Last night, as I watched probably one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen it struck me just how boring they are.

The appropriately titled ‘Don’t Think’ sees the Chemical Brothers attempt to make a proper film of a concert. Their conceit is to put the viewer both in the crowd and enjoy the super-clear visuals close-up (which you couldn’t if you stood at the back).

Then I spotted the problem: these films always fail because there’s no narrative.

To be fair, ‘Don’t Think’ tries to be as immersive in the gig experience as you can possible be without bobbing up and down in your lounge rammed with strangers in a Japanese subway-like bouncy huddle. But you’d still have to watch the thing in the dark and at maximum volume to get 1/10th of the feel of a real gig. And that’s why most of the concert films I’ve seen don’t even clock that figure.

When I was younger, the music used to be enough. But that would be denying the spectacle of seeing your heroes prance about in all their self-satisfied glory, performing vastly inferior versions of the great album tracks you love, which somehow managed to elevate my appreciation of the event. Van Halen’s ‘Live without a net’ captured Eddie Van Halen at his peak. But it also gave us Sammy Hagar instead of David Lee Roth, and a drum solo (that’s right a drum solo – even in jazz drum solos never work!) from Alex VH. It was a curious mix of admiration and disappointment stretched over an hour and a bit.

Then there’s the advent of the voyeuristic take on concert films. The first I saw was Metallica’s ‘Cliff ‘Em All’ – a tribute to Cliff somebody (their former bassist who died before his time), mixed with their own sardonic take on the moniker of their own ‘Kill ‘Em All’ album. Here we saw the band at their most jokey and knockabout but this managed only to destroy the doom-laden seriousness of their image I had been so attracted to in my brief spell of metal (I quit Metallica and metal writ large at ‘Master of Puppets’, after listening to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for the first time on my way back from the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988).

Music is about music, not the jokes, personalities, banter (Jim Morrison in ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’), tricks (Eddie Van Halen) – it is the songs themselves that matter.

OK, you say, what about Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’? Bubbling mud aside, that’s about the performance, you cry. There’s even no audience! True. But prog rock normally had its own imaginary narrative. Unfortunately it is often naïve and, in Floyd’s case, a bit sixth form. Which can also ache boredom 21minutes in to the same song. It’s a performance of tracks better played and recorded in the studio. Nothing more.

Still, by the time I attended what I regard as probably the best gig – DJ Shadow during his Private Press tour – the music was finally accompanied by visuals that were actually in complete time with the music. This meant visuals in synchronicity of this level were, however, only able to step up to fill the void of having no lead vocals which is often missing in much electronic and sampled music. It was, however, a brilliant show. The songs were great, loud, brilliant renditions of the album tracks, complemented by superb visuals, guests vocalists (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) and expert turntablism. Josh too was a refreshingly honest musician who admitted mistakes and shared his dissatisfaction with you when he made them. Of course, in the euphoric atmosphere we missed them completely anyway, but his authentic care for the music and performance was admirable. He thought he was a dweeb, we thought he was a genius.

When I saw the concert film of Shadow’s show later released on DVD, however, I was disappointed. It bore no resemblance to the experience I had that night in Bristol’s Academy. The songs were the same, the visuals the same but it was drained of all its life. The gap it revealed was the thing that is the essence of good art: it is that which distinguishes a masterpiece from a cheap fake.

I guess that is why even ‘Don’t Think’ occasionally breaks away to a strange outside the arena trip, where the movie switches to a segmented music video-style. It seems to do this because the vast backdrop of lights and animated video visuals by now are becoming tiresome.

And you could forgive them this foray: the Chemical Brothers had previously shown great form with their music videos. But on the whole I find music videos are another grossly uneventful experience. Exception to the rule, their ‘Star Guitar’ sees the rhythm and video as one. Then their brilliant choice of Spike Jonze to direct their ‘Elektrobank’ promo delivers a fantastic homage to 80’s triumph of the underdog-type movies typified by things like ‘The Karate Kid’. I recommend you YouTube it, not least since it stars the lovely Sofia Coppola (who Jonze would eventually marry).

But note, these all have narrative of a kind and a short duration and that is why they work.

The concert film has a long duration and no narrative. They’ve tried to fix the problem by ramping up the immersive vibe, but fail to realise that not everyone will play the film at full volume during a house party on an elevated large flat-screen. They’re fixing the problem at the wrong end. They’ve done a good job, but it is still boring by DVD chapter 14. I found myself skipping chapters. Next. Next. Yeah. Next. End.

Here’s my theory proven.

‘Don’t Think’ includes a CD version of the gig. Boring; I’ll never listen to it. Prefer the original album tracks they’ve laboured over so lovingly.

Compare this, however, to a CD of music from movies that use music well. Like, for example Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’: a truly brilliant film and, um, fantastic soundtrack CD which my family all enjoy.

Or ‘Jungle Book’? Or ‘The Accidental Tourist’? Or ‘Schindler’s List’? Or ‘The Double Life of Veronique’? etc.

My point is that you can watch these as movies and enjoy the music as part of the overall experience or independently on a music CD. A CD of a concert film is just dull – therein lies the problem. As a Marxist, of course, I see the phenomenon as nothing more than a means of selling us more of the same content a different way so we buy and re-buy that same content, all the while lining the pockets of the record company while the band probably can tick off another contractual commitment.

Concert films are just dull.

Even supposedly the greatest ever – ‘Woodstock’ – is only truly interesting the first time. And this is precisely because it has the narrative of the documentary story revealing just how chaotic and difficult it was to setup and keep from falling apart. After that it is a game of ‘Oh look, it’s so and so.’ And ‘Who’s next?’  Again though, the actual quality of the music is poor compared to the original studio tracks those artists recorded. I once stayed at house of a friend’s brother in Manchester. The brother had an LP of the Woodstock concert. Blimey that was a downer. Overlong clanky noise. Three tracks in, it was a relief when my friend suggested we listen to some Jesus & the Mary Chain instead.

So, concert films are just dull, precisely because of the music.

Feel free to post your objections and suggestions for exceptions to the rule. I will probably remain unconvinced, but you never know – open mind and all that…

DJ Shadow’s last tour saw him hide for most of the show in his globe and project 360 onto the globe. Very clever. But now we have a live visual audio show which really won’t be the same on DVD. See it live only.

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