“Selling Nostalgia: An Abbreviated History of Concert Filmmaking,” by Laura Niebling

by Mike D'Errico on July 30, 2013

Throughout July, the IASPM-US website will be previewing articles from “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television,” the upcoming special issue of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.

For the last fifty years, concert films have constituted one of the largest portions, if not the majority, of rockumentaries produced. There are various reasons for this: They are comparatively inexpensive, as they do not require a large film crew, extensive traveling, or research. They are usually filmed on one or two occasions, which shortens the overall time of film production, making films available promptly after a tour to accompany either a live album or the next album of a band. And—unless it is the case of Martin Scorsese filming the Rolling Stones—the pre-production can often be reduced to the questions of where to set up the camera and how to record the sound. To keep a long story short: they are perfect promotional material.

Concert films may be considered a part of the rockumentary genre and therefore have a documental claim, but in most cases they present a certain (usually positively connoted and artificially embellished) perspective on a past pop music event.[1. Which, in my research-definition, includes all music documentaries] Barry Sarchett’s finding that the “rockumentary, like most documentary, is an inherently nostalgic genre which posits a retrieval of the pretextual,” is especially applicable to the concert films he is describing.[2. Sarchett, Barry (1994): “ROCKUMENTARY” as Metadocumentary: Martin Scorsese’s the Last Waltz. In: Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 22 No 1 (p. 28-35). p. 31] They usually influence viewers in either of two ways: first, by establishing history, said nostalgia, leaving an underlying urge in the consumer to visit another concert or subsequent event, or at least buy (live) albums; second, by creating the feeling to have missed out on something great, along with the urge to compensate that to the exact same results. Film trailers for concert films usually consciously aim at either or both effects, placing the film in the same promotional machinery as the bands or events. The trailer for the Jonas Brothers’ 3D Concert Experience (2009), for instance, reminds its viewers of “The Concert That Had You Screaming,” which is now “Burning Up The Big Screen”:

The big screen, however, is not the only platform for which concert films have been produced over the decades. To write the media history of rockumentary production involves looking at the relationship between filmmakers, musicians and the music industry. Their interaction is determined by various factors including music genres, scenes, politics, the economic situation, and broader historical events. Yet, nothing affected the production of music documentaries more than technological innovations. In this context, rockumentary history can be best divided into three periods of time: the Direct Cinema era from the late 1950s to 1981, the MTV Era from 1981 to 2000, and the Modern Rockumentary era from 2000 onwards. The following short stroll through rockumentary history aims to give a basic overview of the formats, and how the promotional interdependency between filmmakers and the music industry shaped the concert film.

Direct Cinema Era

Especially in the early period of rockumentary making, filming still was an expensive and therefore consciously used tool of archiving and promotion. The audio-visual media formats were television concerts (e.g. It’s The Beatles on BBC (1963)) and a variety of feature-length concert films in cinema (e.g. Monterey Pop (1968)).

During the DC-era the relationship between filmmakers and the concerts often seems to depend on the media format and the decade.[3. Direct Cinema era, because many filmmakers of the first rockumentary era are associated with the Documentary mode of the Direct Cinema. Thompson and Bordwell even find the rockumentary to be “the most widespread use of Direct Cinema”: Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell (2010): Film History. An Introduction. 3Rd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 537] Those who produce for cinema are not only paid for extensive involvement, but seem to become increasingly fascinated by the culture they are investigating audio-visually. Those who report for television, on the other hand, are journalists merely observing an event they would otherwise not attend. This discrepancy is often expressed through the use of a voice-over commentary, as the first five minutes of Woodstock (1970) compared to Midsummer Rock (1970) vividly show:

Festival de Woodstock 1969 (Part 1/12) by moriganne

In these concert films the influence of the entertainment industry is noticeable. As Thomas Cohen shows in his review of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, filmmaker Bert Stern not only “had to be convinced of the aesthetic value of moving images showing musicians making music,” but also “relied on [George] Avakian, then at Columbia Records, to determine which performances to capture”.[4. Cohen, Thomas (2012): Playing To The Camera. New York and Chichester: Wallflower. p. 24] Although Sarchett finds that various DC-concert films “have tended to operate largely within the observational mode of documentary,” most of them still have a promotional undertone.[5. In the words of: Roscoe, Jane and Craigh Hight (2001): Faking It. The Mock-documentary and the subversion of factuality. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. p. 119] Just a small selection of concert films offers a comparatively neutral perspective. Gimme Shelter (1970), for instance, shows the Rolling Stones trying to calm the audience and Jagger reflecting on the situation, but is certainly not promotional material in the sense mentioned earlier.


The start of MTV is one outcome of the often discussed increase of cable television from 1975 onwards. It marks a turning point towards a young audience, but also towards new rockumentaries as part of the enlarged commercial television sector. With cable, VHS—and later DVD players—and the increasingly popular color television, a new home cinema comes into existence. Formats of the time include more television programs (e.g. MTV Unplugged), direct-to-video films (e.g. Live Shit: Binge & Purge (1989)), and concert films in cinema (e.g. Stop Making Sense (1984)) and public television (e.g. Rory Gallagher on WDR Rockpalast (1990)).

During the DC-era working with media and music became increasingly normal, which subsequently leads to a time in which the filmmakers are usually music fans themselves.[6. Penelope Spheeris, for instance, with her scene-rockumentary triology The Decline of Western Civilization (1981, 1988, 1998)] While at all other times the triad of music industry, filmmakers and musicians shapes the making of concert films, the MTV era is determined by a fourth key player, namely MTV itself. The realization of television concert films on the network is basically arranged by Viacom and the filmmakers, making it a seemingly inexpensive promotional tool for the music industry.[7. It is, of course, part of the larger exclusive contracts, whose conditions were regularly criticized by the music industry. Cf. Banks, Jack (2010): Keeping “Abreast” of MTV and Viacom. In: Wasko, Janet: A Companion to Television. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell. p. 256 – 270. See: p. 263]

The rest of the rockumentary filmmaking scene, however, consists of small and middle-sized production companies and public television, who all mainly continue their work of the DC-era, being affected, however, by MTV’s established aesthetic standards. As the concert films are often sold to fans, a label (for distribution) or music channels, the perspective is rarely critical. With MTV covering and determining the mainstream music, a lot of rockumentaries retreat to the niche audiences of certain pop genres—sometimes even turning musicians into film producers, as is the case with Nirvana’s Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (1994).[8. The cases in which musicians become the makers of their own concert films, however, is rare as the dual burden to play and direct is only endurable with an excellent team or by simply putting together performances filmed on other occasions. Other rockumentary genres, such as the studio or tour rockumentary, are easier to implement]

Modern Rockumentary

The rapid technological progress of the first two eras corresponds with an even further fragmented market genre-wise. While the market during the MTV era consisted of television and cinema screens, the Modern Rockumentary era is determined by a third player: a variety of new affordable gadgets with recording functions and (often) internet connections. The main concert film platforms are now online-streams (e.g. the Pearl Jam Live Stream Site), direct-to-video (e.g. AC/DC Live At Riverplate (2011)), as well as occasionally cinema (e.g.U2 3D(2008)), commercial (e.g. VH1 Divas Las Vegas (2002)) or public television (Jamie Cullum and the Heritage Orchestra on BBC Proms (2010)).[9. Direct-to-video concert films are often released after a premiere in cinema, while most cinema concert films are released after a screening on film festivals]

The privilege to film concerts can be best compared to the privilege to tape a bootleg of a concert in the 80s. Due to the expensive equipment, the music industry, who controlled and hired the filmmakers, was in charge and decided on the quantity and selection of the audio-visual history-making. While an increasingly diverse market, the realignment of MTV and less major labels with a 360° model, changed the production of other rockumentary formats (giving rise to a variety of independent production companies, potentially enabling more critical films), concert films mainly stayed under the control of the music industry.

Up to now, the reason to not produce a concert film independently is juridical one. In most cases, the recorded music is the property of the bands and their labels and cannot be reproduced without permission and fees. If it is done legally, that is. The technological progress turned viewers in the audience into filmmakers and their cinematic contributions on YouTube into what is often an unorganized, decentralized, interactive concert puzzle with great variations in quality. The effort to put together those pieces in post production is rarely attempted. Exceptions prove the rule, as this fan-made concert film of Madonna in Tel Aviv shows:

Even in this new form of uncontrolled filmmaking, a promotional worth is detectable. The cultural codex, induced by decades of concert films, seems to fuse with the filmmaking of amateurs. In most cases, concert-goers only visually capture and share performances they themselves would like to remember. Concert-goers rarely put footage online to show how bad a show was or to warn others of the quality of some band or event.


Over the course of rockumentary history, concert filmmakers have adapted to most to the needs of the music industry. These days, they are either fans or professional admen, editing out wrong notes and average performances. In their concert films the documental claim of the rockumentary genre is completely subordinated to a promotional need. And in the present “mediascape of ‘ubiquitous computing’” their work has become the epitome of pop music history in the making.

Laura Niebling studied Media and Comparative Literature at the Ruhr-University in Bochum and is now a doctorand at the University of Bayreuth, where she writes her dissertation on the history and aesthetics of the rockumentary genre. She has worked as a (music-) journalist for many years and is a member of the recently founded German-speaking IASPM branch, D-A-CH

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: