FEATURE: Great Concert Films - Part One

Monday, July 20, 2015

Okay, so this is not exactly a monumental task. It can be licked - absolutely. But what we have here is something that requires a few boundaries... some parameters. Great concert films. I'm talking about concert films that are free of filler. Films that present a single tour experience, films that aren't overly coloured with tinsel to buy some running time. A great concert film shouldn't need off-stage moments between tracks. Sure, there's insight to be had, but everything should be told on stage (with a few exceptions that I'll mention). The concert itself is the time capsule - that's the magic. Interviews in between date that magic. 

Honestly, I'm going to contradict myself with the following piece. Just hear me out, it warrants a little back-pedaling. A good concert film, in my humble opinion, requires a certain amount of rawness. Aesthetically, you're going to get that with films from the 70s, 80s. But it's more than just grain, it's the actual skill required to capture moments. On the higher scale of concert films, there's a meticulous amount of planning. It's a given. But here's where we separate the guys who just point and shoot and the guys who are bottling the experience. 

In terms of merchandising, I'm sure that it's a pre-tour given. Get a crew together and shoot this thing... watch the clock, stick to budget and just get it in the bag. That's the post-tour DVD dance. It's a clinical approach that has no ills, it just is. You gotta sell. On the flip-side, there's the Concert Film. A collaboration, an idea between filmmaker and artist, a pursuit of experience. 

Let's set it off with a few modern(ish) examples of concert films that steer themselves to what I'm getting at:


Here's my nod to contradiction. The Rolling Stones have offered a heavy bag of concert films and docos that have genuinely hit the mark, raw and passionate. Shine A Light attempts to create a dizzying air of chaos, exhaustively trying to reclaim the danger of the 60s/70s and justifying the Stones' place in rock history. What it fails to neglect is that the Stones, today, are a different kind of beast. Yes, they are one of the greats... and, with that, they don't need gimmicks to see them through a show. Off-stage conversations with director Martin Scorsese are more accountancy-mechanical then stuff you really want to zero in on. And Scorsese himself, a true disciple of music, comes across as more cog in the wheel then genius at the helm. We see him through-out, his mind ticking with worry. It's a faux sense of urgency, one that doesn't work. The Stones perform with their expected energy but the electricity fizzles in the techniques of the visual delivery. The result is stock, rolled off the assembly line and free of spark. 


The collision is seamless. Metallica's 'Through The Never' does away with filler and brings on board an unrelenting sense of infused vision, a parallel story that works in real time with the concert performance. And what a show it is. Technically, it's dead on. Swooping cameras skirt just shy of lighting rigs, pyrotechnics rattle the stage and Metallica dodge the chaos as debris falls around them. The film not only offers you an incredibly shot performance, it pulls you in. And, surprisingly, it's the film within concert that heightens the experience. Here is a film that is committed to delivery on every single shot. But, despite all the precision, there's a sense of the raw, the natural... and for a film of such technical prowess to capture performance nuances is incredible. 



Power to the people. You can't deny the idea of Beastie Boys' concert film 'Awesome; I Fucking Shot That!' Hand a whole bunch of people some cameras and let them capture the show. It takes some getting used to, some shuffling for direction, but once it takes hold there's no letting go. And what we get in the vision is an array of unseen (mostly) personalities. There are moments of pantomime and that's not a bad thing... afterall, this is the Beastie Boys in the hands of fans. Proud parents and all. 


The only three words I need to deliver in talking about Talking Heads' 1984 concert film are as follows... go-see-it. No hard sell required. But there's more... David Byrne's vision is clearly on display, but its director Johnathon Demme who knows how to capture it (let's not debate the weight of collaboration). There's some weight to the cameras, some sweat behind the lens and plenty of sweat onstage. Here's a film that, as it unfolds, encourages you to move. However you feel it, just move. It gets up, does its thing and takes a well earned bow (a shot of technicians singing along towards the end is a clever editing insert - it's a kind nod to the folks who put the show together, a 'glad it's all over' honesty). The audience, remaining visually absent until the last song, are a sight of pure delight, a colourful melting pot of joy. It remains, for yours truly, the greatest concert film of all time (Bernie Worrell is my favourite 'character' in the piece - just watch him). 


Written by D.L. Bugeja