seeing the control he has over every aspect of the production. It’s nothing like Katy Perry’s movie, where she’s shown saying things like “This should go over here! What about this!” as they cut away to someone insisting she is some kind of artistic dictator. We see Jackson in action, exuding energy and his infamous eye for perfectionist detail. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful historical document of one of the last days of one of pop music’s most legendary figures.
7) Shine a Light
Thirty years following the release of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese came out with a relatively straightforward concert film in Shine a Light. It was one of those films that more or less simply brings the experience of a particular concert to the screen, offering a closer glimpse of a performance than one is likely to get at a regular Rolling Stones concert, and recreating the feeling of seeing a live show in a manner as close as the medium of film is capable of accomplishing. But it does more than may meet the eye: it offers a prolonged glimpse, a gaze really, at the physical marvel that is a Rolling Stones show. Their endurance levels when it comes to physically creating a spectacle for decades at an age most people are retiring are remarkable. The film is knowingly one of a number of pictures of the band over the years, portrayals that a fan such as Scorsese would be abundantly familiar with, and so it acts as a piece of where they are at as a great and as a living artifact of rock and roll history worth witnessing for their importance and contributions to popular culture. More than anything, the movie functions nearly as well as being in the same physical space as the band at one of their stadium concerts, and that’s worth tuning in for on its own.
8) Shut Up and Play the Hits
I’m probably not quite hip enough to fully appreciate LCD Soundsystem, but for sheer enjoyment and a kind of elegy to a band and frontman that retired at what may have been the peak of their popularity, Shut Up and Play the Hits is fantastic. It reinforces my newfound belief that one of the best ways to really get to know a band or musician—and this is as true for those you’re deeply familiar with as it is for those you are just encountering—is through a well-made concert film. It’s like seeing a band perform live, and all the power that experience possesses, but as though you’re on stage with them, controlling the volume, seeing everything up close.
Interspersed with the final performance by James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem, a big deal in New York City at the time, is a central interview and cutaway shots of Murphy enjoying his retirement. The first thing we see is Murphy post-concert, going about his day. We get a sense of the fatigue and stress, and all sorts of factors that could have contributed to his decision to retire from the music scene, at least as far as LCD Soundsystem is concerned. The most impressive thing the film does is capture the feeling of the night, and contrasts this with the day after. It’s a juxtaposition that you keep in mind throughout, and that makes every moment resonate that much more.
9) Stop Making Sense
The best concert movies are the ones that capture the spirit of the musicians they’re meant to be showcasing. Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film that was a collaboration with director Jonathan Demme and is lauded as perhaps the greatest in the rock doc genre, is a textbook example of how to accomplish this.
There are a few things that make this performance and the cinematic presentation of it quite different, in a way that’s not immediately apparent but becomes obvious by the time you grasp the feel of the film. The performance itself is strange but immensely compelling. It begins with a black stage and frontman David Byrne appearing by himself as he plays an acoustic version of the band’s hit “Psycho Killer.” It’s as if they’re getting it out of the way from the start. Then the other members of the band join him one by one; they’re still the only part of the stage that’s visible, their bodies and their instruments, although the stage crew isn’t exactly well hidden. The other aspect that’s kind of nice is that the takes of the performance are quite long, some minutes at a time, as opposed to the quick cutting we’re accustomed to seeing in these types of movies. It fits with the material and gives the audience more freedom in what they want to watch. It’s hard to pinpoint all the qualities that make this concert movie one of the greatest ever made, but again, it’s from 1984 and doesn’t feel the least bit dated. Except for one thing: no one would wear a suit as large as David Byrne’s anymore.
10) Justin Bieber: Never Say Never / Katy Perry: Part of Me
Some concert movies are made with the intention of providing an honest portrayal of a musical act, which can be unflattering, but ultimately demonstrate the creativity or mad genius of the artists at work. And that’s valuable. What’s becoming particularly interesting in recent years, though, is the employment of the documentary genre as essentially another way to sell a musical star’s product to a rabid fanbase. These movies come off as carefully sifted and combed through by a pop star’s management in order to show their client in the most positive and sympathetic light. At least that’s the way these movies seem to play. The prepubescent Bieber and the seemingly immature Perry are talents that are very closely handled and packaged, and most of what these movies show is the outer packaging. There are occasional glimpses behind the plastic, like the weird focus on Katy Perry’s relationship with Russell Brand, which it would appear was spun as “she had to choose between a relationship or her career and she chose her career because she’s the best.” For all I know, that could be true, but it gives off the air of desperate spin.
The hope I cling to is that Morgan Spurlock will find a way to offer up a documentary that will be satisfying to One Direction and their fans, but will show hints of the world of BS that they are certainly a part of and most likely oblivious to. Or I’d also be happy with the alternative, that they have well-reasoned, mature takes on their current levels of stardom and realistic projections of what the future holds for the five of them. In all likelihood it will show them in carefully staged moments, depicting what makes them beautiful and living while they’re young and all that. But something more subversive might make This Is Us the best concert movie ever.
Beyoncé’s foray into the creative process behind her unforgettable 2018 Coachella performance was perfectly delivered in 2019’s Homecoming. The film is set apart from its peers for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it was not only performed, but also written, directed, and executive-produced by Beyoncé herself.
Homecoming combines Beyoncé’s genre-defining performance at Coachella—now referred to as “Beychella”—with the process it took to bring this incredible concert to life, along with the arduous process of reaching her goal not only artistically, but also physically. It provides a glimpse into one of the most popular artists of the 2010s with surprising candor, while also celebrating everything from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the process of being both a mother and performer. Homecoming takes care to examine the process behind one of the most iconic Coachella performances of all time, including the sometimes harsh demands made by Beyoncé that ultimately made it the groundbreaking show it was. It doesn’t hurt that this film details an important moment in history, given that Beyoncé was the first Black woman to ever headline Coachella.
Catch Homecoming on Netflix, where it runs two hours and 17 minutes.
Just as much a piece of history as it is a film about music, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary set the precedent for many of the concert movies on this list. Detailing the 1969 Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York, this film includes a number of iconic performances that are still remembered today.
Back in the 1970s, documenting rock concerts was not a common practice. That, alone, set Woodstock apart from other films being made at the time, but the collection of stellar performances, paired with the glimpse into late 1960s life, allows this film to remain iconic more than 50 years after its release. It doesn’t hurt that many people continue to consider Woodstock 1969 to be one of the greatest concerts of all time. This was helped immensely by performances from several rock legends, including Janis Joplin, The Who, The Band, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Woodstock manages to capture far more than these iconic performances, however. The film is made far greater for its ability to provide a glimpse into 1960s counterculture, much of which was encapsulated by the festival itself. Top it all off with Hendrix’s decade-defining rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and you have a film unlike any other.
Do you have any personal favorite concert movies? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Nahila Bonfiglio contributed to this article.