Top of the Pops: The Best Pop Flix
Is it me, or are pop stars getting younger and younger? This week 16-year-old sensation Justin Bieber releases his first concert movie – though Never Say Never is understandably pretty short on actual concert footage, and extremely long on baby snaps. A sign o’ the times, I guess.
Where 80s greats Prince and Michael Jackson constructed a mythos of untouchable genius around them, an aura of old fashioned star power built on extravagance, extreme privacy, and cultivated eccentricity, Bieber invites us in, introduces us to his family, his vocal coach, his manager, even his security guy. The emphasis is on team effort, and that inclusivity extends to the fans: even those who can’t afford a ticket might be lucky enough to get a top price seat, dispensed like a golden Willy Wonka wrapper just a couple of hours before the show.
Bieber is a new kind of star, one who found fame before the recording industry found him. Prince may shun YouTube as a rip-off of artists’ rights, but YouTube was Bieber’s fast track to success. When he started Tweeting too, the crowds started to build even before radio stations were playing his songs.
Is Never Say Never inherently more truthful than Prince’s semi-fictionalized autobiographical Purple Rain? Perhaps only their mothers would know for sure. Purple Rain probably tells us as much about Prince, but then there’s more to tell. Both films do the job: they showcase the star in the best light, replay his biggest hits, and leave us hungry for more. For fans, anyway, they’re essential supplements to the music. As for the rest of us, there’s always the chance that we’ll be intrigued by all the noise and come have a look-see for ourselves. After all, no matter if Bob Dylan’s “never-ending tour” lasts for another couple of decades, he will never perform live for more people than have seen the classic DA Pennebaker documentary, Don’t Look Back.
Mind you, for our purposes, Don’t Look Back is not a true concert film – like the Bieber pic, it’s more of a documentary about the artist. The list below is all about the performance, the atmosphere, and the filmmakers’ ability to convey what it is that’s so exciting about live music. By the same token, A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine, Gimme Shelter, Purple Rain (which contains some great musical numbers) also fall outside the confines of this list, great as they are.
Top 10 Concert Movies
Now, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film of the Talking Heads December 1983 concert always tops lists of the best concert films. But there is a reason for that. For a start, David Byrne’s group were at the very top of their game, producing an irresistible brand of tight, lightly avant-garde funk, drawing on gospel and rock roots, and delivering a brilliantly choreographed, superbly paced show. So Demme was in the right place at the right time. But the Philadelphia, Something Wild director also knew exactly where to put the camera, and when to cut – and the Heads made sure he was given the time and resources to get what he needed. The result: a gold standard by which all subsequent concert films continue to be judged.
Another “name” director, Martin Scorsese, did the honours here. Scorsese had worked on the granddaddy of the concert film, Woodstock, as a cameraman. He was also close friends with Robbie Robertson of The Band, whose farewell gig this was. (Robertson remains a friend and produced the soundtrack to Shutter Island.) The Band had other pals too: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell. With a line up like that, Scorsese could hardly fail to produce a compelling document of a landmark gig.
3. Prince: Sign O the Times
The film of the 1987 tour is in some ways a fake concert movie, as most of the footage from the tour’s last date in Rotterdam was deemed subpar – grainy, with poor sound. Prince (who also directed) restaged the shows in his Paisley Park studios, which accounts for the dynamic camerawork and lighting. Again, the triple album represents Prince at or near his peak, with probably his strongest and certainly his most charismatic band of collaborators.
And now for something completely different: Bert Stern’s 1959 film of the Newport Jazz Festival is an absolute gem, and wonderfully evocative account of popular music on the cusp of the rock n roll revolution. The line up includes Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson and Chuck Berry.
5. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
Not a music film, but if we’re talking concert movies, this may be the single greatest stand up comedy performance ever given. Richard Pryor never found the movie vehicle worthy of his talent, but this 1979 film (directed by Jeff Margolis) is the Rosetta Stone for comedians.
7. Elvis: That’s The Way It Is
The movies didn’t preserve Elvis the way he would like to have been remembered, but this 1970 film – substantially reedited in 2001, when more songs were put in, and most of the interviews came out – is as close as you can get to proof of the King’s charisma. The first half is rehearsal footage, the second from his comeback Vegas show.
8. This Is It
There’s quite a bit of documentary material here, admittedly, but all by way of build up to the Michael Jackson show that never happened. We see enough of that to dispel suspicions that Wacko Jacko had lost it, and to make this one of the great (near-) concert films.
There’s no avoiding it, try as we might. The concert of all concerts bequeathed us myths, legends, an Ang Lee movie, and three hours or so of concert footage, good, bad and indifferent. Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Sly and The Family Stone and many of the same suspects from Monterey Pop were here. Kids, this is what rock looked like when it mattered.
10. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold
Most concert films are dominated by the young, but there is lovely autumnal glow over this late 2005 gig by Neil Young, recorded in Nashville as the old singer-songwriter came back from a premature brush with his own mortality. The music is mostly elegiac country folk, rueful, heart-on-sleeve stuff, but articulated with delicate feeling and sensitivity. The director – surprise! – is Jonathan Demme, of Stop Making Sense fame. It’s a rare concert film that brings a tear to the eye.
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