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Woodstock (#110 of 2)

The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

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The Conversations: Rock Concert Films
The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

Jason Bellamy: For one of my younger brothers, 2010 was the summer of music. Approaching his junior year at the University of Oregon, he spent the past few months attending about every concert that came his way in the Pacific Northwest. The criteria seemed to be this: If the concert was within driving distance and featured loud (preferably metal) bands that hadn’t had a big hit since before he was born, he was going. And so he rocked to Iron Maiden, Cinderella, the Scorpions, Billy Idol, and more. He rocked at large arenas and relatively intimate county fairs, sneaking up to the front of the stage when he could to snap pictures that he would eventually file along with similar snapshots of bands like AC/DC and KISS.

My brother loves music—if he’s partial to rock and metal, he’s rather indiscriminate within that genre (if you couldn’t tell). But I think the biggest reason my brother attends concerts is because he loves the energy of the live events, where he doesn’t just hear the music but feels it, too. Even when you’re pressed shoulder to shoulder with other attendees, and even when the musicians are so far away that you need to rely on the video screens to see the musicians’ expressions, there’s something very intimate and magically visceral about concerts. You can know every note and lyric of a band’s work from listening to their albums, but somehow seeing them live makes us feel as if we know them better, or know them for the first time.

Maybe that phenomenon is what inspires filmmakers to make concert documentaries in the first place: the challenge of simulating the feeling of being there. There are numerous films about musical artists—from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) to Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005) to This Is It (2009)—some of which go backstage, some of which play historian, some of which are hardly about music at all, and so there’s no way we could have an all-encompassing discussion about that larger cinematic genre and its many sub-genres. Still, it’s a genre worth tackling, and so in this discussion we’re going to focus on five films—Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988) and Instrument (2001)—that despite their incredible diversity have one thing in common: their chief aim seems to be to replicate the sensation of being there. And in the case of the first film, Woodstock, the music might be the least interesting part of that experience, am I right?

Take Two #2: The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Wiz (1978)

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Take Two #2: <em>The Wizard of Oz</em> (1939) and <em>The Wiz</em> (1978)
Take Two #2: <em>The Wizard of Oz</em> (1939) and <em>The Wiz</em> (1978)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

Few four-word concepts would seem as predestined for American canonization as “Motown Wizard of Oz,” and yet I can’t recall anyone—critics, friends, fellow Hitsville and classic soul aficionados—ever recommending the film version of Charlie Smalls’s 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz. If only by default, this movie should be remembered at least as a curio in the career of one of its many notable contributors—Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Ashford and Simpson, Sidney Lumet, Quincy Jones, and Joel Schumacher among them.

I wish I could report that The Wiz deserves better than this cultural lacuna, but alas: This is a certifiable turkey, one of those doomed “star-studded” productions where a football team’s worth of talent can’t overcome the fact that nobody’s doing what feels natural. Everyone, particularly Ross, who, by all accounts, was the project’s true auteur, seems so amazed by the virtue and capital-I Importance of their undertaking that even the lighthearted numbers feel leaden. As Dorothy, a put-upon Harlem schoolteacher who’s “never been below 125th St.,” Ross plays her character as if she represented the dramatic and emotional summit of Western civilization. And a handful of other reliably joyful entertainers—most egregiously Jackson, Russell, and Pryor—follow her lead. This is The Wizard of Oz pitched midway between the first act of A Raisin in the Sun and the last scene of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and it lasts a mind-boggling 135 minutes.