The best concert movie of all time doesn’t cut away to show the audience at all. Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 documentary about new wave legends Talking Heads, simply films the band onstage — no tricks, no complicated camera gymnastics. “Hi. I got a tape I want to play,” David Byrne tells the audience as he strolls out in his iconic giant suit. For 90 minutes, he and his band play to a silent crowd we never see onscreen. Stop Making Sense is praised by film nerds and music geeks alike for its singular ability to make you feel like you’re there at the show, capturing Byrne’s frenetic energy just as you’d witness it from a really, really good seat.
Stop Making Sense is a great movie, but it’s also a lonely movie. Watching a concert film with no crowd cutaways lets you see the whole performance without interruptions, I guess, but I buy tickets to concerts to get to dance in a room with people who love something as much as I do. The distraction of the crowd is the whole point. In the film, Byrne’s energy is rendered in full, but enjoying his performance without the feedback of the crowd feels deceitful.
Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour isn’t just full of incredible cutaways to the crowd. Swift’s Netflix special is a love letter to the audience at her shows, and to her fans in general. The special, filmed October 6 at Swift’s last US tour date in Arlington, Texas, is a masterful documentation of the magical energy at a pop show.
Swift didn’t come to my city for the Reputation tour — the closest show to me was the Arlington one, four hours away. Having just drained my concert funds following another pop artist around this summer, I couldn’t afford the cost of a ticket to Swift’s show. Since Arlington was the last stop of the US tour, some of Swift’s most devoted fans traveled from out of state (or out of country) to see her there, driving resale ticket prices sky high. And I certainly wasn’t the only Texan who wished to be there.
Not all fans can afford to go to shows, or live in cities where acts tour, but fans in the digital age have found ways to take care of each other and make sure that everyone can enjoy the thrill of a show. Through taking photographs (many of which are professional quality), taking videos of songs, and even streaming shows on Periscope (the biggest heroes of all), the lucky fans who are able to go to a performance share memories with their sisters who can’t make it. Phone cameras are so good now that the fan-shot videos often look like they’re professionally filmed, and the audio is good enough that you don’t feel like you missed too much by not being there.
Still, the fact that Swift decided to release a professionally shot film of her tour is incredible. With free reign over the whole AT&T Stadium, director Paul Dugdale is able to capture the massive scope of the production from every angle. For a lot of the show, he keeps a Stop Making Sense-esque medium close-up on Swift like the jumbo screens at concerts do, so you can see her facial expressions and watch the minutiae of her choreography. But sometimes he films from the tip-top nosebleeds of the stadium, making Swift and her dancers look like ants three stories below, and from the back of the floor, where Swift is dwarfed by the thousands of fans that stand in front of the camera. You could make the argument that the constant switching of POV is obtrusive, but if Dugdale just set up a camera right in front of the stage and let Swift dance in front of it, you wouldn’t get a full sense of how giant the stadium she’s playing in is.
There are plenty of neat visual tricks to satisfy fans who were at the shows, too. Each member of the audience had a light-up bracelet because Swift said she “wanted to make sure I could see every single one of you” from the stage, and Dugdale sweeps around the 50,000+ matching lights with a sick aerial shot, making the crowd look like a whole city. When Swift walks down the catwalk mid-show, it’s cool to see the camera trailing her from behind as she says hello and touches everyone’s hands. (If you’ve ever been on the catwalk at a show like this, your view is usually of the inside of someone else’s armpit.)
Because this is a professionally filmed concert special, the audio is crystal-clear and beautiful, with the crowd quieted down so viewers at home can hear Swift best. But during her B-stage performance of fan favorite “All Too Well,” even the best audio efforts can’t cut out how loud the fans were singing along. Swift, practiced and gracious in her stage banter, is genuinely moved by how much people seem to love the song that once was such a fresh wound. Swift marvels at how many people have lyrics to the song inked “underneath their skin,” and shares her thoughts on how other people’s interpretation and co-optation of the song has given it a new, less painful, meaning for her. “You turned this song into a collage of memories watching you scream the words to this song,” she says, before her voice is swallowed up by the crowd.
The end credits of the movie show Swift and her crew hugging it out backstage, cross-cut with fans wiping their melting glitter and mascara and walking through the emptying stadium, back to their cars and real life. The footage of Swift, an intimate backstage peek, appears onscreen next to young girls hugging one another, mothers pulling their children out of seats, friends saying goodbye until next tour. The people who filled these stadiums were just as much a part of the magic as the people who made the incredible stage production happen, and the concert film is a tribute to all the joy they experienced in those rooms. For the people who were there, I imagine it’s a beautiful rendering of those memories. For those of us who weren’t, it was a lovely way to experience the Reputation tour and see Swift perform without breaking the bank.
Because, however grand the spectacle of the Reputation tour was, the real spectacle was seeing 50,000 people who all love the same thing gathered in one place, loving that thing. Anybody can set a bunch of cameras up and film a performance, but it’s harder to capture the scope of a feeling and the energy of a room. Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour honors the sacred joy of her performance that night, and the people who made it happen.
If you have a Netflix account, check out the film here.