Led Zeppelin, U2, Talking Heads: the golden age of rock at the cinema

Led Zeppelin, U2, Talking Heads: the golden age of rock at the cinema

Once upon a time there were rock concerts at the cinema. And they are still there, albeit in a completely different context. Today we are surrounded, almost overwhelmed by live images, which reach us from everywhere: as soon as there is a concert we can see on social media what happened and the artists themselves worry about distributing clips or producing documentaries and films to distribute to the platforms . Every now and then in the theater (and they are blockbusters, like the recent case of “Taylor Swift's The Eras Tour”).

A few decades ago going to a concert was the only way to see a band or artist live. Then there was cinema: concert films were made, which served to create or consolidate myths. Artists preferred cinema to TV, both for the sound quality and because they considered it more “artistic”: the 70s and 80s were the golden age of rock films. Led Zeppelin's “The song remains the same” recently returned to theaters, but it was certainly not the only (and in some ways not even the best) case of rock and cinema of the current age. We have chosen 5 of them.


The relationship between cinema and rock begins from the origins, from Elvis, from the films in which he acted as an actor – a phenomenon in some ways similar to the Italian “musicarellos” of some time later. But already in the 1960s films began to be made in which the singers are not actors, but are filmed in concert.

The turning point was “Woodstock” (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), which made the music festival of the previous year famous globally, transforming it into a myth even for those who had only heard of it on the other side of the world. An innovative technique for the time, the split-screen, to tell both what happens on stage and among the audience. It wins the Oscar for best documentary and is a box office success worldwide.

In this period, concerts also began to be produced with cinema in mind, such as the “Concert for Bangladesh” (Saul Swimmer, 1972, which documents the first major charity event in the history of rock, organized in 1971 by George Harrison in New York), or like Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii by Adrian Maben, 1972. Which however was filmed specifically for the cameras, without an audience: one of the most iconic in history.

The last waltz

A certain Martin Scorsese collaborates in the editing of “Woodstock”: if I had to choose the climax of this phase, I would choose his “The Last Waltz” (1978). In his long career, Scorsese has worked a lot with music and artists, directing documentaries and concert films about and with Dylan, George Harrison, Rolling Stones “The Last Waltz” is a (the?) masterpiece of the genre: it documents The Band's last concert at Winterland in San Francisco, in 1976, with Bob. Dylan and Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Eric Scorsese transformed the concert into a cinematic tale that is the celebration of an era, alternating performances with interviews – effectively establishing the paradigm of the concert film.

The song remains the same

Recently remastered for theaters (the last audio remaster is from 2018, part of the reissues of the group's catalog for the 50th anniversary), “The song remains the same” is a classic, but it is also a “divisive” film, like we would say today.

Beloved by fans, it testifies to the band at the height of its popularity, with three concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Precisely due to the size of Zeppelin in that period, the work was complex and tiring, so much so that it came out only 3 years later, in ' 76, after the firing of the first director and after some sequences were subsequently recreated in the studio and edited with the original live footage – with a curious out-of-sync effect in some sequences. .
The film also contains a more psychedelic part which, seen today, has a certain effect, made up of surreal non-musical sequences: from the manager Peter Grant transformed into a gangster who opens the film with a shootout, to John Paul Jones who is divided between the good father of family and village villain, Robert Plant with purple eyes and Jimmy Page who climbs a mountain and meets himself as an old man (Paolo Madeddu collected them in this brilliant article).

Stop making sense

Another masterpiece of the genre is “Stop Making Sense” by Talking Heads (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, another director closely linked to music, and this one also recently returned to cinemas (only Anglo-Saxon ones, however) – so much so that the band is also gathered to promote it. Demme and the Talking Heads challenge the conventions of the concert film, which have now become clichés: they stage not only the performances, but behind the scenes. The stage is built piece by piece, with each song, with the band joining David Byrne, who starts alone. A brilliant idea.

Rattle and hum

If we want to find the moment of the end of this golden era it is probably between 1988, the year of U2's “Rattle and Hum”, and 1989.

The Irish band has made twelve concert films in its career, starting with “Live at Red Rocks” (Gavin Taylor, 1984), released in VHS format together with the live album “Under a Red Blood Sky”. At the end of the '80s he was at the height of success, after “The Joshua Tree”, and decided to do a complex operation: a film and an album with live performances and new songs, linked to their American tour and his story of the United States. The band wanted to involve Scorsese or Demme, but then Phil Joanou, who had created “U2 in the Americas” (this was the original title), got involved.

The album reached number one in America, England and about ten countries, but the film received less than positive reviews and did not do as well at the box office: in America, according to the figures reported at the time by Rolling Stone, it only grossed $8 million despite being distributed in 1,400 theaters – from which it was soon withdrawn. Curiously, U2 have never reissued either the album or the film in an expanded version, despite several unreleased materials, both audio and video, circulating in the form of bootlegs.

However, audiovisual concerts were moving elsewhere: it was better to publish them directly on videocassette (and then on DVD), with fewer risks. Unplugged was born in 1989. MTV had changed the perception of television for music and in the 90s a participation would have become highly coveted and even a recording success: Eric Clapton would have sold over 20 million of the album taken from his show for the television network.