En español | David Byrne's American Utopia, a concert film of the Talking Heads front man's Broadway musical of the same name, makes its streaming debut on HBO Max (Oct. 17). And it is an infectiously joyous balm for our uncertain times (especially during a time when we are largely unable to attend concerts of any size of kind). Spike Lee, one of our most consistently dazzling directors, not only captures the show's fantastic songs and innovative choreography, but also its energy, spirit and optimism. It's one of the all-time great concert films right out of the gate. Plus, get your rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk and pop on with these dozen more classic concert movies that you can stream right now.
Amazing Grace (2018)
Released just two years ago after decades of legal red tape, director Sydney Pollack's concert film capturing Aretha Franklin in 1972 as she recorded the gospel album Amazing Grace in front of a live audience is like a prayer finally answered. Taped over two nights in a sweltering Los Angeles church, Franklin's soulful and sweaty performance (in which she's backed by a full choir) is transcendent magic. She sounds as if she's channeling the divine. Her voice will transport you.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Even if you've never actually seen director Jonathan Demme's brilliantly staged Talking Heads concert film, you probably know at least one aspect of it. It's the movie where David Byrne wears that cartoonishly oversize suit as he dances a neurotic, herky-jerky jig. The show begins with Byrne alone onstage, and with each new song another member of the band joins him, building momentum like a freight train slowly picking up speed. With Stop Making Sense, Demme and the Heads elevated what had been a pretty static genre, turning a rock concert into a cross between a revival meeting and an avant-garde performance piece.
The Last Waltz (1978)
Sandwiched between the failure of his retro musical New York, New York and the triumph of Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese took a detour to record the final show of his pal Robbie Robertson's disbanding rock group, the Band. Robertson & Co. had first achieved fame as Bob Dylan's backing band, and their bittersweet live swan song includes a who's who of cameos from heavy hitters such as Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and, of course, Dylan. Filmed at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, The Last Waltz remains one of rock's great farewell parties.
RELATED: Why We Love Martin Scorsese
Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more charismatic and ecstatic live performer than Prince, and his Sign ‘o’ the Times is timely, with a new nine-disc box set edition and a new biography, This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey on and off the Record. The movie released in conjunction with the album shows the purple-clad guitar god to be an otherworldly combination of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, but still an utter original. Almost impossible to track down for years other than on old VHS tapes, this blistering funk workout is a fitting tribute to one of our late greats at the absolute peak of his powers.
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Monterey Pop (1968)
Before there was Woodstock, there was Monterey Pop. Filmed by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker during the Summer of Love, this three-day festival would help define the iconography of the ‘60s for several reasons. There's an incendiary set from Otis Redding and an exuberant squall of sonic destruction from the Who, and Jimi Hendrix literally lights his guitar ablaze like a sacrifice to the rock gods. But my favorite moment is a split-second reaction of Mama Cass watching Janis Joplin belting out “Ball and Chain” and mouthing the word “wow.” Wow, indeed.
For decades, Michael Wadleigh's stunningly edited chronicle of three days of peace and music on Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York was the most successful documentary of all time. It's easy to see why. Not only does it provide a snapshot of some of the counterculture's greatest acts (plus Sha Na Na) performing to a muddy sea of blissed-out faces, it also cleverly turns the camera 180 degrees to document the audience as well — a peace-sign-waving cross section of America's youth turning on, tuning in and dropping out for one glorious moment as they went back to the garden.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
If Woodstock symbolized the apotheosis of the good vibes of the 1960s, the Altamont festival represented its bummer hangover. Filmed in immediate, vérité style by Albert and David Maysles, Gimme Shelter documented a poorly planned free concert by the Rolling Stones that turned into a crime scene after the Hells Angels (who were providing security at the show) stabbed and beat Meredith Hunter, a Black 18-year-old man to death. When the Maysles later show the tragic footage to Mick Jagger in the editing room, you can see a wave of guilt, culpability and nausea wash over his face. In that one moment, the ‘60s seemed to be over.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005)
At the peak of his mainstream TV fame, comedian Dave Chappelle decided to throw an old-fashioned block party in the streets of Clinton Hill, in Brooklyn, and capture the results on celluloid. Featuring a loose and eclectic lineup of comedy and hip-hop and neo-soul acts like Mos Def, Kanye West, Erykah Badu and the Roots, Block Party exudes that end-of-summer ray of happiness and positive energy. It can't help but put a smile on your face and get your head nodding along to the beat. Never more so than when Lauryn Hill and the reunited Fugees break into “Killing Me Softly.”
With such artists under its banner as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Carla Thomas, the Memphis-based Stax Records was literally the soul of the Black South in the 1960s. In 1972, the label staged its own sort of inner-city Woodstock — a concert benefiting Black neighborhoods torn apart by riots — at the Los Angeles Coliseum. And the performances, especially from Isaac Hayes ("Theme From Shaft") and the Staples Singers ("Respect Yourself") are iconic.
Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
What happens when it's time for the party to be over? That's the prickly question that this documentary tries to get LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy to answer on the eve of his dance-music collective's final show. Offstage, Murphy flails for answers. But he speaks loudly and clearly onstage at Madison Square Garden, pumping up the rapturous sold-out audience with his band's dazzling, synthesizer-drenched wall of sound. It turns out the party's never over when it's recorded for posterity.
Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009)
Before his tragic and unexpected death in the summer of 2009, Michael Jackson had been rehearsing for his latest tour. Those rehearsals were captured on film and posthumously released as This Is It. That may sound shamelessly opportunistic, but the film is actually a powerful reminder of the King of Pop's perfectionism, dedication and one-of-a-kind superhuman talent. Even at 50, he moves like liquid mercury. This is essentially the greatest concert film ever made about a concert that unfortunately never happened.
Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
Part concert film and part merry-prankster gag, director Martin Scorsese's playful chronicle of Bob Dylan's infamous “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour in 1975 is pure bliss for rock obsessives, especially those with a major in Dylanology. The inspiration for the series of dates had been old-time barnstorming medicine shows with a mime-faced Dylan as a carny barker trotting out his wild band of oddball attractions (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez). The songs, especially those from the soon-to-be-released Desire, are amazing. There's no shortage of magic or mystery on this magical mystery tour.
Watch it here: Rolling Thunder Revue, on Netflix