Thanks for all the good posts and recommendations. If I may, I’ll add a few thoughts about some of the films, which have been mentioned:
I have seen both films about French high-wire artist Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center and, interestingly, the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ isn’t just a generally better movie than Robert Zemeckis’s mediocre ‘The Walk’, it’s also the more exciting thriller. Many critics have mentioned that large parts of ‘Man on Wire’ play like a heist movie and the restaged scenes are more suspenseful than the corresponding ones in the fiction film, although I normally don’t like staged scenes.
I’m a bit conflicted about ‘The Fog of War’, which has very informative and interesting content, but is also formally very boring. Basically, it’s a talking head interview with McNamara interspersed with occasional archive footage. Also, I had the impression that McNamara is a very shrewd interviewee and became very elusive just when the interview became interesting.
‘Woodstock’ is indeed more than just a concert movie and seems to capture the zeitgeist of the Hippie era of the late 1960ies very well. It’s a must-see for anybody interested in 60ies counterculture, although fans of the type of rock music played at Woodstock might be better served by D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the earlier Monterey Pop Festival (or even just the movie about Jimi Hendrix’s magnificent set at Monterey), which had better performances than those captured in ‘Woodstock’. If you’re watching ‘Woodstock’ for more than just the music, make sure to also watch ‘Gimme Shelter’ as a companion piece. It’s about the later Altamont Free Concert, headlined by the Rolling Stones, which went terribly wrong with bad organization, people tripping on bad LSD and security being done by outlaw motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels, one of whose members killed an armed spectator during the Rolling Stone’s gig.
The mentioning of ‘Woodstock’ segues nicely into some general observations about concert movies, a particular subgenre of documentary. Like no other type of documentary, concert movies depend on the audience’s appreciation of their subject as such, i.e. you have to have an interest in the artist or music to appreciate a concert movie about them. Would anybody but a “belieber” watch – and like – ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never’ just because the film as such might be well-made? Certainly not. Concert films are designed to approach the experience of actually watching a musician play a live show and to capture the energy of that performance. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than just pointing a camera to the stage and filming a show, but that’s the essence of a concert film. And you wouldn’t go to a concert by an artist who makes music, which you don’t like, would you? For example, I don’t really like Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed ‘The Last Waltz’ about the last concert by The Band, which is a fine concert movie. However, The Band’s roots rock with folk and country elements just isn’t my thing and, consequently, I didn’t enjoy the movie very much.
Martin Scorsese also directed a concert movie about the arguably biggest rock band in history, the Rolling Stones:
Shine a Light (2008)
I should first state that I’m not a diehard fan of the Rolling Stones. I really like their music until “Exile on Main St.” and consider everything after that essentially as living off past glories. Sure, the Stones are rather good at their brand of straightforward and bluesy rock and roll, but I find it quite generic and not very exciting. How would you even qualify their musical genre these days? “Classic Rock”? “Dad Rock”?
From the evidence offered in ‘Shine a Light’, I’d qualify it as “Establishment Rock”, because the performance is edited together from two charity shows for the Bill Clinton foundation with some dignitaries in attendance. It’s quite some distance to the tales told by a good friend’s father, eyes glazing over with nostalgia, about rioting in the streets after a Rolling Stones concert in 1965. The fact that the Rolling Stones have become the antithesis to what they once stood for – youthful rebellion – was the first thing to put me off ‘Shine a Light’ and was only enhanced by brief clips of interviews with Mick Jagger or Keith Richards from earlier in their career, in which they say that they don’t think that they’ll be continuing this rock star thing when they’re past 30 or so. Of course, these statements make a nice contrast to the craggy old faces of Jagger and Richards, but it’s a rather quaint joke and one which could have been made (and probably has been made) 20 or even 30 years ago as well. Also, the juxtaposition with their younger selves doesn’t just show how much they have aged and doesn’t so much show that they have “still got it”, it emphasises that the Rolling Stones are about preserving their cultural heritage rather than being a rock band.
The third problem with ‘Shine a Light’ is the way in which Scorsese inserts himself into the documentary, fretting about not having a playlist yet with which to plan the shooting order and such. Aren’t these rock star types just spontaneous free spirits? I think it’s supposed to be funny, but to me it felt as if Scorsese was a fanboy here, straining hard to find an excuse to put himself into the movie with his heroes.
As for the musical performance as such: Well, The Rolling Stones are old pros and know how to give an audience what it wants. They’re also capable musicians and seem to enjoy playing live. Mick Jagger’s performance is more animated than the vast majority of acts, which I have seen live, and all of this deserves some credit as well as the way in which the concert footage has been filmed and edited. But it’s really a movie made by a fan for fans only.