From the Archives: Ten Great Concert Films to Watch

Originally published December 1, 2020.

If you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s nice to put a concert on your TV and get lost in the trappings of live music without having to deal with outrageous ticket prices and drunk superfans. This is especially relevant during this Covid situation. Now, I won’t do anyone a disservice by ranking these concerts because even my rankings change depending on my mood. Before we begin, I do want to mention that this list is limited to concerts of one band/artist, so movies about festivals such as Woodstock do not qualify. That said, you should watch the Woodstock movie. So, without further ado, here are ten great concert films you should watch:

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2010)

Jack & Meg White managed to be just about as loud as two humans can be with the aggressive guitar playing of Jack and the steady drumming of Meg. Meg isn’t exactly John Bonham or Neil Peart, but her playing fits the music perfectly and a flashier drummer would not work with the dynamic of The White Stripes. This movie is really more of a documentary following The White Stripes’ 2007 Canadian tour, but the performances, which include an intimate version of In the Cold, Cold Night and an in-your-face rendition of 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues. Worth a watch when you’re in the mood for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster because the closing song, White Moon, will tear at anyone’s heartstrings.

Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same (1976)

No list of live music greatness would be complete without some Zep. Filmed at Madison Square Garden in 1973, this movie captures Led Zeppelin at their best. Hell, Jimmy Page almost looks like he’s not on drugs for part of it! But this is just classic hard rock at its most organic. Bonham’s drumming is unparalleled, Page’s guitar and beflowered pants are quintessential early-70s, John Paul Jones’s unsung hero-ness is on full display, and Plant, of course, absolutely slays with vocals only he can exhibit. This is a great—pardon the pun—get-the-lead-out concert to have on during a party or for a marathon spring cleaning session.

Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace (2018)

Full disclosure: this is basically a greatest hits of church songs. However, they are church songs sung by one of the best voices to ever grace your ears, so it’s great. This movie was filmed in 1972 but not released until 2018 and shows Aretha recording the concert that was released on vinyl in 1972. On top of that, the movie was primarily directed by Sydney Pollack, who died in 2008 and did not get to see the film in its final form. This is a great concert to have on either when religious family is staying with you or if you just need a break from the sex, drugs, and rock & roll attitude of any of the other movies on this list.

Prince: Sign O’ The Times (1987)

Prince was so good, man. He could play almost any instrument you put in front of him and play it well, he could write songs that spanned the genre-spectrum, he could hit almost any note a choir could want, and his stage presence was the perfect mix of sincere rock-godliness and slightly gaudy 1980s crap. But Sign O’ The Times is just great. Prince can appeal to pop rock fans as well as the most holier-than-thou rock critic, and this movie shows why. Perfect for having on at a social gathering (remember those?) or just while you’re trying to get some work done.

Rush: Exit…Stage Left (1982)

This one may be a little polarizing for two reasons: The first is that Rush released several concert movies in their career. The second is that people either seem to love Rush or hate Rush. However, this movie, which was filmed in 1981 as part of the band’s Moving Pictures tour, showcases Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart in rare form. The playing is crisp, the audio is great, and they don’t have any of the weird synth-prog stuff that jammed up their mid- and late-80s albums. Fittingly recorded in Canada, I defy any red-blooded American to not get a craving for poutine and maple syrup during the perfect performance of Red Barchetta. This movie is meant to be watched with other Rush fans, so buy a case of Molson and a bottle of Crown and invite some friends over (assuming you’re reading this after Covid; if you’re reading this during Covid, get some buddies on Zoom).

Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (1993)

I worried about putting this on here because so many artists did great episodes of MTV Unplugged and I didn’t want the list to just become a showcase of a program that hasn’t aired in years. But this performance is just too good to ignore. The episode first aired in December 1993 in an abridged format, but the full concert was released on DVD in 2007. An audio album was released in 1994 shortly after Kurt Cobain’s death. The show is a stripped-down acoustic (duh) concert in which a baby-faced Dave Grohl mellows out his aggressive drumming style, 16-foot-tall bassist Krist Novoselic provides great rhythm, and Kurt Cobain’s raw, emotional voice conveys the angst and frustration so associated with the grunge movement. Interestingly, only 8 of the 14 tracks are Nirvana originals, but the inclusion of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, as well as some Meat Puppets tunes and a great rendition of blues standard Where Did You Sleep Last Night provides insight into Nirvana’s influences. This movie is great for watching when it’s cold out.

The Rolling Stones: Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones (1974)

Like Rush, the Stones have released many concert films, but this is the best one. Ladies and Gentlemen, as it’s often shortened, was filmed in 1972 and came on the heels of Exile on Main St. and maintains that middle-finger-to-the-record-company-executives attitude found on the album. This is a raw, drug-fueled movie that includes two of my personal favorite performances of theirs (Dead Flowers and Sweet Virginia) and is the perfect movie to watch with an audiophile who may, like me, have some strong, jaded opinions about the Stones’ output after about 1980. It’s everyone at their best, and is simply good music.

The Band: The Last Waltz (1978)

The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco was host to some really iconic rock concerts: The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Bruce Springtsteen are just a few of the many great bands that released live albums recorded at Winterland. However, The Last Waltz is the best one. This movie kind of violates my only-one-artist rule because The Band was joined on stage by a veritable who’s who of 1960s and 1970s music, but as The Band was on stage for all of them, I’m going to let this violation slide. I used to watch this every Thanksgiving but then life started getting in the way on occasion. Now I watch it at least once a year, regardless of what time of year. This was directed by Martin Scorsese and features the likes of Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young (with a special guest appearance from some cocaine that had to be airbrushed out of his nose (see cover photo)). Even the seemingly oddball appearance from Neil Diamond flows with the spirit of the movie. This is a great anytime movie.

The Grateful Dead: Dead Ahead (1981)

Recorded over two nights in 1980 at the world famous Radio City Music Hall, this is peak Dead. There is an acoustic portion and an electric portion. The band is clearly in sync, with everyone’s playing and vocals being tight and enjoyable. It’s also almost two hours long, which I personally like because it’s easy to watch by itself or while you’re doing other things. It contains my favorite performance of On the Road Again, and if you watch the expanded version that was released in 2005, you can see one of their best performances of Samson and Delilah. If you like the Dead, you’ll love this. If you don’t like the Dead, that’s too damn bad because this is an incredible concert.

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984)

There is nothing I can say about this that hasn’t been said by someone else, but the long and short is that this is a perfect concert movie. It is the first concert movie to solely use digital audio technology, and features memorable moments such as the opening version of Psycho Killer, the campy oversized suit David Byrne wears, expert musicianship, and a performance of the oft-sampled Genius of Love by Talking Heads spinoff band the Tom Tom Club. Just go watch it. It’s perfect. My wife thinks I’m insane because I will literally watch this four or five times a year, and guess what? It’s perfect every time.

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