The 25 Best Concert Films of All Time

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The post The 25 Best Concert Films of All Time appeared first on Consequence.

If there’s one word that embodies the challenge any maker of a concert film faces, it’s “capture.” How do you use cameras and sound and editing to not just depict live performance, but deliver its raw energy to an audience in such a way that even decades later, its power is palpable? It’s a difficult task, for sure, but it’s not impossible — as the 25 movies on this list prove, assembled as the iconic Stop Making Sense begins its upcoming theatrical re-release.

Because the line between “music documentary” and “concert film” can be a little blurry, we came up with one rule for this list: While we weren’t watching these titles with stopwatches in hand, we did require that approximately 50% of the film needed to consist of the artist performing for a live audience. It was an important rule, because what becomes apparent about this genre is how much context plays a role in these stories — context which usually only comes with an understanding of what was happening backstage that night, or what was happening in the world at that time.

Many of these films are iconic not just because of the artists involved, but because of what they have to say about the moment in time during which they were filmed. But also, many of these films are iconic because they take rock stars, our modern-day gods, and make them feel simultaneously human and immortal. As recorded by these cameras, complied by these editors, we witness the artist’s struggles, as well as their triumphs… all captured for posterity, the ephemeral preserved for generations to come.

Liz Shannon Miller
Senior Entertainment Editor

25. Live at CBGB 1982 (2006)

Featured Artist: Bad Brains
Director: Richard Oretsky

There’s nothing fancy about this concert film, but the fact that it captures one of the greatest live bands playing one of the most legendary venues of all time results in a magnificent document of the ‘80s hardcore scene. Bad Brains frontman H.R. ruled the stage like a man possessed, surrounded by a sea of stage divers — only occasionally slowing things down for the band’s more reggae-tinged tunes. The mayhem fans witness at shows by modern-day hardcore heroes like Turnstile and Knocked Loose owes a great debt of gratitude to the wild precedent set decades ago by acts like Bad Brains. — Spencer Kaufman

24. Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)

Featured Artist: Katy Perry
Directors: Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz

There is one scene in Katy Perry’s 2012 tour documentary that should be cemented in pop music history: After receiving word (via text message!) from her then-husband Russel Brand that he would be filing for divorce, Perry is visibly distraught; she’s in the midst of her “California Dreams” tour, and she has a show that evening. She lets her staff know that she’s depressed, but allows herself to be brought into hair and makeup. She’s still sobbing backstage moments before the show starts, and then she steps on the rising platform and something clicks — her face constructs a picture-perfect smile, the light hits her, and she starts the show. It’s eerie and sad, the peak of professionalism, and this candid moment makes this documentary memorable.  — Mary Siroky

23. Instrument (1999)

Featured Artist: Fugazi
Director: Jem Cohen

Fugazi concert footage — and plenty of it — isn’t the only reason to tune into this wide-ranging look at the punk band’s career, utilizing video shot over the course of 11 years, from 1987 to 1998. Instead, it’s an opportunity to look at the full spectrum of their ups and downs, as well as their eclectic history as a group. If nothing else, you must watch this one for the opportunity to see the band interviewed by the toughest of music journalists: an eighth grader with a public access TV show. — L.S. Miller

22. Rattle and Hum (1988)

Featured Artist: U2
Director: Phil Joanou

At the time, critics were quick to deem U2’s post-Joshua Tree rock doc pretentious, but nearly 35 years later, the film sings with inspiration. As director Phil Joanou chronicles U2’s 1987 North American tour, the band’s songs are given sublime reinterpretations and their appreciation for gospel, blues, and American folk music is on full display. It allows the viewer to bear witness to the sheer power that U2 wields live, while also showing a totally different, more vulnerable side to the band. Rattle & Hum is a decidedly earnest look at a group that just kept getting bigger. — Paolo Ragusa

21. Liza with a Z (1972)

Featured Artist: Liza Minnelli
Director: Bob Fosse

In 1973, Bob Fosse became the only person to win an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony in the same year, and the Emmy was for this: a rich and intimate capturing of Liza Minnelli on stage. It’s an eclectic performance, with Minnelli gleefully singing literal nursery rhymes and an explanation of how to spell and say her name, and Fosse’s editing mastery keeps the flow from one song to the next tight yet not restrictive. Sometimes, you don’t need fancy cameras and elaborate set-ups, to make some magic. Sometimes, all you need is Liza. — L.S. Miller

20. Through the Never (2013)

Featured Artist: Metallica
Director: Nimród Antal

Taking inspiration from films like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (also on this list), this Nimród Antal-directed “thriller concert film” sets up a fictional descent into madness alongside an explosive concert in Vancouver’s expansive BC Place. James Hetfield growls his way through songs like “Creeping Death” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” dwarfed by set pieces so huge they’d make Spinal Tap weep (that collapsing statue of Lady Justice during “…And Justice For All” — never accuse Metallica of subtlety).

But every so often, we cut back to an unrelated side plot, starring Dane DeHaan as a roadie traversing the empty streets of Vancouver and being chased by a hellish masked rider on horseback. Okay, that part doesn’t really go anywhere, but points to Antal et al for injecting apocalyptic thrills into what’s otherwise a pretty handsomely-made showcase for the band. – Clint Worthington

19. MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga (2021)

Featured Artist: Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett
Director: David Diomedi

If you have ever cared for someone as they fade away into Alzheimer’s, you understand that what Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga accomplished on their final tour is as close to a miracle as music can get. With dementia lurking, the aging crooner delivered a final series of powerhouse performances for MTV Unplugged, borne along by a lifetime of instincts and the compassion of his scene partner(The television special One Last Time is also quite good, but we prefer the unfussy simplicity of Unplugged.)

On stage, Gaga works to make Bennett feel comfortable by elegantly giving him clues to guide the performance. She also studied his habits, knowing that during some choruses he’d probably turn out and face the audience, so that they could do it in unison. During “Night and Day,” the pair even manage to point at each other three times while singing “You, you, you!” — when they start the first “You,” you can see Bennett’s arm resting at his side. But after Gaga makes eye contact and raises her arm, Bennett quickly picks up on the signal, ensuring that they match each other for the final two “you”s. Though the moment is fleeting, it’s the kind of connection that makes music feel immortal. — Wren Graves

18. The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Featured Artist: Led Zeppelin
Directors: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot

The Song Remains the Same is breathtaking, imaginative, ambitious, and riddled with production hurdles. Initially filmed over three nights at Madison Square Garden by Joe Massot, Zep’s manager, Peter Grant pulled Massot off the project and replaced him with Peter Clifton, who filled in the gaps by recreating the concert at Sheppeton Studios. The final result is self-indulgent in the way only Zeppelin can achieve: lengthy solos, fantasy sequences featuring members of the band on horseback wielding swords, bursts of kaleidoscopic color. All that, and thumping versions of “Black Dog” and “Stairway” that have to be seen to be believed. – C. Worthington

17. Fade to Black (2004)

Featured Artist: JAY-Z
Directors: Patrick Paulson, Michael John Warren

While his 2003 Madison Square Garden appearance would not end up being his true retirement, JAY-Z still puts on a helluva show, as filmed by directors Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren. The behind-the-scenes components reveal the kind of pressure that Mr. Knowles Carter puts himself through, but on stage he’s a dynamic force, blasting through the hits like only he can. “I want y’all to see how far we can take it as hip-hop artists,” he tells the crowd, before engaging them in some electric call and response — the best concert films also serve as something of a portrait, and that’s especially true here. — L.S. Miller

16. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)

Featured Artist: Elvis
Director: Denis Sanders

Okay, it’s not his most famous recorded performance, and the studio-shot ’68 Comeback Special remains iconic. However, for the opportunity to see a mature King engage with a live audience, That’s the Way It Is can’t be beat. Shot at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, That’s the Way It Is also offers a behind-the-scenes look at a playful, engaged Presley preparing for the big show, as well as a reflection on Elvis Presley’s stardom, with the then-editor of Tiger Beat and real-life teenage fans defining fandom as it was understood in the early 1970s (spoiler alert, it’s not much different from today). — L.S. Miller

15. Don’t Look Back (1967)

Featured Artist: Bob Dylan
Director: D. A. Pennebaker

There isn’t as much concert footage as you might anticipate in D. A. Pennebaker’s iconic documentary about Bob Dylan on tour in England in 1965. Instead, it’s a much more wide-ranging look at the artist as he interrogates his own celebrity. Some of its most striking moments of live performance come in more intimate settings, like an extended sequence featuring Dylan and Joan Baez jamming together on Hank Williams classics. But there’s still plenty of Dylan on stage, proving his indelible talent, in between sequences revealing what life on the road is really like… at least for Dylan at that time. The film also notably opens with what could be considered one of the first music videos: Dylan’s card-flipping take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” — L.S. Miller

14. Live at Pompeii (1972)

Featured Artist: Pink Floyd
Director: Adrian Maben

Pink Floyd always had a streak of theatricality: From the psychedelia of their early live shows to full-blown concept records, the group couldn’t help themselves but chase whatever ambitious idea was haunting them at the time. In 1972 (pre-Dark Side of the Moon, mind you), that idea just so happened to be performing a full set of progressive art-rock in the ruins of Pompeii. Surrounded by giant stacks of amplifiers and smokey imagery of what’s left of the city’s Roman structures, the film captures Floyd at a turning point in their career. Their commercial and critical high point is just around the corner, and watching them play through epics like “Echos,” it feels inevitable. For that, Live at Pompeii exists as a uniquely prescient concert film, one that just so happens to include incredible performances of incredible songs as well. — Jonah Krueger

13. Monterey Pop (1968)

Featured Artist: Various
Director: D.A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker’s verité look at the titular 1967 music festival is still one of the giants of the form: pulse-pounding performances filtered through grainy 8mm footage and the giddy glee of the attendees. The Monterey International Pop Festival was a sort of proto-Woodstock, a chance for acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and the Papas, and more to reach a vast audience and immortalize their impact on the world of ‘60s pop music. Beyond that, though, there are the iconic moments, like Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, or Pete Townshend swinging his guitar into the stage and smashing it to pieces. If you don’t have three hours to spare for Woodstock, the brisk, exciting 80 minutes of Monterey Pop is an incredible showcase for the greatest artists of the 1960s. – C. Worthington

12. Knebworth 1996 (2021)

Featured Artist: Oasis
Director: Jake Scott

Jake Scott’s documentary encapsulates the beloved Britpop band’s pair of landmark concerts at the height of their careers. At Knebworth, Noel and Liam Gallagher and co. played cuts from their two most notable albums, Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, for a crowd of 500,000 fans who went absolutely mad for it. Knebworth 1996 can almost make you believe the band’s claim of being “the last great rock n’ roll band,” with Scott using both helicopter shots and the wild crowd reactions to capture the madness of Britpop mania and Oasis’ own moment in the sun. – Sun Noor

11. Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Featured Artist: Various
Director: Penelope Spheeris

In 1981, Daryl Gates, the LAPD Chief of Police at the time, wrote a letter demanding any future showings of The Decline of Western Civilization be shut down — and if that isn’t fucking punk rock, I don’t know what is. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, the documentary/concert film depicts the burgeoning California punk scene on the cusp of the 1980s. With footage of Black Flag, X, Germs, Circle Jerks, Fear, and more, the hardcore energy transcends the screen as viewers watch punks do what punks do: mosh, scream, cause trouble, and band together to form one of the most legendary communities in popular music. Plenty of documentaries and concert films have attempted to cover the punk world, but perhaps no film embodies the genre’s spirit like The Decline of Western Civilization. J. Krueger

10. Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (1970)

Featured Artist: Various
Director: Michael Wadleigh

Whether you’re watching the three-hour theatrical cut released in 1970 (just a few months after the watershed festival itself), or the nearly four-hour director’s cut released in the ‘90s, Michael Wadleigh’s chronicle of the seminal moment in American counterculture is one of the best to ever do it. Taking an anthropological approach to the festival, Wadleigh dives into the motivations and wants of the organizers, artists, and attendees for whom the even represented a rare moment of fellowship. There’s split-screens, candid interviews with townspeople, and crucially, the acts themselves (Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens) putting in some of their boldest, most vibrant work. Roger Ebert once called it “[maybe] the best documentary ever made in America.” He might well be right. – C. Worthington

09. Amazing Grace (2018)

Featured Artist: Aretha Franklin
“Realized by”: Alan Elliott, using footage shot by Sydney Pollack

This long-gestating film documents the recording of Aretha Franklin’s titular gospel album, using footage shot by director Sydney Pollack in 1972 that was unusable at the time, due to sync issues. When the footage was successfully restored and compiled into a film in 2011, Franklin protested its release, and the film in fact was not released until after her death in 2018, with her family’s permission. Franklin’s issues with the film weren’t related to its content, to be clear, and being able to see it now means coming away with a whole new appreciation for the Queen of Soul’s musical artistry. Franklin literally and figuratively takes her audience to church, the power of her voice ringing out so clearly in this stripped-down production. — L.S. Miller

08. T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

Featured Artist: Various
Director: Steve Binder

It’s unclear whether T.A.M.I. is supposed to stand for “Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International” — what it is, though, is a wild accumulation of great and soon-to-be great artists of 1964, filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in front of a screaming adolescent audience. Standout acts include The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Lesley Gore, and The Barbarians (whose drummer, having lost one of his hands as a teenager, had modified his prosthetic to hold a drumstick). Plus, you get to see James Brown literally show Mick Jagger how it’s done; Brown’s set precedes The Rolling Stones, and he blows the damn door off the place. It’s a staggeringly alive collection of performances, one that might make you feel like a teenager yourself. — L.S. Miller

07. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1979)

Featured Artist: David Bowie
Director: D. A. Pennebaker

D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert documentary reveals the rise and fall of David Bowie’s enigmatic stage persona: Filmed in 35mm at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, the footage follows Bowie’s final show as Ziggy, from the glam chair to his remarkable performance, marking the end of an era. Pennebaker seamlessly pieces together scenes from the mob of fans waiting to enter the venue, to the backstage glitz and glamor as Bowie morphed into the alien rock star one last time, alongside Weird, Gilly, and The Spiders from Mars. Bowie may be gone, but Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust is immortal. – S. Noor

06. MTV Unplugged: Nirvana (1993)

Featured Artist: Nirvana
Director: Beth McCarthy-Miller

By the time Nirvana graced the stage of Sony Music Studios in New York City in November of 1993, they were already the biggest band in the world. But their episode of MTV’s series of stripped-down studio concerts, Unplugged, showed them in astonishingly reflective form: There’s Dave Grohl with his ponytail and turtleneck, Krist Novoselic’s enormous bass, the quiet awe of the crowd.

Then there’s Cobain himself, mere months before his untimely passing, shifting uncomfortably in his cardigan and wooden chair as he groans through a setlist comprised of what were, at the time, some of the band’s deeper cuts (“Come As You Are” was probably their most famous track to that point), alongside covers of tracks like Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

It’s a rare look at a band, and an artist, openly trying to reset — to become more accessible after their anti-establishment ethos threw them right into the heights of fame and fortune. And the album that would come from the special would turn into one of the best live albums in alternative rock history. – C. Worthington

05. Gimme Shelter (1970)

Featured Artist: The Rolling Stones
Director: Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

Back in 1969, only those who were on the grounds at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in California were witness to the carnage that ensued — until Charlotte Zwerin and Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 concert documentary Gimme Shelter provided an unapologetic look at everything that went down. The documentary covers the conclusion of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour, but much of the film is dedicated to the origins, fallout, and overall tense aura of the Altamont concert, an event that resulted in a murder and several injuries.

Of course, the plethora of footage from The Rolling Stones’ rousing performances detail a band in their prime as a quintet — but what makes Gimme Shelter so significant is the juxtaposition between their passionate, haywire rock songs and the air of chaos that surrounded this performance. Its fearless depiction of how a concert can be both liberating and dangerous was a foundational moment in music media, and after watching, it may be hard to hear “Sympathy for the Devil” in the same way. — P. Ragusa

04. Summer of Soul (2019)

Featured Artist: Various
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Before 2021, you might not have even heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival, but then Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson went and won an Oscar for bringing it to a whole new audience. While 40 hours of footage from the 1969 festival was shot by television producer Hal Tulchin at the time, only excerpts were used for network television specials; the rest was largely ignored for decades, until producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent, and Joseph Patel approached the Roots frontman with the idea of transforming it into a feature.

What makes the film both important and impressive is how it encompasses so much about a period of time both culturally and politically, while also remaining exceptionally lyrical: Even when the film verges on documentary territory, the music of the festival remains ever-present, and some of the performances are truly extraordinary. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Nina Simone says in an interview before taking the stage for her set; it’s a statement Thompson himself embeds in the very fabric of his work here. — L.S. Miller

03. The Last Waltz (1978)

Featured Artist: The Band
Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s immersive, stylish concert documentary film chronicling The Band’s farewell concert was noteworthy for several reasons. There’s the music: simultaneously classic while also being undeniably alive, it was a comprehensive look at what made the Canadian-American band so beloved. Then there’s the interviews: the way Scorsese highlights each band member’s identities and attitudes, specifically that of the dripping-with-cool, chain-smoking guitar wizard Robbie Robertson, helps ground the group.

And then, there are the barrage of high-profile guests: Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Emmylou Harris were just a few members of the star-studded guest list. From Levon Helm’s soulful, passionate rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” to The Band busting out their classic “The Weight” with The Staple Sisters in tow, The Last Waltz is a definitive ode to American folk rock, a document of passionate artists working at the height of their talents. — P. Ragusa

02. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

Featured Artist: Beyoncé
Director: Beyoncé

There had never been a festival set like this before, and it’s hard to believe there could ever be one like this ever again. As the first Black woman to headline Coachella, Beyoncé created a transcendent cultural event with her 2018 performance, captured and housed on Netflix for us to enjoy time and time again in HOMECOMING: A Film by Beyoncé. In addition to the immaculately edited footage from both festival weekends, the documentary takes us behind the scenes into the grueling, meticulous rehearsal process that allowed Beyoncé and over 100 dancers and instrumentalists to blow our minds.

Building off a foundation of the unique and specific joy cultivated during homecoming weekends at historically Black colleges and universities, the relatively simple set — risers for her dancers and orchestra — put Beyoncé front and center. The live vocals are undeniable. The choreography is so sharp that the editors can — and did! — transition from one weekend’s performance to the next and end up without a hair out of place. The moment when Bey dips out for a costume change and three silhouettes rise for a Destiny’s Child medley is chill-inducing.

All in all, the documentary (written, directed, and executive produced by Queen Bey herself) shows the triumphant joy of the performance itself and offers a detailed look into the hard work that went into it. It’s unforgettable. — M. Siroky

01. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Featured Artist: Talking Heads
Director: Jonathan Demme

Some concert films excel because they offer a closer look at an artist whom many only see from nosebleeds in the biggest stadiums in the world. Some play with form by adding interviews or a fictionalized narrative, while others coast off of some sort of novelty, be it an unusual location or a special event. Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme’s remarkable Stop Making Sense, though, doesn’t rely on any such gimmick. The band is playing to a fairly standard concert hall; the filmmaking, while excellent, observes more than it interacts; and, ironically, there are no Talking Heads talking heads interrupting the setlist. It’s simply a faithful snapshot of Talking Heads as a live band, and thanks to that, it’s the greatest concert film of all time.

Beyond the music, which is undisputed, the very construction of the show results in a more compelling sense of progression than any inserted narrative ever could. David Byrne starts the concert alone with a prop boombox before building the band up song by song, with the visuals and sonics becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable as the set goes on. Then there are the actual performances, which not only ooze with energy, but showcase what made the band and its members so unique: Byrne’s almost alien-like convulsions, Chris Frantz’s hoots and hollers during “Genius of Love,” Jerry Harrison’s steady composure, and Tina Weymouth’s contagious dancing.

There’s not a note, shot, or choreographed step out of place. Forty years later, Stop Making Sense remains a shining example of what live musical performance can accomplish — thank god they had the sense to put it to tape. — J. Krueger

The 25 Best Concert Films of All Time
Consequence Staff

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