Have you heard? 2023 was the year concert films saved cinema — or at least boosted movie theaters. Normally, it would be difficult to wrangle up enough notable entries to warrant an end-of-year concert movie ranking, but not this year. This year, the concert film ruled. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé sidestepped Hollywood to work directly with theaters for the distributions of their respective box-office champions. Culture-shifting global superstars BTS managed to make waves in theaters, despite being on group hiatus for all of 2023. And Hollywood indie darling A24 re-released 1984’s Stop Making Sense, widely considered to be one of the best concert films of all time.
Like any ranking, it’s important to come up with a criteria. This one is based not on the quality of the performance recorded, but rather the unique merits of the concert movie as, well, a movie. Frankly, there aren’t any bad movies on this list — it really was a good year for concert-focused filmmaking — but there were some examples that were more cinematically ambitious than others. In a year of concert films, let’s talk about which movies did something particularly unique with the format.
5. BTS: Yet to Come
Where to watch: Prime Video
It pains me to put my beloved BTS so low on this list, but remember, all five of these concert movies are Quite Good. As a card-carrying member of BTS ARMY, BTS: Yet to Come — a filmed version of the K-pop sensation’s final performance before the group went on hiatus for mandatory military service —was the concert film I personally had the most fun watching in 2023. However, helmed by experienced K-pop concert film director Oh Yoon-dong, BTS: Yet to Come isn’t doing anything special beyond point-and-shoot in the translation to film. Still, its cinematic release gave fans an excuse to get dressed up, change the batteries in their ARMY Bomb, and scream the lyrics to “Cypher Pt 3” with other fans. Nothing wrong with those ambitions!
BTS: Yet to Come might have bopped its way further up the list if not for the film’s decision to trim down and move the placement of the concert’s “ments,” the closing remarks made by performers at K-pop concerts. Ments are one of the many unique aspects of attending a K-pop concert, and— especially given the significance of this performance —it would have been nice to see these speeches in their entirety. Presumably, the decision was made for runtime reasons, but the ments montage made for a jarring shift in editorial style that didn’t quite match the straight-forward, like-you’re-there structure of the rest of the film. (This film also loses points for cutting out the hardworking cameraman who put his body on the line for all of us so he could get the shot. Never forget.)
4. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour
Like BTS: Yet to Come, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is another straightforward concert film designed to recreate the experience of being at a stop on the pop star’s ongoing, record-breaking world tour. But unlike BTS: Yet to Come, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour draws from three separate shows, giving director Sam Wrench more material to pull from. Also, it was filmed at state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, allowing for a more dynamic captured performance. The viewer is, like, in it at Swift’s pop culture party of a show.
As 2023 comes to a close, Swift’s The Eras Tour —a three-plus-hour show that chronicles the first 17 years of Swift’s career —is on track to become the highest-grossing tour of all time. It’s not just a good show; it’s representative of a cultural shift in how people define themselves as fans. Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour gave a glimpse into what that kind of community can look like, both for those who are already a part of it and for those who might be curious.
3. Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé
Where to watch: Theaters
Part concert film, part behind-the-scenes documentary, Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé showcases Beyoncé’s power not only as a performer, but as a director. Queen Bey wrote, produced, and directed the cinematic experience, which gives a peek behind what went into putting together and pulling off her massive Renaissance world tour.
Unlike most of the other concert films on the list, Renaissance drew from many different stops on her 56-show tour, giving a more ambitious, broader depiction of the tour as a whole. The viewer doesn’t just get a front-row seat to some of Beyoncé’s meticulously choreographed numbers, including one in which she flies through the air on the back of a giant silver horse. We also get Beyoncé’s musings on aging, motherhood, capitalism’s pretty effective efforts to turn us into machines, how our hometowns form us, and the construct of time. We also get deep dives into the rich history of ball culture, and a tribute to Beyoncé’s late Uncle Johnny, who helped raise her.
If that sounds like a lot to pull off in one concert film, it is. However, Beyoncé manages to pull it into a cohesive whole as a filmmaker and performer by using the story of her show as a backbone. We return to it again and again, a reminder not only of the beautiful art humans can create together in this flawed, frustrating world, but that art cannot be separated from the process that creates it and us.
2. Stop Making Sense
Where to watch: Theaters
In a recent interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth described the structure of Stop Making Sense, which immortalizes the post-punk band’s 1983 performance at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, like this: “It’s the story of love. It really is. It starts with one person, an individual alone in this world, and then a community builds around it.” Is there any greater working definition of live music performance than this? Is there any film that better captures that feeling than Stop Making Sense, which pioneered some of the concert film techniques utilized by other entrants on this list?
This year, A24 issued a re-release of the Jonathan Demme film, which was a smash hit when it was originally released in 1984 and still slaps 40 years later. It’s a snapshot of a band at a creative high, finding euphoric joy in their music and sharing that joy with their audience. From frontman David Byrne’s weird, wonderful movements (sometimes in an absurdly large business suit) to the looks shared amongst the performers on stage and the cleverness of the performance’s construction, it’s incredible how the artistic intensity of this specific euphoric moment in space and time has been preserved on celluloid. Thankfully for preservationists, Demme and the Talking Heads pioneered the use of digital audio in this kind of filmmaking, too.
The amalgamation of three Hollywood performances captured in Stop Making Sense would be part of the Talking Heads’ final tour as a group. In 1988, they went on hiatus, and would “officially” break up in 1991. Whatever happened, it was messy, and the four members— Byrne and Weymouth, as well as drummer Chris Frantz and keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison — are more or less still estranged as a group. Prior to the promotion for this film, the Talking Heads had not appeared together in public since their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, which was kind of awkward. This meta context makes the experience of watching Stop Making Sense in 2023, especially on the big screen, even more precious.
1. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus
Where to watch: Theaters
Ryuichi Sakamoto died in March 28, 2023. In his 71 years, the Japanese composer and world-renowned piano soloist was a pioneer of electronic music through his work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and an Academy Award-winning composer who wrote the soundtracks for films including The Last Emperor and The Revenant. He has inspired and/or collaborated with countless artists, including David Byrne, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Iggy Pop, and BTS rapper Suga, who featured Sakamoto on his 2023 album.
In addition to being an astoundingly accomplished and influential musician, Sakamoto was also a baller. Not only did he compile a 33-track playlist to be played at his funeral, he participated in the filming of one of his final performances, released in cinematic form posthumously by his filmmaker son Neo Sora. The result is Opus, an unflinchingly graceful depiction of one man’s connection to music and performance.
Opus is boldly simple in its setup: Sakamoto sits alone at a Yamaha grand piano in Tokyo’s NHK Studio, and plays 20 pieces from across his expansive career, including fan favorite “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” There’s no context, and no in-studio audience. There is only Sakamoto, and his piano. Shot in crisp black and white, Opus is unhurried in its exploration of its subject. Over the course of 100 minutes, we linger on shots of Sakamoto’s hands and face, on shots of the instrument’s strings, hammers, and keys, on how well they know each other and work together. The studio’s artificial lighting intentionally moves the space, this film’s whole world, from morning to night.
For the filming of the movie, Sakamoto’s health only allowed him to record a few pieces per day — and even that reportedly took a lot out of him. There are moments, intentionally preserved in the final cut, when Sakamoto messes up and starts again — a messy, magnificent part of any artistic process. In the film, the artist is running out of time to perform. He has run out of time to perform, by the time we watch the film. But Opus refuses to worry about the inevitability of death, even as it informs so much of what we see and feel on screen. Opus knows that art like Sakamoto’s stays. What a gift it is.