"Michael Jackson's This Is It" and Five Unbeatable Concert Film

Unsurprisingly, "Michael Jackson's This Is It" ruled the box office this weekend, and the film is on course to become the #1 concert film of all time. God, I hope that happens. The current #1? "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert." That's a cruel joke.

"This Is It" may not be the best concert documentary ever made, but it's definitely one of the most bittersweet. It's hard to be a cynic when watching a 50 year old move so effortlessly across the stage. The Michael Jackson in this film is every bit the tortured, talented, fragile, and eccentric artist we've come to know. But he's also very human and supremely dedicated to his vision. The guy gave us as much love as his fans and collaborators gave him.

It's easy to dismiss Jackson as a freak before watching this film. It's impossible to walk out of the theater feeling anything other than respect for his craft. The rest of his life may have been a mess, but his pursuit of professional excellence — especially in the face of his personal struggles — is heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.

The best concert films do just that — inspire. They are more than just a keepsake of a musician or band's latest tour. Truly brilliant music docs get beyond the first row and into a performer's face and psyche. Here are five concert films that will keep your ears ringing and soul stirred long after the band leaves the stage. Miley Cyrus should watch them. I'm sure Michael Jackson did.


"The Last Waltz" (1978)
The Band decided to stage their last show on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom. They recruited director Martin Scorsese to capture the festivities, which featured guests Neil Young, Bob Dylan (who took The Band — then called The Hawks — with him on his first electric tour in '65), Joni Mitchell, and a nearly every musician of the era who mattered. The concert and filming were fueled by cocaine (Neil Young's coke booger was reportedly digitally removed) and band rivalry (drummer Levon Helm complained the movie made The Band look like Robbie Robertson's session players), but the musicianship is incomparable. It's hands down the best concert film ever made (go ahead, prove me wrong).

"Stop Making Sense" (1984)
Jonathan Demme's film documenting the strange genius of Talking Heads is the great anti-concert film. It begins with David Byrne and a boom box (performing "Psycho Killer"), then slowly builds to its nerd-funk crescendo with "Girlfriend Is Better" (featuring Byrne in his big suit), the band's cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," and the Afrobeat workout "Crosseyed and Painless." "Stop Making Sense" has no shots of screaming crowds, no close-ups of the guitar solo, and no quick edits. It's 88 minutes of performance art that elevates rock music to high culture.

"Woodstock" (1970)
We just passed the 40th anniversary of the Aquarian generation's last stand. Despite the hippie burnout, "Woodstock" is impossible to dismiss as mere nostalgia. Forty years later, watching the three days of performances captured in "Woodstock" can still raise hairs. In a world where many concerts have been reduced to pre-recorded tracks and pre-meditated banter, it's good to know that there was once a time when someone could captivate half a million people with no JumboTron, no light show, and only a wah-wah pedal.

"Gimme Shelter" (1970)
For anyone who wants to know all the things that could wrong at a concert, this film is for you. "Gimme Shelter" is the flip side of Woodstock. The documentary of the Rolling Stones' 1969 U.S. tour ends at the Altamont Free Concert, where a young man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang (unbeknownst to the band until after the show). The Hells Angels had been hired to provide security for the show. Their pay? Five hundred bucks worth of beer. I suspect that you get better service when the security is sober and paid in cash.

"Awesome; I F***in Shot That!" (2006)
The Beastie Boys' concert film puts the cinematic power in the hands of the people. The original white rappers gave cameras to 50 fans attending their 2004 Madison Square Garden show. The movie is surprisingly cohesive, in a way only a Beastie Boys project could manage. Yes, it's highly experimental. Yes, it probably only resonates with hardcore fans. Still, it gives the standard concert doc format a needed makeover, which alone is worth the price of admission.

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Shawn Amos

Shawn Amos


2009/10/20 12:35:58

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