With the recent passing of Lemmy, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, David Bowie and other rock heroes, I’ve been thinking about how important rock concert films are to the preservation of their music and performances. I don’t know many fans who collect these films, but there are many worth having, good for cranking up on a Friday night while unwinding from the week passed… The notes below illuminate the history of rock music movies, with a particular focus on concert film, rather than the use of rock music within a film. Concert films capture our rock heroes in their best moments, on the lighted stage, entertaining and amazing us with their showmanship, virtuosity, and aplomb. With some of them leaving this mortal coil, it’s a good time to reflect on these celluloid documents….
The relationship between popular music and the movies has been challenging, and while there are plenty of examples of opportunistic, awkward marriages, there are many others where the power of the movies and rock music combined have been magic. At the dawn of the form, Bill Haley’s 1954 single “Rock Around the Clock,” his “novelty foxtrot” did not dent the charts until it was included in the soundtrack for the Richard Brooks film The Blackboard Jungle, which itself became a sell out, pushing the single to number one. Two years later Elvis Presley burst on the scene and built his career on combining popular music and film, reaching audiences worldwide with his charismatic performances. Some felt these performances were a tad embarrassing, but they accomplished the goal of both entertaining fans, and expanding audiences. Across the pond in Britain, a similar evolution was taking place, with Tommy Steele starring in his own movie The Tommy Steele Story (1957) after releasing just a few hit singles. Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Jeff Conrad, Cliff Richard and many others followed suit, either on early rock music television shows, or on the big screen. But it was The Beatles who became a global phenomenon in part due to the strength of their appearances on television specials and variety shows in Britain, America and beyond. They were also a key part of establishing the bond between storytelling and rock music, as seen in their 1965 classic Help!
As the 1960s came to a close, rock and roll stars were beginning to literally take center stage, making records without hired studio musicians, and selling their wares based on the strength of their musicianship and performances alone. Rock festivals became cultural phenomena, and several of these were captured on film at the close of the decade, setting the scene for the advent of concert films throughout the 1970s. Monterey Pop (1969) caught Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a host of rockers in defining moments on stage. In the United Kingdom, The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was filmed and led to a host of complete performances on film, including legendary videos of The Who and Jethro Tull. Arguably, the biggest, most important rock movie to start the decade was Woodstock (1970). Documenting the festival that took place on the 600-acre farm in upper New York State, the “celebration of love and peace” offered the screen up to The Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a host of other 60s rock acts, many of whom went on to major stardom. The film captured the spirit of the 60s, placing emphasis on the best sentiments of the hippie culture, and the heroes who spoke for them through music and performance. In stark contrast, Gimmie Shelter (1970) graphically captured the dark side of the movement, as members of the Hell’s Angels, who were policing the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamount Speedway east of San Francisco, beat a young black concertgoer to death in front of the band, symbolically ending the youth movement of the decade passed. As if to drive the point home, The Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), released theatrically in May 1970, depicted the sweet and sour dissolution of their union, capturing the band recording what would became their last albums Abbey Road and Let It Be. It is an important and rare document of the band in the studio, and on rooftop of the Apple building where they performed a short set live together for the last time, before being interrupted by the police.
It was during this tumultuous time that concert films took center stage in theaters, illuminating the live concert experience for posterity, favoring bands playing live on stage over scripted storytelling. While rock music was heard in countless soundtracks of the era, only a handful of movies featuring rock stars fronting their own story, or a fictional tale were funded and released. The first truly notable example of this form was Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Directed by Brian De Palma, this cult classic is about a record producer who claims as his own the music of a brilliant composer. The composer exacts his revenge in the thrilling climax. Paul Williams received Academic Award and Gold Globe nominations for his musical score. This epic was followed the next year by the film, Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This cult classic is an homage to science fiction and B horror films, boasting a soundtrack with almost two dozen unforgettable songs that have become classics in their own right such as “Sweet Transvestite,” “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and “The Time Warp.”
Next up was The Who’s Tommy (1975). Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock albums ever made, Tommy is a tale in music of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who inspires others to transcend their everyday circumstances. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The Who would be back at the end of the decade with Quadrophenia (1979). A battle between two rival gangs, the Mods and the Rockers, this movie uses the music of the Who to explore the dark side of growing up in London in the mid-1960s. Some of the Who’s greatest songs are featured, such as “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Other than these examples of storytelling, the decade would instead give favor to actual live concert films. One of the first filmed performances was also by The Who in December 1969 when the band began touring Tommy with a set list including nearly the entire rock opera. Tucked away as an extra on The Who film Live at Kilburn: 1977 (1977) is a film of that concert at the London Coliseum in December 1969. It’s not the best film, as the 16mm cameras could barely capture the show, which was not lit properly for film, an issue that plagues many movies from the decade. But it’s a key document of this legendary band delivering one of the first rock concept albums on stage. A much more watchable set was released as Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) which catches the band delivering an amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage at 2 am in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people. These shows kicked off the decade, setting the stage for a wealth of films to come.
Many of these best concert films of the 1970s will be reviewed within the pages of my upcoming book. Some were released to theaters during the decade, such as ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1970), Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (1972), Yes’ Yessongs (1973), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare (1976), Genesis’ in Concert (1977), The Band’s The Last Waltz (1978), but many more have been unearthed, restored and released on home video long after the end of the era. The decade closed with the release of one of the best-filmed concerts from that time, Paul McCartney and Wings Rock Show (1980). This concert, from the 1975-1976 “Wings Over the World” tour shows McCartney and Wings at their absolute best. The band play many of McCartney solo hits as well as some Beatles songs such as “Lady Madonna,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Blackbird.” It’s an exceptional film that will take any viewer right into the concert experience. It’s absolutely one of the best concert films of all time.
With the sad passing of David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Keith Emerson, here are a few titles worth consideration (apologies to Lemmy, I did not find any films of Motorhead from the 70s):
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture
The best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage and yhr fans out front. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing and source material that exposes extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.
David Bowie: Live at NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978
The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band while surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net. Recordings from the same tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978.
Eagles Live at the Capital Centre March 1977. Jigsaw Productions, DVD
This concert is on the third disc of the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles. It captures the band in Washington D.C. on the Hotel California tour playing many of their most popular songs. A critic once accused the Eagles with “loitering on stage” and it’s true the band exuded the laid back California vibes perfectly captured in their music.Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later, and it’s a pleasure to watch this concert film. The dual guitar jam during the title track alone is worth the price of the set.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Pictures at an Exhibition (1970) Eagle Rock, 144 min., DVD
This DVD shows ELP playing their version of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and other songs at the Lyceum in London. An excess of psychedelic effects mar the footage, but ELP’s musicianship is magnificent.
Beyond the Beginning [2 DVD set] Sanctuary Records, 250 min., DVD
A variety of clips of varying quality from the band’s early career are presented here. Although some of the video is out of synch with the audio, this is a worthwhile and essential collection of concert appearances by a talented and thrilling band. The highlight is their set at California Jam on the legendary Brain Salad Surgery tour.
Top: Photo of the Corbin Theater above, after it was converted to a X-rated theater, late 70s….