With the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival marking the beginning of the Summer Concert Season in the United States on April 15th, the Sentries and some friends have gathered together to reflect on their favorite concert films.
There are a multitude of reasons why, nearly fifty years later, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival maintains its secure place in history as one of the greatest music festivals of all time. From the star making performances of The Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, to the bittersweet way it captures this milestone cultural and musical event (the same year as the pivotal "Summer Of Love" no less), D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film Monterey Pop, released in theatres a year later in 1968, captures nearly all of them.
The film isn't perfect by any means. During Janis Joplin's electrifying performance of "Ball And Chain" with Big Brother & The Holding Company for example, the camera work focuses rather oddly on the singer's feet (who knows? maybe the cameraman had a foot fetish). Other performances, particularly those by top rock and pop acts of the day like the Jefferson Airplane and The Mamas And The Papas capture solid, if underwhelming sets (which had to be a particular disappointment to head Papa John Phillips, who helped organize the event). Several other key acts who played Monterey, including Buffalo Springfield (minus Neil Young, whose slot was filled by the Byrds' David Crosby) are passed over in the film altogether. Thankfully, the 2002 boxed set reissue of Monterey Pop from the Criterion Collection fills in most of these blanks on a bonus DVD.
But the star turns of Hendrix, Redding, The Who, and especially Janis make this film a must for any serious music fan. The wide open mouth expression on Mama Cass Elliott's face as she watches Janis from the crowd says it all -- especially when she mouthes the single word "Wow!" at the end.
Ladies & Gentlemen...The Rolling Stones (1972) by General Jabbo
The Rolling Stones have often been called the World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band and the 1972 U.S. tour for Exile on Main Street cemented this reputation. Not only was the band at the height of its decadence, they were at the height of their live powers. From the rock-solid rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman to Mick Taylor's soaring leads over Keith Richards' chugging rhythms to Mick Jagger's commanding stage presence, this was the Stones at their very best. Fortunately a film crew was there to document such great performances as "Midnight Rambler" and "Brown Sugar" as a blueprint for future generations.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) by El Bicho
Pennebaker makes a second appearance on the list with another historical film in the annals of rock 'n' roll (he seems to have a knack for it) when he unknowingly shot what was to be the last performance of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character. Bowie had played the character on two different albums and during the last night of his British tour in support of Aladdin Sane, just before "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", the last song of the night, he announced to the audience, "Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do." Luckily, this film captured the band at the peak of their talents, delivering a set packed with hits and a few surprises.
The Song Remains the Same (1976) by El Bicho
In 1973, Led Zeppelin were one of the biggest bands in the world and this film captured them during a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden that concluded their tour in support of Houses of the Holy. Having missed out before John Bonham's death in 1980, as I was only between 1 and 13 during their run and had no hip parents or older sibling, this film was the only opportunity I had to see the band play together during my 20s.
But I've never seen it in a theater. Instead, it was either on cable or VHS, in a semi-darkened living room, likely belonging to someone's parents who were out of town, coming through a single speaker on an old television. Yet, even with those presentation limitations, the music had a palpable power, expanding past previous boudaries of their original album appearances as a number of the songs were now over 10 minutes long. John Bonham's impressive drum solo, which found him temporarily sans sticks, on "Moby Dick" was now triple in length, and Jimmy Page was going to blow your mind taking out that cello bow on "Dazed and Confused," which almost ran a half hour.
Plus, each band member had a music video. John Paul Jones was a masked rider during "No Quarter". Robert Plant rescued a maiden during "The Song Remains the Same" and "The Rain Song." During the songs mentioned in the previous paragraph, Page climbs a mountain and finds the hermit from the Led Zeppelin IV artwork (and it's Jimmy!!) and Bonham bypasses the fantasy aspects of his bandmates and is out drag racing. My fantasy is to see it in a movie theater.
Stop Making Sense (1984) by Lisa McKay
A bare stage... David Byrne walks out carrying an acoustic guitar and a tape player. He puts the player on the floor, turns it on and, wild-eyed and intense, launches into an electrifying version of "Psycho Killer." So begins Stop Making Sense.
Byrne's idiosyncratic looks and jerky movements contrast with the relentless, irresistible rhythm of the music. During subsequent songs, Byrne is gradually joined by the other three members of Talking Heads and the musicians and vocalists who accompany them here. As the different layers are added, the sheer energy generated by the performers increases exponentially until it fills your head and your heart.
Directed by Jonathan Demme (who filmed the performances over three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre), this 1984 film is all about the music. By keeping the real audience nearly invisible throughout and the camera's attention on the band, Demme allows the viewer to become the audience. I had the pleasure of seeing this on the big screen during its initial theatrical run in a movie house on a college campus. By the end of the movie, people were up and dancing in the aisles. It's all here, from the famous big suit to "Burning Down the House," "Life During Wartime," and a version of "Take Me to the River" that'll just about kill you. If you haven't seen this yet, see it now. If you have seen it, see it again. It'll cure what ails you.
Sign o' the Times (1987) by Steve Geise
Purple Rain may have been Prince's commercial peak, but his strongest songs were yet to come in arguably his best album, Sign o' the Times, a sprawling two-disc affair that also launched a memorable concert film. Rather than just record a concert, Prince interspersed his performance with vignettes that found him flirting with enigmatic dancer and backup singer Cat, exploring his neon-drenched stage cityscape as he pursued her and his other prize, a stunning new guitar. Even without the linking footage, the performances were among his best, aided by a stellar band anchored by longtime associate Sheila E on drums. The film got a limited theatrical release before its VHS video debut, but to this day remains criminally unavailable on authentic US DVD. Thanks to Canada for my legit copy!
Runnin' Down A Dream (2006) by Josh Hathaway
Peter Bogdanovich's Runnin' Down A Dream is the ultimate experience for a Heartbreakers fan- one part band biography and one part live concert film. As much as I love the documentary, it's the Gainesville Homecoming show on the band's 30th Anniversary Tour that gets me every time. It's rare for a DVD to capture the sound and feel of a concert but this one does and I can prove it to you because this Gainesville show was performed two days before I saw the band in Atlanta. The set lists were nearly identical, including the Stevie Nicks cameos. Watching that DVD works on so many levels: it takes fans deep inside the Heartbreakers catalog, authentically recreates the Heartbreakers live experience, documents a special night in the band's history, and takes me back to a special night. The set was initially released as a Best Buy exclusive on standard DVD only. It's now available on Blu-ray and you can bet I'm going to upgrade. The most authentic concert film I've ever seen just got more real.
Did your favorite make the list? If not, feel free to name it in the comment section below.