The concert business is in crisis, with the coronavirus causing cancellation or postponement of giant festivals like South by Southwest and Coachella, and Philadelphia’s ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people making arena-sized musical experiences out of the question.
So how does one get a live music fix while social distancing and self-quarantining?
By hunkering down on the sofa and watching music movies at home, reliving those halcyon, pre-pandemic days when standing elbow-to-elbow with masses of fans in muddy fields didn’t mean taking your life into your hands.
To that end, I’ve compiled a baker’s dozen of concert films made over the course of more than 50 years of pop music history.
Some have behind-the-scenes elements, but all are performance films. The list is arranged not from best to worst, but in the chronological order of the events captured on film.
The other filtering factor is availability. All 13 can all be streamed on services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, or YouTube. I left out a number of personal favorites because they aren’t streamable. Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps; 1980′s No Nukes, starring Bruce Springsteen; Jazz On A Summer’s Day, about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival; Beastie Boys’ Awesome; I ... Shot That! and the 1976 Outlaw Country doc Heartworn Highways are all in that category.
So, to help you through until we can all go out and hear music without fear:
The T.A.M.I. Show. The title of this 1964 black-and-white movie directed by Steve Binder — who’d later helm Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special — means either Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International. The lineup is astonishing: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and James Brown & the Famous Flames. Surf duo Jan & Dean host. The backing band is the Wrecking Crew, with Glen Campbell and drummer Hal Blaine. Brown’s performance is breathtaking. He’s Mr. Dynamite!
Monterey Pop. Directed by D.A Pennebaker on the heels of his Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop captures the 1960s counterculture as flower power was beginning to bloom. The Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix found their audiences there, with Hendrix famously lighting his guitar aflame. Most fabulous is Otis Redding, the Stax soul man who would die in a plane crash at 26 before the year was out. He lights up the audience he dubbed “the love crowd.”
Gimme Shelter. Which Rolling Stones movie to pick? Ladies and Gentleman: The Rolling Stones from 1974 is highly recommended, and Some Girls: Live in Texas ’78 is underappreciated. I’m giving the nod to Gimme Shelter, the 1970 doc from Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin that follows the 1969 tour that ended at the Altamont Speedway, with four deaths. Besides chronicling the tragic events that symbolically mark the end of the 1960s, there’s plenty of primo concert footage, including a blistering “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” from Madison Square Garden earlier in the tour.
Amazing Grace. In 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded two concerts at the New Temple Community Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The shows, with a band directed by the Rev. James Cleveland, became the basis for the Queen of Soul’s best-selling album. The movie was finally released in 2019. Amazing Grace really is amazing.
Soul Power. Leon Gast’s 1996 When We Were Kings, about the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, is one of the great sports documentaries. Twelve years later, it was followed by Soul Power, director Jeff Levy-Hinte’s chronicle of a concert held before the fight. The bill, headlined by James Brown in a mustachioed, hard-nosed funk phase, matches African American and African acts. Bill Withers, the Spinners, and B.B. King are joined by African greats Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Franco. Ali steals the show by showing up.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75. “It’s a wonderful moment,” E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt wrote on Twitter this year about this dimly lit Born To Run tour show. “Us between being a bar band and being a concert band by the next album.” It’s a portrait of a scruffy, still-up-and-coming Springsteen. Free on the Springsteen channel on YouTube.
The Last Waltz. Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film about the Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco is justifiably iconic, gathering on one stage such luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Van Morrison. It’s pertinent now given the new Once Were Brothers, the Robbie Robertson movie that tells the guitarist-songwriter’s version of the Band’s breakup.
Stop Making Sense. The late, great Jonathan Demme made several concert films, including three starring Neil Young (see below). This is the mother of them all, a brilliantly staged Talking Heads film that begins with David Byrne alone on an empty stage with a boom box, singing “Psycho Killer.” It gets funkier from there.
Prince: Sign 'o’ the Times. A live documentary of Prince at the height of his powers, Sign 'o’ The Times was filmed while the polymorphous purple imp was on tour for the 1987 double album that stands as his most impressive songwriting feat. The band includes dancer Cat Glover and drummer Sheila E.
Neil Young Heart of Gold. This Demme-directed movie — shot after Young recovered from a brain aneurysm in 2005 — was recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and timed to the release of the Canadian songwriter’s contemplative, country-flavored album Prairie Wind. The band includes Emmylou Harris and Hammond B-3 player Spooner Oldham. I don’t mean to boast, but I was in the audience at the Mother Church of Country Music when it was shot.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. This 2005 movie directed by Michele Gondry was modeled after Wattstax, the 1974 film shot in Los Angeles featuring Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers. (Watch that, too: It’s free on YouTube.) Chappelle gathers all his hip-hop and neo-soul good friends, including Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, the Fugees, and prominently featured Philadelphians in Jill Scott and the Roots.
Leonard Cohen: Live in London. The three-hour shows that Leonard Cohen put on as he toured the world in the late ’00s were magnificent. The Canadian song-poet played both the Academy of Music and the Tower Theater in 2009, and the year before, this elegant, career-summarizing performance was filmed at the O2 arena in London.
Beyoncé: Homecoming Beyoncé was supposed to become the first black female headliner at the Coachella festival in the California desert in 2017, but a pregnancy — with twins! — put a stop to that. She returned the next year, and rather than reprise her Lemonade stage show, she cooked up an entirely new extravaganza in two weekend performances that are woven together in this Netflix movie, employing a marching band and scores of dancers in a show staged as a tribute to historically black colleges and universities. Coachella is not happening this spring, but Beychella lives on.