for Levon Helm
A few years ago I saw Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense in the Senator Theater in Baltimore, the city’s most storied, opulent one-screen movie house. I’d seen the film a dozen-odd times before but never on a proper screen. My friends and I got there late and took our seats near the back as Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were joining David Byrne onstage for “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel.” The sound was pristine and booming, but something was amiss; some kind of arrhythmic thwacking was coming from a far corner of the theater, and it became more noticeable as the onscreen stage filled with the full nine-person band. In the middle of “Slippery People” I finally made out the culprit: some asshole, all the way up near the front row with a djembe hanging between his legs. He was dancing and wailing on this drum like he was Band Member #10, and absolutely ruining what I had hoped would be a transcendent cinematic experience.
I marched down the long walkway to get this guy to knock it off, growing more indignant the closer I got. When I tapped his shoulder and asked, quite feebly, if he’d mind letting the rest of us enjoy the music, he shouted, “Fuck you!” and went back to his playing. He stopped not long after and did his own defeated march back up the aisle to apologize. I was too dumbfounded to respond. Didn’t he get it? It’s Stop Making Sense, on a huge screen with great sound. Fuck me?
I now recall that whole episode with delight, since it stands out so blaringly among a lifetime of staid and demure movie watching. Yes, I’ve seen some packed midnight horror movies, sat among costumed fanatics at Lord of the Rings or Star Wars Episode I openings, and even hosted a cramped and uncomfortable coffee house screening of De Palma’s Hi Mom! But I’m too young to have experienced drive-ins or the grindhouses, perhaps the last gasps of the kind of early 20th century moviegoing that James Agee monumentalized in the opening of A Death in the Family. Agee’s prepubescent protagonist Rufus Follett heads to the movies with his dad after dinner. It’s 1915, twilight, and father and son walk into the Majestic and take their seats among “the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume, and dirty drawers.” The first feature is a Western. “And there was William S. Hart,” Rufus remembers,
with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a sidestreet of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed.
They’re watching silent movies of course, but my 21st-century mind reads that description and thinks, perhaps ironically, of concert films. Maybe the Rolling Stones in Let’s Spend the Night Together, shot in the early ‘80s when Mick’s face looked particularly long, hard, and equine. That movie documents a 1981 show in Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium, and during “Under My Thumb,” a long shot reveals the sun setting in the distance, wide as the world. (And look—there’s Charlie!) I also think about Wattstax, shot in inner city L.A. in 1972 and thus full of palm trees, sidestreets, and smiling girls. And let’s not forget the moment in Stop Making Sense when Byrne emerges from a tight spotlight to reveal his giant suit. He dances—how else?—squattily. And who can help laughing?
Noisy as Cineplex audiences can get, loud as the popcorn chewing or cellphone conversations can be, it’s all but impossible for modern moviegoers to encounter that perfume-and-dirty-underpants moviegoing that so enthralls young Rufus. For me, a lone drunk guy jamming on a hand drum qualifies as the most genuinely, idiosyncratically human behavior I’ve ever witnessed at the movies. And I hated him for it. I wanted Stop Making Sense to be treated like The Leopard or Ikiru or Lawrence of Arabia, all of which I’ve watched among hushed crowds that emptied the theater in rapt silence.
Concert films offer the increasingly rare chance to feel like part of a real crowd—a concert crowd—while watching a movie. This makes them a direct link to the silent era, which was rarely “silent” at all; in its earliest iterations, moviegoing meant surrendering yourself to a flood of human idiosyncrasy. Beyond the smells, Rufus remembers the constant wash of communal laughter throughout his double feature, just as Agee opens his beautiful essay on slapstick, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” with a description of the “titters,” “yowls,” “bellylaughs,” and “boffos” elicited by Chaplin, Keaton, Sennett, and Lloyd. It all unfolded against a background of player piano or live musical accompaniment. A decade or two before, the earliest popular films were exhibited in storefronts to urban immigrants, amid the human churn of New York or fin de siecle Paris (lending extra poignancy to the setting of Demme’s second concert film, Storefront Hitchcock). “I’m sorry the museum isn’t showing Lloyd’s finest comedy,” wrote Agee, nostalgic at age 37, when he reviewed an enormous silent film retrospective at MoMA in 1946. “I’m even sorrier that the museum, or some dime theater, isn’t showing every short film Keaton ever made, night and day, over and over.”
Even though many concert films, like Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps or Tom Waits’ Big Time, rarely show the audience (Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii includes no audience at all beyond the band’s crew), they are all ultimately about the musicians’ relationship to their fans. Every single artistic decision in a concert film communicates the musicians’ attitude toward their listeners, and the audience develop a complicated, unfamiliar sense of our own viewership as a result, one that we rarely cultivate with music or film individually. Watching The T.A.M.I. Show, which boasts the most hysterical crowd of any concert film I’ve seen, I’m always compelled to applaud along with the crowd before realizing I’m alone in my living room, watching a fifty-year-old James Brown performance that took place a continent away.
Consider Wattstax and Let’s Spend the Night Together, which document some of the first pop concerts ever performed in arenas. Wattstax was shot largely at the Los Angeles Coliseum in August 1972, during a massive Black Power gathering to commemorate the 1965 Watts riots. The crowd is full of beaming families. Jesse Jackson, fist raised and afro at full blast, leads thousands in his inspirational poem “I Am—Somebody.” Wattstax is pure joy, and director Mel Stuart erases the distance between performers and audience. Both get emotive close-ups and time to speak onscreen, and very often a gesture onstage is answered by a crowd member’s dance or salute.
Let’s Spend The Night Together documents the first-ever stadium tour by a rock band. The Stones have just released Tattoo You and, 20 years into their career, have suddenly found themselves with a massive single, “Start Me Up.” They enlist Hal Ashby, whose most recent films Being There and Coming Home were likewise the biggest hits of his life, and it’s hard to tell whether the film is meant to convey cockiness or paranoia. Likely both. Mick might as well be acting out a parody of ‘80s tastelessness, prancing around the gaping stage in spandex pants, neon jacket, and kneepads. The band is so spread out they look like they’re performing in an empty airline hangar. The audience is just a blurry wall in the distance. Bill Wyman’s utter disinterest is frankly embarrassing, though maybe less so than Mick’s coke-fueled attempts to wiggle his ass hard enough to please 40,000 people at once. If Wattstax makes Los Angeles Coliseum feel like a wedding, Let’s Spend the Night Together makes Sun Devil Stadium look like a middle school dance.
Which means The Last Waltz is a wake, right? There’s no audience presence to speak of in Martin Scorsese’s hagiographic film of The Band’s retirement party, but the litany of guest musicians stands in for them; the collaborators slowly grow in stature until we’re presented with Dylan in god-like close-up. The message is clear: even the Almighty should be honored to play with The Band.
The mythologizing occurs on a smaller scale, as well. When Scorsese cuts to a shot of Levon Helm during “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down,” the drummer is caught between the cymbals and the horn section. He’s the lone emotive presence amid gleaming metal. Scorsese fills this one long shot with enough evocative bric-a-brac to match the interiors in The Searchers:
The Last Waltz is shot entirely in sepia-hued medium shots, probably the least flashy Scorsese cinematography other than the purposefully washed-out TV palette of The King of Comedy. We’re almost always watching long shots of performers against deep-focus backgrounds that are simultaneously overcrowded and eerily still. Shot for shot, The Last Waltz requires as much of an attention span as any mainstream film of its era or since. Certainly more than any other Scorsese film.
And yet: it’s an advertisement. All concert films are—purely and always. If a director ever wanted to undermine or control his subject’s image as in a traditional documentary, he’d make a “rockumentary,” (to use a lame and inevitable neologism). By showing petty offstage squabbles and ego trips, a director can reveal a musician’s vanity or self-consciousness, which is why Spinal Tap is so brutal, and why Robbie Robertson’s occasional backstage preening nearly derails The Last Waltz whenever it occurs. But in a genuine concert film, where we only see the musicians mid-performance, the director is an equal collaborator with the subject. The result can’t help but be explicitly commercial. No band has ever fought to keep a concert film unreleased, and they’re never over any audience’s head.
As a result, concert movies have frequently smuggled noncommercial, even avant-garde techniques and imagery into the mainstream. Monterey Pop, for example, is edited together as an impressionistic, nonlinear depiction of the title concert. D.A. Pennebaker’s vision for the film is strikingly similar to Jonas Mekas’ concurrent experiments in Walden, his evolving “film diary” that documents New York from 1964-68. In both movies, cuts between scenes are sudden and arbitrary; conversation and songs begin in progress, lasting just long enough to make a documentary impression.
Pennebaker slows down only once, for Monterey Pop’s monumental closing set by Ravi Shankar. In truth, Shankar played in the afternoon, not as the third-day headliner as the film implies. But by closing out the film with his performance, Pennebaker conveys the importance and magnitude of the Festival more effectively than if he had presented the performances chronologically.
Shankar is not given the same truncated treatment that The Animals, Simon & Garfunkel, and others are afforded in the film. He occupies the final ten minutes of Monterey Pop, shot in tight close-up, the better to accentuate Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha’s focused faces and sprinting hands. The music builds, more purely relaxing and yet more foreign than any of the other acts. But the audience—David Crosby, Brian Jones, Mama Cass, and other performers, and even a couple of preteen blond-haired boys who must have wandered over from a house in the neighborhood—is enraptured. (Imagine what those boys, about Rufus’s age, are smelling.) As an act of boundary-pushing, countercultural assertiveness it’s even more inspiring than The Who demolishing their instruments or Jimi Hendrix torching his guitar.
By ending on this moment of astonishment, Pennebaker foregrounds Monterey’s inclusiveness and vision. And by starting the film with pulsing, Brakhage-like credits, he foregrounds the festival’s mind-expansiveness. It’s not a documentary-accurate portrait of the festival itself but something more impressionist and sensual. It reminds me of Agee’s own obsession with the visual medium, seen in this opening caveat to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.
A shame that Agee didn’t live to attend The Monterey Pop Festival, where attaining “the whole of consciousness” was surely a popular pharmaceutical ambition. Greater shame still that he never got to see Pennebaker’s film, which is an act of conveyed-perception to match Famous Men, despite its considerably less upsetting subject matter. They share an aesthetic: tempestuous, hypersensitive, contorted, and bodily. And while they are both technically jaw-dropping, the work of stylistic masters, they also evoke a primitive feeling—what Agee called the “pure, sweet, unforcedly forceful, and great” folk instinct. They’re scruffy and mussed, Famous Men with its colliding punctuation and Monterey with its impatient camera.
Agee wrote that D.W. Griffith “was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples.” And likewise, the hippie scenery of Monterey Pop is now a kind of shared dream, one of the few genuine documents of a moment that still looms huge in the American consciousness. We now instinctively laugh or scowl at hippie naïveté wherever we encounter it, but in this film D.A. Pennebaker redeems it and expresses its greatest attributes—open-mindedness, positivity, creativity, and supportiveness. This is ultimately the aim of all concert movies, at least those that aspire to art. At their best they can function as folk music, capturing the whole mood of a crowd as well as a single artistic vision. A director who makes concert films can function as “a primitive tribal poet, combining something of the bard and the seer,” as Agee said Griffith managed in Birth of a Nation. As a genre, concert films are so unexplored and critically invisible that we instinctively lower our artistic expectations whenever we watch or discuss them. We don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, just a glimpse at a band or a show. But sometimes real beauty springs from these raw circumstances, like Shankar at Monterey or the exquisite lingering close-ups in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. These moments are potent concentrations of their entire eras, as much as any silent film.
Agee worried about his favorite folk art, namely jazz, becoming “bourgeoizified,” even though he knew it was the inevitable outcome of popularity. We can see the embodiment of this phenomenon in The Concert for Bangladesh, which was filmed in 1972, yet feels a universe removed from Monterey Pop. This straightforward and chronological document of the benefit show organized by George Harrison begins with Shankar and Rakha, but the tone couldn’t be more different. Harrison emerges to rapturous applause (the concert took place at a packed Madison Square Garden) and promises everyone that the real show will get started soon, but first it’s time for everyone to settle down, eat their vegetables, and consider the horrendous plight of the Bangladeshi people. “The Indian music’s a little more serious than our music,” Harrison intones, “and I’d appreciate if you could settle down.” Then Shankar comes out, tunes, and nearly apologizes for his presence. “I would request you to have a little patience,” he asks the crowd, who, to be fair, seem plenty excited for his set.
Shankar plays gorgeously, but between the perfect lighting, unseen audience, and undistinguished photography, the music has no hint of revolutionary impact. In the film, as in the concert itself, Shankar is there simply to provide continuity with the cause, before the core of the orchestra-sized band takes the stage: Harrison, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. For them the audience is deafening, but in the Garden’s cavernous, impersonal darkness there’s no sense of urgency. Neither as deflating as Let’s Spend The Night Together nor as stately and elegiac as The Last Waltz, The Concert for Bangladesh is the concert film at its most obvious and least transcendent.
Yet it’s still perfectly entertaining, at times even glorious. It’s a rare glimpse at Harrison onstage during the All Things Must Pass period, and it includes two powerfully energized performances by Preston and Russell. Neither of these men have achieved quite the stature of their collaborators here, but for five or six minutes each they enliven this purely functional film and provide its dramatic peak. Preston’s hammy “That’s The Way God Planned It” brings the Concert momentarily into the realm of gospel, and it’s the only moment when the crowd’s excitement can be heard over the band. Russell’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” meanwhile, is the only time where the enormous group approximates anything like real R&B.
These are great moments despite director Saul Swimmer’s apparent lack of any creative visual sense whatsoever. The film is noteworthy for providing exactly no emotional insight into any of its many musical stars. Everything’s just a flat middle-distance view of the stage, or a mid-closeup, and not one of the musicians does anything even remotely interesting or emotive. It’s reminiscent of The T.A.M.I. Show, which was nominally directed by a teen-industry impresario named Steve Binder who apparently had no visual flash to speak of. But T.A.M.I.’s absolutely overwhelming performances and audience response make it a masterpiece of the genre. There’s also the considerable time-capsule quality of James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson all on the cusp of stardom. Hungry, unself-conscious, and doe-faced, they hammer through their current Top 40 triumphs and send an auditorium full of shrieking white girls into hysterics.
The best concert films tend to be multi-artist event films like Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Wattstax, which involve large events that give the filmmakers a built-in cultural angle. They are the rare concert films that function impressively as documentaries and social documents. T.A.M.I. is too obviously manipulative to quite reach this standard. The setting is too clearly contrived by marketers, whereas the other events seem like they would have occurred with or without the cameras.
The earliest example of this kind of musical-social documentary is still the greatest: Jazz on a Summer’s Day, filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, same year that A Death in the Family earned Agee a posthumous Pulitzer. It represents the absolute height of the sanitized, sophisticated jazz that Agee deplored, but it does so eloquently and invitingly. Director Bert Stern mixes the performances’ audio with footage from the America’s Cup yacht race, which occurred weeks apart. The footage equates jazz with luxury and leisure, a natural and entrancing juxtaposition—I’ve yet to see a film, concert or otherwise, so immersive; you feel like you’re strolling back and forth from stage to sea over the course of 90 minutes. Very often, the audience looks sparse and unimpressed, even though the musicians are legendary: Thelonius Monk, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Chuck Berry (the improbable link between this movie and The T.A.M.I. Show). Most of all, the audience looks like they’re on vacation, moving from one beautiful outdoor vista to another with the same yacht-like drift. Jazz on a Summer’s Day commemorates the de-fanging of jazz once and for all, the moment when it irreversibly went middle-class. But it makes that transition look so enjoyable, so warm, that you can’t possibly summon Agee’s ire.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day is as perfect as any movie I’ve seen. So why hasn’t its popular or critical standing risen beyond a few famous individual boosters? (Paul Thomas Anderson is an avowed fan.) Sadly, Jazz is not alone in this regard: almost no concert movies get nominated for documentary prizes, none appear on the Sight & Sound polls, and few have been commercial hits. Roger Ebert includes only Woodstock in his evolving list of the “Great Movies.” But they were a reliable genre in the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, when live albums were standard practice and the first large rock festivals were just starting to crop up. The ‘80s produced only a few noteworthy ones, among them Stop Making Sense and Tom Waits’ ugly and pretentious Big Time. (The wonderful short Heavy Metal Parking Lot should also count, since it’s essentially a concert film without the concert; it’s entirely about fans’ relationship to music, so much so that the music is actually secondary.)
But for the most part, music videos replaced concert films as the musicians’ go-to method for extramusical mythification. One milestone in this transition is Urgh! A Music War. Shot in 1981, it contains some incredible footage of XTC, The Cramps, the Dead Kennedys, X, and many now-forgotten curiosities, but it lacks any coherent narrative or even documentary point. It’s essentially a two-hour block of music videos where the bands all happen to be performing live. Following in Urgh!’s footsteps, numerous ‘80s hair bands discovered in music videos a way to make miniature, fake concert films recast as private shows. Think of David Lee Roth or Bret Michaels stalking their enormous arena stages, but always turning to preen and leer directly at the camera rather than at an actual audience.
In the music video era, the artists that created the best concert films were typically the ones that had shown the greatest adventurousness in the short form: Talking Heads of course, but also Peter Gabriel, whose Secret World Live is surely a treat for those brave few who can tolerate 100 consecutive minutes of early-‘90s Peter Gabriel. The Beastie Boys paid homage to Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii in their video for “Gratitude,” then released Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!, comprised of fan footage from a single Madison Square Garden show, in 2006. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is another recent high-water mark for the genre, a hip-hop heir to Monterey Pop, and was directed by one of the few legitimate artists to emerge from music videos, Michel Gondry.
To paraphrase Sunset Boulevard, one of Agee’s favorite films of its era, the music stayed big in the ‘80s and ‘90s; it’s the screens—and the stereos—that got small. Music videos brought commercial concert footage into homes, then the Walkman brought music into people’s pockets. In our current age, when people control their whole music collections on a palm-sized screen, it’s not surprising that concert films are popular once again. Listening now equals watching, and we suddenly have a raft of online performance films like La Blogothèque’s Take-Away Shows or American Express’s expensive, YouTube-exclusive series “Unstaged,” shot by Spike Lee, David Lynch, Anton Corbijn and other name directors. The productions are handsome but almost redundant, since YouTube overflows with concert clips ripped from cell phones and TV, as well as digitized archival performances dating back to the dawn of film.
No commercial movie captures the 21st-century concert film renaissance—its connection to music videos and reliance on unpolished footage—better than Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Had Jackson ever attempted an actual, official concert film, it would have no doubt been impressive but overblown—as it is, the most elaborate and complete set pieces in This Is It look staggering yet cold, like ten-story video games playing behind a troupe of dancers. These Super Bowl-worthy extravagances are surrounded by rehearsal footage that was never meant to be popularly released, letting director and longtime Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega provide a genuinely new view of the most over-exposed pop star in the world.
For its rare footage alone, This Is It stands as a triumph—Jackson’s working methods, and his perfectionism, have never been so intimately dramatized. Like Live at Pompeii it contains no paying audience, but, unlike the earlier film, here Jackson is surrounded by collaborators: dozens of breathless, agile dancers for whom the impending concert tour is literally a thrill beyond words—many of them weep openly when asked to describe the honor of dancing with Michael Jackson. They all stand in awe as he practices his steps or tests a cherry-picker that flies him over an empty stadium floor, envisioning his masses below. This Is It exhibits Jackson’s devotion to entertaining his fans, and recasts his artistic legacy by highlighting the reverence that younger artists felt toward him.
It’s startling to see Jackson in this film, looking so happy and relaxed and casual. Even in this context, he’s a taskmaster and a stunning performer. But it’s a different kind of genius than we’re used to from him: he hits all his marks and reaches all his notes, but then cuts the band short and hits them again, over and over, critiquing himself along the way. He’s humanized, less airbrushed than in his public performances but more comfortable than in the legal footage that rolled out periodically during his last decades. He’s “sickly but at the same time cheerful,” as Rufus Follett says of Chaplin. His dad is laughing, infected by the same “contagion” of laughter that’s infected the whole Majestic audience. Then:
[Charlie] shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes . . . started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper . . . pausing and shaking his whole body.
Chaplin, in other words, does some kind of silent, slapstick prototype of Michael Jackson. Or more likely, Jackson was the inheritor of a whole cinematic body language that started with Chaplin. But either way, Agee’s manner of describing his favorite comedian always makes me think of music. He describes moviegoing in exclusively physical terms, explaining only what happens on the screen and what it makes the audience do. He makes 20th-century Americans sound like cavemen, but he means it as a compliment. (Describing Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm, from 1944, he disparaged ingénue Linda Darnell’s lead acting, “but since, in general appearance, she is the kind of person I can imagine going on all fours for, I thought her not entirely ill cast.”) Agee seemed to love movies precisely because they were our modern method of ogling cave paintings.
And no genre proves the point like concert films. They’re vivid even when boring, and occasionally even brilliant or stylistically influential. (I can’t imagine Robert Altman’s audio experiments in the 1970s, for example, without the visionary editing style of Woodstock.) But they’re also primitive, in the sense that negligibly skilled filmmakers routinely create wonderful ones. And the names that made some of the best—Binder, Stuart, Stern, Ortega, Maben—aren’t names that come up in film history courses or books. They’re one-off masters, just like some of the great, lost performers in their movies: The Barbarians in T.A.M.I., Anita O’Day in Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Luther Ingram in Wattstax.
Agee seemed to want that fate for himself. In his short life he produced two volumes of movie reviews, a respectable body of poems, two novels, sporadic journalism, a handful of Hollywood scripts, and one example of . . . what do we call Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? Metaphysical sociology? He seemed to fear mastery of any one form. “It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation,” he opened his first film review for The Nation, “as an amateur critic among amateur critics.” If he ever found himself at the Senator watching Stop Making Sense with a hand drum nearby, he would pick it up and play. Loud.
John Lingan is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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