Learned #38: Live to Tape

In which we watch some concert films.

By the time this issue of Learned is sent out, Bruce Springsteen's "On Broadway" will have been available on Netflix for about 24 hours. Which means, by the time you read this, I will have watched it approximately 4 times, pausing only to catch quick cat-naps in which I dream in technicolor visions of the New Jersey shore. Or something like that.

More seriously, this particular concert is being lauded all over the place as both a transformative performance by Springsteen and as a decent-to-good concert film. Which has got me wondering, what makes a good concert film?

Maybe it would be better to ask, how is a good concert film different from a recorded live performance? Is there anything inherent in the format that makes "Stop Making Sense" any better than Nirvana's MTV Unplugged? And, continuing that, is there anything that makes the film any better than Eminem's performance on Jimmy Fallon?

Is a recorded performance like Charles Bradley's moving take on Changes for KEXP radio a concert film? I mean, Bradley explains his reasoning and talks to his audience...for that matter, how about NPR's Tiny Desk series? Or Triple J's Like a Version? Those are concerts, and they are often very good, but are they concert films?

I don't really have an answer yet. I can rattle off a list of favorites and I can tell you that a film is more than just a performance but I can't really tell you how. Or why. And that's why this week's issue is all about the art of concert films.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Live to Tape

  • What We're Reading: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Live at Jools’

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning

Live to Tape

Wikipedia's category page for concert films lists 268 entries. At a quick glance, I have seen maybe a tenth: The Song Remains the Same? Yes. Sign O' the Times? Sure. We Are the Champions: Final Live in Japan? No, but I'd like to...

What's maybe more interesting about that page, is the other categories it links to:

Some entries are cross-linked between lists, so, Woodstock counts as both a "documentary film about music festivals" and a concert film, but Eddie Murphy Raw does not. So, I'm confused. Just what is a concert film?

T.V. Tropes has a good answer:

Filming a concert by a musical artist, group or any other sort of performer(s) (comedians, acrobats, stage musicals,...) is essential for many entertainers. It shows off their skills and gives the fans who weren't able to watch a concert in person to get a grisp (sic) of the experience they missed. Audience Participation and a Concert Climax are also a huge part of these events.

By that definition, all the other things I mentioned - performances recorded for radio stations and posted to YouTube, t.v. shows dedicated to live performances, etc. - should be counted as concert films as well. Maybe not single song performances for variety shows, but small sets, sure, why not?

Unless you want to get pedantic about the definition of film, that is. Critic Ben Brock happily includes Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, as well as the whole of MTV’s Unplugged, with the caveat that it’s a cheat because, “it’s a TV concert after all.”

But I don’t feel like that’s quite a necessary distinction anymore. We’ve got so much media now, and recording is so easy, that YouTube is full of full concerts that have been simultaneously recorded professionally and by thousands of fans on a variety of phones. But that brings us back to the bigger question - what makes a good concert film?

One idea comes from Ashley Clark in their introduction to an article called 10 Great Concert Films:

cinematic artistry, superhuman performance, socio-political relevance – or a combination of all three – these concert films all deserve their reputations as classics of the form.

Or, how about this definition from Josh Jackson, writing in Paste magazine:

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.

Skirting the issue a little, concert listings site StellarShows.net lists the following criteria for a great concert:

  • Venue with an Intimate Atmosphere

  • Planned Out Show

  • Comfortable Atmosphere

  • Passionate Artist

  • Element of Surprise

Presumably, then, a good concert film would capture all these disparate elements as well as add a certain something to the mix.

To that end, here’s a good list of concert does and don’ts, which includes things like “do get multiple angles, don’t put your mic in front of a speaker.”

But I think if you put all these things together you can come to the conclusion that a great concert film takes a great performance and elevates it beyond the level of just good camera angles and nice lighting.

Ben Brock, again:

The concert movie is a strange and ambitious thing, marrying live music to moving pictures and permanently fixing a fleeting, one-night-only live event for the masses so that you can recreate it alone, on tape, whenever you like. It’s a noble objective, but a difficult one.

I haven’t really found an answer beyond the paraphrasing Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it. But within that caveat are certain similarities across various lists of bests: great concert films take a performance and elevate it somehow, whether that’s by stripping away everything until just the performance is left, like in Stop Making Sense, or in capturing the atmosphere and surroundings that created the performance, as in Gimme Shelter or Shut Up and Play the Hits, or in subverting the art of filmmaking itself like in Awesome! I F*ckin’ Shot That!

Here’s the list of articles I consulted to put this all together:

But I’ll close by saying that I think the era of the big concert film, like most of the ones cited here, are coming to an interesting crossroads. Now that everything is being recorded and uploaded, it’s going to be up to a new generation of artists to steer the genre away from theatrical releases to new formats and media. I’m curious to see where it goes from here.

What We’re Reading:

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

by Robert Dimery

I love books like this - basically just a long, long list of great records you might want to listen to; these are the kinds of books I like to have on my shelves to just take down and glance through when I'm in need of inspiration, motivation, or just a break from the daily grind.

This particular book* is a pretty thorough list of generally-agreed great records from the mid-50s onwards. From the publisher's description on Amazon:

The ultimate compendium of a half century of the best music, now revised and updated. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is a highly readable list of the best, the most important, and the most influential pop albums from 1955 through today. Carefully selected by a team of international critics and some of the best-known music reviewers and commentators, each album is a groundbreaking work seminal to the understanding and appreciation of music from the 1950s to the present...

As I alluded to above, the best way (for me, maybe for you) to read the book is to choose pages at random. In other words, don't try to make it straight through the book from cover to cover, instead, use it as a discovery tool to find records you may have overlooked or never gotten around to hearing. Used that way, the book can be a great addition to even the most die-hard music lover's bookshelf.

Oh, and don't pay any attention to the bombastic title, which I loathe as there is absolutely nothing you must do before you die save live the best life you can for whatever that means to you. It really is a great book, it just has an idiotic title.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Live at Jools'

These days, there's one t.v. program in particular that has taken up the mantel of live music and held it up as the aspiration for dozens of young artists and bands: Later with Jools Holland. Jools started out as a pianist, arguably gaining most of his fame during his stint with Squeeze, before turning to television hosting. His program has been running in one form or another for nearly 30 years and has featured outstanding performances from dozens, if not hundreds of musicians. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.