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News / Life / Entertainment

Great concert films capture cultural moment

Highlights of the genre include ‘Stop Making Sense’

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:00am

All you need is two concert films to make a strong case for the vitality of the genre.

Director Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads masterpiece “Stop Making Sense,” came out in 1984, and now A24 has released to theaters a 4K digital restoration, with super-crispy and complexly beautiful sound. IMAX-branded screens preferred. Is this the greatest concert film? Yes. I believe it to be so. And now you don’t have to read anymore.

But wait! I met up with my Tribune colleague Christopher Borrelli to zig and zag on the topic, the history and the glories of the concert movie experience.

The newest and likely most profitable example of the genre opens Oct. 13: “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.” Less than a month before its theatrical premiere, the North American advance ticket sales for the Swift film are nearly $70 million. Opening week estimates run everywhere between $100 and $150 million. Swift has made seven previous concert films, spanning studio sessions to stadium blowouts, beginning with “Journey to Fearless” in 2010.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Phillips: So you saw the preview screening of “Stop Making Sense” at the Regal IMAX (on Western Avenue) the other night?

Borrelli: Yeah! Pretty cool! People were dancing in the theater.

Phillips: We just had three people at our (daytime) press screening but my leg was doing that David Byrne thing, flopping around in rhythm, the whole time. Seeing it again made me think it’s not really enough for a filmmaker to make it seem like you were there in the audience yourself. It’s more about capturing a sort of extra-dimensional version of the event. Or something like that.

Borrelli: I know what you mean. The cliche is always: “We’re going to film the concert and put you on the stage! With the band!” But do you really want to be onstage with the band? I don’t want to be. I want more of an immersive experience. That was always my one knock against “Stop Making Sense,” I guess, that Demme doesn’t give you much of the audience, except right at the end —

Phillips: Right. He had his reasons, which he talked about later in interviews. The first night they filmed, they tried to light the crowd, and it ended up distracting and inhibiting the audience, which ended up inhibiting the performers. And Byrne told Demme afterward that it was the worst show the Talking Heads ever put on! So that was the end of the audience lighting.

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Borrelli: Makes sense (laughs). I think “Stop Making Sense” was my first-ever concert film in a theater. Very big deal for me, because I’m from Rhode Island, and the band originated in Providence, so it’s an important local milestone. Also that same year, 1984, “Purple Rain” came out — not a concert film, but Prince is just incredibly vibrant in that film. The film itself, pretty bad, but the concert footage is another level. Also, I just learned that “Stop Making Sense” played the Fine Arts Theater in Chicago for a solid year.

Phillips: What’s the real triumph, do you think, with Demme’s movie?

Borrelli: Hard to say. To some extent, there’s an invisibility to what most directors are doing in a concert film. Seeing it again, I noticed how much Demme captured the way everyone in the band is reacting to everything — how the backup singers react to David Byrne, how (bassist) Tina Weymouth is reacting, all of it. Like the stage concert, the film starts with him alone with a boombox, on “Psycho Killer,” and slowly they add pieces, pieces, pieces, until they have a full show with a full band. The concert just takes off from there.

Phillips: So many right decisions every minute! I think it’s one of the few close-to-perfect movies of its decade. The first time I saw it, I’d only heard the heavy-rotation radio hits of the Talking Heads. So the impact of the music, and Byrne’s sense of optimism and human connection in the face of anxiety just kind of floored me.

Here’s the thing with what Demme and editor Lisa Day created: “Stop Making Sense” is just a glorious display of editing rhythms. It’s a patient approach; they don’t go for the stereotype, that sort of hand-held surface visual energy, or run-and-gun, newsreel-footage-at-Omaha-Beach-style filming. To your point, the movie just pays attention. And they had a frontman, Byrne, who was and is utterly unique. That’s something I picked up on more so this time: There’s an amazing spirit to the music, and the people giving us so much pleasure. But at the center, always, you have a man who’s in many ways alone up there.

Borrelli: Which is probably one of the reasons why the band broke up when they did.

What I see in “Stop Making Sense,” I also see in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978), with The Band. He’ll let the camera be, and let the performers glide in and out of the frame. I remember Van Morrison, hunched over, raising himself up and then into the frame, and then out of it again. In and out, back and forth. Sometimes it turns into a flash of movement or a flash of color, and it sort of captures how you remember a concert: as a weird mixture of movement, shapes and sounds, bits of things.

Phillips: Let’s go back to the pre-”Woodstock” era. Then and now, technique and camera sense aren’t everything with a concert film. Take the 1964 artifact “T.A.M.I. Show,” one of my favorite concert movies, which has this unreal lineup, everyone from Lesley Gore to James Brown. And from James Brown, you can go straight to Prince in “Purple Rain” or, better, his concert film “Sign o’ the Times” (1987). That was filmed mostly on his Paisley Park soundstage in suburban Minneapolis, not on tour. I don’t know, does that make less of a performance film? Or just a different kind?

Borrelli: We should use that word “performance” as liberally as possible with concert movies. Whether it’s truly live, or pieced together from different nights, or recreated in the studio, it’s still a performance.

So I have a question for you. What’s your favorite concert movie cliche?

Phillips: Even if nobody had overdone it before or since, there’s such a split-screen conspiracy going on in “Woodstock” (1970). Scorsese was one of the editors on that, and split-screen was all the rage then. Still with us now, in different forms, and it’s certainly one way to use as much of all those hours and hours of concert footage they had. But I could never really relax into a lot of split-screen. Today, though, that visual technique has become an organic part of the experience of that film, and that event. It’s part of the time capsule. A lot of things in “Woodstock” aren’t like that. They’re more timeless. When Jimi Hendrix plays “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s the definitive version of that song, and in some mysterious way it gets right to the heart of the whole bloody history of our country.

So, Chris, what is your hope for the Taylor Swift concert film coming next month?

Borrelli: My hope?

Phillips: Your fondest hope. What do you hope it gets right as a concert movie?

Borrelli: My hope is that, to some extent, it captures this moment. We have an artist on top of the world, arguably one of the most influential people on the planet. It’d be great if they captured what that’s like, somehow. Some sense of the performance and the culture itself.

It’s not a concert film, but last night (daughter) Zora and I started watching “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) on a whim. She’s 7, and about 10 minutes in she told me she really liked it, but wondered about all the people, screaming, running, chasing after the Beatles. That feeling of being in the middle of a phenomenon like that. I guess I hope the “Eras Tour” movie captures some sense of what Taylor Swift’s success, or any musical superstar’s success, feels like. What it looks like.

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