As the Talking Heads classic returns to cinemas, we look at the best concert films of all time, from Bruce to the Beasties
Venerable film studio A24 has set the music and cinema worlds alight with the news that it’s prepping the daddy of all concert films Stop Making Sense for a 4K cinema re-release. Filmed in 1984, the Jonathan Demme-directed extravaganza captured Talking Heads at their peak, combining rip-roaring renditions of their numerous hits with endlessly creative staging and maybe the most famous suit in musical history.
Talking Heads were definitely on the artier side of New York’s new wave boom, and that element of the band leaps to the fore throughout Demme’s film. The choreography and energy feels natural and unforced but also above and beyond what would normally be expected from four people on a stage. Even David Byrne’s introduction, playing ‘Psycho Killer’ with just a tape deck and an acoustic guitar, is supremely theatrical in its simplicity.
While the live experience is notoriously hard to replicate on film or tape, there are a few examples where the community, dynamism and sheer alchemy of a gig breaks through. Not many can live up to the magic of Stop Making Sense but here are a few that come close.
Summer Of Soul
Questlove’s stunning Oscar-winning documentary might be one of the single most important concert films ever made. It’s joyous, it’s electric but it also marks an event that had almost been erased from the history books, while Woodstock’s legend only grew. Over six weekends in 1969, the greatest musicians of the era descended on Harlem, all against the backdrop of Martin Luther King’s assassination. If you can get through Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson playing ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ – a song personally requested by King before his death – in one piece, then you’re made of stern stuff.
Bruce Springsteen – Hammersmith Odeon, London 1975
Springsteen has a plethora of live options to choose from, but they’re all eclipsed by this pulsating live show from 1975, recorded just as Bruce was coming into his own. A haunting Thunder Road kicks things off and, from that stirring opener onwards, the band play like they’ve a point to prove. Bruce would quickly evolve into the star and showman that we know and love, but it’s fascinating to hear him here, more enveloped by the band than leading from the front.
The Band – The Last Waltz
After deciding to retire from the touring life, The Band teamed up with Martin Scorsese to film their farewell show. It’s a star-studded affair, featuring everyone from Van Morrison to Joni Mitchell to the Staples Singers, the performances interspersed with rambling interviews between the band members (or should that be Band members?) and Scorsese. In terms of concert films, this is the gold standard, especially when it gets to the room-shaking version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
LCD Soundsystem – Shut Up And Play The Hits
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when James Murphy drew a line under his revered electronica ensemble in 2011. The boundless party vibes of their “final” engagement contrast with the almost confessional interviews with a weary Murphy, clearly conflicted about his decision to call it a day. That the band only took a few years to reform lessens the emotional impact, but the elation from seeing LCD at the height of their powers remains intact.
Beastie Boys – Awesome, I F*cking Shot That
For their massive Maddison Square Garden show in 2004, the Beasties gave 50 camcorders to people in the audience with instructions to film the entire show from start to finish. Adam Yauch then spliced all the footage together into an incredibly unique visual masterpiece that captures the live experience like no other concert film. Its energy is contagious and compulsive, making it almost impossible to watch while sitting down.
Nirvana – Unplugged In New York
Some of the best (and worst) MTV Unplugged shows feature bands whose oeuvre seems at odds with the acoustic setting. Nirvana wouldn’t be the oddest candidates, but they approached the concept with more creativity than most, choosing their set list wisely and using the opportunity to turn the spotlight on their heroes, from The Meat Puppets to Leadbelly. Only released after Kurt’s death, its surreal funereal air has only added to its mythology.
The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights
There’s nothing on earth like that moment when the lights go down and everyone loses their collective minds. Under Great White Northern Lights captures it perfectly. The roar feels like it’s inside your heads, spreading out like foggy tentacles until it joins with a Scottish marching band, which is then drowned out by Jack White’s redlining guitar. It’s a record that highlights the band’s visceral onslaught in a way that even their best studio albums never quite did.