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The worst rock and roll movies: Crimes against nature

Last week, the IMS (Insufferable Music Snob) delved into the cream of the crop as far as Rock and Roll cinema — an admittedly mundane exercise in which my poison pen was set on “dull” and aimed in the worst fanboy direction. A nominally interesting column meant to steer the untutored towards some truly great movies but ultimately, my self-indulgence got the best of me; mea culpa.

This week, I steer my craft to the galaxy of stupid and, adjusting my poison pen to “obliterate,” I set my sights on the worst Rock and Roll movies, the ultimate losers, those films that aspired to nothing and inspired even less. The most worthless and meretricious pieces of trash exhibiting a feckless disregard for the music and the viewer, lame ideas germinated in the well-fertilized fields of corporate greedheads and then cultivated for no other reason to feed the fatted, golden calf. Films that didn’t just fall flat, but sagged so low their bellies displaced the detritus, taking their dubious position at the bottom of the barrel.

What binds these turkeys together is their unabashed cynicism; all over-preening big studio releases basted in bombast and barfed upon the movie-going public with no other reach than to the bottom line. More than that, the music — Rock and Roll — takes a back seat to the sludge that the studios, producers, director and everyone else involved dumped on our doorstep like a flaming sack of dog crap.

Last week, I mentioned the gawdawful schmaltz from the late ’50s/early ’60s, a class of dreck unto itself. Doubtlessly, the studio heads responsible for those abortions were due the bad acid trips they inevitably suffered (a twisted karmic retribution where the infantile were reduced to wearing diapers ala David Vitter) but they achieved a level of Technicolor camp, harmless (and mindless) B-movies meant as nothing more than 90 minutes of cotton-candy piffle. They can only be viewed as quaint, in retrospect, like walking down into your grandmother’s basement and finding a washboard and an old ringer dryer — with sufficient imagination and psychotropic adjuncts, the entertainment value is immeasurable (if not perverse).

Conversely, nothing redeems the mangy curs on this list and the only a masochist, strapped down and forced to watch a few minutes of these, would appreciate a single frame of these monstrosities.

Working backwards, from the least worst to the absolute wretched, behold the power of Hollywood to walk the strip in fishnet stockings, stiletto heels and a faux latex miniskirt and ask, “Wanna’ suck on a sewage pipe?”

It has always been my considered opinion that Karaoke is one of the signs of the Apocalypse and “The Rose” (bound to be sung several thousand times a night across the country by tipsy account executives) arose from one of the most overwrought and maudlin cinematic murder scenes ever produced. Why, in 1979, Hollywood felt we needed an extended allegory on the life of Janis Joplin is beyond me; it reminded me of the Monty Python sketch where a slimy movie producer promises Marilyn Monroe to star (her corpse falling out of cupboards or standing in as a footrest).

Bette Midler’s histrionic performance as the drugged-out Rose (“Pearl” — get it?) is all emoting and no emotion, endowing her character with all the psychological depth of a junebug banging against a light bulb. Worse yet, Middler and the music make a travesty of Joplin’s legacy. Whereas Joplin could command her corner of the universe with her boozy, bluesy ferocity and move mountains, the performances in “The Rose” are flat and flatulent, moving little more than my feet to the exit.

The fact that the Academy granted this stinker four nominations merely proves that, with enough powdered sugar, waste products can look like a cruller.

Never a fan of Oliver Stone — “Salvador” and “Wall Street” were OK — I’ve found most of his work pedagogic and preachy. However, as bulimic as his worst excesses are (tons of junk thrown in, followed by the inevitable purge of a movie), “The Doors” (1991) presses the gag reflex beyond human endurance. Between the trippy sequences and the pseudo-spiritual palaver, Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison, while probably accurate, amounts to a movie that (in the words of Roger Ebert) “is like being in a bar with an obnoxious drunk while you’re not drinking.”

Apparently uninterested in endowing his characters with any depth or sympathy (like the incidental cartoons of Mickey and Mallory in “Natural Born Killers”), Stone seems torn between trying to reproduce the high of a peyote trip as well as the gut bomb and somnolent agony of a hangover. He succeeds on the latter; on the former, well, only someone who’s ingested a fistful of buttons knows where that goes.

Neither a fan of Stone’s movies nor much of a fan of The Doors music (though I’ll concede they made several truly great songs, however), I can say that no animals were harmed as I decided this garbage was about as endurable as a BB-sized hole in a molar.

I really, really should have enjoyed “Streets of Fire” (1984). With direction by Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “48 Hours”), Ry Cooder’s musical direction and the pulp/comic book attempt to tell a “Rock and Roll fable,” the movie should have achieved greatness. Unfortunately, this seven-car pile up amounted to little more than art-house pretention and some truly awful Springsteen mock-ups (compositions courtesy of Jim Steinman, the creator of Meatloaf… nuff’ said) via Eddie and the Cruisers, the band for which “Bruuuuuuuuuce” really is “Booooooooooo!”

I won’t even go into the absurd plot except to say that it merely confirms Willem Dafoe has, by far, the worst actor’s instincts for choosing roles. Michael Paré (with a face looking like silly putty wrapped around the head of a G.I. Joe doll) and Diane Lane (um, actually at her hottie-est) round out a cast babbling out dialog that Raymond Carver would have ascribed to a night of bad whiskey.

The harder this movie attempts to achieve its “fable” status, the more it comes across as an episode of “Robot Chicken” after the writers had huffed gold-speckled spray paint.

Breaking out the Miller’s Analogy Test booklet, “Streets of Fire” is to inhalants as “Tommy” (1975) is to horse tranquilizers and self-induced oxygen deprivation — an interminably bad trip with all the joy of landing face-first on the floor.

With performances by Tina Turner as The Acid Queen, Eric Clapton as The Preacher and Elton John as The Pinball Champ, one wonders how the movie could go so horribly wrong but it does to an extent surpassing “so bad it’s good” territory to “Anyone associated with this road kill of a movie should be sentenced to a year in rehab.”

The blame has, I’ve always believed, largely rested with the confused direction of Ken Russell. Many of his films (“Altered States,” “Gothic,” “The Lair of the White Worm,” among others) have been almost rococo in their surrealistic and hallucinatory elements; in “Tommy,” Russell outdoes himself, splattering the screen with images both sickening and scatological (the scene with Ann-Margret writhing around in a sea of baked beans had all the erotic impact of Don Knotts in a speedo). The more Russell assaults us with fetishist imagery and dumbed-down Dadaism, the more our skin crawls with the distinct sense that we’re watching something filthy (in a John Waters “Pink Flamingos” sense of the word). The result is a execrable piece of cinematic excess that should only be viewed under severe restraints with a ball-gag firmly in place.

Along with casting non-singers like Ann-Margaret and Oliver Reed in principal roles — Ann-Margaret has a two key range (both flat) and Reed moans like a man with a bad hernia — Russell certainly deserves his share of the blame for the 30-car pileup that is “Tommy.” However, the real culprit is producer Robert Stigwood, the same producer of the Gehenna Toilet of bad Rock and Roll movies, by far, the worst of the worst.

Having produced one of the best Rock and Roll movies ever made (“Saturday Night Fever” — see last week’s column) and a passable piece of pop pabulum (“Grease”) back to back, Stigwood decided to embark on an ambitious (if ill-conceived) project in 1978, a cinematic version of The Beatles’ classic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

As careful as The Beatles had been up to that point with their catalog, largely due to their entrenched mutual acrimony, I’m surprised this clunker even made it out of the scrapyard. Unfortunately, the laws of physics and the dictates of good taste were shamelessly violated as this lemon wheezed its way into theaters everywhere, fouling the air wherever it appeared.

With the BeeGees and Peter Frampton starring as the Fab Four (I. Kid. You. Not.), the movie strings together performances by a few late-’70s headliners (Steve Martin, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Earth, Wind and Fire) and a cast of thousands who, for all intents and purposes, wander in and out of scenes as if they’ve lost their way to the buffet table.

The venerable George Burns was enlisted to provide the film’s narration — I guess after playing God it was felt he could raise Lazarus and make him dance like a frog on a hot plate — citing a tale, told by an idiot, full of ear-splitting sound and moronic fury, signifying nothing.

Whatever plot existed in pre-production was subsumed by the musical-revue construction of the film that took over, with bands taking the stage and then shuffled off to make room for the next act, with the ruthless efficiency of a subway turnstile.

As for the performances of Frampton and the BeeGees, to describe it “wooden” would be to deny the organic quality of timber. Their acting repertoire amounts to raising one eyebrow to express pleasure, both to express dismay. Otherwise, “deadpan” takes on an entirely new meaning as they sleepwalk through their roles and even their musical performances exhibit all the animated glee of half-filled water glasses shimmying with the vibration of a passing city bus. Apparently, the shame with which they obviously felt in butchering perfectly good Beatles’ songs held them in some sort of catatonic paralysis.

There was no reason to make this film and even less reason to watch it. The original Beatles’ album was already cinematic in its ambition and effect; putting on the headphones and closing the eyes is more than enough to produce an infinite number of mind movies.

As far as watching Stigwood’s atrocity exhibition: Imagine yourself trapped in a flea-bag hotel room with an hysteric, coked-out drag queen while you watch paint peel. While you have a raging hangover. And your wallet is gone.

That would be heaven compared to watching this movie.

Maybe I’ve been overly cruel in applying my poison pen to these horrible movies. I think not. What was cruel was taking the time to commit these to celluloid and expecting us to be entertained by them. Sometimes, I concede that sociopaths are born and not made, that the extent of sadism knows no bounds.

Watch these movies (this is not a recommendation) and see if I’m right.

jim@pagosasun.com