Concert Movies

Last Friday, I went to the premiere of the Taylor Swift Eras Tour movie. I have thoughts.

I’m not new to concert movies; I have both concerts and musicals in my collection. They are excellent during exercising as the music keeps my tempo up and the colors keep me sufficiently entertained. I rarely put them on on their own, though.

The Eras Tour is in principle not very different from regular concert movies, except it was playing at the movie theater. This is also not entirely unique, but this time around it might just be the perfect storm.

Movie theaters are suffering right now; this is part due to Covid which weaned people off going to the movies, and the availability of a plethora of entertainment on streaming services. It likely also doesn’t help that the movie experience at home is very close to that of a movie theater. Sure, the sound may be marginally better and the screen bigger, but there’s a point of diminishing return and gimmicks (like 3D) are no longer really fashionable. Add to that, that Hollywood has seriously dropped the ball: the recipe for free money, known franchises (like cinematic universes or shitting out unending streams of reboots), has reached a point where people are good and tired of them. Much like when westerns or movie musicals stopped being popular, the business is ripe for a paradigm shift.

Concert movies might just be it; the Taylor Swift movie was extremely successful. Concert movies also benefit from being cheap to produce; record them during a regular show, and they are almost free (at least compared to a multi-hundred-million blockbuster). Concert movies also actually benefit from many people in a movie theater, contrary to most other movies.

Since this was the first (I’m sure the success means there will be more) concert movie of this generation, people were not clear on how to go about it in the theater. Normally, during a movie, people need to shut up, keep their snack-eating quiet, and – obviously – stay in their seat. This is not how a concert works, though. After the second or thereabout song, people started applauding in the theater. Not at Taylor, who was on the other side of the world, but as a group reaction. A couple songs later, people started singing along. During some ballads, people started waving their phones with the flashlight on, and during the Red and 1989 eras, people got out of their seats to dance. This was great!

I don’t go to concerts to sit is my assigned seat (I prefer GA where I standjump around close to the stage), passively listening. Concerts are a combination of music, show, and the crowd. A concert movie on DVD has a scaled down version of the first two and none of the last. A concert movie at the theater can provide a reasonable facsimile of all three. It’s not as good as standing just in front of the stage, because being close to one’s idol means something too and the crowd is quite a bit smaller and less enthusiastic, but it is definitely better than a shitty seat on the 2nd or 3rd level in the back.

On the surface The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not a very good film, but thanks to audience participation developed over years it has become more than the very niche movie. I’m sure the social norms for concert movies will evolve over time as well. Right now, it’s like a quiet concert. With time, I hope people come out of their shells more, so there is more life. It would also be great to have theaters built or adapted for concerts without chairs (or at least with zones without chairs) to closer mimic the experience of going to a show. One theater on the wrong side of the rivers actually did something of the sort. I can also easily see theaters expanding the experience with pre/after shows either in their own rooms or together with nearby venues.

I really hope the next 10 concert movies are as high quality as Taylor’s was. Her show is already very pretty and visual, making it easy to turn into a movie. Other artists with a large emphasis on the show (e.g., Britney) will do equally well, but a snore-fest like Adele will likely lead to a dull movie. Sound and editing must also be up to a standard where I’m not constantly taken out of the experience and reminded it’s just a movie on a silver screen.

With all my optimism, I also hope that this doesn’t come too much at the cost of actual live shows. While it is great that a concert movie can make concerts easily available to many more people, there is also something to be said for being at a concert with only the most devoted fans. I normally aim to be at the very front, sometimes by getting in line early or by paying exorbitant amounts for a backstage pass (+ international travel). The barrier to entry means the only other people there are people equally fanatic, and at least I easily make a connection with people just as into an artist as I am. For example, I recently loudly sang together with some Belgian girl at a Nessa Barrett concert; we both knew all the lyrics and had a lot of fun. Or the French girl I talked with backstage for Britney in Herning, only to run into her the day after in the airport and again two years later backstage for Backstreet Boys in London. Those and many similar experiences I’d hate to be without. Not to mention the vibe at the front where everybody is singing along and dancing is way ahead of the vibe of the (semi-)casuals in a movie theater (though going for the first show on the premiere night did ensure there were a lot of hardcore fans there too). Concerts at festivals have a bit the same problem: they are great for discovery, but kind-of suck for concerts with artists you already are into.

Many of the artists I love often use playback, and I don’t mind that too much. I’m aware that some older people find that cheating, and much in the same way, I feel there’s something special about seeing the artist in person. Maybe it’s being close to somebody you like, maybe it’s the implicit knowledge that this is a very limited experience: only so many people fit in the venue and the artist can only play a limited number of shows a week. It is not the only consideration, and I’d love to have easy to access to artists I normally wouldn’t mind seeing but wouldn’t normally travel for. I’m also certain that not everybody has the same reservation with a video compared to an in-person live show.

I am also aware that not all artists are big enough to have concert movies made, and have to play live shows. If the big names can cut touring in half and replace that by a video, that risks reducing profit of organizers, and weaning people off going to a live show. Both can harm smaller artists trying to get their music out. The smaller, but live, artists would have to compete with a concert movie of an established name, at least in some situations. This could lead to people watching more shows with fewer artists, leading to established artists growing even bigger, pushing out the starters. We need to avoid this for all costs, because that is eerily similar to what is killing cinema now: blockbusters with giant budgets and little edge pushed all the medium budget movies out of the theaters, leading to the current crisis. I’d rather cinema dies 100 times than even rising this happening to music. Given that large artists, record companies, and movie theaters have a very real chance of significantly increasing profits in the next decade at the cost of what happens the decade after, I’m not very hopeful this won’t actually happen.

In conclusion, I think that concert movies can be really neat and have the potential to save movie theaters while making almost-live shows available to a broader audience. I just hope it doesn’t hurt actual live shows (too much).

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