The highest-grossing concert film in history begins not with a shot of the star performer or an ocean of adoring fans but with a drone shot of a rooftop: SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
Compared to the razzle-dazzle of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour happening inside, it’s a minor cameo. But it is a cool-looking roof: dramatically swooping like the Jet Age lines of LAX’s Theme Building nearby. For any young star in L.A., that’s quite a clip for your sizzle reel.
Since the $5-billion SoFi Stadium opened in 2020, it’s seen the Rams win a hometown Super Bowl in 2022, and it will have a significant role in the 2028 Olympics. But in 2023, it’s become the preeminent place to shoot blockbuster concert documentaries.
“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” is the record-breaking leader of the pack, with an estimated opening weekend of $96 million. “The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium” hit Max in February; Beyoncé’s coming Renaissance tour doc will have footage from a number of locations that will likely include SoFi, which hosted three Beyoncé shows, including one on her birthday.
“It’s becoming an identifiable place for music globally,” said Christy Castillo Butcher, SoFi Stadium’s senior vice president of programming and booking. “The shots filmmakers can achieve here are gorgeous. It becomes another character in these films.”
2023 has been the year of the blowout stadium tour, with packed houses coast to coast and no Ticketmaster Verified Fan unscathed. The summer spectaculars coincided with the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, a new reason to make going to the movies a big, social occasion again. Pop artists and filmmakers see potential for a banner year in concert documentaries.
“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” will easily place among the year’s top grossing films. One guest at Swift’s doc premiere at the Grove last week? Beyoncé, who will debut her own “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé” on Dec. 1.
Classic live-music docs often have a sense of place and architecture beyond the stage. The main characters of 1970’s “Woodstock” are the waves of hippies on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. D.A. Pennebaker’s “Depeche Mode 101” filled Pasadena’s sylvan Rose Bowl with every goth in the Southland (some of whom Pennebaker followed on a party bus into the show). In “U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky,” the Irish rockers found a natural setting befitting their celestial aims.
The still-gleaming SoFi doesn’t have the same mystery of a Colorado sandstone crevasse, nor is it a technological marvel like the newly opened Sphere in Las Vegas. But when SoFi debuted to the public in 2020, fans noticed the surprising intimacy of it, as far as 70,000-capacity stadiums go. The main floor is built well below ground, and the vertical rake of the seats puts more fans closer to the action. The semi-enclosed roof adds some punctuation to the scene. If you’re a performer, it creates more of a wall of bodies than a sea of them.
For a filmmaker trying to lend intimacy to the biggest pop shows on the planet, that’s an invaluable asset.
“There is a thoughtfulness at SoFi that really added architectural texture and class to the world of our film,” said Micah Bickham, director of “The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium.” “Rather than at an older stadium with a tremendous first section, SoFi has all these different levels; it’s more of a cascading effect where the camera’s almost climbing a wall.”
Given its flagship industry — and proximity to the world’s best film crews — L.A. will always be a top location to shoot a concert documentary. (Talking Heads’ 1984 film, “Stop Making Sense,” currently in re-release from A24, was shot at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre.) Tours often begin on the East Coast and wrap up on the West Coast, meaning that a show is a well-oiled machine by the time it arrives in L.A.
NFL Media headquarters is just across the street, but even for nonfootball events, it’s still “very user friendly,” Castillo-Butcher said. “We have an in-house broadcasting and digital team to work with tours and filmmakers. The infinity screen can put images of the artist up or just augment lighting. They can get shots of the LED roof, the park, exteriors, but never impede live experience.
“It’s like the ‘Today’ show at Rockefeller Center [in New York]. It can be a studio all its own, where you wouldn’t even know you’re in a stadium.”
Bickham, for one, might not have been able to pull off his doc without the massive film infrastructure already in place. The Weeknd’s SoFi show included a confusing-at-the-time moment where he appeared alongside Lily-Rose Depp for a brief scripted scene. It would later appear in HBO’s “The Idol,” where the Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, played a scuzzy svengali to Rose-Depp’s pop star.
That scene was shot by “The Idol’s” director Sam Levinson. Having two separate film crews, with their own equipment and shot lists for entirely different projects, was a mind-bending undertaking during a live set with 70,000 people watching.
“The space was malleable enough that it didn’t impede our film,” Bickham said. “Sam and Abel and I met to establish that shot right before Abel takes the stage. We had one check-in to make space for both teams. That we were not buried in a cavernous tunnel of a decades old stadium was so helpful.”
Bickham is close friends with Sam Wrench, the director of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” and while they didn’t compare notes before going in to shoot their respective SoFi projects, they both appreciated the rare opportunities within the space.
“There aren’t many places in the world where you can create such scale and really allow the camera to enter the artist’s world,” Bickham said. “How do you create shots that feel massive in scale, yet have an intimacy within a film? SoFi is a venue with tremendous character, but it’s kind of a blank canvas too.”
SoFi is too young to have much history yet. (The 2022 Super Bowl Halftime show, featuring locals Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, paid homage to the landmarks of Compton just a few miles away.) But the venue will host 19 concerts in 2023 (the final being Travis Scott on Nov. 5). It wouldn’t be surprising if more docs emerge from this gold rush year.
Castillo-Butcher, meanwhile, plans to turn off the part of her brain that knows SoFi as an office so she can join millions of others and just enjoy the “Eras” doc’s fireworks finale.
“l’ll have to watch it a few times, but I will get caught up in the fandom,” she said. “I was there every single night in August, and I was in awe.”
This story originally Appeared on LATimes