The electricity of live music is like nothing in the world. There is a sense that you are experiencing something direct and raw, a moment that won’t outlive your experiencing of it. To try and capture that energy on film can seem an impossible task, like running into a storm with an open bottle and a cork in the hopes of capturing lightning.
The greatest concert films manage to not only capture but elevate the music, combining what makes the music unique with the tools of cinema. Jonathan Demme, who directed one of the greatest concert films ever with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, said that “shooting live music is the most purely cinematic thing you can do. Ideally the cinema is becoming one with the music.” Demme shot the show from the perspective of an (impossibly) lucky fan who is allowed to weave in and out of the stage, reveling in the show’s gradual shift from minimalist solo show to art-rock spectacular. There are no audience shots till the very end, no graphics aside from the song titles. Through the beautifully framed but unobtrusive photography, viewers are treated to a first hand experience of David Byrne’s unique vision.
Martin Scorsese’s major contribution to the medium, The Band’s Last Waltz, mixes together documentary, interviews, concert performance and impressionist theatre to craft a raucous wake for the legendary rock and roll band. The mixing of formats places the music in a historical context while imbuing the show with a dreamy grandeur. It’s an attempt to simultaneously deconstruct and reconstruct a rock and roll myth through the various forms of cinema.
DA Penneabaker’s Don’t Look Back, by comparison, attempts to remain as unobtrusive as possible, shooting a young Bob Dylan in his direct cinema style; no interviews, no narration, giving the film a roughness and ambiguity that echoes Dylan’s own. Unknowingly catching Dylan right before he made his infamous switch to electric, Penneabaker captures an iconic moment in history before it had the chance to become a myth.
LCD Soundsytem’s swan song, Shut Up and Play the Hits, seems an attempt of anti-mythmaking. Split between a fly-on-the-wall look at James Murphy before and after his final LCD Soundsystem show and a concert film of the show itself, we’re taken between worlds. The first is Murphy’s day-to-day life, shuffling about his New York apartment. We watch him shave, play with his dog and look into the middle distance, a little lost. The second is Murphy leading LCD Soundsytem, one of the greatest bands of a generation, in a career spanning set at a packed out Madison Square Garden. It’s a fitting mix of mundanity and dynamism for a group who made anthems about losing your edge and getting innocuous.