The 21 Best Concert Films of All Time

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The 21 Best Concert Films of All Time

While the concept of a concert film is simple, dating back to 1948’s Concert Magic featuring violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a great concert film requires inspiration from both director and performer, a collaboration that unifies the best qualities of filmmaking and music. Like every cinematic genre, concert filmmaking has its greats: Jonathan Demme, D.A. Pennebaker, Martin Scorsese—all of whom are represented in this list of the best concert films, alongside bands who kept control of the filmmaking process themselves.

Live music is a give-and-take between musician and audience, and that can be a difficult thing to capture on film. The 20 films that follow manage to allow viewers feel like they’re part of the moment and communicate what we love about some of our favorite live performers, including several who are no longer with us. These films preserve their greatness for future generations.

Here are the 21 best concert films of all time:

awesome-shot-that.jpg 21. Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!
Band:   The Beastie Boys  
Year: 2006
Director: Nathaniel Hörnblowér
Most Beastie Boys fans know Adam Yauch as MCA. But the late rapper, singer, songwriter, musician and activist was also a filmmaker, who founded indie film distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories and directed many of the Beastie Boys’ videos under the moniker Nathaniel Hörnblowér. On Oct. 9, 2004, he handed out 50 camcorders to fans at a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden with the request that they keep them running for the entirety of the concert, which also featured guest appearances from Doug E. Fresh and DMC. David Cross plays Hörnblowér in the film, which was cut together from the fans’ footage. Yauch screened the film for the amateur videographers 15 months later before its Sundance debut. —Josh Jackson


baby-snakes.jpg 20. Baby Snakes
Artist:   Frank Zappa  
Year: 2012
Director: Frank Zappa 
For Frank Zappa fans, his multi-night run at The Palladium in New York City back in October of 1977 is the stuff of legend. It came in the midst of one of the guitarist/composer’s most fertile creative periods, which would yield a dozen live and studio albums over the next five years. It also produced the self-directed, self-distributed feature film Baby Snakes, built from footage captured at one of these vaunted Halloween shows in ’77, along with stop-motion clay animation from Bruce Bickford. The film is a showcase for what is arguably Zappa’s best backing band of his lengthy career, an ensemble that boasted future Talking Heads/King Crimson member Adrian Belew on guitar, percussion master Ed Mann and, most crucially, the outrageously talented drummer Terry Bozzio. The songs themselves are dizzying, braiding together jazz, psychedelia, proto-metal and contemporary classical. There are enough pop-style hooks to draw you in, but you’d better be prepared to hold on tight. —Robert Ham


concert-george.jpg 19. Concert for George
Artists: Ravi Shankar, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Monty Python, Jeff Lynn, more
Year: 2003
Director: David Leland
Concert for George pays tribute to not only one the greatest musicians in history, but one of the freakin’ Beatles. The performance took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London in honor of the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death, with Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne serving as musical directors. The first half of the show focused on the traditional Indian music that was a deep interest of Harrison’s, while the latter half featured performances from legendary musicians such as fellow-Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Clapton, Lynne and Tom Petty, among others. Proceeds from the concert benefitted Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation “to sponsor diverse forms of artistic expression and to encourage the exploration of alternative life views and philosophies.” —Wyndham Wyeth


this-is-it.jpg 18. Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Artist:   Michael Jackson  
Year: 2009
Director: Kenny Ortega
The Michael Jackson concert that never happened is captured in the film This Is It. Although Jackson’s planned series of concerts was cancelled with his untimely death just 18 days before the first show, much of the rehearsal was caught on film. The footage captures much of Jackson’s vision as well as his perfectionist nature. Despite controversial beginnings with financial disputes between AEG and the Jackson estate, This Is It exists as a final portrait of a man who remained a dedicated artist from childhood up until his dying days—and of a performer who hadn’t lost a step at age 50, as he proves on a range of songs, from opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” through “I Want You Back” (part of a Jackson 5 medley), “Thriller,” “Beat It,” all the way to closer “Heal the World.” —Paste Staff


okonokos.jpg 17. Okonokos
Band:   My Morning Jacket  
Year: 2006
Directors: Sam Erickson, Wyatt Smith
Recorded after their highly acclaimed album Z, Okonokos highlights performances from one of the best live acts in the country. Jim James, Carl Broemel, Partick Hallahan, Bo Koster and “Two Tone” Tommy play 20 songs—more than two hours of music—from across their already deep catalog over two nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco. By the time they reach “Mahgeetah” from 2003’s It Still Moves near the end, you’ll be convinced this is one of the tightest, most talented American bands of the 21st century. —Paste Staff


nirvana-paramount.jpg 16. Live at the Paramount
Band: Nirvana
Year: 2011
Director: Nirvana
Before they were fodder for Hot Topic T-shirts, Nirvana was the most important rock band of the late 20th century. Live at the Paramount is an incredible reminder of the power of their sound and the clarity of their aesthetic. Filmed on Halloween night just a month after Nevermind was released, this is the only Nirvana show ever shot on 16mm film. As a result, the picture and sound are both stunning. And with multiple cameras offering multiple looks — from the audience, behind the band and everything in between, plus footage of adorable grunge kids milling about the sold-out show — Live at the Paramount truly places the viewer in the middle of the moment. This is Nirvana at the peak of its powers, playing its hometown just as it breaks through into superstardom. It’s not just a concert film. It’s an important historical document. —Ben Salmon


heart-of-gold.jpg 15. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Artist:   Neil Young  
Year: 2006
Director: Jonathan Demme
The first of three documentaries Jonathan Demme made with Neil Young captures a pair of performances in Nashville soon after the singer survived a brain aneurysm. Demme has a special affection for the legendary frontman, and the film spills over with the same kind of affection for Young’s band (including Emmylou Harris and Spooner Oldham), for the city in which they’re playing and for the iconic Ryman, the venue they’re occupying. There’s a whole lot of love in the room—not to mention a whole lot of great music from Prairie Wind, Young’s 27th album, in part dedicated to his recently deceased father. —Josh Jackson


under-great-white.jpg 14. Under Great White Northern Lights
Band:   The White Stripes  
Year: 2010
Director: Emmett Malloy
It was difficult to choose between this film and its predecessor, Under Blackpool Lights, but now that The White Stripes are no more, this film is even more relevant. Under Great White Northern Lights documents one of the candy-coated duo’s last series of performances, as they toured across Canada in support of Icky Thump. The tour took them to every province and many of the performances shown were from remote locales like Yukon, Northwest Terretories, Nunavut and Nova Scotia. The last scene of the film features Jack, seated at his piano with a weeping Meg on his shoulder, as he pounds out the chords and belts the words for “White Moon.” Perhaps they knew, even then, that their days together were short. —Wyndham Wyeth


who-isle-of-wight.jpg 13. Live at the Isle of Wight Festival
Band:   The Who  
Year: 1996
Director: Murray Lerner
At 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1970, The Who took the stage in front of 600,000 revelers at the Isle of Wight Festival off the southern coast of England. The three hours of ensuing nocturnal brilliance and mayhem were partially captured for posterity by filmmaker Murray Lerner. The “partially captured” caveat is the key. The Who played for three hours, but the concert footage captures less than an hour and a half of the performance. Needless to say, plenty of film was relegated to the cutting room floor, and this fact becomes most apparent in the long medley from Tommy, which features only half the songs actually played. Otherwise, this is an absolutely essential document of what may have been the era’s best rock ’n’ roll band performing at the peak of its powers. The band reprises several of the early Mod classics (“I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation,” “Magic Bus”), tosses in a few mostly forgettable songs from an aborted project that failed to see release between Tommy and Who’s Next, blazes through a couple live favorites (“Summertime Blues,” “Young Man Blues”) and offers the truncated Tom version of Tommy. Roger Daltrey, bare-chested and sporting a buckskin jacket, does an exemplary job of playing the strutting, swaggering frontman. Townshend breaks into his patented windmill power-chord strums, gyrates wildly and is the main contributor to the smashing (literally) finale. Keith Moon pummels his drum kit into oblivion. And John Entwistle stands stock still and plays his bass, but at least he’s wearing a cool skeleton shirt. It’s all marvelous rock ’n’ roll theatre. —Paste Staff


demon-days.jpg 12. Demon Days: Live at the Manchester Opera House
Band: Gorillaz
Year: 2006
Directors: David Barnard, Grant Gee
What band better represents an era rooted in digital information than virtual band Gorillaz? Demon Days: Live at Manchester Opera House keeps with the mysterious nature of the Damon Albarn’s music under the moniker, relying much more heavily on lights and projected images than the actual visual performance of the musicians. Some of the peformers, particularly Albarn, are silhouetted throughout the majority of the concert. The film also features several guest performers, including Neneh Cherry (“Kids with Guns”), Bootie Brown (“Dirty Harry”), De La Soul (“Feel Good Inc.”), Ike Turner (“Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”), DOOM (“November Has Come”) and Dennis Hopper (a reading of “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”). —Wyndham Wyeth


lcd-shut-up.jpg 11. Shut Up and Play the Hits
Band:   LCD Soundsystem  
Year: 2012
Directors: Will Lovelaces, Dylan Southern
Three years ago, hundreds of friends and thousands of fans converged on Madison Square Garden for LCD Soundsystem’s farewell performance. All the while, the cameras were rolling, resulting in Shut Up And Play the Hits, a documentary that follows James Murphy and the band in the days leading up to, during and after the tumultuous four-hour farewell. Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern use a staggering number of cameras and crosscut liberally to provide an experience that’s arguably even better than seeing the band live (okay, maybe not quite that good but…). And the scenes outside the concert footage are equally compelling. —Michael Dunaway and Bo Moore


pompeii.jpg 10. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii
Band:   Pink Floyd  
Year: 1972
Director: Adrian Maben
Live at Pompeii hosts some of the best performances from studio-rock pioneers Pink Floyd. But songs like “A Saucerful of Secrets,” “Echoes, Part 1” and “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” are all played with no audience aside from the film crew (and a few kids who managed to sneak in and watch from a distance). The fact that the band just so happens to be playing at the site of Roman town-city that was completely buried/destroyed after a volcanic eruption only adds to the epic-ness. After its initial release, the film was lengthened with a few additional songs recorded in a Paris studio, cut to footage of scenes around Pompeii. We’d recommend the shorter non-theatrical version, released on DVD in 2002. —Paste Staff


jt-tk.jpg 9. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids
Artist:   Justin Timberlake  
Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
It becomes clear after only one song that Jonathan Demme was the perfect person to direct this ebullient performance doc. In Stop Making Sense Demme iconized David Byrne in the Big Suit and demonstrated that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision, and he seems to understand not only what kind of performer Justin Timberlake is, but why. Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is so finely tuned, one might be hard pressed to pinch an ounce of fat on this thing, Demme obviously knowing that Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble (introduced briefly at the beginning of the film) to make sure the whole show is a seamless, clockwork-like amalgam of moving parts. Consummate professionals in thrall to consummate professionals: Each frame, whether it hugs Timberlake’s glowing face close or expands to display the intimidating breadth of the band, breathes with love—for the music, for the audience, for each other. But that doesn’t even touch how flawlessly Demme can capture the essence of each section/song, how during “My Love” the camera is positioned at stage level, condensing our perspective so that the whole stage is layered like a two-dimensional side-scrolling videogame or a diorama of paper dolls, emphasizing the celestial geometry of Timberlake and his pop-and-locking dancers. Later, during “Only When I Walk Away,” Demme has the camera behind the band, facing the audience lit with lasers and lighters, shooting Timberlake as an opaque silhouette, like dark matter amidst a flurry of constellations. Even later, a macroscopic view of the whole stage, set against some retro computer graphics, pans slightly down to reveal a piano, and next to that emerges a much larger Timberlake, perspectives skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


wattstax.jpg 8. Wattstax
Bands: Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, more
Year: 1973
Director: Mel Stuart
Memphis’ Stax Records staked its fortunes on the gloriously unfiltered sounds of the black South. In its ’60s heyday, the label gave the world a blast of seminal soul talents, including Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Carla Thomas, the college student whose early hits “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” and “B-A-B-Y” helped create the kingdom where Aretha Franklin would later reign as queen. The documentary Wattstax captured the label’s 1972 concert in South Central Los Angeles, which benefited neighborhoods torn apart by the late-’60s riots. Modeled after Woodstock, the concert—which drew more than 100,000 to the Los Angeles Coliseum—stands as one Stax’s hallmark accomplishments. And while Wattstax came after Stax had already lost many of its signature talents—Redding died in a 1967 plane crash, and Sam and Dave left the label due to contract dramas—there is much here to enjoy. Thomas still thrills with her awe-filled girlish charm. Issac Hayes performs “The Theme from Shaft” and “Soulsville.” The gospel-family outfit The Staple Singers deliver three numbers, including the chart-scaling “Respect Yourself” and summing up the racial pride that was at the crux of the event. Wattstax works best as a sampling of the two impulses that came together to create soul music, that uniquely African-American meld of the spiritual and secular. This set leans toward the sanctified side, perhaps because Stax was developing a gospel imprint at the time. The Emotions, the family act that would ?nd its greatest success with “Boogie Wonderland,” offer an epic rendering of faith-in-hard-times staple “Peace Be Still”; Detroit’s Rance Allen, who sings like The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks with his shiny pants on ?re, blazes through “Lying on the Truth” with his self-named group. —Craig Seymour


sigur-ros-inni.jpg 7. Inni
Band: Sigur Rós
Year: 2011
Director: Vincent Morrisset
Sigur Rós had already made Heima—their 2007 documentary that more traditionally followed the group touring around their home country of Iceland. In 2008 towards the end of the band’s tour behind Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, director Vincent Morisset received a call from the group’s management asking him to film what potentially would be the group’s last performances at the Alexandra Palace in London before their subsequent hiatus. In that context, Morisset wanted to capture the experience of Sigur Rós’ emotional and ethereal shows as the band closed a chapter of their brilliant career together. Filming the concerts in HD was the easy part; more laborious was transferring Inni to 16mm film, then projected the analog images in a studio, where Morisset re-recorded them once more, this time manipulating images in order to create purposely-imperfect final product—a conscious attempt to fulfill his vision. Throughout Inni, the filmmaker employed a variety of methods to create the dreamy, abstract visuals that capture the group’s live essence. These effects included placing fingers in front of the projectors, pulsating the image to match musical rhythms, hand gashing and putting a salad bowl over the projector’s lens. They also experimented with the grading of the film, blending in a pearlescence into certain portions of the documentary, giving the predominantly black-and-white film a slight blue-and-yellow tint. All of these post-production techniques give Inni a surrealistic feel. It’s a live film that hardly conveys any detail, appearing like it could have been filmed at any point over the course of the past century. All of these artistic techniques add up to truly reflect the film’s title. “Inni,” literally meaning “Inside,” offers a visceral look inside the anatomy of a Sigur Rós performance, doing so without ever directly approaching the band. Morisset’s series of spontaneous-but-mindful production transforms what would’ve been a standard run-of-the-mill live film into one that truly matches the subject’s own energy. —Max Blau


ladies-gentleman 2.jpg 6. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones
Band: The Rolling Stones
Year: 1974
Director: Rollin Binzer
In 1972, The Rolling Stones were at the precipice of one of the many peaks of their long career. They had just released Exile On Main St., their masterpiece of heroin-dipped blues-rock and zonked soul and were at the height of their powers as a live band. Which is what makes the 1974 concert film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones such an essential document. Filmed over the course of four nights during their U.S. tour, the movie captures every bit of the band’s sweaty, unflagging energy. The Stones, augmented by horns and piano, were at a point where they chose to ignore the poppier tunes that made them superstars amid the British Invasion, focusing instead on the grittier, meatier work of the late ’60s and ’70s, including a nasty version “Midnight Rambler” and a whipcracking take on Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny.” —Robert Ham


sign-o-the-times.jpg 5. Prince: Sign O’ the Times
Artist: Prince
Year: 1987
Director: Prince
Prince’s 1987 concert documentary is one hour and 24 minutes of a generation’s greatest musical performer at the peak of his career (sorry, Boss). With his touring band that included Sheila E. on drums, Miko Weaver on guitar, Levi Seacer Jr. on bass, Eric Leeds on sax, Boni Boyer and Dr. Fink on keyboards, and Cat Glover dancing, the film pulls mostly from his 1987 double-album Sign O’ the Times, with hits like the title track, a piano interlude of “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look.” It was filmed at two European shows, but much of the music was re-recorded later at Paisley Park. Still, it has an urgency that only Prince can deliver, in multiple outfits, of course. Released theatrically in the States, the film received more love after it left theaters. Now it’s one of the best ways to see what the big deal is about a Prince concert. —Josh Jackson


monterey-pop.jpg 4. Monterey Pop
Bands: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon & the Animals, The Who, Otis Redding, more
Year: 1968
Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Directed by famed rock documentarian D. A. Pennebaker with help from such luminaries as Albert Maysless, Richard Leacock, Brice Marden and Bob Neuwirth, Monterey Pop serves as a round-up of some of the best performances from the most important acts of the 1960s. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival hosted the infamous concert where Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire as if performing the ritual of a voodoo shaman. The 14 performers include Simon & Garfunkel playing “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” Hendrix playing “Wild Thing,” Otis Redding, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Ravi Shankar. ABC originally put up $200,000 for production but declined to air it when network chief Thomas W. Moore saw a clip of “Hendrix fornicating with his amp,” according to music producer Lou Adler. —Paste Staff


tami-show.jpg 3. T.A.M.I. Show
Artists:   The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, more
Year: 1964
Director: Steve Binder
The lone drawback to James Brown’s career is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center Honors recipient was never really given an opportunity to strut his stuff on the big screen. Sure, Dan Aykroyd gave him cameos in The Blues Brothers, Doctor Detroit and Blues Brothers 2000, but the man who considered Elvis a close friend never got—probably due to racism—a showcase like Jailhouse Rock. But Brown did have one epic silver-screen moment. It was in 1964’s The T.A.M.I. Show, the first rock concert film featuring such greats as The Beach Boys, The Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and The Rolling Stones. Whether hurling himself to his knees or flashing footwork so fast the camera could barely capture it, Brown’s impassioned medley of “Prisoner Of Love/Please Please Please” completely stole the show and drove the audience to sheer delirium. (I’d pity the shell-shocked Stones, who had the daunting task of following him, except that Jagger’s been trying to jack JB’s moves ever since.) fittingly, it’s a performance for the ages by this age’s greatest performer. —Richard Torres


stop-making-sense.jpg 2. Stop Making Sense
Band:   Talking Heads  
Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
This 1984 document of the Talking Heads’ tour in support of their biggest album to date (Speaking in Tongues) is remembered largely for its fantastic live performances, captured by Demme and his crew, including Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. But it was Demme’s gambit to embrace the artifice of what he was filming in ways that elevated it from a mere concert document to an artistic statement. There was no hiding the fact that the tape player “used” by David Byrne to accompany him on “Psycho Killer” wasn’t miked up or amplified. And there was no way to get many of those tight closeups of Byrne and his backup singers during “What a Day That Was” without doing reshoots. Those are the things you think of after the fact, though. While you’re caught up in the grooves of “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Take Me to the River”, the perfect pacing and fluid camera moves put you right in the eye of the tornado that was the Heads’ touring band. —Robert Ham


the-last-waltz.jpg 1. The Last Waltz
Band: The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, more
Year: 1978
Director: Martin Scorsese 
A disclaimer at the beginning of the film insists that “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” What follows is one of the most incredible sets of performances ever caught on film. After 16 years on the road, The Band decided to finally say goodbye. Farewell concerts have become extremely commonplace nowadays, and the farewell usually just lasts until the artist/group decides they want more money. But The Band knew how to say goodbye before saying goodbye was cool. Held at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, the audience of 5,000 were served Turkey dinners before the floor was opened for ballroom dancing. For the actual performance, The Band invited some of their “friends” to help them turn the send-off into a celebration, including their first boss, Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins, and one of their most influential bosses, Bob Dylan. In between their former employers, the show featured performances from some of the biggest names in music, including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and many more. The whole affair was documented by Martin Scorsese. —Wyndham Wyeth

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