Concert films are having a moment. The most popular movie in America right now, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, just grossed $130 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the best start for a concert film at the box office ever. In December, Beyoncé will attempt to match that with her latest concert movie, Renaissance. And then there’s this fall’s popular IMAX re-release of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film about the Talking Heads that is widely considered one of the finest concert pictures of all time.
All of this is … a little surprising? After all, we live in a time in which live footage of musicians has been devalued to the point where every single person on Earth with a camera phone can act like an amateur Jonathan Demme shooting live concerts for worldwide distribution on YouTube. The theatrical concert film at this juncture might have seemed like a novelty, the cinematic equivalent of an album pressed on limited edition colored vinyl, a throwback to a distant time when Baby Boomers turned Woodstock and Gimme Shelter into cultural events back in the 1970s. Sure enough, when I asked my six-year-old daughter if she wanted to see The Eras Tour, she innocently asked, “What a concert film?”
Then again, the ubiquity of shaky and grainy live videos online might explain, rather than contradict, the sudden revival of concert films. If there’s one thing that The Eras Tour and Stop Making Sense share, it’s that they both give audiences a communal (and dance party) experience that’s similar to what they get at a live show. They both testify to the power of concert films to preserve singular moments in time that can be relived, miraculously, by audiences whether they were there for the actual concert or not. And this experience feels special in a way that scrolling through endless videos online does not.
As a lover of concert films, I was glad to introduce my daughter to the genre via The Eras Tour, even if The Eras Tour itself is not a great concert film. Shot over three shows in Los Angeles at the end of the campaign’s American leg, The Eras Tour ranks among the most gigantic of all concert movies, running for more than two and a half hours with minimal edits to the original setlists. The idea is to present a typical Taylor Swift show “as is,” which is great for those who saw the tour (or wish they had) but also results in a misshapen and bloated movie. Though, again, the bloat appears to be the point. Many concert films attempt to shrink the distance between performer and audience, in order to make the viewer feel as though they are, finally, on equal footing with the stars on stage. This is not that kind of concert film.
The filmmaking philosophy of The Eras Tour centers on reinforcing the cultural inevitability of Taylor Swift — we are meant to understand that she is the biggest, and the most talented, and the nicest, and the most loved, and also that everyone in the world is a fan, and if you’re somehow not a fan you better get with the program, bud. This is communicated via countless aerial shots of the stadium that convey the overwhelmingly enormous huge-osity of Taylor’s fame, as well as a tendency to film Taylor up close from low angles that emphasize her larger-than-life stature. When she’s not singing, she’s making “Oh, go on!” faces at her worshipful audience, who Taylor insists is her one true soulmate with 70,000 heads. The overall package is less like a “normal” concert film and more like one of those iPhone promotional rollouts that were once famously conducted by Steve Jobs, another master showman and genius capitalist. Even if you are not as personally moved by the product on display, you can’t question (or effectively counter) the world-conquering marketing savvy.
(For the record — after I made it clear, repeatedly, that Taylor Swift was not going to show up in person at our theater — this was my daughter’s take on The Eras Tour: “That was almost the best movie I ever listened to.” This is probably more relevant to the core audience than what I expressed in the previous paragraph.)
If The Eras Tour is not a great concert film, what is? That is what I’m setting out to explore. Come with me as we review my top 30 concert films of all time.
30. Tourfilm (1990)
Let’s get back to my daughter’s question: What is a concert film? While it might seem like a straightforward concept — a concert film is a film that depicts a live musical performance — there are myriad nuances that muddy the waters. I will address these nuances as they arise on this list, but for now I want to talk about what differentiates a concert film from a concert video.
Countless bands have released concert videos. These are live performances that are shot on tape and earmarked for direct-to-video release. (In the modern era, they are shuttled to streaming platforms as either VOD movies or as exclusives for a particular platform.) These videos typically are geared toward pleasing a fanbase, and therefore function like utilitarian products — the fans like the artist, the fans want to see the artist play live, and there is no need to provide those fans with some grander thematic point or filmmaking sensibility. (This also explains The Eras Tour.) While some of these videos have their merits — to pick one example out of the ether, Metallica’s Cliff ‘Em All is essential for anyone who missed the band’s era with original bassist Cliff Burton — I have tried to leave them off this list, as they don’t feel to me like proper concert films that match the caliber of what I have included.
Similarly, live concerts shot for television have been excluded. An obvious instance of this subcategory is any episode of MTV Unplugged, of which the most obvious example is the Nirvana episode. Is this an iconic musical experience captured on tape? Of course it is. But it’s not a concert film. It’s a concert video. So it doesn’t belong here.
[To make another Nirvana-related distinction: Live At The Paramount (shot on film, cinematic sensibility) is a concert film, and Live At Reading (shot on tape, released direct to DVD nearly two decades later) is a concert video. They are both great, though neither are included on this list.]
Now, there will be times when I might appear to violate my own rules. Putting Tourfilm at No. 30 could be construed as such a violation. This document of R.E.M.’s Green tour, culled mostly from a performance at Greensboro Coliseum in November of 1989, is more or less a straightforward presentation of a live concert. It appears designed to service the needs of R.E.M. fans who either couldn’t see the Green tour in person or want to relive the experience in perpetuity. It was released on VHS in 1990, so it is (technically) a concert video. But in other ways that I can quantify (and some admittedly that I can’t) Tourfilm really is a concert film. For starters, it says “film” right in the title, and I trust R.E.M. enough to take this at face value. But it actually was shot on film. And the black-and-white cinematography feels cinematic. It has atmosphere. You want to look at it as much as you want to want to hear it. Tourfilm is a mood. And mood matters.
29. 1991: The Year That Punk Broke (1992)
Setting aside these annoyingly pedantic “what is a concert film?” matters — for the moment anyway — let’s get down to the business of figuring out “what makes a great concert film?” Again, this might seem like self-evident consideration, i.e. a great concert film is a film that that depicts a great concert. And surely musical quality is a significant part of the equation. But in order for a concert film to truly go to the next level — where it’s not simply fleeting entertainment enjoyed by a niche of fanatics, but a lasting work that can hold the interest of a non-committed viewer — it has to signify a specific musical movement or moment in time. I’m talking about a film that can magically transport the viewer back to a critical turning point in cultural history. An artifact that can make you feel like you were at Woodstock, Altamont, or the Pantages Theatre in 1983. An essential landmark for amateur historians. A time capsule. 1991: The Year That Punk Broke is that kind of concert film.
Directed by Dave Markey, 1991 follows Sonic Youth on their summer tour of Europe with Nirvana, when they were a young, up-and-coming band about to release their major-label debut, Nevermind. We see both bands on stage, and we see them goof around in various backstage green rooms. Both acts are at the top of their games musically, and at the bottom of their games comedically. (1991 might have ranked higher if Thurston Moore didn’t come off like the most irritating man in rock history whenever he doesn’t have a guitar in his hands.) But what makes 1991 historically significant is that Markey happened to be around at a critical inflection point between the “college rock” 1980s and the “alternative rock” 1990s. What in any other context would have been merely an excellent tour unexpectedly became an important one. When the documentary was released in theaters in 1992 — and on video the following year, which is how most people (like me) saw it — it already seemed like a wistful portrait of Kurt Cobain in the final weeks of his relative obscurity, an impression that has only deepened over time.
28. Okonokos (2006)
My Morning Jacket’s tour in support of Z might not necessarily represent a historical moment in our shared cultural history. This film, however, does mark a critical inflection point in my own personal narrative, i.e. the moment when I switched from smoking pot every other day in the mid-aughts to every single day in the late aughts. My marijuana intake has been curbed in the interim, but the sight of Jim James’ billowy facial hair in Okonokos still gives me a contact high.
27. Born To Boogie (1972)
Here’s another attribute that can elevate a concert film to greatness: Whether it brings the dead back to life. 1991 does this. And Born To Boogie also does this. A compilation of two performances filmed in 1972 at what is now known as Wembley Arena in London, Born To Boogie resurrects Marc Bolan of T. Rex, the swaggiest of all the early ’70s glam rock superstars, at the very peak of his fame. Tragically, Bolan would be dead just five years later, felled by a car accident two weeks before his 30th birthday. But in this film, we get to see him as he lived — as a man who was fond of donning shirts emblazoned with his own face while playing perfectly simple rock songs expressing his deep desire to have sexual intercourse with automobiles.
Speaking of attributes that elevate a concert film to greatness: Born To Boogie includes a guest appearance by a clearly inebriated Ringo Starr, who is a linchpin of the interstitial sketches as well as a jam session with Elton John on “Children Of The Revolution.” This will not be the last time that a clearly inebriated Ringo Starr shows up in a concert film on this list.
26. Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1959)
Talk about bringing the dead back to life. Here we are transported to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, a place where giants still roamed the Earth: Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, and more. Jazz On A Summer’s Day takes these historical legends and gives them flesh-and-blood, in-the-moment vitality. This is made possible in large part by the photography of co-director Bert Stern, whose intuitive grasp of how to capture the intimate details of live performance cinematically presages the work of future masters like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and Murray Lerner.
The only reason this film isn’t ranked higher is the specter of the movie it could have been. As the film critic Richard Brody has noted, the 1958 festival also included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and Max Roach — none of whom are in this film. What’s here instead is footage of 1958’s American Cup yachting competition, which is weirdly interwoven with the musical performances. Was this an early premonition of yacht rock? Perhaps. But surely Donald Fagen would have preferred to see Miles over boats.
25. Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970)
Another “resurrect the dead” concert film. Like Kurt Cobain in 1991, we see Elvis Presley in That’s The Way It Is right before his tragic decline. He’s in Las Vegas, he’s in the white jumpsuit, he is already on a cocktail of pills, but he’s still lean and tan and hungry and landing all of his shadow karate blows. Like Marc Bolan in Born To Boogie, he emanates serious “I’m awesome!” energy throughout. (That includes the pre-show rehearsals, where Elvis wears what appears to be a shirt made out of silky curtains stolen from a Howard Johnson’s hotel while jamming on “Get Back.”) The film’s signature sequence occurs during “Love Me Tender,” when Elvis exits the stage and strolls through the audience at the International Hotel and starts kissing every woman who walks up to him, like he’s Jesus Christ himself curing the sick and the lame with his sweet lips. Of all the artists on this list who might claim that they make love to their audiences every night, Elvis comes closest to performing this task literally in That’s The Way It Is.
24. Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1979)
The Elvis: That’s The Way It Is of glam rock. The “I’m awesome!” energy here is literally out of this world. Director D.A. Pennebaker takes the opposite approach with this depiction of David Bowie’s final concert as Ziggy Stardust in 1973 from what he adopted for his 1967 Bob Dylan movie Don’t Look Back. Whereas Don’t Look Back is very much an anti-concert film — it’s edited in such a way that the performances are frequently cut short in a manner meant to emphasize how tired and rote they are — in Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars we see Bowie in his most outrageous guise right before he decided to blow up his career. Both films represent the binary of rock mythology, though they end up ultimately at the same destination. Don’t Look Back is an early instance of a rock star stating “this world is bullshit” as a critique, and Ziggy Stardust is an example of a rock star stating “this world is bullshit” as a celebration. They’re both right.
23. Wattstax (1973)
Ziggy Stardust belongs in a subgenre of concert films we’ll call “EVENT” concert films. This is a movie that isn’t just capturing any old concert or tour, but an all-caps EVENT that was consciously planned to be meaningful ahead of time. With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was capturing his own (artistic) suicide. The Last Waltz is another obvious example, and another example of a musical act orchestrating their own funeral. (Though 4/5ths of that particular act later decided to rise from the grave.) Woodstock is an equally obvious example. Gimme Shelter also belongs in this category, though the predetermined “meaning” of the event (The Rolling Stones create a West Coast Woodstock) did not end up being the actual meaning (The Rolling Stones unwillingly create the conclusion of the Woodstock era).
Wattstax is yet another “EVENT” concert film. In this instance, an all-star show featuring many of the brightest lights on the Stax label — Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Albert King, The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays — are assembled in Los Angeles to commemorate the 1965 uprisings in Watts. Director Mel Stuart actually seems more focused on the “EVENT” part than the “concert film” part. A collection of Black American voices — including Richard Pryor and a pre-Love Boat Ted Lange — talk at length about what has and hasn’t been gained from the Civil Rights struggle since the mid-’60s, to a degree that nearly outweighs the performance footage. Though the musical acts ultimately have the last word. And by that I mean Isaac Hayes — in full Black Moses regalia, a true paragon of the “I’m awesome” vibe — who brings down the L.A. Coliseum with waves of wah-wah guitars and exhortations about the physical, spiritual, and sexual power of John Shaft.
22. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese (2019)
If I may return briefly to the annoying pedantic “what is a concert film?” conversation: Another important distinction I had to make while writing this column is differentiating a “concert film” from a “documentary about a concert.” Wattstax qualifies, to me, as a concert film because of the time capsule factor. It is bearing witness to an important musical moment, and documenting it for the benefit of future generations who seek to re-experience that moment cinematically. Meanwhile Summer Of Soul — Questlove’s Oscar-winning 2021 feature that is surely the most acclaimed music film of the last decade — is a documentary about a concert. It gathers performers and experts to reflect on an important musical moment in retrospect, and it uses that testimony to highlight the deficiencies of concert films historically to properly represent the full spectrum of the human musical experience. This is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not exactly a proper concert film.
Rolling Thunder Revue could also be classified as a work of criticism that comments on other concert films. Many of the interviews are pushing deliberate exaggerations, fabrications, pranks, and goofs, in a manner that is meant not only to obfuscate the truth but to suggest this kind of film can’t ever really purport to present “truth.” But herein lies another wrinkle in the “what is a concert film?” question: In Summer Of Soul, the concert footage is subordinate to the overall thesis. It is presented to support the assertion that the 1968 Harlem Cultural Festival was unfairly ignored by music historians, which is reiterated by talking heads who frequently philosophize over the music. Whereas in Rolling Thunder Revue, the music and the tomfoolery tend to exist side by side. Stefan van Dorp does not step on Bob Dylan screaming out “Isis,” and vice versa.
21. Under Great White Northern Lights (2009)
What it really boils down to when separating “concert films” from “documentaries about concerts” is the ratio of “talking about music” vs. “playing music.” And this becomes extra sticky when considering one of the most common subgenres of the concert film, the “backstage” concert film. This is a movie that purports to show you the “real people” behind the performers on stage in between clips of them actually performing on stage. But some movies put so much emphasis on the backstage life that they no longer feel quite like concert films. This applies to the aforementioned Don’t Look Back. It’s also true of 1991’s fantastically entertaining Madonna: Truth Or Dare and Les Blank’s brilliant but obscure Leon Russell movie from 1974, A Poem Is A Naked Person. Even though these pictures feature some incredible live performances, they feel more invested in the world outside of the stage than the one on it.
Of course, figuring out the “talking about music” vs. “playing music” ratio is not an exact science. There are films like Under Great White Northern Lights, which follows the White Stripes on a 2007 tour through small Canadian towns. There is plenty here that doesn’t take place on stage. We see, for instance, Jack and Meg eat raw meat with Inuit tribal leaders. But in the end, Under Great White Northern Lights still feels like a concert film, because it documents — like Ziggy Stardust and The Last Waltz and so many “EVENT” concert films — the end of something that was about to be gone forever.
20. U2: Rattle & Hum (1989)
Another movie that pushes the “talking about music” vs. “playing music” ratio. There’s also a separate argument that the “talking about music” scenes are so preposterous that they disqualify the inclusion of Rattle & Hum on this list. Clearly, I disagree. I also disagree with the old quote — credited, perhaps apocryphally, to Howard Hawks — that a good movie has three good scenes and no bad ones, at least when it comes to concert films. Good concert films can have bad scenes if they are memorable, quotable, or amenable to satire. In that respect, Rattle & Hum must be counted as one of the most consequential concert films. Yes, I want The Edge to play the blues! Yes, bring me a gospel choir! Detractors stole this movie from “best concert films” lists, and I’m stealing it back! (Also, let’s not pretend that Phil Joanou didn’t shoot the hell out of the concert sequences. Bono’s armpit hair is as artfully composed as any shot in Raging Bull.)
19. Fade To Black (2004)
This movie falls into several concert film subgenres. It is an “EVENT” concert film about Jay Z’s star-studded retirement show in 2004. It is also a “backstage” concert film about the planning of said show. (It also shows Jay making The Black Album, which is actually more interesting than the concert footage. The single greatest musical sequence in the entire film is Timbaland introducing Jay to the music that will become “Dirt On Your Shoulder.”) In addition, Fade To Black falls into two categories we haven’t discussed yet: “Madison Square Garden” concert films and, even more specifically, “Fake Retirement Shows at Madison Square Garden” concert films. (This will be the last time I refer, directly or indirectly, to Shut Up And Play The Hits.)
18. The Song Remains The Same (1976)
The most bombastic and ridiculous of the “Madison Square Garden” concert films. I have been a Zeppelin fan from the age of 13, and I have watched The Song Remains The Same more than I can count. But I don’t know that I have ever finished The Song Remains The Same. The official running time is 138 minutes, but during the “Dazed And Confused” and “Moby Dick” sequences it feels more like 13,800 minutes. Even the fiercest cases of insomnia are powerless against those scenes. What doesn’t help matters is that it is physically impossible to not be stoned while watching this film. You don’t even have to take drugs, just the sight of Peter Grant doing battle with an army of faceless mobsters automatically implants paralysis-inducing amounts of THC into your bloodstream via your glazed eyeballs.
17. Songs For Drella (1990)
Whatever The Song Remains The Same represents about the enormity of live music, Songs For Drella signifies the opposite. Celebrated cinematographer Ed Lachman — a collaborator of Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, and Jonathan Demme — films Lou Reed and John Cale performing their 1990 album about the life and death of Andy Warhol without an audience at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. He keeps the camera trained on their remarkably weathered faces as both men confront their shared pasts, failures, and survivor’s guilt. It so unrelentingly intimate that you feel a near-telepathic communication between these guys, like when they tenderly exchange slight nods early on before Cale plays the stunning “Style It Takes.” At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there’s frightening rage from Reed as he sings about wishing he could pull the executioner’s switch on Valerie Solanas — who shot and nearly murdered Warhol in 1968 — while castigating himself for not visiting his friend and mentor in the hospital. What subgenre of concert film does Songs For Drella fall under? It is a subgenre unto itself.
16. Amazing Grace (2018)
Similar to Summer Of Soul, this concert film was a long-running reclamation project. Originally filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1972, it captured the making of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel live album masterpiece Amazing Grace as it unfolded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Then technical issues caused the footage to be shelved for 25 years until it was discovered by filmmaker Alan Elliott, who finally put together his own edit in 2011. But the film was sentenced to purgatory once again after Franklin sued Elliott for misappropriating her likeness, and then again in 2015 after Elliott tried to show the film and Franklin blocked him. Once Aretha passed in 2018, her family cleared the way for Amazing Grace to see the light of day, at which point it earned great critical acclaim. So yes, in a sense, Amazing Grace was made and released literally over the subject’s dead body. But it also makes a convincing case for Aretha being the voice of God, so perhaps this can be chalked up as a “she didn’t know what was best for her” situation.
15. Festival! (1967)
My favorite unsung concert filmmaker is Murray Lerner, whose specialty was immersing himself in music festivals like an anthropologist studying an instantaneous subculture in order to reveal the ways in which live concerts act as mirrors for their times. Lerner’s best films have that “time capsule” quality all great concert films have, but they also go one step further by simultaneously exposing the aspects of these festivals that will eventually read as unwitting self-parody. Lerner’s breakthrough was Festival!, an Oscar-nominated doc that shows the evolution of music and culture in the mid-’60s via footage shot at the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 through 1966. The most famous sequence concerns Bob Dylan’s historic “electric” performance in 1965 that rankled folk purists and changed rock music forever. Meanwhile the bulk of Festival! shows you why such a provocation is necessary. Much of what was satirized in The Mighty Wind can be directly tied back to this film — the goofy folk dancing, Pete Seeger singing “Green Corn,” the self-seriousness college students sitting cross-legged in the audience while cos-playing America’s hardscrabble past. That Festival! manages to also be entertaining even when the music delves into unrelenting corniness only adds to its charm.
14. Message To Love (1995)
After Festival!, Lerner took on a much different kind of festival: 1970’s Isle Of Wight, the infamous post-Woodstock U.K. boondoggle marred by protests from would-be pseudo-socialists who insisted that the festival be free. And those people were prepared to make it happen by tearing down the walls separating the paying customers from the freeloaders. Lerner was tasked with filming the entire festival, and he used that footage over the course of several decades to spin off concert films featuring The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, and others. But the best product of this project was Message To Love, a compendium of performances from all of the above artists that also shows the madness of putting on a festival during the slow collapse of ’60s idealism. (The understandable exasperation of the organizers later inspired a classic Oasis song.) Message To Love functions as a kind of sequel to Festival! — this is what Dylan’s plugging in his guitar begat — but it’s also an answer film to Woodstock, which glamorized the consequence-free utopianism that Message To Love exposes as untenable at best and a dangerous fraud at worst.
13. Woodstock (1970)
Speak of the devil! Woodstock unquestionably is the most important concert film ever made. It’s fair to say that every movie on this list that came out after Woodstock is in some way informed by it, either as an homage or as a critical response. It’s also more ambivalent about the starry-eyed kids rolling around in the mud than the legend might suggest; a good number of the interviewees don’t seem headed toward a particularly healthy place once the festival wraps. And the best performances truly are wondrous. (Shoutout to Jimi, Sly and The Family Stone, Santana, and The Who.) But the running time is only slightly shorter than the actual festival, and the dubious mythology that this film created is at least partly responsible for creating two “official” sequels in the ’90s, the last of which is one of the great disasters in music festival history.
12. Monterey Pop (1967)
The prequel to Woodstock, and slightly preferable because it’s less hyped and much shorter. But the best test is comparing Jimi Hendrix performances. Jimi in Woodstock is a God on Earth — no less an authority than Ian MacKaye considers “Villanova Junction” to be “one of those most incredible pieces of recorded music,” which must be counted as the one degree of separation between Dischord and Wavy Gravy. However, Jimi at Monterrey Pop is simply one of the greatest rock performances ever captured on film, if not the greatest. (It’s too bad that the movie only includes one song from Jimi’s set, or else Monterey Pop would be higher on this list.) But the historical significance of at least half of the performances in this film — particularly by Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and The Who — maximizes the “time capsule” value.
11. Festival Express (2003)
This documentary about a 1970 train tour across Canada starring The Band, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and others is a “backstage” concert film in which the best live performances actually occur backstage. That’s not to slight what actually happens on stage — the footage of The Band rivals anything seen in The Last Waltz, particularly since Festival Express captures them in their prime rather than their death throes. But even that can’t compare with the priceless slight of Rick Danko, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Weir — all of whom appear to be extremely knackered, presumably on the prominently featured display-sized bottle of acid-spiked Canadian Club whiskey — slurring their way through “Ain’t No More Cane” as the Festival Express train rumbles through the Canadian wilderness. All but Weir are gone now, which makes watching Festival Express feel like witnessing a very happy (and happily wasted) ghost story.
10. Homecoming (2019)
Lest anyone forget: Before the pandemic gave Taylor Swift her shocking resurgence to all-time pop star heights, the unquestioned queen of live-music spectacle was Beyoncé. And this concert film about her historic appearance at Coachella — the ultimate all-caps EVENT of the early 21st century (at least before the Eras Tour) — is the most significant movie of its kind in the past decade. Among its many achievements: Homecoming made it all but impossible for an indie-rock band with a half-assed live show to credibly take the stage at the nation’s top music festival. Beyoncé set a new bar that few artists can manage (or afford) to reach. It remains to be seen how the Cold War of opposing Taylor vs. Beyoncé concert films will shake out in the closing months of 2023 as far as box office grosses are concerned, but Homecoming (which is also directed by the star) suggests that whatever Bey does next will likely win out in terms of quality.
9. Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii (1972)
If you are an indie-rock band with a half-assed live show, here’s some free advice on how to level up: Book a trip to Italy, set up your gear in an ancient Roman amphitheater, do not invite an audience, plug in, take your shirt off (the guitarist anyway), and blast off into a 20-minute space rock jam. This strategy works swimmingly for Pink Floyd — a band no one would accuse of having an overabundance of charisma — in Live at Pompeii, the greatest “take some drugs on your couch” concert film of all time. As if to emphasize the ordinariness of Pink Floyd when they’re not standing like supermen in an ancient Roman amphitheater, the live clips are interspersed with footage of the band recording their landmark album The Dark Side Of The Moon, including some scintillating looks at the fellas eating lunch in the studio commissary. But just when you think these long-haired English accountants couldn’t be more dull, you’re transported back to that fuzzy-brained region between outer space and inner space.
8. Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Speaking of fuzzy-brained regions: Rust Never Sleeps not only is one of the 10 greatest concert films, it’s also an illuminating trip through the fascinating recesses of Neil Young’s brain. In one respect, this film testifies to the power of Neil’s turn at the end of the ’70s from a folk-rock troubadour who played Woodstock to a fire-spitting hard-rocker taking early stock of his generation’s failures while professing sympathy for the youth’s leading disruptor Johnny Rotten. In another respect, Rust Never Sleeps is about how Neil was so obsessed with Star Wars that he made his roadies dress up like Jawas. As with all things Neil, the silly can’t be expunged from the profound — the logic of Rust Never Sleeps is that if you’re going to play a mind-melding rendition of “Cortez The Killer,” you might as well conclude the song by slipping into a reggae rhythm and adopting a Jamaican patois.
7. The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
The only problem with putting this film — a compendium of performances by some of the biggest rock and soul acts of the mid-’60s (the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Ronettes) filmed in front of gaggle southern California high school students gathered at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium — at No. 7 is that six films now have to follow James Brown. And as Keith Richards learned the hard way, you don’t under any circumstances want to follow James Brown. It might be best to put the cape over this column and stumble off the stage …
6. Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 (2006)
But I can’t do that! Not yet! We’re almost to the end!
The “cape over James Brown’s back” bit immortalized in The T.A.M.I. Show is the finest bit of pop-music stagecraft ever committed in a concert film. But if anyone can possibly follow that, it would be Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band circa the Born To Run tour. This legendary gig recorded in London on November 18, 1975 shows Bruce in his early scruffy-haired, floppy-hatted incarnation, leading his similarly scruffy-haired and flopped-hatted bandmates through some of the most romantic and anthemic (and long) songs of his career. There were no half-measures for the Boss at this time — his insane mix of idealism, romanticism, ego, and ambition prompted him to believe he could write the greatest rock song ever (“Born To Run”) and the greatest rock album ever (Born To Run) and then promote both with the greatest rock show ever staged. The hubris would be obnoxious if it came from anybody who was not Bruce Springsteen in 1975. But like Babe Ruth calling his own shot, Bruce that night in England had talent, fate, and dumb luck on his side.
5. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987)
It takes a special kind of musician to set out consciously ahead of time to play an epic show that people will still talk about 50 years later. But it might be even more special to play an all-time gig against your will. This is the story of Chuck Berry in Taylor Hackford’s wonderful Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, an “EVENT” concert film (it’s Chuck’s 60th birthday show) and a “backstage” concert film (about how Chuck is an ambivalent participant in his own 60th birthday show). As Hackford details, Berry is not a man given to extravagant tributes to his own world-changing art. His usual approach to playing the old songs is to fly into a random town with only his guitar and a change of clothes, hook up with a pickup band of local musicians he meets five minutes before showtime, get the check from the promoter, play the gig, and then quickly exit in a rental car back to the airport. So when he is faced with playing a massive concert with an all-star band that includes Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, and Linda Ronstadt, he responds not with gratitude but with skeptical grumpiness. The same guy who is fine with casually recruiting the best bar-band musicians to be found in Akron or Poughkeepsie suddenly is hyper-critical of how the guitarist from the Rolling Stones plays the lead lick from “Carol.” That this all comes across as endearing says a lot about the affection with which Hackford approaches Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. We see Chuck holistically as both a comically cantankerous tightwad and an all-time genius songwriter, guitarist, and showman.
4. Sign O’ The Times (1987)
The popularity of Stop Making Sense in IMAX naturally leads one to wonder about other concert films that might warrant the big, big screen re-release treatment. To me, the obvious choice is Sign O’ The Times, the rare concert movie that might be even more exuberant than the Talking Heads picture. Shot mostly at Prince’s Minneapolis area enclave Paisley Park, Sign O’ The Times spotlights Prince tearing through a setlist composed largely of songs from the 1987 double-album of the same name, and fronting one of his all-time best bands (highlighted by drummer Sheila E., the film’s most prominent co-star). Like Stop Making Sense, Sign O’ The Times has a loose narrative thread that makes it feel like a real movie rather than simply a filmed live-music piece. But the effortless musicality of Prince at his peak — the way his powerhouse vocals and burn-the-house-down guitar solos come out of him like he’s exhaling carbon dioxide — would make this a riveting watch in any context.
3. The Last Waltz (1978)
The greatest “EVENT” concert film of all time. (It’s also the greatest Thanksgiving movie, but that’s a topic for a different discussion.) The “time capsule” value is obvious, but The Last Waltz also is timeless in terms of presenting a certain kind of eternal “rock dude” cool. Whole genres of music have sprung up in the years since The Last Waltz for musicians and fans who are obsessed with how amazing the members of The Band look in this movie. As long as Americana exists, there will never not be a moment when a certain segment of the music-listening audience isn’t attracted to people who wear big hats, grow fuzzy beards, and smoke way too many cigarettes. And, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, those people will be chasing the high of seeing Garth Hudson magically materialize at the end of “It Makes No Difference” with the sweetest saxophone solo in concert-film history.
2. Stop Making Sense (1984)
My overriding thought while watching The Eras Tour was this: For all of the awe-inspiring enormity on display, there isn’t single shot in the whole movie that I am going to remember. Meanwhile, Jonathan Demme gives you dozens of memorable images in Stop Making Sense. This is the best-directed concert film ever. For anyone who wants to know how to make this kind of movie, Stop Making Sense is your 85-minute film school. It goes beyond just showing you a band, as many concert films “only” do. You actually learn something about how musicians interact in all kinds of telepathic (or even seemingly supernatural) ways to build grooves into songs, and songs into overpowering emotional experiences. (The best example is this scene.) But Demme isn’t just concerned with the “stars” on stage. I can’t think of another concert film where you feel like you get to spend quality time with each musician. Whether it’s David Byrne and Tina Weymouth or Steve Scales and Lynn Mabry, Demme treats whoever is on screen like the most important person in the room. A small moment: When Bernie Worrell comes out for “Burning Down The House” Demme stays with him for a few extra beats after the rest of the musicians come in. Most directors would’ve cut immediately to a wide shot of the entire band, but I think Demme just liked hanging with Bernie. Demme similarly gives every musician a hero’s welcome. When Chris Frantz comes out for “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” he does this incredible spin on Frantz from behind all while Byrne is singing the first verse. It’s like a big bear hug. This whole movie feels like that.
1. Gimme Shelter (1970)
I realize that, on some level, this is a perverse choice, particularly after The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense. It’s certainly a downer ending for this column. Almost every other concert film on this list makes you want to be at the show depicted in the movie. But Gimme Shelter is not a bear hug. It’s a bear attack. Nevertheless, not all time capsules are meant to recreate dreams. This is the concert film as the ultimate horror movie, like Woodstock as directed by George A. Romero, a Night Of The Living Dead Hippie Dream. No other movie evokes the feeling of attending a concert-gone-extremely-bad as vividly as this cinéma vérité account of the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free festival at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. Also: I do kind of wish I was at this concert? Not up front with the Hells Angels, of course, but at a safe distance from the violence and the brown acid. (This is also, partly, a “Madison Square Garden” concert film, and I definitely wish I was at those shows.) What’s underrated about Gimme Shelter is that as the conditions worsen, the Stones play better and better. It’s the inverse of the endless good vibes in Stop Making Sense — instead of smiling musicians jogging in place, we see a terrified band running for their lives. There is no “getting it together.” There is no sitting down. It’s not gonna be alright. But you can’t look away.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.