From “Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll”
I am still of opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind-sex and the dead.
- William Butler Yeats
In the Beginning-before Elvis, before rock & roll, even-there was a routine juvenile-delinquent picture, Knock on Any Door (1949), starring John Derek as the punk and Humphrey Bogart as a conscience stricken attorney who comes to realize that his teen aged client is a “victim of society.” What makes the otherwise forgettable Knock on Any Door indelible and key to any discussion of rock & roll films is not Bogey’s idealism but Derek’s antisocial credo. one that distills the essence of rock’s attitude as well as its philosophy. Snarls Derek, giving voice to his ambitions: “I wanna live fast. die young and leave a beautiful corpse!”
Such high ideals, so little time
B.D. and A.D. – that is to say, Before Drugs and After Drugs (and, yes, during the drug era too) – rock flirted with sex and death, possibly the only two things that. for youth rebels, defied the bogus conventions of Life as Parents Lived It. Where rock & roll flirted with sex and death, rockfilms went all the way. “Sex and the dead,” the two topics Yeats identified as likely to appeal to “the serious and studious mind,” heartily appealed to those folks confecting movies about the fast-living, hard-loving guys and gals who sometimes chose the wrong recreational drug ancVor opted for a doomed vehicle. Thus they died young. Alas, their corpses, whether that of Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991) or that of the Bette Midler character in The Rose (1979)’ were not always beautiful.
Let’s play a game. Call it Rockfilm, Rollfilm. The object is to identify the distinctive features of the rock-movie genre, the qualities that make rock roll. First we must exclude concert movies like The The T.A.M.I Show (1964), Monterey Pop (1969), Woodstock (1970), Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971), The Last Waltz (1978) and Sign O’ the Times (1987). Although inarguably terrific, they arc more significant archivally, as time-capsule documents, than as films. Rock & roll may be here to stay, but rock doesn’t belong in a time capsule; its urgent context is of the moment.
Next we’d have to exclude cinema-verité chronicles like Don’t Look Back (1967), Gimme Shelter (1970), The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and The Decline of Western Civilization Part Il: The Metal Years (1988). Also terrific, these are portraits of the artists significant precisely because they demystify their musical subjects. Unfortunately, myth is the stuff from which enduring rockfilms are spun.
Now, we’d also have to exclude those film equivalents of vanity publications, hagio-rock-docs enthusiastically authorized by their subjects: the Rolling Stones in Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982), The Beach Boys: An American Band (1985), Chuck Berry in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n ‘ Roll (1987), U2: Rattle and Hum (1988), Quincy Jones in Listen Up! (1990) and Madonna in Truth or Dare (1991). If, by its very nature, rock & roll is unauthorized, then authorized rock films are contradictions in terms.
What’s left, you ask? Movies about youthful charisma, narcissism and sex appeal all dressed up (or down, if you prefer) in death-defying, sometimes death-embracing, attitude.
The Stone Age of Rockfilm
Despite the foreshadowing of rock attitude in Knock on Any Door, it wasn’t until The Blackboard Jungle (1955), a pre-rock film, that the potent mix of teenage rage and raging hormones were shaken, rattled and rolled into a musical Molotov cocktail. What with Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” pulsing on the soundtrack and youth rebel Vic Morrow smashing a Bix Beiderbecke disc, The Blackboard Jungle matched antiestablishment sound to its antiauthoritarian image. That’s the essence of rockfilm, one amply understood by today’s music video directors.
Rock needed film to create personas for its performers. While rock & roll would have been a momentous musical force by itself, by marrying sound with image, the movies made rock a cultural juggernaut. Before The Blackboard Jungle, there had been music in movies for almost thirty years, and, to be sure, there had been movie musicals. The syncopated romances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operettas so wooden they required termite inspection. The symphonic musicals in which Gene Kelly fell in love variously with Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen and … Gene Kelly. Or to put in another way, there had been musicals about grown-ups in love but not musicals about teenagers in heat. What the first rockfilms did was characterize a youth culture entirely distinct from that of adults. Rockfilms targeted teens, a previously unexploited demographic group, at the moment increasing numbers of grown-ups were staying home to watch TV.
The evolution of rockfilms essentially follows human evolution, but with a twist. In the first stage, nubile innocence is showcased, giving us the Sex watch movie. In the next stage, we wallow in the experience of meteoric stars who burn out, giving us the Deathwatch film. These developments culminate in the type of rockfilm in which the music industry capitalizes on its backlist (the Nostalgia film). Then there is the triple-threat film, like The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba or The Doors, which embrace all three genres of rockfilm.
Rockfilm Around the Clock, or The Age of Innocence
The first rockfilm star was not, as you might suspect, Elvis. It was another “hillbilly with a beat” – as he was described in one of the interchangeable proto-rockfilms – Bill Haley. Hard to believe this guy with the big smile and bigger girth galvanized a generation in piffle such as Rock A round the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock the Rock (1957).
In these quickies Haley typically played a musician who appealed to teenagers although their parents accused him of making barbaric noise. AU was forgiven by the last reel when hep teens and their square parents found themselves dancing to the same drumbeat. Essentially a cheerful apostle of the new sound, Haley had a doughy sex appeal, but lacked the necessary rebel shadings and contours (and attitude) that made Elvis the King of Kings.
The moment the heavy-lidded Elvis swaggered onto the screen in Jailhouse Rock (1957), his third picture, the rockfilm star was born. Elvis was James Dean with a guitar. He exuded sex. He didn’t care if he was behind bars. He didn’t care if he lived to see tomorrow. He didn’t give a damn about expressing anything but his sex drive and hostility to the establishment.
Elvis made a host of subsequent movies, includeing the excellent King Creole (1958) and Flaming Star (1960), but except for the fact that he sings a song or two, these aren’t rock movies, per se, but exist in their own special galaxy: The Elvis Movie. There are some who darkly suggest that Viva Las Vegsa (1964), costarring Ann-Margret, was the transformational experience that metamorphosized Elvis from a rock star into a Vegas lounge lizard.
Jailhouse Rock suggested a subliminal link between rock and crime, something the flamboyantly entertaining The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) made cartoonishly explicit. Written and directed by satirist Frank Tashlin and featuring the Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino, this farce about a mobster (Edmond O’Brien) who tries to turn his buxom girlfriend (Jayne Mansfield) into a rock star boldly states that talent has nothing to do with becoming a rock legend. You need only these three things: 1) low friends in high places to “fix” juke box distribution; 2 and 3) big breasts. Apart from its understanding that the music industry was completely dominated by racketeers, The Girl Can’t Help It moreover lampooned Jailhouse Rock in that witty ditty, “Rockpile Rock.”
The rockstar phenom was likewise satirized in the British Expresso Bongo (1960), starring Laurence Harvey as the huckster who surprises even himself when he catapults the nondescript bongo-playing Cliff Richard into international stardom. Based on the popular play by Soho scribe Wolf Mankowitz, which took sport with overnight sensation Tommy Steele, Expresso Bongo illustrates how so-called inno cence and raw sex appeal are manipulated and marketed by the industry.
A Hard Day’s Night, or The Age of Innocence, The Sequel
Apart from Muscle Beach Party (1964), which featured the welcome presence of “Little” Stevie Wonder, American rockfilms of the Sixties are primarily of archival interest today: the rollicking, pluralistic lineup of The T.A.M.I. Show (1964). the angry young Dylan in DOIl’t Look Back (1967). It look director Richard Lester and four mop-tops called the Beatles to create the definitive of the decade, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the giddy, through-the-looking glass adventures of the fast-living, faster-loving, fastest-talking pop combo. John, Paul, George and Ringo were young, sexy and sardonic-and, accord ing to this lively pseudo biography, more amused than amazed by their celebrity. Four robust animals in their prime, the Beatles replaced the surly sexuality of Elvis with tilted British humor. Their film follow ups, Help’ (1965) and Yellow Submarine (1968), are merely footnotes to the superlative A Hard Day’s Night.
Are You Experienced?
If this were a multiple-choice exam, the question would read, Which movie brought the rockfilm into the age of experience? Was it Easy Rider (1969), a kind of filmed FM radio show, which suggested the dark fate in store for those rebels who dropped out and tuned in? Was it Performance (1970), which, without irony or shame, established J bloody link between mobster and rocker? Was it Let It Be (1970), the Beatles documentary that gloomily chronicled the group’s divorce? Was it Gimme Shelter (1970), the cinema-verité account of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. during which Meredith Hunter was murdered, the film that suggested-in critic Robert Christgau’s words-that the Stones were guilty not of criminal negligence but criminal irony? The answer: All of the above.
Immediately following this eruption of turn-of the-decade violence, the rockfilm entered its fatalistic – and also its mythic – age. Although rockers didn’t want to die in Vietnam, onscreen they died in droves. Thus the Deathwatch rockfilm was born, the kind of movie “where no matter what transpired, the hero’s untimely death at the end validated and/or redeemed him. (With few exceptions, it was usually a him.)
What A Hard Day’s Night was to the Sixties, The Harder They Come (1973) was to the Seventies. Star ring that tightly coiled bundle of raw nerve, Jimmy Cliff, as a Jamaican bumpkin yearning to become a reggae star, The Harder They Come was a smooth blend of ganja, exuberance, lewdness and lawless ness, that equated a Top Ten hit with being on the ten-most-wanted list. The Harder They Come, more over, played seriously something that The Girl Can’t Help It and Expresso Bongo played for laughs: That talent won’t get you entree into the rock biz, but being a famous criminal will. Cliff’s martyrdom at the film’s finale elevated his character into a rock icon.
Likewise, The Buddy Holly Story (1978) celebrated the life of rock’s first martyr, tenderly embodied by a soft-spoken Gary Busey as the rocker who gave us “That’ll Be The Day” before he died in a plane crash. Made almost twenty years after Holly died (interestingly, at a moment the first generation of rockers were parents of their own teenage rebels and the year that other nostalgic movies like American Hot Wax and I Wanna Hold Your Hand were released), Buddy Holly embraces the three ages of rockfilm. It’s about an innocent rube who goes to the big city to gain experience-and martyrdom. It revives old music for a new generation . It’s The Glenn Miller Story of its day.
A fictionalized version of the life of Janis Joplin, The Rose (1979) stars Bette Midler as the high-flying singer who thought she was on “automatic pilot” but instead pressed “self-destruct.” Propelled by Midler’s high-octane performance, The Rose is a cautionary tale about the rigors of the sauce and the sack.
While rock martyrs were thus getting disinterred, there came a pair of movies suggesting that rock was also a means of upward mobility. One, the Fifties era That’ll Be the Day (1974), starred David Essex as a Lennonoid Liverpudlian struggling to transcend his charmless milieu. The other was Saturday Night Fever (1977), a disco insta-classic starring John Travolta as a working-class kid from Brooklyn who wins a dance contest and has dreams of conquering Manhattan. Both films were unusual for their contrast of downbeat realism with upbeat music. and both have the anxious edge necessary to real rock films.
Thank God for punk, or else rockfilms might have been mired in disco and we would have had the The Donna Summer Story. There were serious movies like Rude Boy (1980) and Sid & Nancy (1986) that burst onto the screen and combined irreverence and fatalism. And there were also comedies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) and Hairspray (1988)-warped rethinks of the very first rockfilms that captured the liberating qualities of rock, its tonic exuberance. What dialogue can match that of Mary Woronov as the Our Miss Brooks from Hell in Rock ‘n’ Roll Hight School, demanding of a certain punched “Does YOUR mother know you’re a Ramone?” As directed by the eccentric Alex Cox, Sid & Nancy is the apotheosis of the Deathwatch. In this movie about rocker Sid Vicious and his groupie-turned-Juliet Nancy Spuogen, a pair of junkies find self-knowledge-and transcendence – in their own self-destruction.
There was also the occasional purely innocent, pure fun punk film such as Gillian Armstrong’s Star struck (1982), about a Sydney, Australia, punkette – a Down Under Cyndi Lauper, really – who finds self-expression in the punk idiom and refuses to let music industry mavens make her sing Lesley Gore-like ballads. Starstruck captures the essence of rockfilm innocence in that it exuberantly shows that music provides youth with an outlet for self-definition.
Dead or Brain Dead?
Punk exploded at about the same time rock legends Paul Simon and Paul McCartney examined their own mid-career crises in the respective vanity productions, One Trick Pony (1980) and Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984). Both films were dopey, and the latter gave rise to the quip, “We’d heard Paul was dead. We hadn’t heard he was brain dead.” Amid this male menopause, two entirely original films got released and spread, funguslike, across the country.
With its deadpan and dead-on wit, This Is Spinal Tap (1984) satirized heavy metaL rock documentaries and music-industry misogyny so precisely that many viewers thought it was about a real band. With its lively music and performances, Purple Rain (1984) crowned Prince successor to the King of Rock. Not since Elvis had a rockfilm smoldered with the hero’s own self-love and charisma, so feverishly depicted a portrait of the artist as a manchild in conflict and in heat.
Discounting the over-art-directed and underwritten Great Balls of Fire! (1989), a whitewashed version of the life of Jerry Lee Lewis memorable only for the presence of yummy Winona Ryder as the Killer’s nymphet cousin and wife, the Eighties included two excellent Deathwatch biopics. The Ritchie Valens story La Bamba (1987), a Deathwatch dressed up as a Cain-and-Abel story, featured memorable performances by Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales as the Valenzuela brothers. The Patsy Cline saga Sweet Dreams (1985) suffered from the lumpiness that invariably troubles films based on real people – real life is never as shapely as fiction – but was blessed by sharp dialogue and sharper acting by Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline and Ann Wedgeworth as her mother.
Funny thing about Deathwatch films, they get the best out of actors . Even Oliver Stone’s hyper-allegorical The Doors (1991). about Jim Morrison, the sex and-death-obsessed poet and would-be filmmaker, is redeemed by Val Kilmer’s reincarnation of the Lizard King. Watching the Deathwatch films with their youthful rock martyrs-”members of the 27 club,” they used to call Janis and Jimi and Jim, all of whom checked out at age twenty-seven-reminds you that death is the most expedient resolution to any narrative conflict. Moreover, in the case of Ritchie Valens in La Bamba and Jim Morrison in The Doors, you’ll have to think, “Thank God they died.” Had they lived, they might have ended up like the beached whale that is Brian Wilson in the rockumentary The Beach Rays: An American Band.
The Deathwatch rockfilms illustrate the fulfillment of the Who’s most famous lyric. itself a gloss on John Derek’s Knock on Any Door death wish: “Hope I die before I get old.”