The 5 Greatest (And 3 Goofiest) Rock Concert Documentaries of All Time

Island Alive Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
David Byrne in 'Stop Making Sense' in 1984.

Concert documentaries seem like an easy thing to make, right? Just choose one of the best live acts in music, turn on a camera and you're set, right? Well, not so much.

As several top-name singers and bands have proven, everything from an artist's ego to the filmmaker's desire to create an artistically showy (i.e., pretentious) film can derail an otherwise stellar live concert documentary (Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, with its laughably hokey fantasy sequences, is a prime example of artist and filmmaker working in tandem to destroy great live footage.) Some, such as the documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by mastermind D.A. Pennebaker, are blessed with excellent subject matter but cursed by mechanical issues. In short, there's a lot that can go wrong -- and it frequently does (more on that at the bottom). 

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But right now, we're focusing on the ones that get it right -- the top five rock concert documentaries of all time. Keep in mind we're not talking about music documentaries as a whole – we're specifically looking at rock docs that primarily focus on a concert event. So classic films that are more about what goes on behind the scenes (Don't Look Back, Let It Be, Sympathy for the Devil) are not included.

5) The Last Waltz (1978)

Centered on The Band's farewell concert, Martin Scorsese's rock doc is an embarrassment of '70s special guest riches: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and even Muddy Waters make astonishing cameos to perform their own material. Even if you're not obsessed with the Band, the sheer force of so many of rock's greatest on one stage makes The Last Waltz an essential piece of history.

4) Monterey Pop (1968)

Although Woodstock is certainly the more famous music fest from the '60s, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 is arguably the superior show in terms of musical quality. Exhibit A: Otis Redding's soul-shaking, heart-stopping "I've Been Loving You Too Long." Exhibit B: Jefferson Airplane's performance, which affected Jean-Luc Godard so much he started (but never finished) a film about the San Fran staples. And last but not least, Exhibit C: Jimi Hendrix thumbing his nose at rock virtuosity with a thumping cover of the brilliantly stupid "Wild Thing," which ended when he lit his guitar on fire, smashed it to pieces and tossed the bits into the crowd. Rockers have been trying to imitate or one-up that proto-punk finale ever since.

3) Sign O' the Times (1987)

Prince's Purple Rain is certainly his most-watched movie, and for good reason -- the live performances are peerless. Also, it's really easy to find. Sadly, Prince's 1987 rock doc Sign O' The Times (centered mainly on his final '80s masterwork) is difficult to track down, but the performances are worth the effort. Between the harder-rocking live version of the title track to the soul-funk throwdown of "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night," this is peak Prince -- although to be fair, Prince was peak Prince approximately 9 out of 10 times he hit the stage. But if you've watched Purple Rain a dozen times and want more, head here.

2) Gimme Shelter (1970)

Probably the only rock documentary that captures the fatal stabbing of a fan on camera, Gimme Shelter -- centered on the disastrous free concert the Rolling Stones put on at Altamont Speedway in California in 1969 -- is mainly associated with the death of an 18-year-old fan who allegedly pulled a gun on a Hells Angels biker serving as security. But aside from that shocking footage, the film -- helmed by master documentarians the Maysles Brothers -- is essential viewing for capturing how the optimistic spirit of the sixties came to a bitter end. As the Stones insist on putting on a free concert for fans without any real plan of action, we watch as they leave their team flailing in the dirt, desperate to meet the band's wishes but tied down by a litany of restrictions and concerns. When it finally does go down, the music might be top-notch, but the atmosphere sure isn't -- a Hells Angels security guard punches one of the artists (Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin) in the face and the tension between the musicians, fans and bikers is palpable. Cliché though it may be, titling the film Good Intentions Pave the Way to Hell would have made just as much sense as Gimme Shelter.

1) Stop Making Sense (1984)

While it's hard narrowing down a list of the 5 Best Rock Concert Documentaries, the No. 1 choice couldn't be easier. Before The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme translated David Byrne's singular vision of a rock concert that told a minimalist story into flawless reality with the Talking Heads' movie Stop Making Sense. The concert builds slowly from a lone man strumming guitar in front of a boombox to a New Wave-meets-funk-meets-art rock explosion that proves you don't have to be hard rock to rock harder than everyone. The music is innovative and ecstatic, the visuals are simple yet sumptuous, and the directing is so expert as to be almost unnoticeable. The best concert doc by a long shot.

And for good measure, here are three goofy-as-hell rock documentaries:

The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Filmed in 1973 when Led Zeppelin was at the height of its live powers, The Song Remains the Same should have been an excellent rock doc without much effort. Unfortunately for audiences, Led Zep was at the peak of their creative bloating when the movie finally came together. As a result, every member of the band gets a separate fantasy sequence, which means we're forced to sit through a lot of Medieval sword fights, horseback rides and a search for a mystical Hermit that ends when Jimmy Page learns that -- gasp -- he IS the Hermit. This is what happens when an artist, bolstered with confidence by sycophants and substances, decides that every thought that goes through their head is genius. 

Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper (1974)

Lucky for us, the Alice Cooper Band's transgressive '70s concerts -- which featured dismembered babies, bloody executions and Nixon getting beat to hell -- were captured for posterity in this film (and it's still fairly uncomfortable to watch 40-some years later). Less fortunate, though, is the fact that the searing concert footage is intercut with idiotic chase scenes between a fictitious German film director and the Cooper Gang. It's supposed to play like a rib-tickling, shock rock version of the Keystone Cops, but the unscripted comedy sequences couldn't be less funny. For as shocking as Alice Cooper's stage show was at the time, it's an even bigger jaw-dropper that anyone gave these interstitial sequences the greenlight.

Shine a Light (2008)

Don't get it twisted -- the Rolling Stones are one of the best live acts in rock history, and for this Martin Scorsese-directed rock doc, Mick and Keith are still astonishing on stage. One thing we didn't need, however, was seeing AARP-eligible rock stars in 3D. And yet that's how the movie was released, meaning fans paid extra to see every wrinkle projected right in their face. The ending sequence is goofy as hell, too. The camera exits the venue, sees Scorsese shouting "UP! UP!" and then pulls so far back (via CGI) that it literally leaves earth's atmosphere. Umm…huh? Just a reminder, folks: This movie was filmed on planet earth!