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Image: "This Is It" poster
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Since Michael Jackson’s last world tour ended in 1997, an entire generation never got to see his show live. “This Is It” will be the closest they get, and it may bring about the return of the concert-film genre.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/22/2009 3:09:13 PM ET 2009-10-22T19:09:13
COMMENTARY

I never cared much for Pink Floyd until a friend persuaded me to go with him to a late-night screening of “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii” when we were sophomores in high school. Actually, let me put that another way: I hated Pink Floyd. They were a ’70s band known for drawn-out songs and elaborate concept albums, and I was an ’80s kid who liked loud, fast punk rock.

But the ticket was free, so off I went, expecting an evening of old hippies and musical monotony. That’s not what happened.

As I watched the band perform in the ancient Roman amphitheater, the combination of the striking visuals and the band’s powerful songs drew me in. Toward the film’s end, as the band went into their epic track “Echoes,” one of the aging longhairs shouted “Crank it!” at the projectionist. By that point, I was ready to high-five the dude.

That’s ultimately what makes for a great concert film: the ability of one or more artists to not only appease the faithful (which is always easy) but to make converts out of non-fans. They still make concert films, of course. But they’re a lot less special, since anyone with a computer is now a mouse click away from watching live performances by a countless array of artists.

But once upon a time, in the days before YouTube, concert films were pretty much the only way you could see your favorite artists perform live outside of an actual concert and a few late-night TV shows. The concert film’s popularity has taken such a nosedive that Entertainment Weekly recently wondered where all the great ones had gone, and opined that the “Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience” could help revive the genre.

Slideshow: Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 It didn’t, but the forthcoming posthumous Michael Jackson film just might. Advance screenings for Michael Jackson’s “This Is It,” which opens Oct. 28, had fans lining up for three days beforehand for tickets, and sold out within two hours, reported the Associated Press . Variety said the film was compiled from around 80 hours of rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage of Jackson preparing for the 50 British concerts he didn’t live to perform.

Jackson’s film might succeed where the Jonas Brothers’ failed because he was one of a handful of pop artists with enough star power to warrant a big-screen treatment. Also, since Jackson’s last world tour ended in 1997, an entire generation never got to see his show live. This will be the closest they’ll come to that.

Rockin’ on the screen
The Wall Street Journal noted recently that the August 1970 release of the movie “Woodstock” marked the rise of the concert film. But the first must-see concert movie came out six years before that. It was called “The T.A.M.I. Show” (which stood for “Teenage Awards Music International”) and it brought together some of the day’s top artists, such as James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and Lesley Gore. It doesn’t get much better than seeing Brown in his prime.

“Woodstock” works as a film because of its cultural importance and despite the distracting split-screen effects director Michael Wadleigh used throughout. The event sells the movie, not the filmmaking. Two years later, director Saul Swimmer avoided psychedelic effects and let the music do the talking with “The Concert for Bangladesh.” This classic rock fan favorite documented the first benefit rock concert put together by former Beatle George Harrison and featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and others.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” from 1976 should have been great, but unfortunately captured the band on a less-than-stellar night and included a lot of self-indulgent non-concert sequences. Much better is the two-DVD set from 2003 simply titled “Led Zeppelin,” which includes killer live segments from all phases of the band’s career.

By 1978, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the modern era, Martin Scorsese, tried his hand at a concert film. Not surprisingly, he came up with something great, “The Last Waltz,” which captured the original lineup of the Band playing its final, emotionally charged gig. Not only did they play favorites like “Up on Cripple Creek,” but there was a guest artist bill that included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison.

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The Band also figured prominently in “Festival Express,” a film that documents them playing a 1970 Canadian tour with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others. You’d have thought the bands were actually playing live from the excitement in the theater when I saw it on opening night in 2004.

In 1984, director Jonathan Demme turned his camera on one of the defining bands of the 1980s, Talking Heads, and created one of the defining concert films with “Stop Making Sense” (now getting a 25th anniversary DVD release). By stepping back and letting the band’s stage show unfold, Demme made the band seem simultaneously more human yet more mysterious.

Scorsese returned to the concert genre in 2008 with “Shine a Light,” which documented several Rolling Stones performances for their “A Bigger Bang Tour” in 2006. It’s beautifully shot, but catches the Stones long after their heyday. “Gimme Shelter” from 1970 still stands as the definitive celluloid Stones concert doc because in tackling the Altamont concert murder head-on, it came off as confrontational as the band’s music was back then.

The closest this decade came to a classic concert film was the Beastie Boys’ 2006 “Awesome; I F**n’ Shot That!” Here, Beastie Adam Yauch (aka director Nathaniel Hörnblowér) compiled footage taken by the band’s fans, who were given camcorders and told to shoot a 2004 Madison Square Garden concert. Coming in a close second is Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black,” which also featured appearances by Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige.

“This Is It” will be Jackson’s last waltz, so to speak. If it’s compelling enough, it could join the ranks of “Stop Making Sense” or “Live at Pompeii” as a must-see film. Maybe someday they’ll even show it at midnight.

Tony Sclafani is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.

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