For elite pop stars trying to keep their money trees lush and leafy through the cold months, a new strategy has emerged at the multiplex: Transpose your history-making, millions-grossing summer tour into celluloid and watch the seats fill up all over again.
With the respective box-office successes of “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” and “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” two of civilization’s most famous voices have made the migration from the stadium to the big screen appear pretty much effortless, as if the line between a pop star and a movie star were simply something to be stepped over. As for the rest of us strugglers whose money trees resemble dead houseplants, the pros and cons feel tightly intertwined. Yes, these movies make the outrageously expensive act of mainstream concert-going more affordable, more accessible — while still allowing those concert ticket prices to remain obscene. And yes, these films might create a surrogate live music experience that feels surprisingly intimate and freshly communal — while still allowing these hyper-exposed celebrities to encroach on new precincts of the cultural mindshare. If you’re short on cash for overpriced things and flush with attention span for overpraised things, this is your time.
But there’s still art happening beneath all of this commerce, and the biggest metaphysical surprise awaiting you inside your local movie theater is how “the big screen” somehow makes these two seem smaller. It should be a jolt to suddenly see Beyoncé’s face 25 feet tall, casting its beatific glow on a gathering of strangers in a dark room, but if you’ve ever caught her in concert, you’ve already witnessed her smile on one of those gigantic, four-story LED screens capable of making her flyaways look as thick as telephone wire to everyone up on the 400-level.
The “Renaissance” tour — a maximalist visual extravaganza of sci-fi set design, otherworldly costuming and chrome-plated stage props — simply had to shrink to fit inside a movie screen, so Beyoncé takes the opportunity to zoom in on details that might have whooshed past our faces in real life. The film’s performances are spliced together from dates across the tour, girded by documentary segments in which our narrator wants us to know that this whole thing was planned down to the sequin (cue footage of designers at sewing machines). Neat trick, that. Now we’re watching this electric concert footage far more attentively, and if you were lucky enough to see the show in real life, and you failed to notice, say, that little pearl-shaped throw pillow sitting inside the robotic seashell that Beyoncé emerged from during “Virgo’s Groove,” here it is, reminding you that masterpieces are made of tiny brushstrokes you never fully noticed.
In that sense, “Renaissance” feels like a film for those who missed it, whereas “The Eras Tour” presents itself as a concert substitute for fans who still want in. Shot across two identical shows at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., the film obeys the contours of Swift’s set list, one massive hit after another, cameras cutting to the jubilant crowd now and again, but keeping the focus tightly on Swift as she makes nearly three hours of singing sound like a total breeze. As for her dancing, it includes lots of lyrical pantomime and only seems completely natural when she’s skipping. There is one visually surprising bit during “Blank Space” where Swift twirls a golf club made to glow like a Star Wars lightsaber with half-smiling half-menace, but otherwise, she’s entirely happy to let her songs do the work. And this is work. The greatest thing about this movie is that we can see her sweat.
Plopped in the pillowy seats of a climate-controlled movie theater, we do not sweat. We can scream if we want to, but our cheers can’t match the exaltations of an overfilled football stadium. Even at their most energizing and exciting, these two films simply can’t ever hope to match the visceral thrill of music when it’s unfolding before youin real time, amid a massive public assembly where everyone’s applause becomes part of the greater sound event. At a concert, you are a participant. In a movie theater, you’re a spectator.
Unless these two exceptionally starry concert films are offering us a new thing: An opportunity for spectators to participate with one another. My moviegoing experiences were obviously anecdotal — “Eras” was a late-pass showing at noon on Black Friday; “Renaissance,” was a sparsely attended opening-day matinee — but I felt a similar sense of communion at each screening. The singalongs were mostly nonstop, but also politely quiet, delivered with inside voices, which made me wonder if I’d ever been surrounded by this many strangers who were this comfortable sharing the sounds of their own la-la-la. Whether it was “Break My Soul” or “Bad Blood,” their timbres weren’t lost in a howling din. Inside the movie theater, I could hear strangers connecting to this impersonal, mass-media event in a delicate, unguarded way. That felt like a first.
Between the songs? Gentle, satisfied applause. Happy clapping and some woo-hoos here and there. But who was it for? Everyone agrees that those women up on the screen can’t hear us, right? This was another first. Or if not that, perhaps the surfacing of some hidden truth: What if, instead of applauding concert performers in an act of noise-making gratitude, we’ve just been applauding for one another all along, using our hands and voices to forge some kind of sonic consensus?
Even if these films feel like cinematic exercises in star-worship, they might ultimately make us less aware of the stars and more aware of each other.