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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
It's been a year since live concerts were a safe way to experience music. And we missed them - the roar of a blissed out crowd, the experience of being in the same room as art at the moment of its creation. So it feels like a good time to talk about some of our favorite concert films, movie-length experiences that transport us to the stages and spectacles we miss. I'm Stephen Thompson. And today, we're talking about our favorite concert films on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us from her home in Washington, D.C., is NPR music contributor Cyrena Touros. Hey, Cyrena.
CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. What's up?
THOMPSON: It's great to have you here. Also joining us from her home in Chicago is LaTesha Harris. She's an NPR music contributor as well as a production assistant on the NPR podcast Louder Than A Riot. Welcome to the show, LaTesha.
LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. Thank you so much.
THOMPSON: Oh, it's great to have you. Also with us from his home in Washington, D.C., writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Hello, Stephen. Glad to be here.
THOMPSON: So obviously, there's no way we can get to every great concert film ever made. I had to tell my colleague, Robin Hilton, that we weren't going to get to Billy Joel's "Live From Long Island (1982)," and the man was crestfallen. We're also going to shy away from music documentaries, which are a whole different animal. And we figure that if you listen to the show, you already know about stuff like Tiny Desk concerts. Instead, we're going to go around the table and each talk about one of our favorite concert films. Cyrena Touros, I'm going to start with you.
TOUROS: Well, Stephen, truthfully, I wanted to say Martin Scorsese's "Rolling Thunder Revue" but just the four minutes in which Joni Mitchell plays Coyote and makes Bob Dylan look like a has-been. But I guess if I have to pick a full film, I want to go with "Lady Gaga Presents The Monster Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden." This film came out in 2011. She was supporting her debut album, "The Fame," and her follow-up EP, "The Fame Monster." I'd say in 2011, the biggest pieces of mainstream queer media were RuPaul, "Glee" and Gaga. I think society has progressed past the need for Ryan Murphy shows - no more Ryan Murphy shows. But I have been going back and revisiting a lot of the things that made me happy at the beginning of last decade. So I have been rewatching "Glee." I have been thinking about the mama monster, Lady Gaga. And I like my Gaga the weirder, the better. And this is peak weird Gaga.
THOMPSON: This is meat dress Gaga.
TOUROS: There are some crazy costumes in this film. So the Monster Ball Tour, as recorded here, is for HBO. And you can kind of tell - like it's not the most artfully shot documentary. It's not the most meticulously crafted behind-the-scenes sort of deal. It really is just kind of like preserving this cultural moment in amber. And I'm totally fine with that. Like, I know these two albums or this album and this EP, like, front to back. Like, I knew every single song. Like, there are so many things in this concert that are a gateway to the Lady Gaga that is to come.
And as much as I love the theatrics, you know, your vampire chic costumes, your cult leader/spa day attendant costumes, like, all of the Gaga camp and flair, I think what really shone in this documentary was the moments that she sat down at the piano. She played "Speechless," which is a ballad from "The Fame Monster," and "You And I," which came out on "Born This Way," back to back while weirdly shouting out Liza Minnelli in the audience. I guess Liza Minnelli was there, and she was really hyped about it. And I think this, like, Gaga at the piano, is, like, the most incredible thing you'll ever hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY GAGA PRESENTS THE MONSTER BALL TOUR: AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) ...If you broke? And is your punchline just a joke? I'll never talk again. Oh, boy, you've left me speechless. You left me speechless, so speechless.
TOUROS: I think Gaga in this era is still trying to figure out how to marry the pop star with the theater kid inside of her. I just love that we have this portal into the new Gaga that's to come, the Gaga that duets with Tony Bennett, the Gaga that stars in "A Star Is Born" at these moments where she sits down at the piano like this.
But I do have to say it's not Gaga without the overly sentimental audience pandering. But there is this really great moment where she says, the best thing about the Monster Ball is that I created it so that my fans would have a place where all the freaks are outside. And it's wild to me because I'm an openly bisexual young person. But in 2011, I didn't know that quite yet. And so I think it's really easy to think like in the 2021 that gay marriage has been legal for almost six years and how much progress has been made in such a short time. But in 2011, that wasn't the case. There are backup dancers who were making out on stage. And so I think that there is this kind of like lightning-in-a-bottle moment that's captured in this concert - not just great music, dancing, weird costumes, the spectacle, the flair, but just knowing that, like, this is a piece of queer history. And Lady Gaga herself is also openly bisexual. I feel like that's often - that's something that people forget about her. They think that she's this queer icon, but forget that she's also queer. So it was really special, I think, to revisit this 10 years after it came out.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that's a great example of kind of what we're talking about here with a great concert film is you're not just capturing a performance, but you're capturing a moment in history. And you're able to kind of judge what you're watching against the moment in history that it reflects, that Lady Gaga is a perfect example of that. Right. So that's "Lady Gaga Presents The Monster Ball Tour: At Madison Square Garden" from 2011. LaTesha Harris, give us your pick.
HARRIS: Yeah. So my pick is Beyonce's "Homecoming." And I'm so happy to talk about how great it is, as if we don't all already know already. I think this film is absolutely something that people should revisit in the pandemic monthly, if not weekly. I pulled an all-nighter to watch Beychella live on the YouTube stream when it happened in 2018. It was like 4 a.m. and I remember being literally blown away. Like, I had already known that Beyonce was a powerhouse with an emphasis on her skills as a vocalist and a live performer for years. But this concert specifically was like otherworldly. The setlist covers her entire 22-year career with several seamless transitions. I'm thinking specifically of the "Mine," "Mi Gente" and "Baby Boy" transition.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOMECOMING")
BEYONCE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
HARRIS: It's just a concert curated to maximize fun and connectivity amongst all the musicians on stage. And even with all that fun, you know, it's concise in practice. Like, they had eight months of rehearsal for a two-hour show - a two-hour festival show at that. For me, I think "Homecoming" is most about community celebration via music. And it's been my go-to concert film during the pandemic because I watch it and, you know, I'm there with everyone sharing, you know, my energy. passing waters back, helping strangers up, losing my voice.
And I think considering, you know, the secondary impact that "Homecoming" had, I think Beyonce kind of recreated the standard for what a documentary concert film could be, because when watching it, you'll find that it's less of a documentary with a concise, linear narrative about Beyonce's inner life than it is about Black history and her inheritance of that history. "Homecoming" is a tribute to HBCUs, Black college life, the Divine Nine, our homecomings, our culture - all delivered, you know, in this package that Beyonce knows how to best deliver, which is live music.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOMECOMING")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We ready. We ready. We ready. We ready.
HARRIS: Beychella was a cultural phenomenon way before the documentary came out, so the snippets that we get are just like golden bonuses of cultural insight and social commentary. It's just - kind of like Cyrena was saying, it's a moment in time that's just captured so beautifully through this beautiful medium. And it's just like visually stunning and, like, emotionally provoking. And I think everyone should watch it or listen to it at least once a week.
THOMPSON: Once a week. Yeah. I mean, we did an entire episode of this show on "Homecoming" when it came out. And rest assured, it was very positive. It's a great film. I love the way it combines this fantastic, epic, Olympic-level performance with Beyonce's gift for showing her work. I think the work-showing on this only makes the performance seem more epic somehow, which is really remarkable. So that's "Homecoming" by Beyonce. The film is from 2019. Thank you, LaTesha. Chris Klimek, what do you got?
KLIMEK: Well, speaking of elaborate costumes and exacting choreography, the time has come for us to speak now of Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen and the most famous of his several bands. What he has in common with Beyonce is showing his work. If you've ever seen any footage of this man performing, he looks like he is going to die before the song that he is currently singing is over. I've always had an acute jam band allergy. So for me, the E Street Band was like the quintessence of the, like, you-have-to-see-this-band-live live bands, which is weird because it's, you know, makes it weird that it took 25 years for this band to get a proper concert film, which is boringly titled "Live In New York City."
Like the Gaga Monster's Ball film, this was shot at Madison Square Garden over the the finale 10-night stand of his '99-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band. And I think what makes this an interesting contrast to the Gaga film and to "Homecoming" is, like, "Monster's Ball" (ph) captures Gaga, like, kind of still on the ascendency. "Homecoming" is Beyonce at the absolute apex of her cultural power. And this is, you know, Bruce, like, 15 years past his major cultural moment and, of course, you know, another 20 years on now.
But just for some quick context, at the end of the '80s, he had dissolved the E Street Band. In the '90s, he wins an Oscar for his theme song for Jonathan Demme's film "Philadelphia" - great but very sad. He releases a great but very sad album called "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" that's all about the lives of undocumented migrant workers in Southern California - not really sure where he fit in a commercial sense, right?
So when he reconvenes the E Street Band, he is extremely wary of this being perceived as a nostalgia fest. And he's working very hard to make the emotional tenor and the setlist of these shows different from what this band had done before. In terms of filmmaking, I will hail this video as serviceable.
KLIMEK: But the musical performance is what I find extraordinary. And what pushes this over the top for me from very good to great are the final two songs in this film, "Land Of Hope And Dreams" and "American Skin (41 Shots)." Neither of these songs had been released prior to when this film dropped initially on HBO in 2001. "Land Of Hope And Dreams" is an aspirational, open-hearted, gospel-tinged anthem that we heard a very cold 71-year-old Bruce Springsteen just play at President Biden's inauguration. When the E Street Band played it in 2000, it sounded like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF HOPE AND DREAMS")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) This train carries fools, carries kings. Lord, this train - all aboard. I said, now, this train - dreams will not be thwarted. This train - faith will be rewarded. This train - hear the steel wheels singing. This train - bells of freedom ringing.
KLIMEK: I just love hearing those voices. That kind of harmony singing was not really as much a part of the earlier era of the E Street Band prior to when he brought it together. I think it makes it, you know, more gospel-inflected and more powerful. So this song, "Land Of Hope And Dreams," was the emotional climax of most of the shows on this tour but not of the film. The film ends with a song called "American Skin (41 Shots)." Let's hear a few seconds of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS)")
SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) If an officer stops you, promise me you'll always be polite and that you'll never, ever run away. And promise Mama you'll keep your hands inside. Well, is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.
KLIMEK: So this song, of course, is Bruce's response to the police killing of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was shot to death well unarmed by four plainclothes NYPD detectives the year prior to this. Springsteen had always written ballads about the inner lives of cops and crooks. This is a song about an innocent person killed, to quote the lyric, "just for living in your American skin."
Here's an artist who was always big with cops and firefighters, you know, so he paid a price for this principled stance. The head of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police used a homophobic slur to refer to him in the press, urged officers to boycott these shows and to not accept assignments working security at these concerts. You can actually hear Springsteen being booed at the beginning of the song on the film because he had been playing it for a few weeks by this time and word had kind of gotten around.
This is a dozen years before the killing of Trayvon Martin, whose killing prompted Bruce to start playing the song again in 2012. It is tragic and awful how resonant and relevant this song has remained. Many years later, he told NPR's Ann Powers he considers this one of the best songs he ever wrote. I agree. That is why for me, "Live In New York City" is the essential cinematic document of the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-quaking, history-making, Viagra-taking legendary E Street Band, Stephen.
THOMPSON: I don't know if people listening at home could hear the mic drop.
THOMPSON: Well, it's a great pick. That's "Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live In New York City," recorded in 2000 and released in 2001. So my pick has a considerably longer gap between when it was recorded and when it was released, and there's a whole story behind it. When Aretha Franklin recorded the gospel album "Amazing Grace," she recorded it live in a church at a point when she was, as Beyonce was during "Homecoming," at the apex of her commercial and critical power. She had just released a very, very long string of massively, massively popular and now-legendary songs.
But she wanted to make a gospel record. And so she went to this church with the Reverend James Cleveland, brought a camera crew, brought recording equipment. Warner Bros. hired the director Sydney Pollack to direct. They wanted to make not only an album but a film.
They recorded the album "Amazing Grace," which was and is the bestselling gospel album of all time. It is an absolute classic, both in Aretha Franklin's discography and in gospel music in general. It is absolutely glorious. But the film wound up getting shelved for decades, mostly for technical reasons. Because Sydney Pollack didn't use clappers, they weren't able to sync up the audio and video, which, as anybody who has recorded concert films or been around people recording concert films, it's pretty crucial that you be able to sync up your audio and your video.
KLIMEK: They had to wait for Final Cut Pro to be invented for them to be able to finish this movie.
THOMPSON: So there was this enormous technical lift. And if you watch this movie, it does not look like there were great technical lifts made. It's pretty straightforwardly shot, but it ended up being very difficult. And at the end of Aretha Franklin's life, she didn't want this film released. There was a whole dispute back and forth where they tried to release the film, and she would sue to block its release. Apparently, Aretha Franklin had some beefs and resentment in terms of what was promised to her versus what was delivered where this movie was concerned. But once she died, her family wanted it released, and it finally got a theatrical release in 2019, fully 47 years after it was recorded.
It is so beautiful that this film exists. And part of what's remarkable about it is how kind of ramshackle it is. Like, sometimes you expect - you know, Aretha Franklin, a great perfectionist, you know, you would expect this kind of Beyonce-style high production value. This was just they gathered in a church. It wasn't a megachurch. You can just feel every surface in this church and kind of imagine exactly what it was like to be in this church. It's a very sweaty performance. There is a lot of brow-mopping going on in this performance. What you get is Aretha Franklin at the absolute top of her form. The vocal performances here are absolutely sublime. Every once in a while, they whip up the kind of fervor that I can only describe as absolutely magical. Let's hear a little bit of "How I Got Over."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMAZING GRACE")
ARETHA FRANKLIN AND THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COMMUNITY CHOIR: (Singing) ...For you and for me. Oh, yes. I want to thank Him because He brought me. Oh, yes. I want to thank Him because He taught me. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I want to thank God because He kept me. I want to thank God that He never left me. I want to sing - hallelujah. I might shout this evening - troubles over. I'm going to thank Jesus for all He's done for me. Oh, yeah. How I got over - over - over...
THOMPSON: You can just feel this swell of joy. And part of what you're getting here is not just these magical performances, but you're getting some of the kind of raw nuts and bolts grind of how it was documented. It's amazing, watching this film, how often a camera person is in the shot, how often the sound equipment is in the shot, how much, like, photographers are kind of up in her grill the entire time she's trying to perform. And it's just interesting. Like, I found myself studying her face in between the songs because during the songs, she is really just lost in committing herself completely to these vocals. But in between, there's something in her eyes. There's something in the way she carries her face. And I just - I saw in her face something that I've seen in the faces of hundreds of performers at the Tiny Desk. There's something about these moments in between performances, these moments when you're about to perform, where you can kind of feel herself steeling herself to give the best performances that she can possibly give. And there's a rough-around-the-edges quality to this document. There are mics that don't work quite right. They are little technical concerns. The sound kind of occasionally drops in and out. Taken collectively, I think it is an absolutely magical document of an artist at the peak of her enormous, earth-shattering power.
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THOMPSON: So that's "Amazing Grace." It is streaming on Hulu.
Well, we want to know about your favorite concert films. Obviously, we could only get to four of them. You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to all of you for being here.
KLIMEK: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you, Stephen.
TOUROS: Thanks, Stephen.
THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you're interested in checking out more beautiful, live concert recordings, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to dive into the NPR Music archives. There's a full Bon Iver concert on there that is absolutely gorgeous, and that's just the beginning. That and many other concerts are at npr.org/liveconcerts. We'll see you all right back here tomorrow.
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