Rock on Film

GreenCineStaff's picture

by Cory Vielma

Think you know rock? Think you know the movies? Then perhaps you can answer a few simple questions.

A Hard Day's Night

1. What legendary silent movie star appeared alongside Frankie and Annette in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Beach Blanket Bingo and Pajama Party?

2. What movie by a huge-selling pop foursome was not only co-written by Jack Nicholson, but also united the Easy Rider threesome of Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Toni Basil one year before Easy Rider?

3. Gene Kelly, star of Singin' in the Rain, appeared alongside Olivia Newton-John in what roller-disco/fantasy movie from 1980?

Stumped? High time for a refresher course in rock on film, then. (The answers, by the way, are: 1. Buster Keaton, 2. The Monkees' Head, and 3. Xanadu.)

Rock movies have been around as long as rock and roll itself. (Note: Throughout this primer, I won't be making distinctions between rock, disco, pop, rap and so on. Not only is it simpler to use a single umbrella term, "rock movies," but "music movies" or "movies with music" or just about anything else just don't have the same ring.) From the very beginning, what musicians (or their savvy managers) have seen in rock movies is both a powerful means of cross-platform publicity and an alternative outlet for the artists' creativity. Besides, audiences love them. 8 Mile, Chicago, Scratch, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Almost Famous, just to name a few, were all critical and box office successes, thanks in large part to their music-centric plots and formulas.

Some of the most celebrated names in cinema and music have had a part in the history of rock movies. Esteemed directors such as Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Jonathan Demme, Ken Russell, Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, and Cameron Crowe all have contributed to the evolution of this genre. Many talented actors have (for better or worse) lent their craft to the ongoing story of rock movies. Bob Hoskins, Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Gary Oldman, Susan Sarandon, Teri Garr, Debra Winger, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Goldblum have all appeared at one time or another in a rock movie. And of course, nearly every major act has inspired at least one rock movie, in some cases, many, from The Beatles and Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Prince, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols and The Band.

50s and 60s

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's go back to the beginning. Like rock and roll itself, the first rock movies appeared in the mid-1950s. In addition to his role in getting rock and roll on the radio, legendary DJ Alan Freed had a hand in early rock movies, contributing to films such as Don't Knock the Rock (1956), Rock Around the Clock (1956), and the appropriately titled Rock Rock Rocks (1957). Besides Freed, each featured some combination of the following acts: Bill Haley and the Comets, The Platters, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, and even a very young Tuesday Weld (lip-synching to vocals by Connie Francis!). These movies all had flimsy plots that simply served as excuses to showcase the musicians - as well as some out-of-sight 50s beatnik slang. All the movies mentioned here are worthwhile for the classic rock and roll performances, but you might look elsewhere if you're interested in such qualities as character development and plot.

Of course, Elvis Presley was among the first - and best known - to get in on the action. His first feature film was Love Me Tender in 1956. This was the beginning of a string of over 30 films featuring the King. Most, of course, were simply promotional vehicles for his current record, but many are quite energetic and entertaining, not just for Elvis's musical performances, great 50s and 60s fashions and barely-there plots, but also for the wide spectrum of well-known actors like Walter Mathau (King Creole, 1958), Barbara Eden (Flaming Star, 1960), Angela Lansbury (Blue Hawaii, 1960), Ursula Andress (Fun in Acapulco, 1961), Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964), Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout, 1964) and, in her second appearance in this particular history of rock movies, Tuesday Weld (Wild in the Country, 1961).

Perhaps inspired by the success of Elvis's fizzy, good-time movies, the early 60s saw a string of "Beach" movies, most of which starred Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. They were usually little more than a beach party on film. Plot points ranged from summer love, puppy love, and young love, to teen love, lost love and crushes. They featured fun, spunky musical performances from the stars as well as guests like "Little" Stevie Wonder (Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, both from 1964) and Dick Dale (Muscle Beach Party). And, like Elvis's movies, they had scores of guest actors like Paul Lynde and Don Rickles (Beach Blanket Bingo, 1965) and, as mentioned above, Buster Keaton.

The Beatles got into the rock movie game early in their career, beginning with A Hard Day's Night in 1964. The band and director Richard Lester took the rock movie genre to a new level, more or less throwing plot completely out the window and relying on techniques similar to those used by the French New Wave filmmakers such as jump cuts and improvisation. The Beatles's movies could be considered among the first music videos as well as a virtual blueprint for the videos that would pop up on MTV nearly 20 years later. You'll find the same sort of combination of performance footage, backstage-like casual footage, choreographed numbers, comic situations and psychedelic images ranging from the animal costumes of Magical Mystery Tour (1967) to the full-on acid trip animation of Yellow Submarine (1968).


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