Rock on Film
by Cory Vielma
Continued from Part One.
If you thought moving on to the next decade would bring any relief from movies like Sgt. Pepper's..., think again! 1980 ushered in two more truly misguided efforts in the form of Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music. As mentioned above, Xanadu paired Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly as they danced and roller-skated along to music by ELO, Newton-John, Cliff Richard and The Tubes. Although the music is still quite enjoyable today, Kelly is embarrassingly misused. Can't Stop... starred The Village People, Valerie Perrine and Bruce Jenner (!). Both movies dredged the very depths in terms of story and performance and can only be considered redeemable for their camp value.
Johnny Rotten in The Filth and the Fury
But the 80s brought more than bad news; the decade also offered the first punk additions to the rock movie collection. Julien Temple's first film about the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, was released in 1980 and was immediately banned due to offensive imagery and rude behavior - what, from the Sex Pistols? who would have guessed? - and effectively marked the end of the band. (Temple would release a documentary on the band and the time called The Filth and the Fury in 2000.) Not to be outdone, The Clash released Rude Boy in 1980. A very slow, murky semi-documentary about the band, it featured some electric early performances by The Clash, but the time focused on the "story" feels interminable.
1981 saw the release of the acclaimed documentary of the burgeoning LA punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, who would go on to direct two more volumes in the Decline series, (as well as Wayne's World and The Beverly Hillbillies), the first Decline... is chock full of excellent performances by X, Germs, Fear and Circle Jerks in all their early, angry, fearsome power. Spheeris would also direct the punk-themed drama Suburbia in 1984, which relied heavily on the music of southern California punk bands D.I., TSOL and The Vandals, as well as a dramatic turn by Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Decline... Part 2, released in 1988 and subtitled The Metal Years, focused on the Hollywood metal scene of the late 80s and featured some unintentionally hilarious documents of the egos, drugs and excesses that made that scene what it was. Also in 1981, we saw one of the earliest performances by Oscar®-Nominated Actress Diane Lane as the lead singer of an all-girl punk band in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. The film also starred Laura Dern in an early performance as well as members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash and, though out-of-print for several years, has become a cult favorite.
It was around this time that two very different animated rock movies appeared: Heavy Metal and American Pop (both 1981). Heavy Metal is a series of stories in the fantasy/erotica mold, each with a different soundtrack by (mostly) hard rock bands of the day, including Iron Maiden, Dio, Devo, Cheap Trick and others. It did decent business, becoming a popular midnight movie, and there was even a sequel, made in 2000. American Pop had a similar soundtrack as Heavy Metal's, had an actual plot, but is more well-known for being the product of animation bad-boy Ralph Bakshi, best known for creating the first X-rated animated movie, Fritz the Cat (1972) and later remembered for what some argue is an underrated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978).
Pink Floyd: The Wall
These animated movies helped to pave the way for the granddaddy of all rock movies, the Classic (with a capital C!), the acid trip to end all acid trips: Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). A bombastic visual representation of the classic double album of the same name, it stars Bob Geldof in the lead role and alternates between animation and live action to chronicle the steady downward mental spiral of a man from his dark childhood to his adulthood as a drug-crazed rock star/dictator. While many of the animations and the story itself are a bit heavy-handed, this movie deserves its place at the top of the heap of rock movies for its well-executed mix of animation, live action, drama and classic rock songs and will forever and ever be required viewing on college campuses.
Stop Making Sense
Jonathan Demme directed the documentation of a performance by Talking Heads and released it in 1984 as Stop Making Sense (1984). The film is acknowledged by many to be one of the finest, most alluring concert films of all time. Not only is the band at the height of their songwriting and performing powers, Stop is wonderfully paced and delightfully energetic. Before filming, Demme worked with the band on how to best build and pace both the concert and the movie and the results of their disciplined planning are clearly visible. Stop begins with David Byrne performing solo and, throughout the course of the concert, he slowly brings out the rest of the band, several guest musicians, introduces minimally conceptual visuals, costume changes, flashes some highly wired showmanship, and it all leads up to a breathless, giant crescendo. Demme would later make another concert film, Storefront Hitchcock (1998), documenting an intimate concert by the enigmatic performer Robyn Hitchcock. Talking Heads would also add another entry to the genre in 1986 with True Stories. Byrne himself directed this one, an absurd yet somehow personal drama based around Talking Heads songs written specifically for the film and performed by the actors (including John Goodman and Swoozie Kurtz) with quietly funny and warmly entertaining results.
Prince carved out his own special niche in the genre beginning in 1984 with Purple Rain. A considerable success critically and at the box office, it was the semi-autobiographical story of a musician named The Kid and his struggle to get to the top of the Minneapolis scene while grappling with personal demons and the taunts of rival band The Time. He tried again in 1986 with Under the Cherry Moon, a box office bomb and critical whipping boy, but the soundtrack sold well and spawned the top ten hit "Kiss." But perhaps Prince's greatest creative success in the rock movie game was his 1987 concert film Sign O the Times. Capturing Prince and his band at a time of great creativity and talent (not to mention Prince's expertise when it came to shooting baskets on stage), this is one of the most energetic and entertaining concert films committed to film.
Alex Cox would virtually build his reputation on the rock movie. Beginning with 1984's Repo Man and continuing in 1986 with Sid & Nancy and in 1987 with Straight to Hell, Cox always relied heavily on music as a driving force in his movies. The soundtrack to Repo Man is a punk classic and a valuable collector's item and the film featured live performances by Circle Jerks and Untouchables. Sid & Nancy is based on the true story of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. It was a hit with the critics and featured strong performances by the cast, especially Gary Oldman in the title role of Sid. Straight to Hell is an absurdist western with performances by some of rock's elite including The Clash's Joe Strummer, Hole's Courtney Love (Love also had a minor role in Sid), Elvis Costello and members of The Pogues and a soundtrack by many of the same performers.
D.A. Pennebaker would return to the rock movie game in 1989 with Depeche Mode's 101. Stylishly shot, it documented the 101st concert of the band's massive 1988 stadium tour. It would not be the last we heard from Pennebaker, naturally, as he once again received great acclaim for his film Down from the Mountain in 2000. A live document of the musicians featured in the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where art Thou?, Mountain includes performances and interviews with Alison Kraus, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch and many others. It is an engaging and occasionally touching document of past and present generations of folk musicians meeting and playing together for the first time.
90s and 00s
Two landmark rock movies were released in 1991, namely, Oliver Stone's The Doors and Madonna's Truth or Dare. The Doors starred Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and, much like Stone's other work, took heavy creative license with the subject matter; this is an extremely sentimental, overly dramatic retelling of the legendary rocker's life. Truth or Dare followed Madonna on her 1990 Blond Ambition world tour, and showed her in "candid" backstage situations (in grainy black and white) with the rest of her crew, intercut with her ridiculously grandiose stage show and performances (in glorious MTV color).
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Jim Jarmusch's Year of the Horse follows Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 1996 tour. It is lovingly made, as Jarmusch is obviously a fan, and includes archival footage of the band from the 1970s and 80s as well. Neil Young had earlier tried his hand at writing, directing and starring in his own feature film in 1982, creating the totally bizarre Human Highway. The murky plot has something to do with nuclear fear, and everything and everyone in the film is glowing as though affected by nuclear fallout. Dean Stockwell continued his "interesting" career trajectory here by co-writing and co-starring. Oddly enough, it also includes an excellent performance of the country standard "Worried Man" by Devo.
1999 saw the release of a highly acclaimed film by Wim Wenders about the "forgotten" musicians of Cuba entitled Buena Vista Social Club. Beautifully shot and, like the music itself, languorously paced, this movie is a loving tribute to some very talented musicians who might otherwise have been relegated to the footnotes of music history.
Perhaps because of the success of Buena Vista, the early 2000s saw a resurgence in concert films and rock documentaries. Most notably, Phish's Bittersweet Motel (2000) and Wilco's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002). Bittersweet chronicles a concert by the phenomenally popular "jam band." Phish's is a remarkable story, primarily for the fact they have gained such a huge fan base with little-to-no radio airplay or music videos. I am Trying documents alt-country band Wilco in at an important juncture in their career. After being dropped by their record label while recording their highly acclaimed Being There album, the film chronicles the ups and downs of finding a new label and then having the new album that eventually gets released met with massive critical acclaim.
Which brings us to present day. With DiG!, a doc which follows the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre over a period of seven years having just won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the rock movie is alive and well. And after all, as long as there have been talking pictures, there has been music on film. It is an inevitable companionship. And as long as there are a bunch of guys up on a stage banging away on instruments, there will be another guy who sees a film to be made.