While movies embraced rock and roll a little late in the game, they did so with the same cynical precision that has tainted the studio system since celluloid itself became more than just a fad.
Hollywood, an industry run by pseudo-puritanical suits possessing a tin ear (like almost all businesses) has never been very kind to rock and roll. Most of what passes for rock and roll in cinema is, and has always been, innocuous schmaltz presented with the sole purpose of making a quick buck (not unlike much of the music industry).
Yet, when the movie industry managed to look at rock and roll off the ledger and acknowledge it as something more than the silly music of adolescent angst, the results have been sublime. Unfortunately, it took some time to rise above the sludge.
One of the great unanswerable questions of the universe is when rock and roll began. Certainly, some of the blues, R&B and jump jazz of the late ’40s and early ’50s qualified as rock and roll but the success of the sound on those sides was confined to a handful of white teenagers (with whom “race music” was rising in popularity, in every sense as an underground movement) and African-Americans — something that hardly mattered in the Jim Crow America of the time.
It’s the Sun Records session of July 1954 that is largely agreed upon as the point where rock and roll found its voice, when Elvis Presley cut Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for Sam Phillips. Within a few months from the record’s debut on a Memphis radio station, DJs across the country were spinning records similar to Presley’s sound. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and various Rockabilly bands had been recording for years but it took Elvis to ignite the fuse on the underground and make it a movement.
Hollywood, like the rest of the establishment, refused to accept that America’s youth had fallen under the spell of the new sound. Convinced that teenagers across the country had succumbed to mass psychosis, the establishment negated rock and roll as nothing more than a moment of pubescent hysteria.
The first rock and roll movie was the 1956 comedy “The Girl Can’t Help It” and was produced merely as a vehicle for propelling its star, Jayne Mansfield, to prominence. The opening sequence, a none-too-sly innuendo of Mansfield walking down the street clutching two bottles of milk against her prodigious breasts (with Little Richard’s title tune pounding out on the soundtrack), the tone was set for a satire of the silly fad that was sweeping the nation — rock and roll.
Yet, despite its sneering disregard of the music, the movie sabotaged its own intent, convincing American teenagers that their new music had at last achieved affirmation.
What followed was, in Hollywood’s cynically greedy tradition, was a slew of rapacious rubbish that was both sophomoric and soporific. Almost all rock and roll movies amounted to nothing more than a musical revue (with current hot acts) tied together with the thinnest of plots, all meant to cash in on the budding baby boomer’s taste for The Rock and Roll.
By the early ’60s, those movies had largely devolved into Beach Party movies (riding the wave of surf music’s popularity), almost all of which involved a plot in which some middle-aged villain was determined to squelch the kid’s desire to just dance and make-out. In the end, the bad guy was vanquished, either locked in a closet or found redemption in that, well, the kids were all right and that music was actually kind of catchy.
On the flip side, while Elvis made a few movies that rose above the standard Hollywood Rock and Roll movie dross (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Kid Creole”), asking what was better is rather like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
Given the truly dismal state of Rock and Roll movies, it appeared that the music would remain marginalized by Hollywood; the music presented as Rock and Roll in “proper” movies of the time was largely lousy jazz passed off as “that crap the kids are listening to.” However, in 1964 two movies forever changed how the movies would treat Rock and Roll.
In 1964, experimental film maker Kenneth Anger released “Scorpio Rising” with the first all Rock and Roll soundtrack. Including artists like Elvis, Ray Charles, The Crystals and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (among others), the film hinted at a trend that wouldn’t find its footing until the ’80s — exploiting the emotional power of rock and roll to score a narrative.
That same year, The Beatles released “A Hard Day’s Night” (directed by Richard Lester), the first excellent Rock and Roll film.
Largely regarded by film and music critics as the greatest Rock and Roll film ever made (although not at the top of my list), the movie fictitiously chronicles 36 hours in the life of the band that was, at that time (and in the words of John Lennon), “more popular than Jesus.”
With zany dialog and madcap action, the movie zips along with the chaotic energy of the best Marx Brothers as The Beatles dodge throngs of screaming fans, confused cops and British blue-bloods just to make it to their gig. Interspersed with numerous Beatles’ performances (a precursor to modern music videos), there is barely a wasted frame in the film.
While Rock and Roll movies had been maudlin and mawkish in their portrayal of the music’s effect, “A Hard Day’s Night” is vibrant and fresh, never missing a chance to make fun of the music (or The Beatles, for that matter). The movie is, quite simply, celebratory, an expression of utter joy that is at the authentic heart of Rock and Roll.
What makes the greatest Rock and Roll movies is that spirit of celebration, that expression of the joy of life lived at its fullest and on the edge. It is a characteristic shared by all the best Rock and Roll movies I discuss here.
Number two on my list is “Almost Famous” (2000), a veiled retelling of Cameron Crowe’s adolescent experiences as a budding rock critic (Crowe wrote and directed the movie).
Probably the best cinematic portrayal of what it’s like to be in love and, more so, what it’s like to be in love with music, the movie the young William Miller from his first stab at rock journalism to his travels with the fictional band Stillwater (a kind of amalgamation of The Eagles, Allman Brothers and Led Zepplin). Transcending familiar Hollywood plot lines of emergence (and the journey leading up to that), love, betrayal and redemption, the movie possesses the gift of transporting the viewer into William’s world, allowing us to see that world through his innocent eyes — and experiencing his transformation as we share his pain.
Honestly, I have never met anyone who has said that they don’t like this movie; on the contrary, anytime I have mentioned “Almost Famous,” they’ve only said that they love this movie.
Not so, regarding my fifth favorite Rock and Roll film, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001). Definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” movie, I think some people are disturbed by the transgendered lead character while others find some of the film rather depressing. However, the movie is, from start to finish, celebratory in its declaration of the redemptive value of music and how that value is the soundtrack of a life lived on the edge.
Also depressing in much of its plot, “Saturday Night Fever” (my fourth favorite Rock and Roll movie) from 1977 is nevertheless a celebration of life and how important music is in that.
Stuck in a racially-charged Brooklyn with a dead-end job, a squabbling family, and a group of lunkhead macho friends, Tony finds himself elevated at the local disco, the king of dancing. Painfully aware of his limited chances in life (and made more self-aware by his new dance partner, the successful and educated Annette), Tony seeks an escape from his narrow existence and the trap that life has set for him.
With a soundtrack comprised of some of the most exhilarating music of the ’70s, the movie is liberating, both for Tony and the viewer. Like “Almost Famous,” “Saturday Night Fever” is about how someone risks everything in order to fulfill a dream, to make life everything that it is supposed to be — an expression of love for someone and something.
In its own odd way, “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) is precisely about expressing love of someone or something except that it does so in a way that is sidesplittingly hilarious. In fact, it is not just the funniest Rock and Roll movies ever made, it is one of the funniest movies ever made.
Marty DiBergi, a documentary film maker and longtime Spinal Tap fan, follows his heroes around on what proves to be, the demise of the band.
With a lethal history of losing drummers — one by spontaneous combustion, another by choking to death on vomit (“but not his own vomit”) — and apparently having outlived their shelf-life, Spinal Tap is unable to bring out a single fan to an autograph signing, gets lost in a labyrinth on their way to the stage, wind up with midget stage props (due to a misunderstanding of proportion), find themselves trapped in other, malfunctioning stage props, find their latest album rejected by their record company, and unceremoniously land a gig for an officer’s dance in a U.S. Air Force hangar.
Yet, in the meantime, the band remains completely optimistic (even the drummer, aware of the life-span of past drummers) at their ability to make their comeback and oblivious to their ineptitude. Indeed, they have complete faith in their talent and music, even if the rest of the world has passed them by.
“It’s very special, because, as you can see, the numbers all go to 11. Right across the board. Eleven, 11 ... And most amps go up to 10? Exactly. Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder? Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not 10. You see, most blokes are going to be playing at 10 — you’re on 10 on your guitar, where can you go from there? Where? I don’t know. Nowhere! Exactly! What we do, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? You put it up to 11. Eleven. Exactly. One louder. Why don’t you just make 10 louder, and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?” says guitarist Nigel Tufnel to Marty as he explains the unique configuration of his equipment. And it is that “one over the top” attitude that expresses the sheer joy of Spinal Tap.
It is that joy that sets these movies far above the standard Rock and Roll cinematic fare. In these movies, the liberating quality of music and the Zen of maximizing the moment are evident in every frame.