Rock Docs And Biopics Friday – The Big Concert Film

It’s Friday, time for Rock Docs And Biopics feature, to help you make a few choices for music themed DVDs if you’re heading to the bricks and mortar video store, the Netflix queue, the iTunes Movies queue or just looking to do some good old fashioned bit torrenting.  Every week, I’ll try to give you the tip of the iceberg from a variety of subcategories of music films, and this, in honour of the release of that new 3D Phish Concert film this weekend (April 3oth, see local listings for time and screens) we’re going to get make like Paul McCartney in his song “Rock Show” and get our wigs straight, as we salute the Concert Event Film.

The Rolling Stones GIMME SHELTER (1970) directed by Albert & David Maysles

Arguably, one of the first major concert movies to attain cinematic significance was 1970’s Gimme Shelter, the Albert and David Maysles “direct cinema” documentary (edited by Charlotte Zwerin) featuring The Rolling Stones and culminating in their ill-fated December 6, 1969 free concert at Altamont Speedway. During that show, a drunk and surly Hell’s Angels “stage security guard” pulled a knife on 18 year old concert goer Meredith Hunter and stabbed him to death right before the bleary eyes of a stunned Mick Jagger. Like the best concert docs this film is valuable for the subtext and back story around the concert itself. Accidentally capturing the murder on film – some critics refer to it as the rock and roll equivalent of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination – The Maysles brothers deftly show the aftermath and one particular scene, with Mick watching the playback in frightened disbelief, is worth the whole film.  Released in the ugly hangover of the summer of love, the year after Manson murders and the deaths of Jimi, Jim and Janis, the film eerily marks the death of the 60s’ optimistic buzz. The film also features footage from earlier shows in the tour, the Madison Square Garden concert which ended up on vinyl as Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, and you’ll get live takes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction”, “You Gotta Move”, “Brown Sugar”, “Love in Vain”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Under My Thumb” and the title song, “Gimme Shelter”. There’s also music from other acts at Atamont, the Jefferson Airplane do “The Other Side of This Life”  and The Flying Burrito Brothers do “Six Days on the Road” and from Ike & Tina Turner, from the MSG show, doing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

Since ABKCO seem to have taken down any real clips from Gimme Shelter, I direct you to this charmingly horrible student film by “Chad and DJ” about the incidents at Altamont…

The Stones, of course, have a great deal of live films out there, and I’ll briefly skip At The Max (the IMAX film they did in 1995) to move to the most recent one:

The Rolling Stones SHINE A LIGHT (2008) directed by Martin Scorsese

Shot with characteristic camera motion by one of Scorsese’s (and Quentin Tarantino’s) favourite cinematographers, Robert Richardson, Shine A Light may be the new gold standard in Stones films, at least in terms of sound and pictures, and while it may not be the young and hungry Stones of the 60’s and 70’s, the band was certainly “on” for these shows, filmed digitally in 2006 at New York’s Beacon Theatre during their A Bigger Bang Tour. While Scorsese opts to included archival footage, it is the way that Scorsese chose to film and record these Clinton Foundation Benefit shows (October 29 and November 1, 2006, attended by Bill & Hillary Clinton and the former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, not the one who died recently) that make it special.  The feeling of being right there in the action is achieved by the use of special cinematic lighting and Richardson’s roving and personal cameras which follow the band around the stage, plus there’s a genius sound mix by Bob Clearmountain which changes to reflect the pictures on screen (i.e. during Charlie Watts close up, the drums are slightly louder but when we cut to Keith Richards, his guitar is suddenly more present).

Musically, the Stones cover a lot of what you’ve come to expect – “Start Me Up”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” but there are some fine versions of slower material like “As Tears Go By” and “Far Away Eyes” and their take on “Just My Imagination”. Celebrity guests include Christina Aguilera, who holds her own with Mick on “Live With Me” and bluesman Buddy Guy brings it to the Muddy Waters number, “Champagne & Reefer”. A worthy concert film, seemingly made with love by good old Marty Scorsese, who also brought us…

The Band & Friends THE LAST WALTZ (1978) directed by Martin Scorsese

Filmed at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976, Thanksgiving Day, The Last Waltz was a star-studded send off for The Band, lovingly captured in concert with the likes of rock peers Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton,  Dr. John, Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters gospel heroes The Staple Singers, country rock songbird Emmylou Harris and, somewhat surprisingly, Neil Diamond (who rises to the occasion) And don’t forget poets Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti or the awesome horn arrangements by New Orleans all-star, Allen Toussaint. The only complaint you’ll ever hear about this film from fans of The Band is its apparent dotage on Scorsese’s pal Robbie, who does tend to dominate the proceedings in a manner not unlike Paul McCartney’s dominance in Let It Be In fact, in Levon Helm’s book, This Wheel’s on Fire, claimed that not only was Marty working hard to make Robbie look better than he was, he revealed that a lot of what we hear in the film wasn’t live at all, having been later overdubbed for the final release. Helm also stood up for keyboard players Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, both of whom, Helm says, got shafted in the final edit and reduced to being Robertson’s side men. Here though, Levon is at the helm on “Ophelia” with some great horn charts from Toussaint:

It’s a pretty damn good concert too, with some amazing musical moments from The Band’s back catalogue and indeed from all involved, notably Neil Young who sings “Helpless” with a visibly peruvian post-nasal drip, Dr. John on “Such A Night” and Ronnie Hawkins reliving the days when The Band were The Hawks on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”

Another all star concert film, with Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr was also the first big scale charity event, predating Live Aid by 12 years…

George Harrison & Friends THE CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH (1972) directed by Saul Swimmer.

Fresh out of the Beatles, George Harrison was in the middle of producing Apple Records protégés Badfinger when he got an urgent call from his friend and sitar mentor Ravi Shankar, despondent over the famine and war which continued to ravage the post-Indian nation of Bangladesh. He was so moved as to drop what he was doing (handing off the Badfinger album Straight Up to producer Todd Rundgren) and hastily put together this all-star event at Madison Square Garden, held over two shows (at noon and at 7:00 p.m. respectively) on August 1, 1971, famously consulting an astrologer to set the date. Harrison got most of his heaviest of heavy friends to the gigs including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Badfinger, and Ringo Starr along with veteran sidemen like Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Klaus Voorman and Carl Radle. While Harrison and his rag-tag musical army do serviceable versions of  his All Things Must Pass songs, “Wah-Wah”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All” Badfinger’s Pete Ham gets a featured role on”Here Comes the Sun”, Leon Russell is given a lead vocal on Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” and Clapton reprises his guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” While Ringo pitches in with his certified smash hit “It Don’t Come Easy” (written for him by Harrison) it is Billy Preston who comes hungriest and leaves with the greatest impression as his spirited performance of his own song, “That’s The Way God Planned It” nearly steals the show.

Dylan is featured heavily, even more than in The Last Waltz, and contributes “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Just Like A Woman.”

Speaking of large, hairy groupings of musicians…we have to mention another groundbreaking concert documentary…

MONTEREY POP (1968) directed by D.A. Pennebaker

Pennebaker’s cinéma vérité style, among the first to use 16 millimeter portable colour cameras, was perfect for capturing the landmark, three-day long, Monterey International Pop Music Festival, which was held from June 16 to June 18, 1967 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, south of San Francisco, right smack in the middle of the summer of love. The first large scale international rock festival of its kind (est. attendance was between 55,000 to 90,000 fans) and marked the U.S. debuts of Jimi Hendrix (who had really honed his act in the UK) and The Who, plus a groundbreaking unveiling of the Memphis sounds of  Otis Redding and his backing band Booker T. and the MG’s.  The brainchild of promoter Lou Adler, John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas, producer Alan Pariser, and publicist Derek Taylor, the team somehow managed to impress the peace and love vibe on the artists to the extent that most acts played for free, with the gate receipts donated to charity…except for Ravi Shankar, who took home $3,000 for his four hour afternoon performance Ravi Shankar four-hour sitar performance, one of the first instances of “world music” on a what was essentially a rock and roll stage.  So many stories surround the event itself: The Who tussled backstage with The Jimi Hendrix Experience over who would have to follow who on the bill, Janis Joplin did a sultry version of “Ball ‘n’ Chain” that is said to have inspired Columbia Records to sign her and Big Brother and The Holding Company on the spot. “So this is the love crowd” said a 26 year old Otis Redding, kicking of his set booked by Booker T. & The MG’s and while this concert was something of a breakthrough in terms of reaching a wider (whiter) audience, he would only live 6 months longer until the his tragic death in a small plane crash. Here’s a little taste of Hendrix from the show:

Monterey inspired the most famous concert, and concert movie, of all time…

WOODSTOCK: 3 DAYS OF PEACE & MUSIC (1970) directed by Michael Wadleigh

You’ve probably seen it, or maybe not, but get Wadleigh’s 1994 director’s cut which restored footage originally edited out of the theatrical release including moments by Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin (Just what was Sha Na Na doing there?) A young Martin Scorsese worked on this film too (as a fledgling editor) and in addition to the mud, mayhem and maryjane smoke, the film captures the music in all it’s curly corded, nearly electrocuted in the rain, glory. Dig Santana (check out young Michael Shrieve‘s crazy drum solo on “Soul Sacrifice”)

and legendary performances from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Arlo Guthrie, Ten Years After and more. That said, how about the film often referred to as “the Black Woodstock”?

WATTSTAX (1973) directed by Mel Stuart

On August 20, 1972, the Memphis based label Stax Records organized a concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum to commemorate the rebirth of the South Central L.A. community known as “Watts” seven year after violent riots had threatened to bury it. The idea for the Wattstax concert, a self-conscious nod to Woodstock, was to assemble highly visible and inspiring members of the L.A. African American community and make the show accessible to lower income folks by keeping gate price down to a dollar a ticket. The Reverend Jesse Jackson gave the invocation to open the event and the film features insightful cutaways to people like comedian Richard Pryor, filmed in a barber shop, shucking and riffing in his prime, about the trials and tribulations of the Black American experience.

Come for the social commentary, STAY for the big slabs of soul celebrating music. The Bar-Kays, fresh off the Shaft soundtrack, act as a kind of “house band” for the event which features jawdropping peformances by the late great Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Kim Weston and Albert King. The contemporary counterpoint to Wattstax may be…

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (2006) directed by Michel Gondry

Features comedian Dave Chappelle, functioning for his generation in this film much as Richard Pryor had in Wattstax. Filmed late in the summer of 2004 the film essentially documents an actual “block party” concert thrown by Chappelle in Brooklyn, New York’s  Clinton Hill. Besides some lively comedy bits and inspired direction from Gondry, what makes this film sing is the guest list of invited artists at the concert itself. The Roots are the house band, and artists of the day like Kanye West, Common, John Legend, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill rejoins The Fugees just for the occasion (don’t forget The Central State University Marching Band!)

Also on the hip hop tip is  a little film by Beastie Boys Adam Yauch…

AWESOME; I FUCKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006) directed by Nathanial Hörnblowér (Adam Yauch)

The Beastie Boys did a cool, cool thing at their sold out October 9, 2004 Madison Square Garden show. Giving camcorders to 50 audience members, they told them that the only rule was to keep ’em rolling at all times (even when going to the bathrooms or lining up to buy beer!). After the fans shot the show – which featured Beastie’s hits and fan favourites such as “Sure Shot”, “Root Down”, “Pass the Mic”, “Body Movin'”, “So What’cha Want”, “Intergalactic”, “Sabotage” and plenty more –  they took all the cameras back the stores they got them from for a full refund. Way to keep the budget low.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jonathan Demme’s tightly choreograped Talking Heads film…

STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) directed by Jonathan Demme

Filmed meticulously by Demme over three concerts at the Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, in December 1983, Stop Making Sense is a true to life document of the Talking Heads transitioned sound from the quirky four piece college band of 77 to the quasi-afro-funk nine piece unit employed since Remain In Light. Having just released their Speaking In Tongues album, the band’s sound was newly accessible to a wider audience who lapped up David Byrne‘s “big suit” and danced in the aisles to a funky set list that includes “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down the House”, “Life During Wartime”, “Swamp”, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” “Once in a Lifetime” “Girlfriend is Better” and “Take Me to the River” while Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth are given a moment to shine on “Genius of Love”, their side project as Tom Tom Club.

On a lower key, Demme’s STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK (1997) lives up to its title with a simple stripped down concert by Robyn Hitchcock in a storefront.

Jonathan Demme is kind of a master of the well-shot concert film as you’ll note when you sit down with our next selection with Neil Young…

NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (2006) directed by Jonathan Demme

Filmed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on August 18 and 19, 2005, Heart of Gold documents Young’s return to the stage after the death of his father (sports writer Scott Young) and after his own successful battle with a brain aneurysm. The film also capture the debut of Young’s softer gentler material for the rustic Prairie Wind album, intercut with new interviews with Neil and Pegi Young and his backing band, featuring for this tour, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Grant Boatwright and Spooner Oldham (and others). After doing most of the Prairie Wind album, Young also graces us with  some old chestnuts, including “Harvest Moon”, “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, “Comes A Time” and Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”.

For a different shade of Neil, you might want to check out

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: RUST NEVER SLEEPS (1979) directed by Bernard Shakey (Neil Young)

and

GREENDALE (2003) directed by Bernard Shakey (Neil Young).


For old time’s sake I’ve gotta mention a film that I saw when I just a wee lad…

LED ZEPPELIN: THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (1976) directed by Joe Massot and Peter Clifton

Hey, it’s Zeppelin live at Madison Square Garden, during their 1973 American tour. It’s a moving document of great rock band in their prime, and the stoned among you will simply love the crazy, self-indulgent non-musical fantasy sequences added to the concert stuff.  Plus you get to see Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant going ballistic at an unauthorized merch table, the real life basis for Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith and his handy cricket bat.

Also have to mention, for New Wave fans,

URGH A MUSIC WAR (1982) directed by Derek Burbidge

This compilation of concert performances by New Wave, and post-punk  acts, was originally shot in 1980 and features UK acts 999, UB40, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Police. Magazine, Steel Pulse, and XTC along with US acts Devo, The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, Gary Numan, Klaus Nomi, Wall of Voodoo, The Go-Go’s, The Fleshtones, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Pere Ubu and others. A fascinating artifact of a different time, which now seems like a different world.

Finally, while I haven’t seen this yet, I’m very curious about the Blur reunion film…

BLUR: NO DISTANCE LEFT TO RUN (2010) directed by Dylan Southern

AND NOW I TURN IT OVER TO YOU. SEND ME, IN THE COMMENTS SLOT, YOUR FAVOURITE CONCERT MOVIES, PREFERABLY THOSE WITH A CINEMATIC RELEASE, BUT I’M NOT GOING TO GET PICKY.

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6 Responses to “Rock Docs And Biopics Friday – The Big Concert Film”

  1. I thought Lou Reed’s “Berlin” was fantastic. If you’re a fan, you’ll know the whole back story. If not, it’s simply a great concert film.

  2. I think Rock for Kampuchea should get honorable mention. Just for the reserved intro by Peter Ustinov (“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… Queen.” as I remember it…) launching into what I’ve always thought was a powerful version of “Now I’m Here.”The Who were at their worst but Paul McCartney’s thunderous Yamaha bass on “Comin’ Up” really makes it for me.

    Excellent quotables? “It’s Micky Jones of the Clash! Oh… Oh… Oh Mick…”

  3. I thought Lou Reed’s “Berlin” was fantastic. If you’re a fan, you’ll know the whole back story. If not, it’s simply a great concert film

  4. I heard ‘The Future Is Unwritten’ is very good… & I do need to see it.

    Also, though it’s silly, the beginning of Rattle & Hum, with that rib-rattling version of “Helter Skelter”, is still pretty impressive. U2: not subtle.

  5. TRouBLe Says:

    The aforementioned vainglorious band U2 released the first (To my knowledge) 3D IMAX concert picture U23D a couple of years ago.

  6. U23D – the 360 show caught in 3D. I almost ducked during a segment when Adam Clayton’s bass swings into the shot.

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