Over on the indispensable Youtube series Idea Channel, there was once made the point that of all musical media formats, the live album is perhaps the most inherently lacking. Though there are plenty of individual records one could site to refute this, it is fairly apparent that the live album labors under dueling sets of expectations: of coming up against the expected polish of a recorded album as well as the expectation of a visceral thrill that derives from attending live performances. To that latter end, video recordings of live performances are capable of working around the problem. Be they music videos or actual professional concert footage, the live video recording’s chief strength is the ability to compensate for, and even simulate, the thrill of the concert-going experience by presenting it within a context of hyper-reality. We may not be in the midst of the experience, but we can view it from multiple viewpoints, appreciate fine and fleeting details, and review it multiple times at our leisure. It is, therefore, in the construction of concert films that the tricky prospect of the live album finds its greatest fulfillment, both as an experience and a document.
What is true of concert films applies also to the entire realm of documentary cinema: generally, the best ones are those that embrace and elucidate a set perspective, breaking free of the rote objectivity of a mere recording in order to make a statement. They become suffused with a distinct personality, either of the filmmakers and artists or of the time and place of their making. These qualities are really what set concert documentaries apart from the I.R.L. experience, and you can be sure that the very best concert docs will in turn have them in spades. From the damning gaze of Gimme Shelter to the playful energy of Stop Making Sense, these films are capable of an artistry that transcends (and sometimes even exceeds) that of the events they capture.
As those movies, and others, have been long since rightfully canonized, let us now turn instead to some more recent, potentially overlooked examples of the concert documentary at its best. Each of these films succeed in bringing to the viewer extraordinary musical performances, all the while asserting the import of the film on its own merits. They are music and film melded, at once life and something more.