Talk about a great rock concert movie. Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light puts such a laser focus on the Rolling Stones live that it might as well be an MRI. I’d rank Shine a Light ahead of Cocksucker Blues and Let’s Spend the Night Together and just under Gimme Shelterand Godard’s One Plus One: Sympathy for the Devil among the great Stones films. Shine a Light gives us all another excuse — not that we need one — to rank the great rock concerts captured on screen. I’m not talking rock feature films, where This Is Spinal Tap reigns supreme with A Hard Day’s Night tickling its tail. And I’m not talking archival docs where clips and interviews build a story, like what Scorsese did with Bob Dylan in No Direction Home and D.A. Pennebaker did four decades earlier in Don’t Look Back. What I want to chew on are the rock concert films that capture the unbeatable thrill of rock & roll in the flesh. Gimme Shelter doesn’t make the cut because the tragedy at Altamont oversdhadows the performance. I’ll let the debate begin by giving my top three:
#1 The Last Waltz 1978
Scorsese again, capturing the 1976 farewell concert by the original lineup of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson). When Robertson trades blazing licks with guest artist Eric Clapton in “Further Up the Road,” you feel like you’re in the crossfire. The movie, which ranks with Scorsese’s top five films in any genre, was supposed to be about the end of the road for The Band. Instead, The Last Waltz (see photo) celebrates rock & roll as a way of life and no movie before or since has done it better.
#2 Stop Making Sense 1984
The first image lets you know what you’re in for: David Byrne, alone with a boombox, yelping “Psycho Killer.” Jonathan Demme’s account of three nights with Talking Heads puts you in the front row of the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, then dares you to stay on your ass. Byrne fills the screen in his Big Suit, but every Head is a star. This is America’s peerless rainbow-funk-art-and-party band, and Demme makes it seem like they’re playing just for you.
#3 Monterey Pop 1969
Go ahead and bitch that you prefer Woodstock as the top rock festival film. I’m going with D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey campout with Janis wailing “Ball and Chain,” Hendrix literally setting fire to his guitar during “Wild Thing,” and Otis Redding ripping his heart out at the end of “Try a Little Tenderness.” And, geez, what about the indelible sight and sound of Country Joe and Fish waking up the sleeping campers with a psychedelic guitar attack on “Section 43.”