Those that know me outside this blog know I have some experience behind a drum kit. Mixing that with an enjoyment of classic film I thought I would take a look at how rock and roll is portrayed in film. I was going to pick my favourite films of rock and roll yet that leans to musical bias I will exclude the documentary/ concert films plus works inspired by albums such as THE WALL. Instead, what I consider a good story told against a rock and roll background.
Rock and roll has been a key ingredient since Bill Halley first told us to ‘Swing dance’ the 1955 film ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK. Films of this style along with the “beach” movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello gave the kids what they wanted to see. The movies, which were sometimes “B” pictures, were often the first and sometimes only time people would see these performers. Plus they packed the theatres, sending the kids to record shops afterward to buy 45 rpms and later LPs. You wrote some sort of a story, blended in songs just like a musical and you had the new youth market.
The other side of these pictures is that they cross into exploitation film with the story of the juvenile delinquent. This was sometimes a leather jacketed, motor cycle riding girl or guy who can play a guitar. Film genres with titles like HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR, HOT ROD GIRLS, and the films of Mamie Van Doran changing into the motorcycle films of Peter Fonda, early John Cassavetes , and Bruce Dern. The end comes with EASY RIDER (1969) and the advent of ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).
The usual choice is THIS IS SPINAL TAPE (1984) by Rob Reiner in a mockumentary style which lends itself to authenticity and fun. While it is a strong film in that it has appeal (it gives us a slice of the absurdity of rock and roll), it doesn’t give us a sense of danger and consequence of actions.
There is a price for everything. The dark horse choice for this style is SID AND NANCY (1986).
This picture was made in 1986 by Alex Cox with two unknown actors and true events that played out in the media at that time. The result is an experience that leaves a taste of metallic bitterness in your eyes. It features tour de force acting performances by Gary Oldman ( chemically altered, perhaps?) and Chloe Webb as the doomed lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. People will say that their mannerisms were excessive yet so is dangerous rock and roll music that teeters on the edge of violence, illicit behaviour and change. It pisses off people; including your parents because you want something of your own.
Cox uses startling images of faraway expressions as Sid and Nancy watch their dreams of stardom unravel in the reality of no acceptance. The best and most telling is the long slow motion kiss in the alley way as the trash falls slowly downward. These people are ‘garbage’ to everyone except one another.
Characters grapple with delusional fame in a pitiful attempt to gain acceptance and show that they are worth something. Rock and roll music is the background to all this with its deals, eccentric ways of doing business and general sanctioned lawlessness.
The film also features a version of the Frank Sinatra tune “MY WAY” which the real Sid Vicious did record and release. Brilliant choice of song since its selection bridges a gap between the old and the new. It is also a statement of individuality. Oldman turns a pistol on the audience in a chilling moment that was edited out of some prints. He also points it directly to the camera very much in homage perhaps accidently to the sequence in the ground breaking western THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) One moment in both of these pictures the audience becomes part of the story; an essential ingredient in SID AND NANCY. The audience, its reactions, events, its moods are all part of the experience of a show.
I admit I see the characters of SID AND NANCY similar to the end of THE MISFITS when Clark Gable and Marilyn Munroe drive off in the truck looking at the stars with wistful expressions. Sid and Nancy and Gable and Munroe were both doomed although we did not know it yet.
Other pictures of this style I enjoyed were Richard Lester’s HARD DAYS NIGHT ( (1964), CONTROL (2007) Directed by Anton Corbijn, Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS (1991) and Franc Roddam’s QUADROPHENIA (1979) and Claude Whatam’s THAT’LL BE THE DAY (1973). However for sheer fun, Steven Herrick’s ROCK STAR (2001) with Mark Wahlberg as an excellent ‘everyman’ who gets to live the dream.
Music is a part of all these pictures. Yet, it is the stories that they tell either of an era or a dream that makes them ‘not just’ musicals. Rock music today has splintered into groups of fans and many different genres similar to today’s film world. The no win debate between those who want films of a more violent nature to people that oppose violence. Music, film and now television tread a path toward occasional seismic change since that is what keeps it vital.