Hannah Montana Live! (Sort of)

4 minute read
Rebecca Winters Keegan

Preteen girls recently had their Woodstock. It lasted 74 min. and probably involved an overconsumption of Junior Mints. Shut out of the sold-out live event, 2007’s Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, thousands of girls lined up in February and March to put on 3-D glasses for the movie version. And as they watched, Cyrus’ concert-movie audience did something remarkable: they behaved as if it were a real show. Singing along, dancing, reaching for confetti that was falling only onscreen, the Hannah Montana fans were, yes, 8-year-olds on a sugar high. But they were also moviegoers in the vanguard of a new kind of theatrical experience, one in which tricked-out cinemas serve as digital-era concert venues.

Supposedly, Americans are abandoning shared cultural pursuits for loner entertainments on our iPods and HDTVs. But thanks to technological advances, concert films are starting to envelop audiences in a way nearly as dramatic as live events, at a fraction of the price. And audiences–and the market–are responding. Acts as disparate as U2 and the Metropolitan Opera are appearing this month in multiplexes all over the world. Even Martin Scorsese is giving a nod to the audience’s higher sensory appetites, releasing his Rolling Stones film, Shine a Light, in the larger-than-life IMAX format.

“There’s a fantastic collective high we’re seeing in the theaters,” says Catherine Owens, a co-director of U23D, which was filmed during Irish band U2’s 2006 Vertigo tour. “It reflects the joy and exuberance you see from the audiences who are hearing the show live [in the movie].” U23D makes the most of its dimensionality, plunging you into the middle of teeming stadium crowds, without the elbow in your ribs or the drunk “Woo hoo!” girl in your ear. And unlike $70 nosebleed seats, the $17 movie tickets get you close enough to Bono’s outstretched hand to nearly feel him graze your cheek. Some fans are showing up for the film ready to take part–during a glittering shot of a crowd holding up thousands of cell phones, movie audiences have been lifting their own devices in the air.

The almost tactile drama of the new music movies is a product of digital progress–advances in 3-D, smaller HD cameras and bolder audio. “You get all that intimacy, but you get a big sound to it, and suddenly you have something completely immersive,” says Stephen Walker, the director of Young @ Heart, a quirky (2-D) documentary about a New England senior citizens’ chorus that covers songs by the Clash and James Brown. Walker shot 81-year-old Fred Knittle singing Coldplay’s Fix You with five small cameras at a Massachusetts theater. Because it was both unobtrusive and ubiquitous, Walker’s crew was able to capture Knittle’s spare, moving performance–accompanied by the hissing of his oxygen tank–with a closeness that would have been impossible using giant film cameras.

It’s not just pop music that’s rewiring the multiplex. New York City’s Metropolitan Opera has sold 685,000 tickets to its HD performances this season, more than double what it sold last outing. Not bad, considering it’s projected to sell 820,000 tickets to the opera-house performances this year. Because each show is broadcast live, says Met general manager Peter Gelb, “it makes people feel like they’re part of this global opera community.” Perhaps that’s why the audiences are spontaneously applauding arias and standing for their favorite singers during curtain calls. The tenor can’t hear the ovation, but it’s not really for him anyway. It’s for the guy in the eighth row who’s never been that close to Nessun dorma before and wants to savor the moment.

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