Concert documentaries have always been a blessing for music fans who either couldn’t afford to see their favorite acts in concert or lived in places where those acts didn’t play. For a number of years, though, the genre waned. For decades, very few concert films got wide theatrical releases, if they got them at all. Then, in 2008, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert shocked everyone by becoming the (then) highest grossing picture of its kind in history, pulling in a tidy $65 million.
This event proved two things: 1) Miley Cyrus was a bona fide superstar among the tween set; and 2) a lot of parents were willing to suffer excruciating aural torture to make their kids happy. Since the release of Best of Both Worlds, concert documentaries have come back into vogue, getting wide releases and accumulating substantial grosses. We’ve seen Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (which went on to take the #1 slot away from Hannah/Miley), Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, Katy Perry: Part of Me, and the current One Direction: This Is Us. Aside from genre (and a colon), what do these movies all have in common? Their primary audience is adolescent girls. I’m not going to lay the blame on tween girls here. (If I was going to do that, we’d be talking about the Twilight saga right now.) However, it’s clear that the current sensibility toward concert docs is contributing to the decline of a once-great genre.
Once upon a time, concert documentaries strove to tell you something about the artist at the center. They wanted to explore what made a musician or a group tick. The Last Waltz showed The Band making their farewell performance and reflecting on both their origins and, more importantly, their ending. Stop Making Sense was an artistic statement of who the Talking Heads were as a band: experimental, eccentric, versatile. Awesome; I… Shot That put cameras into the hands of Beastie Boys fans, allowing them to shoot a concert and, in effect, define the group’s identity from an audience perspective. Truth or Dare depicted Madonna’s almost compulsive need to be sexually provocative. And, of course, Woodstock cinematically captured the voice of an entire generation.
In contrast, modern concert docs don’t give you a true sense of who an artist is. Instead, they are feature-length promotional pieces designed to capture the “phenomenon” of a popular musical act rather than to convey what they stand for artistically. Several of the recent entries have even committed the ultimate sin: truncating the musical numbers. (If moviegoers are fans of the performers, why in the name of Madonna’s water bottle would they not want to hear an entire song?) Replacing substantive exploration of a performer’s work or onstage craft are interviews with hardcore fans who virtually slobber all over themselves while trying mightily to string a few coherent words together. Even more egregious is the now-common reliance on Twitter followers, who achieve a brief moment of recognition by having their fawning 140-character comments slapped up on a movie screen. Who cares that @CrazedBieberFan2250 thinks Justin Bieber is, “like, OMG SO CUTE I COULD DIE!!! #YOLO”?
Another problem is that stars now generally insist on maintaining control of how they are portrayed. Images are meticulously crafted, and they’re afraid of showing anything that goes against that image. Therefore, what’s shown on screen is carefully selected. Katy Perry: Part of Me was, for instance, produced by Perry herself. She allowed audiences to see how broken up she was over her split from husband Russell Brand, yet gave nary a clue as to its cause. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never was produced by Scooter Braun, the Beeb’s manager. Braun obviously is going to be extremely cautious in how his star client (read: cash cow) is shown. From recent headlines, we know that Bieber thinks Anne Frank would have stopped worrying about the Holocaust long enough to enjoy his music, likes to urinate in mop buckets while insulting former presidents, and enjoys playing guitar in the nude for his own grandmother. (Everyone say it with me: Ewwww!) From watching his documentary, you’d never know that he was such an irrepressible bonehead. The most egregious thing we see is the young singer pranking people with a squirt gun. When so many artists and members of their “team” are in constant image-protection mode, the odds of audiences seeing anything genuine or enlightening go way down.
The lack of qualified directors behind the camera also contributes to the overall lower quality of recent concert documentaries. Directors are no longer impartial observers with an acute curiosity about their subjects; they’re hired hands brought in to tell the pre-approved narrative. In the past, concert docs were directed by the A-list likes of Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz), Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense), D.A. Pennebaker (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), and Jim Jarmusch (Year of the Horse), among others. The modern concert docs don’t benefit from the same level of craftsmanship or perspective. The Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers films were directed by Bruce Hendricks, who was previously the President of Physical Production at Walt Disney Studios. Katy Perry: Part of Me was directed by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, producers of reality TV programs like Project Runway and the delightfully titled Dance Your Ass Off. For his movie, Justin Bieber was under the guidance of Jon M. Chu, the acclaimed auteur of esteemed arthouse fare like Step Up 2: The Streets. In fairness, One Direction: This Is Us does have noted documentarian Morgan “Super-Size Me” Spurlock behind the camera, but while his movies are often entertaining, no one is putting him in the same class with D.A. Pennebaker.
It’s great that the enthusiasm of the teen girl audience has allowed concert documentaries to prove their box office muscle again, but it’s tragic that this success has come at the expense of substance. (Again, not the girls’ fault.) Film has the ability to help us see inside a musical act, to concentrate on what the music means and what ideals the musician hopes to convey. Let’s hope we get the genre back to that, someway, somehow. Especially before someone gets the bright idea to make a Ke$ha concert doc.