Rock on Film
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).
The end of the 60s saw some of the most important concert events in the history of rock and roll, and many of them were preserved as rock movies. The legendary generation-defining three-day festival Woodstock could be relived when it appeared in theaters in 1970. Billed as "Three Days of Peace and Music," it featured exciting performances by such top acts as Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. Another monumental concert, captured on film by a pillar of the rock movie genre, director D.A. Pennebaker, was the Monterey Pop Festival (1968) with career-defining performances from The Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel and Jefferson Airplane. Pennebaker is probably most known for his document of a very cranky Bob Dylan touring England in 1965, Don't Look Back, which also includes performances by Joan Baez and Donovan. Another concert would be remembered for entirely different reasons. The notorious Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in late 1969 is still considered by many to be the "end of the 60s." Gimme Shelter (1970) is a harrowing document of the disastrous concert for which the Stones hired the Hells Angels as "security"; the result was chaos, violence and a murdered fan.
Using the psychedelic cut-ups of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine as a jumping-off point, rock movies took a much more abstract, crazed turn with such films as the wildly divergent Head (1968), Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (1971), Sun Ra's Space Is the Place (1974) and The Who's Tommy (1975).
In all these films, absurd humor, non-sequiturs and jump cuts, bizarre, LSD-influenced sets and searingly colorful costumes enhance the music - and the other way around. Tommy is the most linear, plot-wise, of the four as it follows the story of a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard as laid out by The Who's double-album of the same name. But, under the surreal direction of Ken Russell, it scales to ridiculous heights of hallucinatory visual pummeling with performances by such superstars as Elton John, Jack Nicholson and Tina Turner.
Around the time these future cult films were released, more excellent, if less "eventful" concert films appeared. George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh (1972) was among the first "relief" concerts in which all of the proceeds were intended to do some good, in this case, of course, feed the starving people in Bangladesh. The concert featured some first class performances by some of the top musicians of the day, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and Ringo Starr.
One year later, D.A. Pennebaker released yet another superb concert film, this one a chronicle of David Bowie's last performance under the guise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie and his band are at the height of their dramatic, theatrical glam rock powers. The heartbreak in the crowd is downright palpable as Bowie announces, "Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it is the last show we will ever do." Also from 1973 is the first rock movie offering from Pink Floyd, the concert film Live at Pompeii. Here's a concert film that has the unique distinction of having no audience whatsoever present at the concert. It's simply the band and the film crew, alone in an abandoned amphitheatre jamming to many of their early classics. Rock historians take note, as this film is also interspersed with footage of the band in the studio recording what was to become their classic album Dark Side of the Moon.
Led Zeppelin made their foray into the rock movie pool in 1976 with The Song Remains the Same. It is a hilarious mix of overblown stage histrionics and ridiculous, embarrassing fantasy sequences in which each member of the band plays out - presumably their own - fantasies, including a bizarre gangster-style sequence, John Bonham driving a tractor, and even some dungeons, dragons and swords-type action that'll have even hardcore Zep fans cringing when you mention them.
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in The Last Waltz
Martin Scorsese created one of the most celebrated concert films in the rock movie pantheon in 1978 with his document of the last concert by The Band at San Francisco's Winterland, The Last Waltz. Filmed on Thanksgiving, the audience was not only treated to a full Thanksgiving dinner, but also one of the most talked-about concerts in rock history, including a star-studded guest list with such names as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. Performances are passionate, and the mood is bittersweet as The Band calls it quits after 16 years together.
The late 70s were one of the most fertile periods for the rock movie. Between 1977 and 1979, some of the biggest movies of the time (and genre) were released. Scan the list: Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Thank God It's Friday, The Wiz, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rock 'n' Roll High School, Quadrophenia and Hair. Not to mention one of the most maligned movies in the annals of cinema: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). A musical based on the songs of The Beatles, this monstrosity features a virtual who's who of musicians and stars of the moment: The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Steve Martin, Aerosmith, George Burns, Billy Preston, Earth Wind & Fire, Keith Carradine, Jose Feliciano, Heart, Dr. John, Curtis Mayfield, Tina Turner, Donovan... and that's just the tip of the iceberg! It seems no one can escape blame for this turkey, except maybe The Beatles themselves. Although all four members had the misfortune of seeing this baby brought to life, aside from the use of their music, the band had nothing to do with this production.
Continue to Part Two...