The 45 Greatest Concert Movies of All Time

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Forty-five years ago today, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair got underway at Yasgur’s Farm in upstate New York, kicking off a weekend of music and memories for 400,000 attendees and four-and-a-half decades of wistful Boomer nostalgia. (More on that next week.) It also resulted in 1970’s Woodstock, one of the most influential and perhaps the greatest of all concert movies — so in honor of the festival’s 45th anniversary, we rounded up the 45 best examples of the genre.

45. Yes: 9012 Live

Laugh all you want at the inclusion of a film showcasing the talents of prog-rockers Yes, but you know who helmed this Grammy-winning document of two shows from their 1984 tour? Future Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh, that’s who. So who’s laughing now?

44. The Up in Smoke Tour

Dr. Dre was at the height of his (non-headphone) powers in 2000 when he put together this stadium tour of hip-hop all-stars, shot for DVD in July and released later that year. The massive show is boiled town to its four biggest marquee stars; Ice Cube opens (energetic but a little out of step, leaning on club numbers that were never his strong suit), a still-hungry and still-vibrant Eminem follows suit, and Dre and Snoop (with a rotation of guest artists) bring the evening to a bangin’ conclusion.

43. Elvis On Tour

Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge capture the “King of Rock & Roll” on the cusp — still riding high from his much-vaunted 1968 “comeback special,” his powerful follow-up records, and his triumphant return to live performing, not yet in the grip of the paranoia, isolation, and intake of prescription medications that caused him to become an increasingly unhealthy parody of himself. In other words, Elvis on Tour offers our last glimpses of Presley as we’d like to remember him; the musicianship is still tight and the filmmaking is entertaining, thanks in no small part to the clever split-screen work of the film’s “montage supervisor,” an up-and-coming young filmmaker and Woodstock editor by the name of Martin Scorsese.

42. Sweet Toronto

“OK, we’re just gonna do numbers that we know, because we’ve never played together before.” And with that, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band (a label they applied throughout the ‘70s to whatever group of musicians they were appearing with) launch into a scorching set of rock and roll standards during this, his first public performance without the Beatles. D.A. Pennebaker — whom we’ll hear more from on this list — captures the urgency and energy of Lennon and his solid crew (including Eric Clapton on lead guitar); he also, unfortunately, is stuck with the show’s degeneration into showcasing the vocal, ahem, stylings of Ms. Ono. But it’s still a vital and often enlightening look at not only Lennon, but Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley, who all appeared on the same bill.

41. Concert for George

Just like Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh (more on that later), this one takes a while to get going, due to the necessary (but still, well, y’know) set by Ravi Shankar, this time with daughter Ananda. But this is an enjoyable and heartfelt tribute show, with an all-star cast of friends of the “Quiet One” — McCartney, Starr, Clapton, Petty, Lynne, and Harrison’s son Dhani among them — performing his most beloved tunes. Plus, a Monty Python intermission!

40. James Brown: Man to Man

Warning: the image and audio quality of this 1968 film, shot on primitive video for television airings, is sketchy at best. But even the show’s A/V shortcomings can’t blunt the overall impact of seeing “the hardest working man in show business” in his peacocking prime, forcefully performing his biggest hits on the stage that loved him best, the Apollo.

39. The Kids Are Alright

Director Jeff Stein’s 1979 showcase on the Who is not a traditional concert film, shot at a single event (or series of events), but it isn’t a retrospective documentary either. He assembled a series of rare, forgotten, and long-thought-lost concert performances from film and television, with the hope of creating less a profile than a “celluloid rock ‘n’ roll revival meeting.” Mission accomplished.

38. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones

Rollin Binzer’s snapshot of the Stones’ ’72 Exile on Main Street tour was something of a Hail Mary; the group had originally hired Robert Frank, who took the cover photos for Exile, to make a gritty documentary of the American tour, but the resulting film, Cocksucker Blues, came out a bit grittier than they cared for. So four shows in Texas were shot on 16mm and blown up, augmented with “spectacular QuadroSound,” and “four-walled” into to theaters by the group as a special roadshow event. The backstory makes it sound thrown together, and the filmmaking occasionally supports that impression. But there’s no denying the power of the performance — the group was at the peak of its musical prowess, the musicians prowling the stage like the hedonistic rock stars they unquestionably were.

37. Down from the Mountain

Looking back, it is rather odd and unexpected that a Coen Brothers movie, of all things, kicked off a giant bluegrass revival. But the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was a recording industry phenomenon (at a moment when the Napster-hobbled industry badly needed one), and when you’ve got a phenomenon on your hands, you cook up a sequel — or, in this case, a spin-off — as quickly as you can. Thus was born the “Down from the Mountain” tour, and this 2000 document of their Nashville benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, captured with a homey wistfulness by directors Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and (again) D.A. Pennebaker.

36. Festival Express

The phenomenon of Woodstock didn’t just inspire a generation of concert moviemakers; it also inspired promoters, who quickly put together copycat festivals, some of them successful, some not so much (see: Gimme Shelter). One of the more clever ideas was Festival Express, a summer 1970 festival that traveled between three Canadian cities via a 14-car Canadian National Railways train. The acts included Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, and Delaney & Bobby & Friends; the documentary, which was left incomplete after the tour and finished in 2003, nicely captures the chummy spirit of the enterprise and the considerable gifts of its performers.

35. Fade to Black

Hey, remember when Jay Z was “retiring”? Good times.

34. The Song Remains the Same

The members of Led Zeppelin rarely missed an opportunity to express their disappointment with this 1976 effort, which documented (with the help of some painstaking re-staging) their three-night residency at Madison Square Garden the previous year. But for their (legitimate) complaints — that the performances were merely average, that the solos were indulgent, that the fantasy cutaway sequences don’t work — it is a portrait of the band at the height of their fame, with all of the flaws and virtues that entails.

33. The London Rock and Roll Show

The aforementioned Sweet Toronto was one of many “rock and roll revival shows” that popped up in North America and Europe in the early ‘70s, as the original rock stars of the 1950s returned to the spotlight. Peter Clifton’s film was shot at London’s Wembley Stadium in August of 1972, capturing the first show ever played there, a bill that includes Bill Haley & His Comets, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and (with the longest and finest set) an electrifying Chuck Berry.

32. Love and Poison

This endorsement comes from editor and music writer extraordinaire Tom Hawking: “The classic Suede line-up (i.e. the one with Bernard Butler on guitar), captured at the height of their powers. The student art-film camera techniques take some getting used to, but really, it’s worth the price of admission just to see Brett Anderson in prime ass-spanking-with-mic form and a setlist that’s basically all of Suede’s debut (plus some choice B-sides).”

31. Soul Power

Disclaimer: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s look at the Zaire ’74 music festival, the three-day event intended to lead up to the Ali/Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” is way too heavy on the documentary and way too light on the music. But the music that’s there is stunning: Bill Withers croons, B.B. King rocks, Big Black brings the house down, The Spinners and The Crusaders are phenomenal. But this is James Brown’s show, and he is sensational, putting on (as usual) the tightest, most thrilling live show in the business.

30. The Rolling Stones: Shine a Light

Yes, yes, I know, the Stones were well past their prime by the time lifelong fan Martin Scorsese trained his cameras on the band at a pair of 2006 New York benefit concerts. But Scorsese didn’t half-ass it: he put together a dream team of the industry’s best cinematographers, led by Robert Richardson (Kill Bill) and including Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life), Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas), John Toll (Legends of the Fall), and Al Maysles (co-director of Gimme Shelter). Together, they shot one of the most visceral of all concert films — it’s like you’re right there on that stage, and it’s a blast.

29. Let It Be

Much of the Beatles’ final film seems dedicated to documenting that finality: the group in the studio, bickering and grinding, trying and failing to “get back” (the work’s original title) to their roots. But in the wonderful, climactic rooftop performance — their first time playing together in public in three years — they manage to do just that, recapturing the magic and camaraderie that made them the best rock band the world had ever known.

28. Fela Kuti: Fela in Concert

Mr. Hawking, again: “Oh, to have seen the great man live. Watching this full-band show from 1981 is the next best thing — apparently the band played literally all night, and happily, cameras were on hand to capture the spectacle for posterity. Highlight: seeing 15 of Fela’s wives on stage at once.”

27. Neil Young: Heart of Gold

The first appearance on our list of Jonathan Demme — and the first of his three collaborations (to date) with Mr. Young, this one capturing a low-key but powerful performance from his Prairie Wind tour. The show’s emphasis on acoustic renditions means little in the way of accordant visual pyrotechnics, but that’s to the film’s benefit; it’s an intimate performance, or at least as intimate as you can get with such an iconic artist.

26. Soul to Soul

In 1970, two American promoters and the Ghana Arts Council teamed up to observe that country’s independence day celebration with an all-day festival showcasing American performers like Ike & Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, the Staples Singers, Santana, and the Voices of East Harlem. The 14-hour performance yielded this remarkable 1971 film, mixing the name American acts with documentary footage and stirring turns by Ghanaian acts.

25. No Nukes

Directors Daniel Doldberg and Anthony Potenza and acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) shot the 1979 Madison Square Garden concerts staged by the Musicians United for Safe Energy group, to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear power. James Taylor, Carly Simon, the Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and Gil Scott-Heron all perform well, but the show is stolen handily by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — the first time their legendary live act was preserved on film.

24. The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball

Amnesty International’s “Secret Policeman’s Balls” were benefit concerts that combined performances by popular musicians with sketches by British comedians, frequently pulled from Monty Python and their contemporaries. Most were shot for television or cinemas, but the best of the bunch is this 1981 film, directed by Julien Temple (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle). Aside from some very funny comedy bits — the “Card Dance” scene with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Tim Brooke-Taylor is exquisitely simple, but utterly hilarious — there are memorable performances by Sting (with only the accompaniment of his own guitar, doing a lovely, mournful rendition of “Message in a Bottle”), Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Phil Collins (yes, seriously).

23. Shut Up and Play the Hits

This one comes courtesy of our wonderful music editor, Jillian Mapes: “On April 2, 2011, LCD Soundsystem played the biggest solo gig in the band’s history, headlining Madison Square Garden and recruiting special guests like Arcade Fire. It was a career climax in the most obvious way: they broke up the next day. When your breakup is as planned as LCD’s, there’s no way you’re not going to film it. That makes up the bulk of Shut Up and Play the Hits, but the scenes of frontman James Murphy searching for purpose in the aftermath of the final show are particularly telling.”

22. Standing in the Shadows of Motown

The Funk Brothers were the house band at Motown records — never recognized and never credited, but playing on (according to Standing’s opening credits) “more number-one hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.” Paul Justman’s 2002 film is half documentary tribute, giving these extraordinary musicians their long-awaited due, and half performance, as the surviving members back contemporary musicians like Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Gerald Levert, Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Montell Jordan. And unsurprisingly, they don’t miss a beat.

21. Rust Never Sleeps

Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1978 tour is captured on film by director Bernard Sharkey — aka Young himself, whose proximity to the music gives this fast-paced, sharp-edged film an extra shot of electricity.

20. The Concert for Bangladesh

The benefit rock concert was a bold new idea when George Harrison organized two shows at Madison Square Garden in 1971 to raise funds for UNICEF. It finds a triumphant Harrison in the first flush of his astonishing, post-All Things Must Pass solo success, fronting an all-star band that includes Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, and Billy Preston — as well as an unbilled and memorable four-song set by Bob Dylan.

19. U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky

On a rainy night outside Denver, in June of 1983, U2 played the outdoor Red Rocks venue, and they were fine with the dreary weather; sunshine, Bono told the enthusiastic crowd, “would be very wrong for this group.” The band has put out a steady stream of entertaining performance videos, but most use the spectacle of their increasingly oversize stagecraft to keep the viewer at a distance. This rough, early film is noteworthy for its intimacy, and how that intimacy portrays the band — they were hungry on this tour, scrappy, not yet the rock gods they would become, but well on their way.

18. Festival

Some concert movies are intricately structured, carefully planned events; others just kind of happen. Director Murray Lerner didn’t know that by filming at the Newport Folk Festival over a series of years in the early-to-mid-1960s, he’d capture the rise of a young performer named Bob Dylan; he certainly couldn’t have guessed that he’d document Dylan “going electric” in 1965, one of the key events in the history of popular music. But it’s not just Dylan’s show; it’s a film bursting with performances by legends young and old, an indelible snapshot of a specific moment in music that could never be recreated.

17. loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies

And one more from Mr. Hawking: “Not so much a concert film as a tragedy in three acts, this film follows Pixies on their 2004 reunion tour. The performances are perfectly fine, but the behind-the-scenes footage is kind of unbelievable in its utter dysfunctionality — Kim Deal tries and fails to stay on the wagon, Joey Santiago sulks, Frank Black looks on with mounting despair, and David Lovering… well, he does magic. If you still entertain any ideas of being a professional musician involving rocking and rolling all night and partying every day, loudQUIETloud should disabuse you of such notions quick smart.”

16. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is

By the mid-1970s, Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas shows were emblematic of everything that had gone wrong in his career: the musicianship was sloppy, the staging was slipshod, and King seemed barely present. But this 1970 picture, shot at the beginning of his Vegas era by director Denis Sanders (who also helmed Soul to Soul), is utterly infectious; the music is lean, mean, and soulful as the man himself.

15. Dont Look Back

“What a jerk Bob Dylan was in 1965,” begins Roger Ebert’s review of this 1967 classic’s re-release, and he’s right; the great singer/songwriter is often insufferable in the film’s many interviews, press conferences, and private moments. But the songs, shot by the great D.A. Pennebaker, still breathe and pulse, as provocative and thoughtful as when they were first unveiled.

14. Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll

Chuck Berry was (and continues to be) a living legend, a rock and roll trailblazer still grinding it out on the road for enthusiastic audiences. He is also, by reputation and by documentation in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film, a real piece of work, a prickly and difficult lone wolf driven less by his legacy than his paycheck. Keith Richards (who co-produces the movie) put together an all-star band — including himself and Robert Cray, with an impressive array of guest stars — for two shows celebrating Berry’s 60th birthday; Hackford’s camera talks to Berry and his contemporaries and records the often tense rehearsals, less as cheap drama than as startling contrast to the smoothly executed, endlessly entertaining final product.

13. The Stax/Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967

Stax’s touring shows were legendary barn-burners, and luckily cameras were trained on the stage when the label brought their crew to Oslo in 1967. With Booker T. & the MGs (with the help of the Mar-Keys) laying down a steady groove throughout, Eddie Floyd and Arthur Conley warm up the audience nicely. But the stars are Sam & Dave and Otis Redding, who command the stage, belt their numbers, and work the Norwegian audience as though their very lives depended on it.

12. Buena Vista Social Club

Wim Wenders’ 1999 film is as much documentary as concert, as producer Ry Cooder assembles the crew of aging Cuban musicians who record an album and perform a pair of sold-out concerts. Their stories are poignant and moving, but it is the music — powerful, evocative, and glorious — that truly inspires.

11. Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!

Most concert films — even the great ones like these — rely on a fairly staid playbook, alternating wide shots, tight close-ups, and audience reactions. For their sold-out 2004 Madison Square Garden date, the Beastie Boys decided to flip the script: they handed out 50 camcorders to randomly selected audience members, and assembled the film from the footage their fans shot. The scheme not only widens the visual canvas; it bakes in the audience’s high-powered energy, and genuinely replicates, as few films have, the experience of going to the show.

10. Monterey Pop

Another must-see from D.A. Pennebaker, who basically invented the tropes of the rock-concert doc when he and his crew of “direct cinema” practitioners descended on Monterey, California in the summer of 1967. The film is a touch uneven, and its brief 79-minute running time leaves you wanting more, but it’s an essential documentary nonetheless, beautifully capturing one of the watershed moments of the “Summer of Love,” and of ‘60s rock in general. And those stunning, bravura sets by Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding still don’t have an ounce of fat on them (both were eventually spun off into their own featurettes, included on the excellent Criterion edition).

9. Jazz on a Summer’s Day

One of the first, and still one of the best, of all concert movies, this 1960 classic from directors Aram Avakian is as breezy and easygoing as its title, preserving freewheeling performances from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival by the Thelonious Monk Trio, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and many more. Over half a century after its release, it’s still a glorious document of a bygone era.

8. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story goes that D.A. Pennebaker (yes, again; we shoulda just named the list after him) decided on his own to shoot the entire second show of Bowie’s two-night gig at the Hammersmith Odeon in summer of 1973 — not knowing that his subject had decided to kill off his Ziggy Stardust alter ego at the conclusion of that show. Pennebaker had his camera in the right place at the right time (as he so often did), but that historic moment is far from the only virtue of the Ziggy movie; it captures Bowie’s limitless charisma and inventiveness, while marking the end of an era for both the performer and pop music as a whole.

7. Gimme Shelter

In another — and much grislier — case of a documentary film crew getting more than they bargained for, the Maysles Brothers figured they were just doing an on-the-road rock doc. But the Altamont Free Concert wasn’t just the end of the Stones’ 1969 US tour; it was, for many, the end of the ‘60s, a woozy bad-vibes fest that culminated with the killing (caught on camera) of a festivalgoer by the Hell’s Angels. It’s a harrowing film, but not just in that moment; the Maysles make the viewers breathe in Altamont’s sinister air, the darkness tingeing the frame, the music, the fans, and the moment.

6. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

In the summer of 2004, flush with the riches of a huge Comedy Central deal that he would ultimately throw away, Dave Chappelle put together a giant, day-long block party in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, bringing in his favorite acts — including Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Kanye West, the reunited Fugees, and house band The Roots — for a day of music and fun. Michel Gondry’s camera caught it all, and rarely has a concert film so effortlessly conveyed the sheer joy of performance (for both the performer and the viewer). The acts are having a great time, the live audience is having a great time, and for 103 minutes, we are too.

5. Wattstax

On August 20th, 1972, to mark the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, Stax records staged the “Afro-American Woodstock” at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, bringing in several of their best acts — including the Stapes Singers, the Bar-Kays, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Kim Weston — for a celebration of music and culture. (Jesse Jackson also appears, to recite “I Am Somebody,” while a series of uproarious Richard Pryor cut-ins help keep things moving.) Every performance is a winner, but they wisely save the best for last: the “Black Moses” himself, Isaac Hayes, grooving his way through “Theme from Shaft” and “Soulsville,” a tremendous talent at its zenith.

4. The T.A.M.I. Show

Lost to rights disputes for decades, long beloved but seldom seen except in snippets, this near-perfect concert finally made its official, authorized DVD debut a few years back, and good gravy does it hold up. But it’s more than just a good concert film; it captures a moment of cultural and musical explosion. It’s a document of post-Elvis aural integration (nay, miscegenation) — all styles are welcome, from Motown to Mersey, R&B to funk, surf to blues, pop to garage, whatever moves the teen audience, whatever makes them scream, it’s all rock and roll. Within the context of what was happening in the country at the moment (the concert was mere months after the disappearances of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi, as well as LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), some of the film still has a subversive kick to it. Those white girls in their little bikini bottoms shaking it behind the Motown groups must have been a racist’s nightmare come to life, to say nothing of Chuck Berry singing “Sweet Little Sixteen” leeringly as a pert, foxy blonde preens behind him (the moment is even more incendiary in the afterglow of his 1962 conviction for violation of the Mann Act). In October 1964, Motown was on the rise, the Beatles had taken over the world, and all bets were off — and, without even intending to, The T.A.M.I. Show may be our greatest document of that specific, ebullient moment in American music and American life. And it’s got the best James Brown footage ever, period.

3. Stop Making Sense

Its opening images have become iconic: David Byrne strides onto a bare stage with a boombox and a guitar, turns it on, and starts to play. Over the numbers that follow, the members of Talking Heads join Byrne onstage, as the pieces of the band and the attached stagecraft are assembled around them; slowly but surely, it becomes a full-scale rock show, filled with electrifying performances by a band at the height of its power, guided by a skilled director (Jonathan Demme, again) who masterfully captures the group’s boundless energy and spiky inventiveness.

2. The Last Waltz

Martin Scorsese’s documentary projects often compliment his concurrent fiction films, and that was certainly the case when he set about shooting the Band’s 1976 Thanksgiving farewell concert. He had just finished making New York, New York, a tribute to the glory days of the Hollywood musical, so he crafted The Last Waltz counter to the improvisational, catch-as-catch-can methods typical to concert movies: the film was intricately designed and planned down to the tiniest detail, giving it a lush slickness that underlines the dramatic nature of the event. But it’s not just a director’s showpiece; the already potent songs, performed by the Band and a jaw-dropping line-up of special guests, are given an extra shot of emotion by the “one last time” nature of the enterprise, resulting in a concert film that splendidly marries content and form.

1. Woodstock

At risk of predictability, we end where we started: with Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 expedition into the most storied weekend of the 1960s. Wadleigh’s directorial strategy was, basically, to shoot everything, with a lot of cameras; he ended up with 120 miles of raw footage, which were then assembled by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The result is one of the most brilliantly edited films of all time; they cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning. The exhilarating split-screen compositions and combinations may have become a cliché in the years past, but they’re so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you. In that one film, Wadleigh, Scorsese, Schoonmaker, and their team created a visual vocabulary for musical performance onscreen — when they split the image during Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher” or mirror it for Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” they’re finding new ways for us to “see” music. And that, ultimately, is what all of the films on this list strive to do.