A concert film so good you can almost smell the sweat

Gig-goers are demanding more for their money: Adam Smith’s film of a Chemical Brothers show is an object lesson in how to deliver

oncerts are big business these days. As revenues from album sales continue to fall, artists and record companies are looking for ways to make up the shortfall, with gigs playing a more crucial role in a band’s livelihood than ever before. Fans are happy to stump up big bucks for a live performance, but in return increasingly expect to experience something epic, involving lights, visuals and action, as well as music. There are many ways this can be achieved, but those bands looking for a quick masterclass should check out Don’t Think, a new film of the Chemical Brothers in concert.

Directed by Adam Smith, the film records the Chemical Brothers concert that took place at the Fujirock Festival in Japan last summer. Shot using 20 cameras, the movie takes the viewer on a journey into the psychedelic fairground offered up by the band. Smith places us at the heart of the crowd, delivers us up close to the musicians, and then zooms out to the edges of the gig, among the food stands and stalls that provide sustenance to the 50,000 revellers. The setting is incredible – Fujirock takes place at the base of Mount Fuji – and is matched only by the frenzied intensity of the crowd. You can almost smell the sweat.

Central to the whole experience are the concert visuals, also created by Smith, alongside collaborator Marcus Lyall (who acts as producer on Don’t Think, and has worked on the visuals for the last two Chemical Brothers tours with Smith). Smith has provided imagery for band for over 18 years, back to when they were known as The Dust Brothers, and the Fujirock concert contains a mixture of visuals going back over the years. The visuals have become intrinsic to a Chemical Brothers set: simple yet charming, they add an extra emotional dimension to the experience of the music. Working with the band has also given Smith the opportunity to experiment with a range of filmmaking techniques. Many of these, he revealed in a recent talk, were revisited in his later work, with some of the tricks he has taught himself turning up in episodes of Doctor Who and even in a BBC adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House.
The visuals at the Fujirock Festival are designed both to elevate each track performed, but also to playfully manipulate the crowd’s emotions. Projected on huge screens behind the band, they conjure up an array of basic responses: fear, nostalgia, unease, joy and romance are all provoked. A giant clown’s face – always guaranteed to cause a shiver down the spine – leers down at the audience, lovers bound towards each other, a robot army marches out, and cockroaches scuttle furiously across the screens. Nothing is particularly complex about these images and yet this is why they work: their effect is immediate and they provide the perfect accompaniment to the pulsating music. As the film’s title implies, the trick is not to think too hard about it all and just respond.

Smith captures the reactions they provoke by focusing on individuals in the crowd, and reveals a knack for picking out characters. One particularly rubber-faced young chap looks like he might explode with both excitement and fear as the concert plays out, while others are clearly lost in the moment. When sitting sweat-free and chemical-free in a comfy cinema chair, such an extreme emotional reaction can feel hard to emulate but undoubtedly makes for highly entertaining viewing.

The best concert films are those that somehow sum up a particular time and place. Gimme Shelter, the documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour and ill-fated concert at Altamont, where a member of the Hells Angels security team killed a fan, is fascinating viewing as much for being a record of those dark events as for the concert itself. Similarly the documentaries about Woodstock, and more recently, the ATP festivals (the latter made entirely from fan footage) are successful for capturing the feeling of being at the events, of being present at a certain moment in history, never to be repeated, which is, of course, half the draw of any live experience.

The narrative arcs of these films elevate them from being simple recordings of a concert into artistic and historical documents worth viewing even if you’re not that into the music being played. This need for a storyline is clearly not lost on Smith who has brought his skills as a director of drama to bear in Don’t Think. Added to the footage of the live concert are fictional sequences shot after the gig, which include one woman’s Alice In Wonderland-esque experience, and other scenes that reveal the visuals from the night popping up on trees, in the mud on the ground, and across people’s faces. Cut in amongst the concert footage, these moments contribute to a film that captures the intoxication of a truly epic gig, where trails of the visuals and the beats stay with you long after the band has left the stage. 

Don’t Think will be at selected cinemas from February 1. See dontthinkmovie.com

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