‘This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco’: The debate around concert film etiquette

Somerville Theater, Concert Film Etiquette, Concert Film, The Eras Tour, Renaissance, Stop Making Sense
A marquee sign in front of the Somerville Theater advertises showings of Talking Heads' concert film "Stop Making Sense."

The latter half of 2023 was a surprisingly hefty period for concert films. Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” issued a re-release in September, bringing the spirit of the 1980s back into theaters; Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” gave a sugar rush of energy to cinemas, calling in tweens, teenagers and young adults by the millions; and “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” was recently released on Dec. 1, already amassing major success, earning $21 million in its opening weekend. 

The concentration of these films — all released within the span of four months — unleashed a swarm of conversation around concert film attitudes and etiquettes.

From audience members running laps around the theater to dancing hand-in-hand in a circle, followers of these films have seen the fever-pitch of fandom reach its heights at screenings. 

“People hoot and holler and dance like they’re at a show. I don’t think they’re disrespectful, but I think it comes from the natural expression for audience members to feel that way,” said Ian Judge, creative director of film programming, event booking and theater operations at the Somerville Theater and Capitol Theater in Cambridge. 

But not everyone’s so on board with this energy. 

On Oct. 13, a viral TikTok of the audience at “The Eras Tour” sparked antithetical responses. The video showed Swifties standing at the foot of the movie screen, bowled over in emotion, yelling out the lyrics and capturing it all on camera— with flash! Some commenters expressed their excitement for this style of movie-going experience. TikTok user, @heartzz4layla_21 commented, “If my experience isn’t like this i don’t want it.” Other Swift fans deplored this behavior, saying the video undid their desires to see the film in theaters. “i’m not going if it’s like this,” commented @trevor_55. 

Responses to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” exhibited this divide as well. A video posted on X of the film’s opening night at “Le Grand Rex” theater in Paris prompted overarching praise from prospective audiences. X users expressed their love for the audience’s enthusiasm with star, heart, fire and bee emojis, and lamented quieter theater experiences. Yet, others believed the film should be treated as exactly that — a film,  rather than a concert. 

At “Stop Making Sense” screenings, a majority of the criticisms came from the lack of audience engagement. While videos on TikTok showed audiences dancing in the front of the theater — with hardcore fans dressed in Byrne-esque oversized suits, some even bringing lamps to dance with — a number of people in the comments wished for this engagement in their own theaters. “I was one of the only people bobbing and swaying in my seat when I went. I wish it had been like this,” commented @noritattoos.

Not everyone was disappointed with this, though. 

“There are viral videos of people getting up and dancing, and that was definitely not the energy, which is fine,” said Morgan O’Neil, an Emerson College student who saw “Stop Making Sense” in theaters. “I mean, it’s a film after all” 

Concerts warrant vitality and movement, while theaters require silence, respect and concentration — it’s no surprise these contrasting entertainment experiences butt heads when combined. 

Filmed concerts first emerged in the 1950s and 60s as televised performances. They grew into feature-length, documentary-style performances in the 60s and 70s, with films such as “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii” and “Gimmie Shelter.” 

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972) - IMDb
Poster for the 1972 film, “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii,” courtesy of IMDB. 

Concert films lie under the umbrella of music documentaries but are unique in their emphasis on the recreation of a single, fleeting event. Although some look at the behind-the-scenes of a band or musician’s writing, recording and rehearsal processes, the concert film focuses on a live performance or compilation of performances, subverting ephemerality.

The genre petered out between the 1990s and 2000s, but found a resurgence in the 2010s with films such as “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” in 2011, and “One Direction: This is Us” in 2013. Many of the 2010 films remain among the highest-grossing concert films of all time in terms of domestic box office earnings. 

After the mid-to-late 2010s, the genre reverted, but returned in 2023 stronger than ever with “Stop Making Sense,” “The Eras Tour” and “Renaissance.” Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” has already topped lists of highest-grossing concert films, amassing more than $250 million globally.

Taylor Swift Eras Tour Movie Just Did What Barbie and Oppenheimer Could  Never - IMDb
A still of Taylor Swift from “The Eras Tour.”


Within this new era of concert films, however, phones play a significant part in the divide between what is acceptable for audiences and what is not. When films such as “Stop Making Sense” and “The Last Waltz” were released in the 1980s and 1970s, respectively, mobile phones didn’t exist, and were neither a barrier nor a contributor to the concert film experience. Recently, audiences have seen phone-use in current films such as “The Eras Tour” and “Renaissance.”

At a screening of “The Eras Tour,” Boston University student Emerson Nadelman saw audience members recording themselves and the screen with flash on. 

“Someone had to tell them to stop,” she recalled. 

“My only rule for concert film etiquette would be not recording the concert with your phone,” said Mark Anastasio, director of special programming at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. “Try to live in the moment,” he added. 

Films known to older audiences, such as “The Last Waltz,” which both the Coolidge and Somerville theaters screened this year, may give way to a more contained experience, Judge argued. 

“I think the Taylor Swift audience is a little more forgiving because they’re younger, but if someone [was singing very loudly] in ‘The Last Waltz,’ we would definitely get a complaint,” Judge explained. 

However, even the older audience base of a film such as “Stop Making Sense,” whose focus band found their stardom in the late 1970s, saw no shortage of exuberance — just a different kind. 

“Taylor Swift had more enthusiasm in screaming than dancing,” Judge said. “I think unbridled teenagers and young 20-somethings express their joy in a different way than the people who are grooving to ‘Stop Making Sense,’ who were maybe a little bit older and more likely to dance than to scream.”  

Stop Making Sense (1984) - IMDb
A still of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne dancing in “Stop Making Sense.”

 When it comes to getting up and dancing, Anastasio and Judge saw no problem in doing so. In fact, they encouraged it. 

“We love showing concert docs here and we encourage singing and dancing as much as possible,” Anastasio expressed. “It’s very motivating to play films for people and then see them having such a response to them.” 

In screenings where dancing was not as prominent, however, some audience members didn’t feel as though there was a lack of spirit.

“Even when people weren’t dancing in their seats, everyone was very engaged with the film,” said Morgan O’Neil.

A lack of dancing could also simply be a consequence of the size or design of the theater. 

After the explosive opening weekend of “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” popularity for the film dwindled. At the Coolidge Theater, the film was moved to smaller 43-seat screening rooms, a less conducive space for dancing. 

Perhaps the energy, even without dancing or singing, simply comes from the communal-nature of a concert film. Audiences come together, united by a passion for a specific artist, and are grateful to both experience their music and see its expanse in the rows of a cinema. Although concerts and films are inherently contrasting environments, community is their common denominator. 

For older generations, going to a theater and having that communal concert experience can take them back to the crowds and music they were engaged in; the theater acts as a space for recreation and reminiscence. It also provides the chance for audiences to experience the concerts they didn’t get the chance to attend. 

“I feel like [concert films] are some of the most emotional films because you really associate a ton of your memories with the music,” said Erin Norton, an Emerson College student who saw “Stop Making Sense” in theaters. “Having the opportunity to see it in a movie theater if you couldn’t have seen it in person is something that’s really important to a lot of people.”

Anastasio and Judge believe concert films ignited a value for communal experiences among younger generations. 

“There were so many young people in the house for the four-week run of Taylor here and that was really awesome to see,” Anastasio expressed. “I hope that all of those kids had a great experience where they will say ‘Wow, that was really worth going to a cinema to see.’” 

Both theater directors are thankful to see cinemas act as the nexus of passion, uniting people across a town or city to join in a celebration of their shared interests — whether that be subdued or boisterous. 

“It reminds people that part of what makes going to the movies so special is the communal nature of going to the movies,” Judge said. “Movie theaters started out also as places where there was live entertainment before or during the movie, whether it was someone playing the piano to a silent film or vaudeville, so it’s not without precedent.” 

Regardless of the confusion swirling around the personal, genre and generational divides of concert films, Anastasio and Judge give simple solutions.

“[Have] courtesy for the people around you,” advises Anastasio, while Judge says, “Read the room.”

About :

Kaitlyn Hardy is a junior at Emerson College majoring in journalism and minoring in media studies. As a staff writer for The Independent, Kaitlyn is excited to extend her love for film into journalism and learn more about the movie industry. She is a lover of memoirs, live music, and obsessively rewatching movies (she’s seen Dog Day Afternoon 13 times).