The Art of Filming Live Music

Watching The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think caused me to pontificate about the various ways professionals try to film live music.

I can still remember the precise moment that From the Basement became my favourite live music programme.  It was in the first performance of the first episode: The White Stripes at the tail-end of the Get Behind Me Satan era tearing through “Blue Orchid” and “Party of Special Things to Do” with a tangible fun and relaxation.  Meg and Jack spend almost the entire time with their eyes locked on one another, smiles wider than a Cheshire cat’s, each feeding off of the other without a care in the world.  Meg, in particular, seems more at ease than almost any other live performance I’ve seen of her, even getting into the sultriness of “Blue Orchid” without it feeling like a defence mechanism for her anxiety.  I know that Jack White is not somebody who likes to look backwards when it comes to his music career (hence why we’re likely never getting that third Raconteurs album no matter how much the world hurts from its deprivation), but I am still furious that he’s never put out a recording or video of that performance on the show – especially with just how disappointed 14 year-old Me was when he searched for the studio recording of “Party of Special Things to Do” and found it failed to even slightly measure up to that specific live take.

Here is a confession of mine that has been a long-time coming: when I express my preference for recordings of live music performances to be predominately focussed on the band playing on stage, I don’t mean that in an absolute hard-line fashion.  From the Basement, as conceived by super music producer Nigel Godrich and television producer Dilly Gent, of course had a direct antecedent in the form of the BBC’s beloved The Old Grey Whistle Test, but Whistle Test still had presenters, a set (though basic), and the same simplistic televisual filming style that the BBC applies to all of its live music programmes – apart from some mood lighting and the lack of a crowd (and the obvious fact that the bands on Whistle Test were playing live instead of miming), there actually isn’t too much different in the way that Whistle Test and Top of the Pops fundamentally presented music.  At the time, I imagine it was still revelatory, but watching back today it bleeds into the homogenous manner that the BBC presents all live music.  Outside of the music often being really bloody good, the act of watching it, as I have done through years of compilation shows on BBC Four, is, to me at least, largely unengaging.

From the Basement went even more stripped down than that: no presenters, no sets of any kind, and all recordings take place in studio practice rooms (mostly at Maida Vale).  Furthermore, big-name artists would frequently avoid playing their more well-known songs in favour of deeper album cuts, something that even the more music-lover shows today (such as Later… with Jools Holland) typically avoid – as one example, Queens of the Stone Age closed out the second season in 2007 and the only Era Vulgaris song they played was its opener “Turnin’ on the Screw.”  Theoretically, this puts all of the focus on the music, especially since, and particularly later on in its all-too-brief run, the cameras largely stay static and somewhat distant.  But the show’s various directors, combined with this intentionally naturalistic set-up and design – intended to invoke the sensation of watching a band jam in the comfort of their own space – keep drawing attention to the results of that naturalism.  You see interplay between band members or little emotional details that can otherwise be lost through constant cuts, motion, or the artificiality of traditional TV appearances.  Beck strolling around during the grooving outro of “Cellphone’s Dead,” Jack White and Brendan Benson playing off of each other and drummer Patrick Keeler during the solo on “Consoler of the Lonely,” the camera spending 90% of “It’s a Motherfucker” remaining on a close-up of Mark Oliver Everett so as to properly communicate the numbing melancholic grief of the song’s lyrics.  The results are as equally fascinating to watch as they are to listen to.

I’ve been talking about studio-based live shows up to this point, but the principles do cross over to filming actual gigs and concerts.  After all, even when a band is putting on the most amazing, visually splendid, and awe-inspiring stage performance ever conceived, you still need to find interesting ways to shoot it, otherwise you may as well just stick a single hard-cam far enough away from the stage to fit it all in and knock off until the gig’s over.  The music may be fantastic, but you can just buy live albums for that; the visuals need to be able to translate the atmosphere, the giddy experience of being there, in a way enhances the songs on-screen.

To use the premiere example that everybody likes to always point towards: Stop Making Sense may have remained resolutely focussed on the band and stage for almost all of its runtime, only cutting to the audience during “Crosseyed And Painless” at the conclusion of the show, yes.  But the film still pops like few other concert films to this day because Jonathan Demme and David Byrne worked to find little details, camera movements, and asides by the performers that make the film entrancing.  In fact, the 2015 home media re-issue of the film even comes with extensive storyboards drawn by Byrne and the creative team that details both the stage show for each song, but also certain scripted camera positions for the best possible shots.  It is somewhat unorthodox, but the results speak for themselves, with Demme deliberately drawing your eye to the best or most interesting things happening on stage at that moment in time, ultimately creating the feeling of having experienced that particular show(s) in the best possible manner.

In a slightly more conventional example, Gorillaz Demon Days Live has a very simple set-up.  The band, Gorillaz here represented by their real-world “stand-ins” shrouded in shadow, play through the entirety of Demon Days in order with original visuals by Jamie Hewlett projected on a screen above them, and guest artists come out on stage at the appropriate time to perform their bit in a spotlight before leaving.  For filming the performance(s), then, you could just set up one hard-cam that takes in the screen and stage and let it run for almost 70 minutes, or just display a feed to the animations (as is an available option on the DVD).  Editor Sebastian Monk – whom I’m crediting because neither the DVD booklet nor the credits list an official director – instead keeps circling between the band, the visuals, and night-vision tinted shots of the crowd dancing in the aisles, emphasising the multimedia intentions of the performance; whilst the audience shots don’t overwhelm the film, but they also don’t make the atmosphere seem boring and stuffy either.  Little wonder this captured my 11-year-old imagination so thoroughly and cemented my religious adoration of Gorillaz that continues to this day.

But by contrast, Richard Ayoade’s Arctic Monkeys at the Apollo, a film I distinctly remember forcing my parents to take me to for my 14th birthday (as it screened on that day), only highlighted the Monkeys’ shortcomings as live performers at the end of the Favourite Worst Nightmare era.  Ayoade was very, very clearly influenced by the aesthetics of Demme’s “no fuss, no muss” vision for concert features, but even with the addition of Super 16 film, and a deliberate attempt to make the band bashing through their hits “cinematic” by combining that with longer takes and occasional split-screen cutaways, the results are disappointingly lifeless and going-through-the-motions, drawing attention to the band’s sloppiness and evident fatigue (and also Alex Turner’s total drunkenness).  Despite it being the last night of the tour, in front of what may have been a molten hot crowd – it’s near-impossible to tell, because the audience has been almost entirely mixed out of the audio, making the performances sound extra-flat – the atmosphere is effectively non-existent.

So, when I rage like a lunatic at the BBC’s endless cutting to gormless audience reaction shots during Glastonbury or Reading & Leeds or whatever, I’m not raging at the entire concept of audience reaction shots in concert films and televised coverage of live music in general.  I’m raging because the BBC’s usage is so utterly artless, arbitrary, and, worst of all, artificial.  90% of these shots involve a collection of twits mugging directly into the camera instead of looking at the stage because somebody on the other side of it blatantly ordered them to before it shoots off into the sky to show the sea of thousands of other people attending this event.  These shots tell you nothing about the performance, the atmosphere, the energy, because they are fake.  They are forced.  They are aspirational television, where you are supposed to look at those gurning shits mugging harder than a Law & Order: SVU suspect and think “those arseholes could be me and my friends someday!” selling you more on the homogenous idea of “being at a concert” than showing you what it is like to “be at this specific concert right now.”

The few excerpts of Arcade Fire Live at Earls Court that were released as teases for the home video of The Reflektor Tapes – I must confess to having not seen in full Live at Earls Court yet, so maybe this improves when viewed as a complete work – feature tonnes of crowd shots, fancy camera movements, colour flips, and definition film so high that Win Butler’s sweat practically drips off of the screen… but it still doesn’t communicate how incredible of an experience it was to be there with tens of thousands of people feeding off of the spectacle of the stage, the energy of the band, and the communal spirit of your fellow crowd members during “Rebellion (Lies)” – and I should know, I was there on the night that was recorded, and it was transcendental to experience.  And, sure, asking a concert film to fully recreate that once in a lifetime feeling you had in the moment is too much, but not only do the results make the night largely seem like any other gig, the relentless frenetic editing oftentimes doesn’t follow a logical order.  Multiple times during said “Rebellion” performance, there are shots and cuts for the sake of shots and cuts.  It’s depressing.

Besides, one of my absolute favourite moments in the history of concert films comes from Shut Up and Play the Hits (which means it’s also carried over to the dedicated LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden).  Shut Up and Play the Hits does an excellent job at communicating the simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking atmosphere of LCD Soundsystem’s at-the-time farewell gig, with direction that highlights inter-band relations like those shared by Nancy Whang and Al Doyle, crowds utterly losing their minds to ripping bangers like “Yeah” and “Movement,” and even ending the film on a shot of one fan stood crying his eyes out amid squalling feedback and a dwindling standing area about this band that he evidently adored being over before his eyes.  Amid those, my favourite moment comes during the performance of “Us v Them” where roaming cameras catch a couple dancing with carefree abandon to the song, largely unconcerned with the band on stage at that moment, and later on passionately kissing each other.  It’s an incidental side-story, but it’s one that is vital to communicating the mood of this specific concert.  Those spontaneous occurrences that you can’t plan for or fake and tell you more about the band, the concert, and everybody’s relation to this specific band playing this specific show on this specific night.  Sure, it’s not apples to apples, but the fact that the BBC, despite having covered live music for decades, are so frequently incapable of doing this is enraging to me.

I bring all of this up because I watched The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think for the first time two weeks back, and it has instantly become one of my favourite concert films of all-time in spite of it coming in opposition to my cited preference for non-flashy depictions of live music.  Director Adam Smith, who has been the titular duo’s primary visual coordinator for their live shows for years, is not just attempting to communicate the experience of being at a Chemical Brothers concert, nor is he just attempting to communicate the experience of being at this specific Chemical Brothers concert (their headline set at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2011).  These are things that he does do, mind, and he does them extremely well.  His roaming cameras catch thousands of adoring Japanese fans screaming their lungs out in appreciation, blissed-out festivalgoers being shocked to attention by sudden drops, one guy excitedly telling his girlfriend that the song that’s being slowly transitioned into is “Swoon” a few seconds before it properly hits… Even with the nature of live electronic music being a largely static affair, Smith still finds multiple shots of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons having just as much fun as the crowd, equally working them and looking genuinely taken aback by the sheer visceral reaction they get from staples like “Chemical Beats” and “Hey Boy Hey Girl.”

Smith’s overall goals with Don’t Think, however, turn out to extend farther than this one night.  Instead, he utilises the set that he has been given to visualise and communicate the experience of the Chemical Brothers music in general.  The pure sensory overload of their light show and visuals, coupled with their Further-era set leaning slightly more on the psychedelic euphoria side of their discography than their blunt-force block-party side, lays a lot of the groundwork on its own, but Smith builds off of it to create something more.  In most live music recordings, the show is a thing that is happening somewhere in the world, but in Don’t Think, this one show is the world for the 90 minutes it runs for.  Smith arranges his images and editing in such a way that this one show feels like it is taking place somewhere entirely removed from the rest of the planet, on its own plane, like some kind of commune.

His editing can be frenetic, but it rarely becomes too much or too overloaded specifically because he chooses those moments sparingly.  There are multiple moments where the film shakes with such a violent intensity that it feels like the ground may collapse under foot and the film might just breakdown entirely, but it never feels excessive or something akin to self-parody.  Sometimes, Smith cross-cuts between the visuals on screen and shots of the audience that eerily mimic those pre-designed visuals, blurring the lines between the different realities of the film, and this is all before we get to the legitimate cutaways.  At several points, Smith takes his camera away from the throb of the main stage to other areas of the festival, spreading the Chem visuals around the grounds as if they are bleeding out into the rest of the world – festivalgoers trying to touch projections of tigers, tiny robots marching over vending machines, those terrifying clown faces spooking not just those at the show proper.  Then, at two points, Smith breaks into fiction entirely, following one particular woman in the crowd around the festival afterwards in an alcoholic/drug/euphoria-induced haze as she stumbles into random tents, tries to find her friends, and is followed around by snatches of earlier Chem visuals.

These reality breaks serve a purpose, however, and are also only used sparingly – which is what separates it from Metallica’s similar-ish Through the Never, where a pretty good Metallica concert film is constantly being interrupted by this nonsensical and largely irrelevant thriller movie.  They further Smith’s attempt to make Don’t Think feel like its own contained world, one that not only feeds off of the Chems’ music, but also allows the music to feed off the visuals.  The two are symbiotic with one another, and the result ends up as probably the most definitive way to experience the Chemical Brothers’ music outside of going to one of their shows yourself.  I would say that it could be described as translating one of their music videos to feature-length – especially since the structure of the film and certain visual motifs and sequences directly recall the video for “Setting Sun” – but, honestly, there are several moments where Don’t Think actually surpasses the group’s own music videos.  Compare the way Smith puts together the closing rendition of “Block Rockin’ Beats” to its actual music video from 1997 and tell me which one you think makes a better music video for it.  Then compare Don’t Think’s visual with one from 2007 by the acclaimed United Visual Artists and tell me which one better communicates the atmosphere of the gig, the quality of the performance, and the sheer goddamn power of listening to the song in general.

I don’t have any larger point to make despite all of this, for the record.  After all, I have spent nearly 3000 words comparing apples to oranges to watermelons, and I am fully aware of that fact.  But I recently came across a quote from Arcade Fire’s Win Butler when he was promoting the band’s own live film/music documentary Mirior Noir back in 2007 that I kind of agree with.  “I always find live shows on film kind of boring.  Even my favourite ones, I kinda zone out for most of it.  It’s just so different seeing a band in the flesh and then watching a film of it, even if you have a hundred cameras and it’s shot from every angle.  There’s just a communal visceral feeling that never translates very well.”  He is right, and it may be why events like the BBC’s yearly festival coverage always feel so flat and samey, but Don’t Think proves that you can translate that communal visceral feeling if you actively try finding ways to do so.

The irony is that watching Don’t Think still involves zoning out, if only because surrendering to that feeling is the best way to fully appreciate the music of the Chems.  Don’t think, just let it flow.

Callum Petch, when this ends, at least will have a reason to live.

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