Sunday, July 25, 2010

August 24, 2009: The 15 Greatest Rock & Roll Movies!

Today is quite a significant date in the history of Rock & Roll movies, as it marks the 25th Anniversary of Stop Making Sense and the 30th Anniversary of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. In honor of these two momentous birthdays, I bring you The 15 Greatest Rock & Roll Movies!

15. Head (1968- dir. Bob Rafelson)
For more than 40 years, snobby rock critics have taken great pleasure in shitting all over the Monkees. Yes, those goopy Davy Jones love songs will rot your teeth, but the group had way more talent and smarts than most people gave them credit for. Mike Nesmith was writing and producing great tracks as early as their debut album, and by their third record Headquarters, the group was playing, writing, and singing some of the best pop music of the ‘60s. Still, no one took them seriously. The rock press depicted them as four foolish puppets even though they’d had their hands in such milestones as the birth of music video and the introduction of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to American audiences. They also managed to become a real touring rock band. But nothing the Monkees did was as radical as their starring role in Bob Rafelson’s utterly bizarre avant-garde rock musical Head, in which the boys send up their pre-fab image and their complete inability to escape it. Along the way, they lampoon the Vietnam War, the over-commercialization and industrialization of American society, hippies, politics, James Bond and Hammer horror movies, and of course, television, the medium that spawned the Monkees in the first place. This free-wheeling, patchwork freak-out is also notable for being co-scripted by Jack Nicholson during a stoned-out weekend retreat. The best part of Head for me is hearing the Monkees perform some of the best music of their career, including the soaring, psychedelic “Porpoise Song”, the lovely ballad “As We Go Along” (with Neil Young on guitar), Peter Tork’s exotic “Can You Dig It?” (complete with sexy belly-dancer sequence) and his euphoric rocker “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?”, and most significantly, a live rendition of Nesmith’s garage-rock monster “Circle Sky” (although I seem to be in the minority by preferring the studio version on the soundtrack album to the live one performed in the film). Unfortunately, the movie loses a lot of steam about two-thirds of the way in when the songs peter out, but Head is still an impressive testament to the talent of a supposedly talent-less band.

The Monkees play their own instruments on “Circle Sky”

14. The Last Waltz (1978- dir. Martin Scorsese)
Every great Rock & Roll group should go out like this. With their career on the wane, The Band decided to tear down shop in 1976. Band-leader Robbie Robertson had been justifiably impressed with Martin Scorsese’s use of classic songs like “Be My Baby” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash’” in Mean Streets and recruited the young director to film a farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day. Originally, The Band were to be the only performers, but the line-up was expanded to include Ronnie Hawkins (whom The Band backed-up as The Hawks on his early records), Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and... ummm... Neil Diamond. So, Diamond’s performance is pretty lame, but the others are dynamic and iconic; The Last Waltz would be required viewing if only for Morrison’s thrilling rendition of “Caravan” (the little kicks he throws as he exits the stage are absolutely adorable!). Of course, the show belongs to The Band, and they bow out on an utter high with stirring versions of “Chest Fever”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and many others. Although the film is too long at 117 minutes, and the Neil Diamond number should have been cut, this is the most expertly filmed concert movie ever made. Scorsese does more than shoot the artists; he places them in an atmospheric, painterly landscape, especially during the studio sequences featuring The Band, Emmylou Harris, and The Staples Singers.

The Band and the Staples Singers feel “The Weight”

13. Don’t Look Back (1967- dir. D.A. Pennebaker)
In early 1965, Bob Dylan was in a weird place. He’d been tagged a genius by a generation of folkies who just as quickly deemed him a Judas for plugging in his guitar and playing absurd, electrifying rockers that owed as much to Chuck Berry as they did to Dylan Thomas. That push and pull really put him on the defensive, and Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s ’65 British tour, captures Bob at his most acerbic, his wittiest, and his meanest. The film is hardly a flattering portrait of Dylan. When I was younger, I thought he was just too hip when he humiliated poor little Donovan by following the Scottish folk singer’s silly love song with the lacerating “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” during a hotel-room show down. Now, I think it’s kind of painful to watch (and I really like Donovan). As tough viewing as Don’t Look Back can be at times, it’s a fascinating and insightful look at Dylan. Yes, his music is incredible, but he is that restless combination of insecurity and arrogance that can really make a young guy an asshole. In all fairness, the idiotic questions he is constantly asked by the press would try anyone’s patience, but he is absolutely ruthless when dispatching those daffy English reporters with his trademark barbs. When it comes to sheer surliness, Dylan is no match for his manager Albert Grossman, who threatens to kick the ass of a hotel manager who asks Dylan and his entourage to keep it down during a noisy party. That guy is one nasty motherfucker.

The infinitely copied “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sequence from Don’t Look Back

12. The Harder They Come (1972- dir: Perry Henzell)

Believe it or not, Jamaica hadn’t produced a major motion picture until 1972 when Perry Henzell made The Harder They Come, his first film and the last one he would make for 35 years. When American college kids got a whiff of this ganja-infused flick and its radical reggae soundtrack, it became one of the seminal midnight movies of the ‘70s. For many in the U.S., this was the first time they’d heard reggae and ska. While I’m not a huge fan of either kind of music, the soundtrack of The Harder They Come is phenomenal and essential listening for any music fan. Toots and the Maytals’ deliriously joyful “Sweet and Dandy” (one of my all-time favorite songs) and Jimmy Cliff’s killer title track are especially wonderful. Cliff also does a terrific job in the movie as an impoverished thug who manages to fight his way out of the ghetto to become both a singing sensation and a wanted criminal. The gritty vérité look of the film gives it authenticity in spite of the slightly clichéd plot (which wasn’t quite as clichéd in 1972, mind you). Henzell is also very inventive throughout the film, most notably during the sequence in which he films Cliff slashing the face of a rival (“Don’t… fuck… with me, mon”) by having him slash at the camera lens. Try not to squirm in your seat during that scene, mon.

Toots and the Maytals rock “Sweet and Dandy”

11. The Girl Can’t Help It (1956- dir. Frank Tashlin)
The Girl Can’t Help It is the first great Rock & Roll movie because it’s the first movie ever to get what Rock & Roll was all about. It doesn’t make the mistake of expecting its rockers to act, nor does it take itself seriously, nor does it mistake corniness for wit. Yet it manages to be both really corny and really witty. Witness Jayne Mansfield’s first shimmy in the film, which elicits reactions straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon (a milk man’s bottles spontaneously explode; a bespectacled man’s glasses crack). All that scene is missing is a zoot-suited wolf with his eyes springing out of their sockets. The fact that Mansfield herself looked like a cartoon only adds to the fun, pop-arty feel of the movie. As for its story, a schlemiel music talent agent (played by the totally underrated Tom Ewell) agrees to make a mobster’s talent-deprived girlfriend (Mansfield) a Rock & Roll star, which he does by capturing her pre-Yoko Ono squeals in a dopey number called “Rock Around the Rock Pile”. That song is a goof, but smoking performances by Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, the Treniers, and Little Richard (who sings the incredible title song) are not.

Jayne Mansfield has a lot of what they call “the most”

10. The T.A.M.I. Show (1964- dir. Steve Binder)
The Teenage Music International Show was a mind-blowing melting pot of nearly every A-list pop, rock, and soul act of the early ‘60s: The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, James Brown, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Lesley Gore, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and Gerry & the Pacemakers (with Cape Cod’s great Barbarians tossed in to represent the burgeoning garage-band scene). Shot by Steve Binder with equipment and crew on loan from “The Steve Allen Show”, The T.A.M.I. Show finds all of these acts performing as if their lives (or at least their careers) depend on it. The culminating showdown between The Rolling Stones and James Brown finds the Godfather of Soul emerging triumphant. I once saw this film in a cinema, and as soon as Brown came onstage and started wiggling to “Out of Sight”, the entire audience burst out of their seats and started dancing in the aisles. They didn’t do that shit when I went to see There Will Be Blood, let me tell you. Unfortunately, music rights issues have kept this miraculous concert film from being issued on DVD (similar problems caused the Beach Boys’ terrific set to be snipped from prints of the film issued after its initial release), but bootleg copies can be obtained. Jan and Dean are the cornball hosts.

James Brown on T.A.M.I. Show, same tape I’ve had for years

9. Stop Making Sense (1984- dir. Jonathan Demme)
“Hi. I have a tape I want to play for you.” David Byrne has just walked out onto a bare stage holding a boom box. He sets it down, hits play, and a mechanical drum beat begins to fill Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Byrne plays along to the pre-recorded drum-machine with his acoustic guitar and sings “Psycho Killer”. When he’s finished, Tina Weymouth joins him on stage with her bass, and the two perform “Heaven”. Meanwhile, roadies set up a drum riser in the background, so that when the duo has completed the song, Chris Franz can come out and count-off “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”. Jerry Harrison, the fourth and final Head, then enters for “Found a Job”, but the ensemble isn’t complete yet. The brilliant “this is how a band is formed!” primer is also a lesson in over-embellishment, as backup singers, percussionists, extra-guitarists, and costumes are added to the mix. But it all works incredibly well because the Talking Heads had already been developing a more full-bodied sound since releasing Remain in Light three years earlier. The band sounds amazing, the staging and lighting by Jonathan Demme (and Byrne) is innovative and fascinating, and the set-list (which makes room for Tina to take the spotlight on the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love) is stellar. Byrne also goofs around in a giant suit, giving birth to one of the most iconic pop images of the ‘80s.

Why such a big suit?

8. Monterey Pop (1968- dir. P.A. Pennebaker)
When it comes to groundbreaking ‘60s rock concert films, Woodstock seems to get all of the attention, but for my money, that movie is gray, dreary, and over-long, and the performances are too often uninspired. Monterey Pop, which documents John Phillips’s Monterey Pop Festival, staged over three days in June of 1967, captures several of those Woodstock artists a few years earlier and a lot hungrier. It’s also a more colorful, interestingly filmed and edited, and concise picture. The total lack of mud-drenched hippies makes for a more pleasing aesthetic as well. In fact, watching what’s going on in the crowd is nearly as fun as seeing what’s happening on stage in Monterey Pop. We get to see Mickey Dolenz perched beside Mama Cass, who wears a famous “Holy shit, this is amazing!” expression as Janis Joplin lays down the law. Jimi Hendrix grooves along to Ravi Shankar’s way-long but never-boring raga. Brian Jones, dressed as a medieval circus-clown, drifts through the throng. An exasperated girl shoves her fingers in her ears as The Who give the Summer of Love a big kick in the bollocks at the climax of “My Generation”. Famously, the festival also made a lot of careers, including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Joplin, and Otis Redding, whose bemusement at performing his red-hot soul for “the love crowd” may be the greatest joy of watching Monterey Pop.

Otis shakes it and loves you too long at Monterey

7. Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (1987- dir. Taylor Hackford)
Chuck Berry is without a doubt the daddy of Rock & Roll. His hard-driving but swinging boogie rhythms, deft comic storytelling, and ever-adaptable “Johnny B. Goode” riff have inspired countless cats to pick up guitars and tumble into the helter skelter R&R universe, and no one has claimed as deep a debt to Berry as Keith Richards. The grizzled Rolling Stone was rather unimpressed with the direction his idol’s career had taken in the ‘80s, though. Incredibly, Chuck Berry—a god to so many— was tooling around the country on his own, stopping in various backwater burgs, and hooking up with any old local band to back him at any old local shit hole. Richards made it his personal crusade to rescue Berry from such ignominy, and put together a cracking band (including Berry’s original pianist Johnny Johnson) to back him up during a double-header at the Fox Theater in St. Louis on Berry's 60th birthday. The elder rocker agreed to perform, but he did not make things easy on his protégé. This is why Taylor Hackford’s document of the event is such compelling viewing. Yes, the live sequences are amazing (except for when the spotlight is shared with mediocrities like Julian Lennon and Linda Ronstadt), but so is watching Richards and Berry blast hate-lasers out of their eyes at each other during rehearsals. Still Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll is one of the most joyous concert films, because when Berry and Richards pull off their show in spite of all the friction, it really feels like a massive accomplishment.

Berry schools Keef

6. Yellow Submarine (1968- dir. George Dunning)
The Beatles must have been kicking themselves for refusing to participate in Yellow Submarine when they finally saw it. Not that you can really blame them for declining to lend their Scouses to the film. Before this feature-length animated film was released in 1968, the Beatles had been the subject of a crappy (yet oddly charming) Saturday morning cartoon, and they assumed this film would not be much better. Actually, it turned out to be, in my opinion, the best animated movie ever made. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Beatles freak. The Peter-Max-inspired pop-art animation is truly fabulous, groundbreaking, eye-bursting stuff; not just the colorful sequences for which the film is most famous, but also the grim Liverpool scene set to the grim “Eleanor Rigby.” The story is slight, but the dialogue is witty and fun (Chief Blue Meanie: “Oh, I haven't laughed so much since Pompeii!”). With the exception of “All Together Now”, the new songs the Beatles contributed to the film are among their most underrated, particularly “It’s All Too Much” and “Hey Bulldog”, and there are plenty of classics from the Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt. Pepper period. The group also made up for their initial un-involvement with a neat, live-action cameo at the end of the film. I'm so glad no one is planning to remake this incredible film. And I'm particularly glad they won't be remaking it using shitty, ice-cold computer animation. Sigh.

All the lonely people…

5. Gimme Shelter (1970- dir. Albert and David Maysles)
While everyone involved in Woodstock was still busy patting themselves on the back for pulling off such a cultural milestone, the dirty old Rolling Stones opted in on the open-air festival action. They would put on their own show, with bands including the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and usher in the ‘70s with yet another celebration of free love, free drugs, free music, and poor personal hygiene. This isn’t how Altamont went down, though. In one of the most mind-boggling moves in concert history, the Hell’s Angels were hired as security. Exacerbating the already sketchy arrangement, the Angels were paid in beer, loaded on meth, and armed with pool cues to control the crowd of acid-soaked, creepy hippies, many of whom were naked despite the nippy December weather. Throughout the day, the “vibes” just got weirder and weirder. The crowd got restless. The Angels got nasty. Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane took issue with how security was treating one fan, so he lept from the stage mid-song to intervene and was clubbed unconscious with a pool cue. By the time the Stones took the stage, all Hell had come unleashed. Mick Jagger’s fey admonitions for his “brothers and sisters” to “cool out” notwithstanding, a young, gun-wielding man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death. The Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter captures the slow-burning apocalyptic hysteria of Altamont with chilling objectivity. Mick attempts to break out of his miasma of drugs, sex, and being pampered long enough to view footage of Hunter’s murder and offer a surprisingly pained reaction. While there is too much going on off-stage to classify Gimme Shelter as a straight concert film, there is some excellent footage of the Stones performing classics like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Sympathy For the Devil”, and “Under My Thumb,” the song they were playing when Hunter was killed. There are also fascinating scenes of the group in the studio mixing tracks for Sticky Fingers as a smacked-out Keith Richards nods off on the floor.

Things go from uglier to ugliest during “Under My Thumb

4. Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1979- dir. Allan Arkush)
For Rock & Roll freaks and cult movie geeks, it doesn’t get much better than Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. You’ve got one of the greatest cult movie producers (Roger Corman) coming together with some of the coolest cult movie stars (P.J. Soles; Mary Woronov; Paul Bartel; Dick Miller) and the ultimate cult band (The Ramones) for a sloppy, sugary, deliriously fun mash-up about a girl who must do away with her evil principal in order to make it to the Ramones concert. Fortunately director Allan Arkush managed to talk Corman out of making Disco High and convinced him to focus the film on a form of music that doesn’t blow. Cheap Trick was originally going to be the band at the heart of the movie, and although they were a great group with plenty of humor, the Ramones were the perfect choice to complete this cartoony fantasy of sex, drugs, and hard rock. Arkush smartly didn’t give them much dialogue (Marky’s performance is hilarious. He was hung over for the majority of his scenes and delivers all of his lines like a Speak & Spell), but the Ramones still rule the school whenever they’re on screen. The scene when they drive into town singing “I Just Want to Have Something to Do,” P.J.’s stoned fantasy of them singing “I Want You Around” in her bedroom, and the entire concert sequence at the climax of the movie kick ass.

The Ramones make their grand entrance

3. Quadrophenia (1979- dir. Franc Roddam)
Anyone who has seen Ken Russell’s complete travesty Tommy knows that turning a rock album into a movie is no easy task, especially when you’re dealing with a group as bombastic as The Who. The genius thing about Quadrophenia, a film version of one of The Who’s more bombastic albums, is that Franc Roddam completely tones down the bombast in favor of character development and capturing a very specific period in British culture when gangs of sharp-dressed, scooter-riding mods and leather-clad, motorcycle-riding rockers engaged in a bloody, riotous rivalry. Thankfully, Roddam didn’t try to turn this into an opera. The music from the Quadrophenia album (glorious as it is, but hardly sounding as though it hails from 1965) is only used as background, while actual period music from Booker T. & the MG’s, The Chiffons, and The Kingsmen spins out from D.J. booths and turntables. If you want complete historical accuracy, this isn’t the best place to start because the film is loaded with gaffs (a Who record from the mid ‘70s is shown sitting next to a phonograph; some of the rockers have hippie-style long hair; a cinema marquee shows that Heaven Can Wait is playing). These anachronisms only point to how relevant this film was when it was released. It’s as much a product of the punk era as it is an early ‘60’s period piece, showing how little things had changed. The grim, impoverished, violent England depicted in the film was no different from Thatcher’s England of 1979. So, it was hardly surprising that a mod-revival followed and that the film’s central character Jimmy became something of a punk icon. Phil Daniels is incredible in the role, playing Jimmy with an appropriately schizoid combination of romanticism, childishness, rage, and desperation—the four sides of the “quadrophenic” personality Pete Townshend describes on the album. The film itself is incredible as well: moving, exciting, sexy, funny, furious, and youthful—everything The Who were when they were at their best.


2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964- dir. Richard Lester)
Considering what movie vehicles for Rock & Roll stars had been prior to A Hard Day’s Night, there was no reason to believe that it would be anything less than a cheap cash-in on what many probably believed to be the Fabs’ fifteen minutes of fame. But like almost everything the Beatles dipped their digits in, A Hard Day’s Night was exhilarating and much more than just some “Beatles movie.” Richard Lester directs with extraordinary energy and innovation, from experimental techniques like shooting directly into an arc lamp to anarchic comedic techniques like showing the group in two places at the same time (“Mister, can we have our ball back?!?”) to pre-MTV/pre-Monkees music-video-style romps (“Can’t Buy Me Love”). Of course, the music is stellar, but the real surprise of this film is how good the Beatles are in their respective roles (John is the anarchic lunatic, Paul is the eager-to-please dandy, George is the low-key cynic, and Ringo is the everyman). Although this certainly is a “Beatles movie,” there is still a lot besides the band to love about it. A Hard Day’s Night is abundant in the kind of absurdist British humor that later gained international favor via Monty Python, Douglas Adams novels, and The Young Ones (as well as the faux-British humor of Spinal Tap). On top of all the cinematic innovation, hilarity, and wonderful music are great supporting performances from Norman Rossington as the Beatles’ harried manager, John Junkin as their kindly road manager, Victor Spinetti as a frazzled T.V. director, and Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s grandfather… who happens to be very clean.

Richard Lester and The Beatles invent music video

1. The Kids Are Alright (1979- dir. Jeff Stein)
The Kids Are Alright is the greatest rock documentary ever made, and if you say otherwise, I will (as Pete Townshend says in the film) kick you in the balls and send you off. Of course, in the movie, Pete wasn’t talking about you. He was talking about a cop who came on stage at the Fillmore to tell him the building was burning down. That’s the kind of shit that happens in The Kids Are Alright. This isn’t a “let’s sit back and reflect nicely on what a nice band the nice, old Who were” documentary. This is complete anarchy. There are no gestures toward chronology, or telling the band’s story properly, or finding out what the Who’s colleagues thought of them (aside from a barely coherent rant from Tommy filmmaker Ken Russell). This is a movie in which Keith Moon conducts an interview while wearing a leather mask and getting whipped by a dominatrix. This is a movie in which John Entwistle goes skeet shooting with his collection of gold records (which he later joked were Roger Daltrey’s solo albums). This is a movie in which a really, really drunk Pete Townshend regales his drummer with a side-splitting story about how his doctor warned him that he’s going deaf. I could go on and on about all of the hilarious vignettes in The Kids Are Alright, but then I wouldn’t leave any space to gush about the music. The breath-taking version of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is probably the best live performance of any song by any band ever. There’s Keith beating the all-mighty shit out of his drum kit during a rendition of James Brown’s “Shout and Shimmy.” The climactic performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is not only stunning, but it’s the last time Moon would play in front of an audience, and the fact that the Great Looner died very shortly thereafter adds an unexpected edge of poignancy to the mania. A ridiculous version of “Barbara Ann” with Keith on lead vocals is genuinely moving and really sweet; the dysfunctional Who takes a moment to throw their drummer a bone and let him sing the tune in his warbling falsetto. He’s clearly so overjoyed to be allowed to sing a song that he doesn’t care that he can’t really sing and doesn’t seem to notice when the rest of the band have had enough of playing the song. But while they are playing it, none of them can keep a straight face. And if you give the slightest shit about Rock & Roll (or have a pulse), you won’t be able to keep a straight face at all during The Kids Are Alright, because it will unhinge your jaw and make you lapse into hysterics and make you scream along with the songs and possibly inspire you to throw your television out the window. The Who would surely be proud if you did.

Keith Moon does some permanent damage on “The Smothers Brothers Show”

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