Before MTV, before VHS tapes, before DVDs, and way, way, way before YouTube, the only way for fans to see hard rock and heavy metal bands in concert was just that—in concert. For those who couldn’t make it to live shows, a handful of late-night TV programs offered respites, most prominently ABC in Concert, The Midnight Special, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Then there was the concert movie.
Beginning with The T.A.M.I. Show and its all star lineup in 1964 (performers include the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Beach Boys, and the Supremes; Jan and Dean host atop skateboards), then hitting a critical peak in 1978 with Martin Scorsese’s chronicle of the Band’s farewell show in The Last Waltz, concert films packed mainstream theaters for long initial runs and then remained in circulation as midnight movies for years thereafter (some are still going strong).
Alas, with all the aforementioned technology developments putting live band performances constantly no further away than one’s typing fingertips, the last major rock concert movie of the original era remains the Talking Heads in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Stop Making Sense.
Along the way, of course, hard rock and heavy metal contributed their share of enduring big-screen barnburners to the genre—with Metallica even reviving the theatrical live performance film for the 21st century (in 3D no less!). Here now are eight hard-and-heavy, history-making, headbanging concert film favorites.
The Song Remains the Same (1977)
The grand magi of hard rock, Led Zeppelin, naturally pulled off the grandest, most magisterial of concert films with The Song Remains the Same.
Filmed at Zep’s mighty three-night 1975 Madison Square Garden stand, Song is Biblically-proportioned from its opening visits with the band members at home (including Jimmy Page playing a hurdy-gurdy and flashing red eyes by a lake) on through their jetting out on tour and hitting the stage with a ferocious run-through of “Rock and Roll.”
Aside from one musical highlight after another (e.g., Page whips out the violin bow during “Dazed and Confused”), Song’s documentary aspects are uniformly enthralling, supply up-close insights into Zep manager Peter Grant’s notorious (yet somehow charming) strong-arm techniques, as well as the backstage drama of a thief making off with the group’s $350,000 cash haul for the gig.
Greater still are Song’s long, elaborate fantasy sequences, if only because they would likely come off ridiculous if attempted by a mere mortal rock band. Plant engages in Viking swordfights. Page scales a mountain alongside Loch Ness. Bassist John Paul Jones rides with 18th century masked horsemen at midnight. Drummer John Bonham, in stark contrast, just hangs with his family on their farm.
The Song Remains the Same pulls off its every minute to perfection—and in the case of Bonzo’s “Moby Dick” drum solo, the number of minutes is just over eleven.
AC/DC: Let There Be Rock (1981)
In February 1980, AC/DC frontman Bon Scott departed this moral realm on the highway to … well, some rock-and-roll afterlife destination about which he may have memorably sung.
Within five months, Scott’s bandmates regrouped (as he no doubt would have wanted them to), picked up singer Brian Johnson, and unleashed the ultimate heavy metal salute to a fallen hero, Back in Black, which eventually also became history’s all-time greatest-selling hard rock album.
The following year, AC/DC enabled fans worldwide to pay tribute to Bon Scott in an even more dynamic visual fashion, by releasing the rip-roaring concert film AC/DC: Let There Be Rock.
Filmed in Paris just two months before Scott’s death by alcoholic misadventure, Let There Be Rock showcases Bon at his beastly best—rollicking, radiant, and so very electrifyingly alive, as brilliantly exhibited by the band’s opening number in the movie, “Live Wire.” A dozen more songs follow, each building in frenzied intensity right along with schoolboy-uniformed guitar maniac Angus Young as he powers through them in perpetual whirlwind motion.
One unsettled debate continues regarding Let There Be Rock. A mix of long-standing rumors and long-ago recollections maintains that some movie theaters exhibiting the film were equipped with stacks of Marshall amplifiers through which they played the soundtrack. Hard evidence of this gimmick has proven difficult to produce, but a small, fervent cadre of fans swears they saw the film with Marshall stacks down by the front of the screen. Let it be true, Let There Be Rock.
Metallica: Through the Never (2013)
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is the 2003 documentary that made Metallica seem really, perhaps even permanently uncool. It exposed the band at a particular dire low-point interpersonally and professionally, just as they gave the boot to bassist Jason Newsted and recorded their most singularly despised album, St. Anger.
To their endless headbanger credit, though, Metallica spent the ensuing years healing rifts between themselves and their fans. The 2008 LP Death Magnetic was a major slam-bang comeback, and the group launched their Orion Music Festival. Best of all, Metallica redefined the possibilities of the classic theatrically released concert film with the 3D extravaganza, Metallica: Through the Never.
The movie’s concert sequences, shot at the BC Palace Stadium in Vancouver, are absolutely sensational, brilliantly interpreting Metallica’s multimedia stage show for the cinema. Even more astonishing is the movie’s plot that runs alongside the performance footage.
A band gofer named Trip (Dane DeHaan) gets dispatched to retrieve a bag from the back of a van parked several blocks away from the stadium. Once outside, though, Trip comes face-to-face with civilization in utter apocalyptic collapse. Here, Through the Never’s visuals match the power of Metallica’s music with brute force and wild imagination, sending Trip—and us—on an epic quest through the end of the world.
Ragtag rebels riot, a masked assassin known only as The Rider storms the streets atop a nightmarish steed, buildings fall, bodies pile up, and, all the while, Metallica blows away all previous questions as to their preeminent heavy metal ruling status with a nuclear-intense on-stage performance. The end result is a miracle: by the end, Metallica seems cool again.
Black and Blue (1981)
Once a staple of late-night screenings at suburban shopping mall theaters and now a hard-to-find home video collector’s item (as it’s never been issued on DVD), Black and Blue chronicles a 1980 stop of the tour by the same name at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. The headliners, as the name implies, are Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult.
The movie’s choice to intercut songs by each act initially seems jarring, but ultimately adds to Black and Blue’s unique snapshot of a true heavy metal moment. BÖC opens with “The Marshall Plan,” which is followed by Black Sabbath coming out to “War Pigs.” This switch-off continues on until the two closing numbers: BÖC covers Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” and Sabbath signs off with “Die Young.”
Just by showcasing Sabbath with its fresh new frontman Ronnie James Dio, Black and Blue is an invaluable metal treasure, but it even more bracingly shows off Blue Öyster Cult at the height of their arena-packing, foundation-rocking power. That’s an important reminder in the age after “I gotta have more cowbell!”
Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare (1975)
Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare is not to be confused with The Nightmare, Alice’s well-known 1975 ABC TV special, nor his previous 1973 concert film, Good to See You Again, Alice Cooper.
Each of those productions pack their own poisonous pleasures, but Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare is the shock-rock godfather’s big official cinematic performance opus. Adding to its own legend is that Welcome bombed when first issued as a mainstream release, but then flourished throughout the rest of the decade as a midnight movie.
Shot during Alice’s first solo tour after disbanding the Alice Cooper Group, most of Welcome’s takes place druing his Wembley Stadium show in England. Alice performs the entire album named in the movie’s title, along with “School’s Out,” “I’m Eighteen” and “Department of Youth.”
Aiding and abetting in Alice’s impossibly massive stage show are dancing ghouls, prancing skeletons, a spider with the voice of Vincent Price, and a nine-foot-tall Cyclops. Still, Alice himself looms huger than all of them, all the way through the movie.
Jimi Plays Berkeley (1971)
In a tragic flash, Jimi Plays Berkeley transformed from being a slapdash record of Jimi Hendrix playing a two-night stand at Berkeley’s Community Theater into a vital document of a genuine rock god, immediately following the guitar guru’s death.
As a result, Jimi Plays Berkeley director Peter Pilafian made due with the performance footage he had—much of it, of course, expectedly brilliant—and fleshed out the film to feature length by incorporating guerilla shots of contemporary counterculture protest actions.
The final film blasts an unmistakable you-are-there immediacy and, if some critics pine for a more technically polished live show, midnight movie audiences hardly complained as Jimi Plays Berkeley remained in constant wee-hour screening distribution well into the 1990s.
Even during the height of punk rock overtaking midnight movie showings by way of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), and Suburbia (1982), the cult for cinema’s superlative prog-rock vehicle, Yessongs, kept the concert film running for years to packed (and whacked) theaters.
Yessongs documents Yes playing at London’s Rainbow Theater on their 1972 Close to the Edge Tour. Vocalist John Anderson hits angelic highs to the point that he ends up leading a “Hallelujah Chorus,” while Steve Howe on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keyboards erupt repeatedly into mesmerizing displays of their virtuoso musicianship.
In addition to late-night theatrical bookings, Yessongs ran as a staple throughout the early ’80s on cable-TV’s then-fledgling USA Network. The film aired both as a part of the channel’s legendary weekend series Night Flight, and as daytime programming where, bizarrely, it seemed to be routinely interspersed with 1977’s Abba: The Movie.
What with its “three days of music, peace, and love” vibe and general mud-caked hippie grooviness, Woodstock, the movie, hardly seems to be the stuff of heavy metal.
On top of that, there’s the same year’s Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, which stands as one cinema’s truest, most deeply terrifying conjuring of the devil’s music.
Still, Woodstock provides some of the most potent proto-metal moments to ever scorch celluloid and, therefore, belongs on the list.
Leading the headbanger charge, of course, is Jimi Hendrix’s bombastic decimation and reconstruction of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Then, too, Woodstock depicts the Who heading toward the metallic monstrousness they’d display on the Live at Leeds album, as well as Santana blazing through the hard-rock smoker “Soul Sacrifice” with teenage Neil Schon backing Carlos on guitar.
Most unexpectedly explosive, however, is what guitarist and singer Alvin Lee of Ten Years After does with the group’s electric blues stomper, “I’m Going Home.” After tuning his “Big Red” Gibson ES-355 for a moment, Lee announces the title of the song, and then erupts into a volcanic guitar onslaught that metal axe-masters would spend much of the (pre-Van Halen) ’70s trying to even come close to matching in hard-and-heavy blunt force and dynamic impact.
So, yeah, Woodstock is metal.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points). You will love it.