There are loads of ways to do a concert documentary. One is to simply shoot the goings on that take place on stage – set up a bunch of cameras and be done with it. Given that the majority of big shows are shown via video screens anyway, this is hardly an uncommon process, as regular an occurrence as simply audio recording the show was decades ago.
Another option is to pepper in some interviews with the band, contextualizing things a bit, placing us in the center of the conversation about the performers. When done well, you get Martin Scorsese’s masterful The Last Waltz, when done is a more mediocre fashion you get Morgan Spurlock’s One Direction 3D, or even the last Neil Young Journeys doc. For fans of the music, sure, there’s something there, but as standalone films they add little.
Two films that played TIFF this year proved to be more than just throwaway concert docs. The first, Ron Howard’s Made In America, demonstrates explicitly what Spurlock failed to do with his. Independent of my views of the band, what was frustrating about the One Direction film was how close it came to being a real movie – interview footage with the performers’ parents showed the ambivalence they felt as their kids were off gallivanting around the world. These brief moments, however, were drowned out by a cacophony of screaming teenage girls and self delusion – the scene where the band talks about their individual indispensability to the whole, oblivious to their interchangeability for any other cute boy with a modicum of talent that Simon Cowell could have arbitrarily have picked, is simultaneously comic and tragic.
Howard’s film is in many ways equally mythic when it comes to its main subject (and the film’s producer), Jay Z. Tracing a benefit concert in central Philadelphia, Mr. Z brings together a diverse assortment of acts to do a kind of benefit for ‘Merica. The goal, it seems, is to bring disparate elements together, both musically and politically, and celebrate through song the resilience of those who have suffered in the recent economic malaise. Bring the show to town, and the ancillary benefit will presumably trickle down.
The sentiment is pure, and the assemblage of talent is indeed interesting. What’s promising on a cinematic front are the great documentary moments – we see Shawn Carter return to his apartment in Brookyn, standing on the roof while just blocks away his giant, billion dollar stadium is lit up. It’s an incredible testament to the notion of the American dream, from drug runner to mogul, and on screen it’s an intoxicating scene.
Similarly, talk with members of Run-DMC about classic Hip Hop, or the way that their own musical education was far less ghettoized, adds quite a bit to the concert footage. An adorable neighbour talks about her own musical proclivities (dismissing the “boom boom music”), a stage hand shows us his own challenges, and a food truck operator makes a go of making a meager profit from the event. This holistic approach makes the musical elements much more coherent to the whole, and while it’s not such a high bar to jump over, demonstrates explicitly to lesser films what should be aimed for.
Similarly, the 12/12/12 concert doc does a great job of situating the event within a larger context. A show organized to benefit those afflicted by Hurricane Sandy, this was modeled after the 9/11 concert that was in part organized by Hollywood honcho Harvey Weinstein. Combined with the head of Clear Channel and Madison Square Gardens, these three producers and their team pull off a massive show on very short notice.
The film doesn’t have a credited director, but producer Amir Bar-Lev and his editors manage something really quite extraordinary, doing a fabulous job of making it feel like a real-time unfolding of the show. Cutting between the stage, backstage, and in various locations such as local bars, as an audience member we’re made to feel a kind of omniscience towards the event.
For me, the musical acts are far more within my comfort zone, but dredging up dinorock isn’t just for show – after all, they were selling tickets for $25,000 apiece for some of the seats – the goal is to appeal to them, not to make some musical statement like Jay-Z was trying to do with his show.
Independent of the music, there are again some terrific documentary moments. When things go awry with the donation system’s capacity, Weinstein calls on audience member (and Google CEO) Erik Schmidt to lend a hand. One calming phone call later, and things are running smoothly again. It’s almost eerie to see this take place, like watching the Godfather in his taciturn way give a direction that can’t be refused. More importantly, it demonstrates both executive competence and the kind of supreme confidence earned by being really good at what one does. If you ever want to see how a Hollywood or business tycoon gets things done, this film provides a unique insight.
Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney… titans of classic rock take to the stage, but they’re equally engaging backstage as well. There are plenty of tiny moments that prove charming, in addition to the many other celebrities who were assisting with the phone banks. Outside the venue, there’s a strong sense of community, and the way these elements are all tied to the whole is the film’s biggest strength.
Neither of these films reaches the pantheon of the great concert docs, but they each in their own way demonstrate how things can be done in both an enjoyable, musically interesting, and cinematically satisfying way. I’m not sure Howard is destined to be a documentarian, but his gee-whiz take on the event is compelling. Equally, the documentation of the 12/12/12 far surpasses expectations, providing real and unique insight into this kind of event, even approaching such classics as Woodstockfor a genuine sense of the character of a time and place.