What’s the point of concert films?

Music and Art

Concert movies are always a bit of a conundrum. Just why are they produced? The artists behind them would probably claim that it’s ‘for the fans’ or ‘for art’s sake’. But is this really true?

Some films concentrate on giving its viewers closer access to the performer, as in Katy Perry’s Part of Me (don’t judge! I was dragged along by my sister, plus my inner 12 year old is secretly jealous that Perry manages to make wearing a cupcake stand as a skirt socially acceptable). The film intended to celebrate the pop star’s success as she embarked on a world tour that lasted over a year. It includes live footage that embodies both the singer’s sense of fun and the almost sickeningly saccharine sweet-shop explosion of her shows. Yet Part of Me’s joyfulness is undercut by its poignant record of the breakdown of Perry’s marriage to comedian Russell Brand. The audience is allowed painfully close as exhaustion and heartbreak take their toll. In one scene, Perry is seen curled up in tears and desperate for sleep. With her wig cap and trolley bed, she looks eerily like a doll from a hospital sequence of a horror film. Yet just minutes later she forces herself together, donning pan‐stick make up and a cartoony sequined dress to do a post‐show meet and greet with fans. Smile fixed on, she transforms from one doll to another. Later, we witness her floods of tears just moments before she rises through a trapdoor onto the stage to commence a gruelling two hour show requiring constant energy and cheerfulness. It’s not hard to see why such a performance starts to strain.

But as technology has improved, the focus of other concert movies has begun to shift towards increasing realism. Better recording equipment at concerts and new surround‐sound audio systems in cinemas unite to offer a sound quality that far surpasses the experience of the average listener at the live event. Close‐ups offer a level of detail not even afforded to the lucky few who bag their places on the front barrier just feet from performers. Meanwhile, HD and 3D technology add an immersive and enveloping character to the films, helping the viewer to feel as if they are really there. The website for U23D, released in 2007, claims that the film achieves its goal to ‘intensify the already ecstatic feelings evoked by U2’s live concerts’. It used the greatest number of 3D cameras ever used on a single project (which included every digital 3D camera and recording deck in existence at the time!) to create ‘unprecedented’ and ‘exceptional multisensory experiences’.

Yet technology needs the help of skilful artistic direction to truly evoke the live performance. Martin Scorsese’s direction of Shine a Light, a documentary based on The Rolling Stones’ 2006 performance at the Beacon Theater in New York City, gives artistic kudos to the genre. With such a heavyweight, award‐winning and legendary filmmaker on board, perhaps it’s time to stand up and take notice of the concert film as a serious aesthetic form. But is this what we want? Making concert films into an art form can detract from their original purpose. Innovative filming techniques can hinder instead of enhance a concert movie. Lurching from one shot to another can make the audience feel moved by motion sickness instead of emotion. Artistic shots can shift the focus from the music to the cinematography, whilst close‐ups are no use if they’re stopping you from seeing the overall stage effect.

Despite these difficulties, concert films still have their value and purpose. Filming events creates a record of a moment that could make history, both for musical or other reasons. Gimme Shelter planned to chronicle the end of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour in all its glory. Instead, the film camera rolled as four people died, dozens were injured and theft and damage spread like wildfire. It stands as cinematographic account of a night marred by violence. Equally haunting, 2009’s This Is It was supposed to be a commemoration of Michael Jackson’s world comeback. Yet filming halted before it had really begun, with the finished product turned into a memorial and exploration of the weeks leading up to the star’s untimely death.

Concert movies have their place for fans who want to relive the experience of a concert they’ve enjoyed or find out more about a favourite artist. But however much technology and art advances, it’s hard to imagine that they will ever be more than an addendum to the real thing. 3D, HD and whatever other ‘D’s the techies come up with never be able to replicate the atmosphere and feelings of being at a live concert. Likewise, artist interviews can prove interesting, but for real fans they will remain a mere footnote to the music itself.

PHOTO/Delwin Steven Campbell