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Back in the stone age, before DVDs were invented, you could watch rock movies on muddy VHS tapes or, worse, regular television, where the images were faded and the soundtracks were littered with hisses and pops. Catch Woodstock that way and you might wonder why anyone bothered to make the trek.
No more. Welcome to the Golden Age, where vanguard technologies such as Blu-ray put you right in the center of the mosh pit. At Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix sent the fans home in exultation to the scorched remains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On the Director’s Cut DVD, you’ll finally come to understand why.
And so it goes with the rock movies on DVD that enable you to experience the fiercest concert films to the fullest, with the added value of bonus features that further wrap you up in the movie. It’s eye-popping to see the classic images of the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, the Stones in Gimme Shelter or the young Bob Dylan onstage and in private in No Direction Home, transferred to disc in peak condition. What’s even better is what a great disc can do to your ears. Those who think that sound is less important than picture are kidding themselves. Exhibit A: the Band’s thundering version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on The Last Waltz.
The listed here represent a selective guide to the best of the best. They celebrate — with grit and class — rock & roll as a way of life. And because this is 2020 after all, we may have listed all the films as DVDs, but follow the links to stream or download them as well.
1. The Last Waltz (MGM)
After years on the road, the Band gave their farewell show in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976, with old pals like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Mavis Staples and some guy named Dylan. Martin Scorsese captured the concert (and interviewed its participants) with a poignant portrait of hippie outlaws running scared in the Seventies, with highlights like Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and Emmylou Harris’ “Evangeline.” The funniest moment had to be airbrushed out: Young went onstage to sing “Helpless” with a lump of cocaine hanging out of his nose.
2. Monterey Pop (Criterion)
Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas captures the enthusiasm of June 1967’s Monterey Pop music festival as she watches open-mouthed while Janis Joplin tears through “Ball and Chain.” Cinema verite master director D.A. Pennebaker goes for varied moods and grooves in his original documentary’s selection of performances from the Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Canned Heat and others, but numerous outtakes and entire sets from Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding clinch this three-disc set as the Sixties’ defining moments.
3. A Hard Day’s Night (Miramax)
Named after a Ringo Starr quip, the Beatles’ 1964 film debut is a delicious, featherweight comedy with practically no plot at all —— director Richard Lester basically just let John, Paul, George and Ringo be charismatic, goof around and sing some songs for eighty-seven minutes, and the rest took care of itself. (George met his future wife Patti Boyd on the set too.) Lester cut the images to the beat of the music, which some say played a role in the development of modern music videos, and Alun Owen’s endlessly quotable screenplay captures the lightning-paced madness of Beatlemania, although nobody ever utters the word “Beatles.”
4. Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music (Warner Home Video)
Or: Why people wanted to be hippies. Michael Wadleigh’s doc about the 1969 music festival that defined a generation lingers over flower children in all their stoned, muddy, inarticulate glory. But mostly it’s notable for capturing Crosby, Stills and Nash’s second-ever performance, Sly and the Family Stone grooving magnificently and Jimi Hendrix recasting his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the new national anthem.
5. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Paramount)
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s unsparing 2004 documentary may be the best film ever made about the dark side of the creative process. Alienated from one another, burned-out and bass-player-less, Metallica reconvened in 2001 for the slow, grinding work of making St. Anger, with a full-time shrink encouraging them to talk about their feelings. Most hair-raising scene: Lars Ulrich’s father informing his son that his new song sucks.
6. Gimme Shelter (Criterion)
Characterized as a chronicle of how the Sixties died overnight, this 1970 film documents the final ten days of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, culminating in the stabbing of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter by a Hell’s Angel at the Altamont Raceway near San Francisco. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles start with the murder and chronicle what went wrong in a series of flashbacks, each generating mounting dread. By the end, we’re shown in freeze frame a knife poised to descend into Hunter’s body.
7. Wild Style (Rhino Home Entertainment)
Long before G-funk or the Dirty South, hip-hop was as native to New York as CBGB’s punk scene, and this 1983 drama is a paean to its early days. Trudge through the now-quaint plot — a romance between two graffiti artists — and you’ll find exhilarating and rare footage of Fab Five Freddy, Grandmaster Flash and all the spray-painters, rappers and breakers who helped turn hip-hop from a South Bronx musical style into a cultural phenomenon. Finding this on DVD is a rarity and we’ve only seen a couple copies floating around the internet. You can, however, stream it for free on Amazon Prime Video.
8. Stop Making Sense (Palm Pictures/UMVD)
Jonathan Demme says his movie of the final stop on Talking Heads’ 1983 tour “isn’t a concert film, it’s a performance film.” The distinction is that it mostly ignores the audience and captures the band’s theatrical presentation — starting with David Byrne staggering around the stage gasping “Psycho Killer” and ending with Byrne in his famous gigantic white suit among a nine-piece band that unites brittle art punk and juicy funk for a big-weird dance party.
9. Purple Rain (Warner Home Video)
Prince’s first movie is rock-hero mythmaking, right down to his purple motorcycle. But the plot has emotional kick: Can the lonely genius come out of his private world and write more songs? He gets help from fabulously sleazy Morris Day (“Your lips would make a lollipop too happy”) and Day’s valet, Jerome, who are hilarious just putting on their shades and doing double takes. Plus, there’s Apollonia, who dares to purify herself in Lake Minnetonka. But the highlight is Prince onstage, writhing in agony as he wails through a wrenching “The Beautiful Ones.”
10. No Direction Home (Paramount)
Vivid, never-before-seen footage of Bob Dylan and the Band’s famed 1966 show in Manchester, England —— the one where an angry folk fan shouts, “Judas!” — is one of many revelations in Martin Scorsese’s epic documentary of Dylan’s early years. It’s rich in historical context, making brilliant use of performance clips from Odetta, Gene Vincent and the man himself, plus interviews with just about everyone who crossed his path. The definitive portrait of Dylan’s essential era.
11. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (Plexifilm)
Magazine photographer and novice documentarian Sam Jones stumbled on a powder keg of drama when he filmed Wilco as they recorded their fourth album: Singer Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett clash. Reprise Records refuses to release the experimental but tuneful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and drops the band. Bennett gets fired. Wilco then sign with another label and achieve their greatest success with a previously rejected record.
12. The Filth and the Fury: A Sex Pistols Film (New Line Home Video)
Julien Temple’s 2000 film about the Sex Pistols is pretty theatrical for a documentary. But unlike his previous Pistols film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, it’s based on fact and favors the musicians’ perspective over that of their manager, Malcolm McLaren. Strange but true: Film clips prove John Lydon’s alter ego, Johnny Rotten, was inspired by Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s Richard III.
13. The Kids Are Alright (Geneon Entertainment)
Director Jeff Stein’s 1979 love letter to the Who —— especially lunatic drummer Keith Moon, who died shortly after the film — strings together thirteen years of live footage, promotional shorts and TV interviews, capturing both the band’s habit of self-sabotage and its onstage majesty (check out the 1968 rampage through “A Quick One While He’s Away”). Pete Townshend is presciently cynical about their future as a “cabaret act.”
14. Hype! (Republic Pictures/Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment)
Alternating between live performances and comments from critics and industry flacks, Doug Prey’s playful 1996 documentary captures not just the rise of Seattle’s grunge phenomenon but also pop culture’s effect on the lives it exploited while milking trends. Included is the blistering first public performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
15. Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special (BMG)
Nobody expected anything from Elvis by 1968 — he’d turned into a toothless mainstream crooner. But he shocked the world with this Christmas special, putting on a black leather suit and playing electric guitar for the first time in years. Playing around with blues and country oldies, and making a personal pledge of “Tryin’ to Get to You,” the King has never sung with so much fire.
16. Dig! (Palm Pictures/UMVD)
For seven years, Ondi Timoner filmed the Dandy Warhols, who rose from the rock underground to stardom, and their archenemies, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, who failed to follow that path, done in by leader Anton Newcombe’s spasms of ego. The resulting 2004 documentary is a riveting autopsy of turn-of-the-century alternative rock and its impossible balancing act between “credibility” and commercial success.
17. Madonna: Truth or Dare (Live/Artisan)
Alek Keshishian’s stylish 1991 documentary of Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour captures the star at her very best and worst: She laughs backstage as her hairdresser confesses she’d been drugged and date-raped, but onstage Madonna is at the peak of her undeniable powers. Cameos from Warren Beatty, Antonio Banderas, Kevin Costner and Madonna’s own clan heighten the disjunction between messy celebrity life and the tightly controlled choreography she achieves in concert.
18. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Rhino Home Entertainment)
Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields’ 2003 documentary reveals the often acrimonious dynamic between members of punk’s most influential band. Both Joey and Dee Dee Ramone died during the film’s belabored seven-year creation (and Johnny died soon after), but Johnny doesn’t come across as saintly by default: Joey wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away” as retaliation for politically conservative Johnny marrying Joey’s former girlfriend Linda Cummings.
19. Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads (Shout Factory)
Ever since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, the blues has prided itself on killer origin stories, and the genre itself has one of the best. It’s told in this documentary by music critic Robert Palmer and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, who explore dive bars, barber shops and back porches in Memphis and Mississippi, tracing the music of artists like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Big Jack Johnson back to its anthropological and spiritual roots. The secret to the movement’s evolution? Turns out it’s connected to the history of the Mississippi Delta’s soil quality. Who knew?
20 The T.A.M.I. Show (First Look Pictures)
This 1964 concert film features a dozen classic acts in their prime, including the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry and the Supremes. Best of all, though, is a young, sexy James Brown fronting his full-scale revue, complete with the Famous Flames and the I-just-can’t-leave-the-stage cape routine.
21. The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol.1 (BBC Warner)
From 1971 to 1987, England’s primary TV showcase of live rock was the unfortunately named Old Grey Whistle Test. With twenty-eight performances spanning thirteen years, this disc defines “mixed bag.” But although this American collection lacks some of the highlights of the British version, there’s lots here that’ll be new to us Yanks: Check out great versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.”
22. The Harder They Come (Xenon)
Ivan (played by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff) comes to the big city and records a single, getting paid twenty dollars. When he turns to the marijuana trade and shoots a couple of cops, he becomes a Jamaican folk hero. The notion of a musical outlaw who’s a real criminal has since become more commonplace, but here it’s gritty and intense, partially because of the location shooting, in Jamaican shantytowns.
23. Tupac: Resurrection (Paramount Pictures)
Overseen by the late MC’s own mother, Afeni Shakur, this Oscar-nominated 2003 doc isn’t exactly objective. Instead, Tupac Shakur seems to present from beyond the grave his own perspective on his tumultuous short life via voice-over narration created from extensively edited interviews. Directed by MTV veteran Lauren Lazin, the eerie results suit a complex, contradictory subject caught between roles of mama’s boy and thug, socially conscious gangsta poet and headline-generating icon.
24. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Sony Pictures)
Heart-rending and uncomfortably hilarious, this documentary de-romanticizes the idea that insanity breeds genius. Bipolar singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston writes obsessive odes to comicbook heroes, launches into paranoid rants and rises from obscurity with help from Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth — then alienates his comrades. Knowing his illness benefits his legend, Johnston alternately exploits and falls victim to it. Most devastating moment: When Johnston nearly kills himself by trying to crash a plane, his elderly father breaks down and sobs.
25. U2: Rattle and Hum (Paramount Pictures)
This was the 1980s answer to Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same: The world’s biggest rock stars acting out their fantasies — except instead of knights or wizards, U2 just wanted to be Americans. They rock out with B.B. King, visit Sun Studios in Memphis and play a rooftop gig in L.A. — Bono even commands, “Edge, play the blues!” Sure, the Irish rovers get carried away with their reverence for the Elvis-Dylan-Hendrix tradition. But they live up to it with “All I Want Is You,” possibly their finest song. (Although it was used even better in Reality Bites.)