I’m not sure when I’ll set foot in a concert venue again, but chances are it’s going to be a very long time from now. Some of the most bullish promoters and venues have rescheduled for the fall or winter, despite a recent surge in cases and city officials deeming it unsafe until the fall of 2021. Of course there will be inventive workarounds, like the recently announced drive-in shows featuring Brad Paisley, Nelly, Darius Rucker, and more. (Along with less cautious events like the nu-metal "herd immunity" festival in Wisconsin next month, but that’s another story.) Bookers and tour managers are largely looking to next year — when a majority of independent venues might cease to exist — which means any live music fan might want some alternatives in the meantime.
If the livestream boom’s starting to grow old, why not check out a classic music documentary? Between YouTube and the major streaming services, some of the best concert films of all time are available free to watch right at home. It’s one of the best ways to get into an artist of the right scale and resources, capturing a crucial facet of their career that might otherwise get lost on Spotify. As the long summer of canceled music festivals and concerts continues, stream one of these essential live music films.
Stop Making Sense (Amazon Prime)
A few weeks ago, someone on Twitter dared to say that Jonathan Demme was a one-hit wonder for directing The Silence of the Lambs. Implying that he hadn’t seen the greatest concert film of all time, this didn’t go well! Demme filmed the Talking Heads over four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, and created something bursting with enough energy to get casual fans onboard. Few directors have ever approached this level of joie de vivre, involving the camera in such an active role. Of course David Byrne’s to credit for reimagining the collaborative nature of live performance and how the songs are just one small component. He creates new worlds unto themself with a familiar catalogue, and Spike Lee’s American Utopia can’t get here fast enough.
Everyone knew Beyoncé headlining Coachella would be a big deal, but I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the scope of Homecoming. Capturing both weekends, the hundreds of dancers and bandmates, wardrobe changes and all, it’s easily one of the best concert documentaries to emerge this century. You didn’t have to melt in the Indio desert to be part of its overwhelming scope, and validated any hyperbole about how Beyoncé’s the only artist who could pull something off something like this. So what if she hasn’t followed up Lemonade with a proper solo album yet, Beychella could very well match its impact as a cultural document.
Radiohead: Live at Bonnaroo 2006 (YouTube)
If Jonny Greenwood calls something “the best festival experience he’s ever had in America,” you’ll want to take his word for it! The art rock titans have endured as one of the millennium’s few reliable rock headliners on the global festival circuit, and the recently uploaded 2006 Bonnaroo set with original desk audio captures Radiohead at the absolute height of their powers. More than a year before the band released In Rainbows, they ripped through more than half of the record along with what amounts to a greatest hits collection. Although the setlists have evolved drastically over the years, with rotating songs to match the most recent album, this was the one.
Amazing Grace (Hulu)
After a messy, decades-long journey to the screen — which included botched syncs of sound and image and numerous lawsuits from Aretha Franklin for appropriating her likeness — Amazing Grace finally arrived in theaters last year. Captured by Sydney Pollack at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972, this was Franklin summoning every ounce of her divine power. Had it not been for some miraculous sound mixing and Franklin’s family agreeing to release the film after her death in 2018, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts would’ve been among the lucky few to see the master at her peak.
Sign o' the Times (YouTube)
No stranger to linking his studio albums with major theatrical releases, Prince took Sign o’ the Times to theaters for a brief run in 1987. Sales were lower stateside than expected for his wildly ambitious double album, and didn’t really pick up after an extensive summer of touring and the film’s release. This companion wasn’t a conventional concert film, featuring just 13 songs connected by a scripted narrative. Although Prince’s rain-kissed Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 will go down as the big one, this was every bit its buoyant equal for die-hards.
Gimme Shelter (Criterion Channel)
Breaking even further from form, the Rolling Stones’ 1970 doc Gimme Shelter is as much a document of the end of an entire era as a pure music documentary. Following the Stones’ 1969 tour, it culminated with the tragic Altamont Free Concert. Filmed in harsh verité style, it provides an unvarnished look at the clash between Hell’s Angels bikers and hippies that all but siloed off the counterculture movement. A far cry from their later high-profile pairing with Martin Scorsese, Gimme Shelter’s brutality is offset by some of the band’s best live footage.