‘For once we’re just gonna let it happen. For no other reason than experimental purposes, you know what I mean?’ So said one of the organisers of the infamous 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival. ‘Gimme Shelter,’ the documentary that followed the Rolling Stones’ headline appearance at Altamont, recorded the experiment, and its tragic consequences. But the decision to produce a film of the performance was fairly experimental too. In a world before the music video went mainstream, before MTV, and before The Big Screen fitted as standard at any large event, there was little precedent. The approach to this kind of film-making has shifted to reflect a changing media environment. Compared with the illustrated documentary style of the early live films, the 1980s inaugurated an style in which mediation substituted the live, and the audience became less and less important to the atmospheres they created.
In films like ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Woodstock,’ the incredible performances that still attract viewers today are most powerful as a soundtrack to the story of the 60s in crisis. Both were filmed in 1969 and released a year later, with the closure of the new decade. And in each, the crowds sing the songs they love, but under an atmosphere that’s strained, awkward, and sometimes violent. Woodstock cuts the Festival’s legendary line-up through with interviews with and footage of its visitors. Asked about why he came, one young man says ‘People that are nowhere are coming here cos there’s people that they think are somewhere so everybody’s really looking for some kind of answer… where there isn’t one.’ He casually hits on the dark underside of Michael Wadleigh’s 184 minute epic. The film shows counterculture getting what it wants, but unable to sustain it: everyone’s there, but not one knows what to do. Earlier on, an MC takes to the microphone between acts, to ask the crowds to chant away the rain. ‘If you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain’. […] ‘NO RAIN NO RAIN NO RAIN NO RAIN NO RAIN.’ The film makes no judgments, but pathetic moments like this make it feel like a tribute. Wadleigh knows the movement is over, and he catches it at its most vulnerable, before it’s too late.
Likewise in Gimme Shelter, an uncomfortable proportion of the performers’ role seems to be as ushers – rather than artists – of peace and love. As the atmosphere descends into violence, the Stones often have to interrupt their own songs, or are forced to do so by the organisers. The crowd are told to sit down or ‘cool out’, in the way that children might be. The faces of the fans at the front are disbelieving: their heroes have failed them in the flesh. Apparently alone and with her arms crushed against her chest, one woman resolutely persists in nodding to ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ even as tears – of the pained, rather than the adoring kind – roll down her cheeks.
In a dark collision of post-production editing and a pre-organised set list, the snuff moment for which the film has attracted infamy occurs at the very end. Perversely, Merideth Hunter’s murder accidentally becomes a narrative climax worthy of a setting in fiction. In the preceding moments, a man watching from the side of the stage is seen over an extended take, as his trip goes seriously bad. The continuing ‘Under My Thumb’ is first all but incidental, but quickly becomes uncomfortable, as Jagger’s repetitions of ‘It’s alright’ shift from a generic outro lyric to a genuine attempt to reassure. The effect is hard to watch, as songs written years earlier begin to find uncanny echoes in reality. When it happens, Hunter’s stabbing is barely believable. As the film cuts away to show us Jagger re-watching the moment in horror, his guilt – if he’s complicit, aren’t we also? – bleeds through the layers of mediation. Murder at one more remove.
It seems odd to us now, but in these films it’s often the audience who are the most interesting figures, rather than the stars they (and we, initially) came to see. We already know the songs, but the setting is something else. The same goes for Bert Stern’s ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ (1960.) The film shows the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in full swing, with sets from Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and the Jimmy Giuffre Three. The concertgoers are candidly filmed mouthing words, clicking fingers, anticipating the beat with a spread of the hand. Friends, families and lovers are all there, and plenty of people on their own too. Stern’s translation of the event onto the screen works so well because they make you want to be there just as much as the people onstage.
The early live concert films, then, show live events and their atmospheres and audiences. But by the 80s and this relationship between the primary live event and the subsequent film of it begins to change. Philip Auslander’s book, Liveness, traces this shift across various kinds of performance. ‘Initially,’ he says, ‘mediatized events were modelled on live ones. The subsequent cultural dominance of mediatization has had the ironic result that live events now frequently are modeled on the very mediatized representations that once took the self-same live events as their models.’ As audiovisual technology became more advanced and more accessible, producers synthesised hand claps in music and used microphones on nonmusical Broadway plays, as novel digital enhancements became increasingly naturalised.
The television itself begins to appear prominently in the films of performances. The film production of Michael Jackson’s ‘Live at Wembley’ show (1988) begins with an image of a TV playing news items about the concert. Initially it depicts the media presentation of the event, rather than the event itself. Placed amongst current affairs, between the despatches of war correspondents, these bulletins give a sense of immediacy – the very quality that was once the exclusive preserve of the live.
In U2’s Zoo TV tour, recorded in the ‘Live from Sydney’ film (1994,) television was used as the basis for an entire aesthetic, and more recently, Gorillaz were formed as a cartoon band, accessible almost entirely through mediation. In their ‘Demon Days Live’ (2006) film a huge central screen plays animations that inevitably attract the eye far more than the silhouetted band who perform behind semi-transparent panels. Mediation is no longer simply the accompaniment to the live that it once was.
The knowledge that one’s performance is going to be so heavily mediated by the camera is not a passive one: it feeds back and changes the performance itself. Where does playing for the crowd end and playing for the close-up begin? Without screens, Michael Jackson’s phony tears might have been noticed by only a dozen of the tens of thousands at Wembley that night. The crowd in fact feature remarkably little in the film. Far from the personal interviews of Woodstock, or the simple observations of Jazz on a Summer’s Day, they contribute little other than a sense of stadium scale. Likewise, one could argue that U2’s Zoo TV tour was made to be filmed, rather than seen in person, and that the live audience are simply props to that end. The enormous screens adorning the enormous stage display politicians, wars, flags, or capped-up words like WHORE, CHAOS, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG. They hint at enormity but say nothing. The film superimposes the words over the footage of the performance, and cuts to footage that Bono films – of himself – onstage with a camcorder. The messianic frontman ‘links’ songs with hollow, awkwardly scripted lines like, ‘But you haven’t come all the way out here to watch TV now have you?’ When they move from the main stage to a smaller one, playing in-the-round from a platform in the middle of the crowd, the aesthetic of scale collapses. With less space to stand, the cameramen can’t do the sweeping runs that they seem so partial to, and you realise how ridiculous a stadium rock band looks when they’re any fewer than ten metres apart.
Against so huge a setting, intimacy becomes uncomfortable to watch. And with that the live event becomes a disorientating encounter. The best films of live performance know this, and play with it. David Byrne did it with his big suit in ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984,) claiming that he used it to make his head appear smaller. He offers a brilliantly and logically absurd resistance to his position as a frontman, singing centre stage from spatial positions that a camera shot’s own geometry favours. More recently, Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows: From the Basement’ (2008) film completely inverted the band’s international renown. The opposite of U2’s in-the-round indulgence, they stand in a rehearsal arrangement, facing each other as they play through their 2007 album, and rarely attract the applause of their small audience. The crowd’s reticence gives shape to the duration of the film, similar to that of a classical audience listening to successive movements of a larger work. The effect is that the silences become as intimate as the choruses, and the form of the live concert film is able to recover some of the documentary origins that make it more than just a show for the camera.