Before Beyonce: the concert films that blazed a trail for the superstar's 'Homecoming'
From David Bowie to K-pop band BTS, we look at the successes of stage show films ahead of Queen Bey’s Netflix documentary
Like combat sequences and sporting spectacles, the visceral excitement of live music has proved notoriously difficult for filmmakers to capture convincingly on celluloid – the concert film genre littered with many more lukewarm misfires than stone-cold classics.
If the hype is to be believed, we can expect a rare victory on Wednesday, when beloved Beyonce drops Homecoming, an account of her historic headline show at last year’s Coachella, on Netflix. As the first black woman called on to take the trendsetting California festival’s top billing, Beyonce used the slot to make not just history, but a statement – leading a 100-strong cast through a meticulously choreographed conceptual ode to black college marching bands, complete with step-dancing, baton-twirling and an almighty drum line.
Blink-twice guest turns were made by sister Solange and husband Jay-Z, while Destiny’s Child staged a surprise reunion – with Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland singing Say My Name and Soldier. Quickly dubbed “Beychella” by DJ Khaled, the show was ecstatically praised by critics, with Variety magazine breathlessly exclaiming the show a “testament to Beyonce as the premier musical performer of our time”.
The spectacle was streamed live, sending shock waves far beyond the 125,000 festival-goers, but in the year since, fans have had to content themselves with shaky camera phone footage to relive the moment. In typical Beyonce fashion, Homecoming was kept top secret until 10 days before its release date, and from the artsy first trailer – narrated by author and activist Maya Angelou – it’s not clear how much of the movie’s runtime will be devoted to sketching the show’s production and conceptual genesis. But the few seconds of stage footage we do see will feed hopes that every second of the 32-track, two-hour spectacle have made the final cut.
The concert film format might feel a surprisingly traditionalist step for such a conversation-starting and zeitgeist-grabbing artist, but we can also harbour hope that Homecoming – and the wide public platform it enjoys through a Netflix release – breathes some life into the lethargic concert movie genre. Filmmakers have been filming musicians since long before sound was introduced to cinema, but the concert film as we know it enjoyed its heyday in the years before home video – when a trip to the cinema might have been your only chance to catch a glimpse of your favourite stars in action.
The Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards writes movingly, in his autobiography Life, about the “pilgrimage” he and Mick Jagger made to catch Chuck Berry’s four-minute appearance in 1960’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a sun-kissed document of the Newport Jazz Festival two years earlier. That seminal picture was representative of early concert films, which increased audience appeal by featuring several headline performers – such as 1964’s star-studded Tami Show, which combined crucial early footage of Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, The Supremes and the Stones themselves. Images of the 1960s counterculture movement continue to be defined by ensemble pick ’n’ mixes Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970) – both, incidentally, remembered for the star appeal of Jimi Hendrix’s stratospheric performances.
The single-artist concert film was born amid the longer careers and album-orientated format of the 1970s. Influential but indulgent early documents include Pink Floyd’s impressive Live in Pompeii (1972) – shot pompously in an empty Roman amphitheatre – and the introduction of David Bowie’s most enduring alter ego, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). The hubris could become overwhelming: released three years after the Madison Square Garden shows it documented, Led Zeppelin’s bloated The Song Remains the Same (1976) was punctuated with laughable fantasy sequences.
Such excesses may have inspired the stripped-back, warts ’n’ all aesthetic of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), a star-studded document of The Band’s farewell concert featuring a roll call of rock luminaries – Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond – the concentration of which amounted to a very different kind of self-serious conceit.
Video killed the stadium star
Home video went a long way to halting such indulgences, with niche artists abruptly able to reach their target audiences without clogging up mainstream cinemas. However, as record sales have dried up in recent years, music managers have turned back to cinemas for additional artist revenue, with mixed results.
Last year, two of the biggest bands on the planet, Coldplay and Muse, screened concert films “for one day only” in cinemas across the world – but their A Head Full of Dreams and Drones World Tour films reportedly banked just Dh12.7 million and Dh1.4m respectively. Despite ecstatic predictions about its record-breaking potential, K-pop sensations BTS’s tour film Burn the Stage: The Movie closed earlier this year with an underwhelming Dh68m in the coffers – less than a fifth grossed by the comparably crazed Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011), and not one 12th of the takings by Michael Jackson’s final rehearsals, released posthumously as This Is It (2009).
But Netflix could prove the fertile middle ground for a concert movie revival, combining the convenience of home video with the media buzz of a big release – as demonstrated by the enthusiastically received release of Springsteen on Broadway earlier this year. In this respect, Beyonce is for once not quite ahead of the curve – but like The Boss, the inevitable hype of Homecoming will surely legitimise the format for other artists ahead. And just maybe, spark a new renaissance of songs on the screen.
Five concert films that have gone down in history
Were it just a portal to vintage performances of soul legends Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and the Staple Singers, in front of an audience of more than 100,000, Wattstax would be a remarkable document. But Stax Records’ all-star revue – named as a conscious answer to white Woodstock and punctuated on film with contributions from seminal comedian Richard Pryor – was a racially charged reckoning, captured in the South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood torn apart by riots a few years earlier.
'Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light' (1980)
Towards the latter stages of her seminal ’70s run, the era’s archetypal solo acoustic songstress began an unlikely, beguiling experimentation with jazz – which culminated in this star-studded encounter with improvisatory legends including fusion guitar hero Pat Metheny, electric bass iconoclast Jaco Pastorius, sax heavyweight Michael Brecker and percussion mastermind Don Alias.
'Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense' (1984)
Named after one of David Byrne’s typically elliptical lyrical nuggets and frequently hailed among the most influential concert films made, Jonathan Demme’s picture was an acutely choreographed masterwork, introducing classic elements such as Byrne’s oversized “big suit” (borrowed, he later confessed, from Japanese stage costume traditions). The sense of theatre doubtlessly influenced REM’s best concert movie, 1990’s artsy early document Tourfilm.
'The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970' (1996)
Released more than a quarter-century after The Who performed a spikily irreverent 2am set to 600,000 punters at Britain’s answer to Woodstock, experimental documentarian Murray Lerner’s film is surely one of the most visceral documents of rock ’n’ roll on celluloid – capturing half of the quartet’s three-hour set, at their freewheeling rawest, adrift between the drama of 1969’s rock opera Tommy and 1971’s stadium-sounding Who’s Next.
'LCD Soundsystem: Shut Up and Play the Hits' (2012)
Among the most influential bands to emerge in the new millennium, LCD Soundsystem broke fans’ hearts when they announced a premature split in 2011, bowing out with a finale at Madison Square Garden – a venue frontman James Murphy admits they wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell out. Premiered at Sundance the following year, this gorgeously shot document cherry-picked the best bits of the ecstatic four-hour finale – cementing the band’s myth ready for a lucrative 2015 reunion.
Updated: April 15, 2019 04:49 PM