Three Concert Film Jewels

When switching on my TV last evening to look for the next episode of the excellent PBS series “Soundbreaking,” I was thrilled to see they were showing “The Last Waltz” instead – quite appropriate, given it was the 40th anniversary of The Band’s epic performance. This inspired me to do a post on great concert movies.

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People who know me or have visited the blog are aware that I love going to rock concerts. Seeing my favorite artists perform live brings their music much closer to me than any album could ever do. While I’ve been to many great shows over the past three decades or so, unfortunately, there are way more acts than I can see. Of course, watching a concert movie instead cannot really make up for the thrill of being in the concert hall yourself, but I still enjoy it. Following are some of my favorite concert films.

The Last Waltz

As I watched this film again last night, I realized how truly outstanding it is. Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, organs, drums, clavinet, dobro, vocals), Garth Hudson (organ, accordion, synthesizers, soprano saxophone, clavinet), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals) and Rick Danko (bass, fiddle, vocals) simply put on rock & roll craftsmanship at its best. Add to this that the movie was shot by film director icon Martin Scorsese, and it’s not a surprise why many critics have called The Last Waltz the greatest concert movie of all time.

The film captures what was billed The Band’s farewell concert performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving day in 1976 (Nov 25). Released in April 1978, the film also features guest appearances from such amazing other artists like Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood and of course, not to forget Band long-time collaborator, Bob Dylan.

The idea to turn The Band from a live to a studio act, similar to what The Beatles had decided in the mid-60s, came to Robertson in early 1976, after Richard Manuel had a serious boating accident. Robertson also thought about capturing the event on film and recalled he liked Mean Streets, the 1973 movie directed by Scorsese who had also worked as an assistant director and one of the editors of another legendary concert film –  Woodstock.

The Last Waltz has so much great music that is almost impossible to select my favorite moment. Clearly, one of the highlights is when all musicians perform Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.

The Concert for Bangladesh

This film is another jewel among rock concert movies. Directed by Saul Swimmer and released in March 1972, the film documents two benefit concerts organized by George Harrison and his good friend, sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar. The performances, which raised money for refugees of the 1971 revolution and armed conflict in Bangladesh, took place on August 1, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Similar to The Last Waltz, the show brought together an incredible array of rock artists, including Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton, among others. Even Bob Dylan showed up. While Harrison had reached out to him, it was unclear until the very last moment what the great rock poet would do, until perhaps in typical Dylan fashion he suddenly walked on stage!

The concert kicks off with traditional instrumental Hindustani classical music performed by Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Alla Rakha (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tambura). In one of the film’s lighter moments, the audience enthusiastically applauds when the musicians pause after tuning their instruments, to which Shankar remarks: “Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

The rock portion of the film captures amazing music from Harrison, The Beatles and some of his guests. Highlights include While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something and My Sweet Lord, as well as Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy and Preston’s That’s the Way God Planned It. It doesn’t matter much that the musicians at times struggle a bit with lyrics and their instruments. If anything, this gives the performance a charming spontaneous character.

Here is a nice clip of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Rust Never Sleeps

This 1979 film is based on a live album with the same title from Neil Young and its longtime band Crazy Horse. The picture, directed by Young under the pseudonym Bernhard Shakey, captures a nearly two-hour show performed on October 22, 1978 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

While the film has received accolades for its terrific music, some critics have complained about grainy and underlit footage, as well as certain features that take away from the band’s great craftsmanship, such as the roadies with glowing eyes reminiscent of the Jawas in Star Wars, who can be seen in the beginning of the movie setting props on the stage and at times during the show. In my opinion, it’s a minor aspect of an otherwise outstanding concert film.

Rust Never Sleeps features some of Neil Young’s greatest songs, showcasing acoustic gems like Sugar Mountain, Comes a Time and My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), and grunge rockers, such as Like a Hurricane, Cinnamon Girl and Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).

This clip of Like a Hurricane nicely illustrates how the film combines quirky features and outstanding rock & roll.

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