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or all the fine films made about popular music, there’s something a little strange that the two art forms aren’t even more symbiotic. After all, the leading lights in both fields tend to be slightly skewed obsessives whose major talents often come equipped with mountains of emotional baggage and dysfunction. It is perhaps for this reason that many of the movies in this Non-Definitive Guide fundamentally get what it is to love a band, or a musical genre, or how music can make you do wild, romantic, irrational, or just plain dumb-assed stuff. The films below are all, in one form or another, made by and for music fans, and it’s not unusual to find fans who treat these movies with the same kind of adoration and fervor that many of us reserve for those Special Bands. In other words, it’s all about the love, man.
A word of warning: many will be tempted to regard this guide as fundamentally flawed, perhaps too white (where’s more hip-hop?), too mainstream (another paean to A Hard Day’s Night?) or simply too incomplete (where the hell is Don’t Look Back?). To which we respond: of course. It is a Non-Definitive Guide, after all. The movies discussed here are intended only to represent a good cross-section of some of the best, or at least most interesting, films about music that people should probably see. They are by no means intended to be exhaustive or even fully representative of all the music films out there. Put another way, how much more non-definitive can this guide be? The answer is none. None more non-definitive.
[Stylus at the Movies]
[1964, Dir.: Richard Lester, Starring: The Fab Four]
Plot Summary: Uh, I think there’s a plot, but it’s tangential at best to the main purpose of this film, which is to create an alternate Beatles universe that is hilarious, surreal, and probably a lot more fun than the actual sardine-tin reality the boys lived in. Most of it involves the hijinks of Paul’s slightly seedy and thoroughly lovable grandfather, a gambling, carousing, anti-authority Irishman with a taste for a quick buck and a good time. Of course, he gets the band in trouble with their manager (a hilariously wary Norman Rossington) and the musical director of the show on which they are performing (a hilariously neurotic Victor Spinetti). In between there are the requisite musical numbers (unfailingly great) and more screaming girls than can possibly be healthy, even for four virile young male Liverpudlians.
But the film also works as a kind of introduction to the emerging beatnik/hippie ethos, the self-reflective, anti-materialistic impulse embodied by Ringo’s solitary walk through London. That, combined with the DIY, improvisational aesthetic embraced by maverick director Richard Lester, makes A Hard Day’s Night a surprisingly revolutionary film, particularly given the vanity project abyss the movie could easily have fallen into.
Musical Relevance: It’s the Beatles, for chrissakes! Really, does anything else need to be said?
Soundtrack Verdict: As might be expected, pretty great. The band was in the middle of a songwriting hot streak that had their music just beginning to develop more shading and depth (which would come to more obvious fruition on their next film, Help!). If you don’t own this album, get thee to a record store.
Film Verdict: Great music plus barely controlled comic anarchy equals a movie that cannot help but bring a smile to the face of the most dour anti-Beatles cynic. Not only is it enormously entertaining, but with its guerrilla sensibility and rebellious comic spirit, A Hard Day’s Night is a true landmark in the development of modern film.
[1965, Dir.: Richard Lester, Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr]
Plot Summary: The second Beatles feature is a spoof of British spy movies (think: Austin Powers, some three and half decades earlier), revolving around the deliciously contrived premise of Ringo having obtained a ring intended by for a human sacrifice victim and subsequently being pursued by an exotic Asian cult. Yeah.
But plot, obviously, isn't the point here. The film serves mostly just as an excuse for Richard Lester to again capture for the ages the Fab Four's magnetic charisma, and, more importantly, that terrific music. As goofily endearing as it is, Help! isn't as off-handedly charming or deliriously enjoyable as the Beatles' debut vehicle, A Hard Day's Night.
Soundtrack Verdict: However, it boasts an ever stronger soundtrack album, including such absolute gems as “Ticket to Ride,” “You're Gonna Lose That Girl,” and, of course, the title track, perhaps their finest musical moment up to that point. Rubber Soul is usually cited as the album on which the Beatles started getting “mature,” but you can clearly see the transition begin here on tracks like John's unabashedly Dylan-esque “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away” and Paul's wistful staple “Yesterday.”
Film Verdict: Help!, the album, is essential; all in all, one of their strongest collections of songs. Help!, the movie, is a lot of fun for Beatles diehards, for whom I'd wholeheartedly recommended it; others might want to just stick to A Hard Day's Night.
[1968, Dir.: George Dunning, Starring: John, Paul, George, Ringo, and the Blue Meanies]
Plot Summary: Ultimately, Yellow Submarine exists more as an oddity you ought to see, than as a classic you must. It was created as an out for the band to satisfy a three-film contract with United Artists. After a slew of ideas for a live-action follow-up to their previous hit Help! were shot down, the Beatles reluctantly settled on an animated film. Nevertheless, the Beatles themselves wanted little to do with the project. The characters of John, Paul George and Ringo are given voice by sound-alike actors (though the four do actually appear live in a cheesy tacked-on two-minute epilogue). And all but four songs on the soundtrack—"Only A Northern Song," "All Together Now," "Hey Bulldog," and "It's All Too Much"—had already been released.
As for the story: our famous fab four (or rather, a cartoonish depiction of them) are recruited on a fantastic mission to save the good people of Pepperland from an army of music-hating evil Blue Meanies. It’s Dr. Seuss meets Roald Dahl with a solid dose of Timothy Leary. There’s also a “fun for the kids while their parents get stoned” sensibility that keeps it all a bit off kilter. Each step of their journey provides opportunity for lots of pun-heavy, otherwise meaningless dialogue and goofed-out encounters with a bizarre menagerie of strange and scary monsters. Of course, the plot is both inexplicable and entirely beside the point—connective tissue between a series of beautifully rendered musical sequences.
Musical Relevance: With the exception of the titular song, each tune has little relevance to any overriding narrative. But who cares? They’re Beatles songs. Most are really good, and a few are great. While Submarine is neither a great film nor a significant representation of the Beatles’s artistic vision, it is worth seeing nonetheless. The animation which is by turns psychedelic, sloppy, and brilliant captures the ambition and ambiguity of the Beatles’ later work. While Hard Day’s Night and Help! were fun and full of cheer, Submarine, like the canonical albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road, thrives mostly on its varied influences and darker underpinnings.
Soundtrack Verdict: You’ll hear some classics and some lighter filler too. They don’t all hang together that tightly but there isn’t a bad apple in the bunch.
Film Verdict: To be sure, it’s just a cartoon, but it’s a trippy, eccentric one at that—a still-glowing relic from an era long-passed.
[1970, Dir.: Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Starring: The Beatles, Yoko Ono, Billy Preston]
Plot Summary: Ostensibly organized as a means for the rapidly splintering Beatles to record in a “back-to-basics" style and capture the creative process for a movie, Let It Be instead quickly makes matters worse and is really an uncomfortable portrait of a band coming apart at the seams. A smacked-out John Lennon (attached at the hip to Yoko Ono throughout the film) makes little sense and contributes some mighty lame tunes; Paul McCartney tries to make everyone stick to the plan and stay organized and succeeds only in making the others resent his taskmaster tactics; George Harrison generally looks bored, when he isn't being lectured by McCartney on how to play; and Ringo Starr... well, he wears a really nice red mac during the rooftop concert at the end (the Fabs final public appearance, no less). It is no coincidence that this Beatles film has not been rescued from obscurity by McCartney—by all accounts, he looks the worst and surely he knows it. The tension is thick enough throughout to make even devoted Beatle fans squirm. All in all, a fairly depressing affair.
Musical Relevance: The original soundtrack album featured only some of the actual basic tracks played in the film; the rest was covered in sheen by uberproducer Phil Spector (the only man crazy enough to take on the job of making an album of the mess of tapes, apparently) and makes for the worst long-player the Beatles ever released. McCartney has since gone back and solicited a remastering of the actual music from the film, entitled Let It Be...Naked and released to the world 30-odd years after anyone really cared. Even in this pure form, the tunes are for the most part lackluster and the playing sloppy (as opposed to “loose.”) A couple of gems buried among a large pile of crap, really.
Soundtrack Verdict: The essential tunes (Get Back,” “The Long And Winding Road,” and the title track) can be had on any number of Beatles comps, and all but hardcore Fab Followers are advised to look there first.
Film Verdict: Not the sort of thing to put on at a party, but compelling in its unflinching look at a band that only five years previous had been a beacon of joy, wit, and camaraderie to the millions around the world who loved them. Now, they were just four millionaires who barely could stand to be in the same room together.
[1970, Dir.: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, Starring: The Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, The Flying Burrito Brothers]
Plot Summary:The Rolling Stones don't do shit halfway. Following the cultural watershed of Woodstock, they decided to have their own free concert that was gonna be bigger and better, and have a professional film crew shooting it. They'd do it in December of 1969, right at the end of the sixties, in Frisco, where it all started, maaan.
Of course, being the big stars, they remained blissfully unaware of the logistical nightmares that went into planning it, a process the filmmakers reveal with painstaking detail. We sit in on conference calls as the venue is shifted at the last minute, all while cutting back to the Stones rocking away in some arena, lounging in the studio, or scurrying to photo shoots. Finally the big day arrives, and we all know what happened then.
Well, maybe you don't. First off, they figured that since it was the age of peace and love, people would behave themselves. So instead of hiring real security, they could just get the Hell's Angels to do it. While this may seem jaw-looseningly ridiculous to you now, keep in mind that if this were the sixties, you'd be on drugs. They cause what must have been an inordinate number of bad trips by starting fights with both the audience and the performers. At one point they cut Jefferson Airplane's set short by knocking frontman Marty Balin unconscious (which causes the Grateful Dead to cancel). And finally, during the Stones' chaotic set, they start shit with a guy who pulls out a gun, so they stab him to death right in front of the stage (the victim is African-American, natch).
The footage is remarkable. The cameras actually captured the incident quite clearly, and we are shown it as the band members individually watch it in the editing room. The editor, just a disembodied voice from off screen, walks them through it frame by frame, pointing out the gun and the knife, both clearly visible. The film ends with a visibly shaken Charlie Watts walking out of the editing room, and the credits roll over shots of the concertgoers returning to their cars, many unaware of what had just occurred in their midst. Fade out, end of decade.
Musical Relevance: Gimme Shelter remains a vital historical document of the dark side of the 1960s. Beneath all the peace and love an undercurrent of fear had always lurked, and that night it could no longer be contained, and the illusion of the Woodstock era collapsed.
They obviously didn't get enough footage to make a full Stones concert movie, so about half the live material is from other shows. This gives the film a bit of a disjointed, patchwork quality in the first half, but it all coheres towards the end, as the final third or so focuses exclusively on the concert. The show wound up being a major embarrassment for the band. Considering the fates of the Rock & Roll Circus and Cocksucker Blues, it's amazing the Stones ever allowed this to be released.
In sum, a powerful and disturbing film, made more so by showing the band members' speechless reactions to the footage after the fact. A dark reminder of why to this day the word “Altamont” means the opposite of “Woodstock”.
Soundtrack Verdict: The performances are mostly lackluster, which is understandable given the circumstances. But you don't watch this movie for the music.
Film Verdict: The historical import and brilliant editing make this one of the best rock documentaries ever. (Incidentally, this makes a great double feature with Message to Love, about another cash-in-on-that-Woodstock-feeling rock festival. Where Gimme Shelter presents the twilight of the 1960s as a tragedy, in
[1972, Dir.: Perry Henzell, Starring: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw]
Plot Summary: In the role that made him an international superstar, Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan, a small-town Jamaican musician who comes to the big city with dreams of making a hit record someday. Pushed to the brink by corrupt religious figues, corrupt policemen, corrupt drug dealers, and, of course, corrupt record producers, Ivan finally gets his fame and fortune as a rebel outlaw and meets a tragic end. It has been written many times, however, that the real star of the film is Jamaica itself– The Harder They Come (and especially its classic soundtrack album, still a strong catalog seller more than 30 yearslater) was an absolute breakthrough, bringing the music and culture of the island into the global spotlight like nothing before or since. While the film itself is not great shakes– competent, but nothing to write home about plot or acting-wise, really– taken as a package deal, however, The Harder They Come is an essential document of the identity of an emergingnation.
Musical Relevance: Massive. Alongside reggae figurehead Bob Marley, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come brought reggae to an international audience for the first time. While mainstream artists like the Beatles and Paul Simon had showed a reggae influence in their music, and there had been novelty hits in both the UK and the US, this soundtrack and film took the world by storm and made stars of featured acts such as Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and especially Jimmy Cliff. Produced by the legendary Leslie Kong, you'd be hard pressed to find a better introduction to Jamaican music.
Soundtrack Verdict: A stone(d) cold-classic.
Film Verdict: Midnight Movie/Cult Classic fare, but worth the price of a rental for sure.
[1975 , Dir.: Robert Altman, Starring: Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin]
Plot Summary: The best thing about Nashville is the way that it draws you in. With so many characters and little in the way of a definitive story arc, it’d be easy for director Robert Altman to keep us at a detached distance. But the portrait he paints is too engaging and subjects are too human for viewers not to connect. They turn up the heat slowly, and we don’t even realize until it’s too late and we’re at full boil. More wonderful still is the primary conductor of that heat: the music.
With the country music capital of America as the backdrop, this classic presents a brilliantly pathetic panorama over five days in the mid-seventies on the eve of a presidential primary. There are no heroes, there are no lead actors, just two dozen characters—country singers, rock stars, political operatives, desperate groupies, silent war veterans, prying journalists—whose lives intersect and illuminate each other again and again. The film telescopes in and out moving from sweeping rumination on celebrity, politics, sex, and race to pained and thoughtful examination of individual and discrete relationships full of heartbreak and striving.
Musical Relevance: At least a full hour of this almost three-hour long movie is given over to musical performances. Most of that music was written and performed by the artist-slash-actors who we see performing on film: Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Karen Black and many, many, others. The music itself, with the exception of Carradine’s I’m Easy, is not great. While a few tunes stink and a few shine, they are, on the whole, certainly passable. And in that impressive variety and ranging quality, the music most importantly has the ring of verisimilitude. As a result those musical sequences become more than just bright coloring or regional flavor. They are the key to Nashville’s drama. It is through the musical performances that the narrative expands and our characters come most alive. While performing or watching others’ performances, the movie’s many characters are at their least inhibited. With their ids most fully exposed, performers and their tunes serve as a catalyst accelerating the action, pumping up the comedy, and sharpening the tragedy.
Soundtrack Verdict: You’re not going to find any classics but there are plenty of fun tunes for country music fans and novices alike.
Film Verdict: One of Altman’s greatest movies. One of the greatest movies about music. One of the greatest movies about politics. One of the greatest movies about the south. One of the greatest movies made during the seventies. One of the greatest movies about the seventies. Quite simply: one of the greatest movies.
[1978, Dir.: Martin Scorsese, Starring: Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson]
Plot Summary: Plot? Not so much—The Last Waltz is your standard concert film, albeit one of the most brilliant ever made. But Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Band’s last concert in San Francisco doesn’t need a plot—it’s too busy functioning as a legitimate cultural moment. Packed to the gills with guest stars ranging from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, and Van Morrison to Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, and Dr. John, the assembled musicians light up the screen with such energy and passion that the attentive viewer might forget they are watching the high point, and end of, the communal ethos of the 1960s. It’s a spirit exemplified by The Band better than any others, with their traded off vocals, ragged harmonizing, and sitting-around-the-campfire approach to lyricism. As a result, the brilliance of the performances are intercut with a certain wistful melancholy expressed in Scorsese’s behind-the-scenes interviews with the band. All in all, it’s a fascinating dynamic that established The Last Waltz as the template for great concert films.
Technically, the film left another impressive legacy. Scorsese decided early on to film the concert the way he would any other movie, complete with set design, a flotilla of gifted cameramen, incredibly elaborate storyboards, and feature-quality lighting. To top it off, he shot in 35mm, the first time a concert documentary had ever been filmed that way. The result is a piece of art that transcends the limitations of previous concert films and becomes a superb movie in its own right.
Musical Relevance: High. Some of the great musicians of the 60s and 70s show up and proceed to blow the doors off. But the undisputed highlight is Muddy Waters, who delivers a jaw-dropping rendition of “Mannish Boy” that, recalls Scorsese in the DVD release, was so intense it had the audience stomping their feet to the point that the concert hall was literally shaking. The whole thing has a “come full circle” feel to it, with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and the rest connecting to the great bluesmen who started it all.
Soundtrack Verdict: A classic, with the artists involved delivering some of their most transcendent performances to an audience lapping it up. Even apart from the film, the soundtrack is a must-have.
Film Verdict: Scorsese should be as proud of this movie as any other work in his impressive canon. The combination of the astonishing musical talent on display with the impressively mounted production values and often-dazzling camerawork makes The Last Waltz a certifiably great film.
[1979, Dir.: Allan Arkush, Starring: PJ Soles, Clint Howard, The Ramones]
Plot Summary: Rock ’n’ Roll High School is a schlocky mess of joy. It’s a relatively simplistic high school comedy complete with confused romance, off-color sex jokes, lame sight gags, dweeby hall monitors, and a totally fascist principal. Impressively, the movie manages to honor and spoof predecessors like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause while laying the groundwork for the likes of Porky’s and John Hughes’ hits of the eighties.
The musical hook of course is the fact that our punk hero, an awesomely-cool-in-red-tights-and-shiny-purple-hot-pants Riff Randell, is obsessed with punk gods the Ramones. But at just about the same time that the band is coming to town to perform at the local Rockatorium, her evil principal Miss Togar decides to crack down on the insidious influence of rock and roll. Target number one: Riff. Meanwhile, Riff’s been writing songs for the Ramones, and if only she could get those tunes in their hands, she just knows, everything will be all right. So here we go: First cue some hand clapping. Then cue the generational conflict. Now, some dancing in the hallways. Then when we're good and worked up, cue the Ramones for a killer concert. Gabba Gabba Hey.
Musical Relevance: It’d be easy to look at Rock ‘n’ Roll High School today and dismiss it at as a cheap, quickly-slapped together piece of commercial popcorn used to cash in on the latest fad—a sort of Spice World from the days of yore. But it’s easy to forget that, while the Ramones had been together for four years and had released four albums at that point, they had hardly achieved the kind of crossover success that is a usual prerequisite for achieving a movie vehicle.
Film Verdict: While the movie was in fact both cheap (it cost about $300,000 to make) and quickly slapped together, it captures quite perfectly and cleverly the back-to-basics visceral essence of punk rock which the Ramones embraced and elevated in their music. The seeds of much of the Ramones’ music can be found in fifties garage and surf rockers. It’s no surprise then that their movie also in some ways reflects the culture of that earlier era.
Soundtrack Verdict: Like all of their work, the Ramones songs included here will make you want to jump up, rock out, clap your hands and kick the principal’s ass. Togar sucks!
[1984, Dir.: Jonathan Demme, Starring: David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth]
Plot Summary: Well, it’s a concert film. So in one sense there’s no plot. But stuff does happen; David Byrne comes out on stage with a boom box and an acoustic guitar and plays us “Psycho Killer” while staggering round the stage, then over the course of the next few songs the band (swelled to nine members with the additions of Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Ednah Holt and Alex Weir) slowly gets added into the mix; by mid way through the film Byrne is doing things like dancing with a lamp during the songs. But essentially just a concert film. With a very large suit at one point.
Musical Relevance: In 1984 the Talking Heads were arguably the best band in North America, having just made their last great album (Speaking In Tongues) and then unknown director Jonathan Demme (yeah, the Silence Of The Lambs guy) filmed a bunch of their concerts to put together the best concert film ever made. But that’s cinema; musically Stop Making Sense is significant for providing what is still the best introduction to one of the best bands of the 80s and some of the most wonderful music ever made by humans. But I may be biased.
Soundtrack Verdict: Incredible A++ would buy again. To my mind the music in Stop Making Sense wipes the floor with all competition, even the recently reissued The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, although relative brevity probably helps in that case. Only two tracks aren’t much better than their album versions (although they’re two big ones, “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me To The River”), and the versions of “Heaven”, “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”, “Slippery People”, “Life During Wartime”, “Crosseyed And Painless” and many more are definitive.
Film Verdict: I first saw Stop Making Sense after owning and loving the soundtrack for years. I was, honestly, a little worried; wasn’t I going to be bored? I’ve heard these songs hundreds of times, and it’s just concert footage… well, no. You haven’t really heard “Swamp” (to take just one example) until you’ve seen David Byrne doing his zombie thing; Demme keeps the camera moving enough so that there’s always something new to see, and the band at this point in their career was committed to doing something (anything!) more than just standing there and playing the songs. The 1999 “Special New Edition” includes footage of amazing versions of “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra” that deserved to make the cut (the actual film is a slim 88 minutes) and Byrne interviewing himself in multiple costumes, which is as entertaining as you’d think.
[1984, Dir.: Rob Reiner, Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer]
Plot Summary: More than anything else, This Is Spinal Tap is a movie about the fleeting nature of fame. Shot as a faux-documentary (handheld cameras, improvised dialogue), the film is presented as director Marty DiBergi's (Reiner) chronicle of an aging band of ham-fisted stadium dinosaurs slogging their way through their umpteenth North American tour, living the only life they've ever known: bus, stage, hotel, bus again.
But popular taste has passed them by, as it does all bands great and small, and the band maintains a painfully oblivious facade in face of rapidly accelerating obsolescence. The venues gradually shrink, not only from tour to tour, but during the tour itself. They hold an in-store autograph session for their new album and no one shows up. Shows are cancelled at the last minute due largely to lack of interest from the promoters. A radio DJ in a city they are scheduled to play in that very night unwittingly refers to them on air as “currently residing in the ‘Where Are They Now?’ file.”
But the band, who scored their first hit while still teenagers, have lived their entire adult lives being pampered and adored, constantly surrounded by a readily available cornucopia of drugs, women and catering. It's not that they stubbornly refuse to accept their irrelevance, it's that, after a lifetime of having their every request fulfilled, their every piece of questionable wisdom dutifully jotted down, they just don't realize that life could be any other way.
At first, the film is hilarious: dumb guys playing dumb music, helplessly flailing in the face of the tour's many adversities, be they malfunctioning props, unnavigable backstage areas or getting billed second to puppet shows. But upon repeated viewings, the film's poignant subtext gradually drifts to the surface, and one can't help but feel sorry for the poor buffoons. After all, what else can they possibly do? Sell shoes?
Musical Relevance: Relevance? It's an absolutely devastating satire of a musical genre that was never really that relevant to begin with, so take what you will from that. It's relevance is more prominent in the world of film than that of music, as it kicked off the whole “mockumentary” genre, which led to Guest's subsequent career, BBC's “The Office”, etc.
Soundtrack Verdict: The songs in the film are pant-pissing hilarious, but less funny when removed from their context. I mean, the band is supposed to suck, and they kind of do. Still, “Big Bottom” remains a stone classic no matter how you listen to it.
Film Verdict: Genius. Unassailable genius. If you haven't seen this you haven't truly experienced rock n' roll.
[1986 , Dir.: Alex Cox, Starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb]
Plot Summary: Sid & Nancy follows the short-lived career Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, focusing particularly on his turbulent ill-fated love affair with Nancy Spungen. They fight. They brood. They make up and fuck. They're just like any other couple. Except that they're heroin (and later, methadone) addicts. And punk icons. Oh, and Sid kind of kills Nancy.
Cox captures in lurid detail the burgeoning British punk rock scene, recreating the perfectly revolting dives of the era, and restaging shows that felt like they were going to start a revolution that never ended up happening. But it’s the surreal sequence in which Sid, covering Frank Sinatra's "My Way," literally blows aways the audience (including Nancy) that easily stands as the movie's most memorable moment. Cox's most hard-to-swallow piece of creative license is also what makes his film ultimately more engaging, even touching, than a Sid Vicious biopic probably has any right to be—he imagines Sid as the heroin-addled Romeo to Nancy's equally fucked-up Juliet.
Soundtrack Verdict: The Sex Pistols music on the soundtrack sounds, well, the same as it always has (and probably always will): legitimately menacing yet, at the same time, irresistibly catchy. (Who hasn't, at one point or another, copped their best Johnny Rotten imitation while trying to “sing along to “Bodies”?)
Film Verdict: Cox’s blatant romanticization of the doomed couple tends to irk Sex Pistols fans who think they know better, but this is, after all, just a movie, folks—and a damned good one, at that.
[1988, Dir.: Bill Fishman, Starring: John Cusack, Tim Robbins, Katy Boyer]
Plot Summary: Cusack and Robbins team up as loser security guards who lose their jobs when Ivan (Cusack) throws a party at work for Josh (Robbins), who videotapes the affair and edits it with lots of kooky visual effects, which are available on the security cameras at work. For some reason. Unsure of their next move, our heroes retire to a bar where, while criticizing a video on MTV-stand-in RVTV, a light bulb goes on over Ivan's head (literally): the pair will make rock videos.
After moving into a loft with a conceptual artist (Boyer), they take a few crappy jobs to pay the bills, one of which includes taping a charity ball for a sinister presidential candidate (Gulager) who likes to play dress-up and get spanked. His wife, wishing to blackmail him for drug money, slips a tape of their sordid bedroom doings to the lads during the course of the event, and you can guess what kind of which-tape-is-which hijinks ensue.
Meanwhile, they meet music journalist (?; I'm not sure her day job is ever made clear) Samantha (Crosby), who gets them a job doing a video for the Blender Children, which they botch Due to Ivan's inability to operate a crane. When the band dies in a stage accident involving falling chunks of satellite, Ivan and Josh have in their hands the band's last video. They accidentally tape the audio over images of a funeral they were hired to record (who tapes funerals?) and send it over to RVTV, where the video is seen as a brilliant artistic statement, winning them awards, fame and new clients in the process.
All of which leads to them dodging the presidential candidate's goons while trying to sneak their childhood heroes onto a bill with Menudo for a massive RVTV concert in order to facilitate a career comeback. Plus a surprise ending with a killer cameo to boot.
Um, wait a minute, I didn't even mention the part with Don Cornelius, and that's pretty big.
Overall, well, it's a time capsule. The convoluted plot moves along briskly enough, and there are enough subtle sight gags to reward repeat viewings. Whether it functions as a haphazard satire or misguided celebration of the early days of MTV and the excesses of the entertainment industry in the 1980s, as well as the swagger of cold war politics, probably depends on how drunk you are when you watch it.
Just came out on DVD, by the way, so you can actually see this one now. Fishman went on to direct Car 54, Where Are You? and fade into obscurity, while Robbins and Cusack continue to appear in each other's movies from time to time. The producer, incidentally, was Mike Nesmith of the Monkees fame, who also has a cameo.
Musical Relevance: Well, it's pretty dated, and was even when it came out. Menudo jokes were already pretty old by 1988. The script was probably floating around for a few years before it got made. It's also got that early-MTV thing that infected a lot of movies at the time, where any scene can be a musical number and no one needs a microphone.
As for the satirical thrust, it's aimed most sharply at the ridiculous notion of rock video as high art, an idea that's long since been widely embraced. And the political stuff is strictly Reagan-era. The ending, however, is more relevant than ever in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl fallout. But I won't give it away.
Soundtrack Verdict:Well, I wouldn't buy it, but it works pretty well for the movie. There's some retro soul, some west coast hardcore, some eighties pop. A pretty broad snapshot of the era's sounds.
Film Verdict: Personally, I love this movie, but I'm not sure I'd be so high on it if I saw it today for the first time. Who knows, perhaps the DVD release will give it the cult status I always felt it deserved. On the other hand, people too young to remember the era might just be confused.
[1991, Dir.: Alan Parker, Starring: Robert Arkins, Johnny Murphy, Andrew Strong]
Plot Summary: Centered on would-be manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), The Commitments relates the story of a dozen youths from working class Dublin who come together to bring some soul to Ireland. After convincing a few friends to leave their wedding band, Jimmy sets about the task of auditioning potential talent, a process that provides for some of the film’s best musical snipes: a door slamming on a Barry Manilow fan, an “I know how you feel!” one-liner when Jimmy is forced to listen to a pompadour-wearing youngster sing “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and various other gags. The newly formed group spends a few months rehearsing and playing the occasional gig until the typical rock n’ roll problems of failed relationships, heightened musical aspirations, and inflated egos derail their path to fame.
Alan Parker’s film, adapted from a Roddy Doyle novel of the same name, attempted to capture the whimsical and quintessentially Irish notion that, “giving it a good run,” is more important than the end results. The feeling that having a dream and actually going for it elevates people who otherwise lead unexciting lives runs through Doyle’s work, and perhaps is related more successfully in the adaptation of his book The Van. At times, The Commitments is simply a post-mortem of a failed soul band, and any semblance of characters drawing inspiration from their experiences is shown through their joyous expressions during the numerous performance scenes. Temporary escape from a dreary life is not precisely the intended impression, but comes close enough that the film suffers only slightly.
Musical Relevance: The concept of twelve or so Irish kids forming a soul cover band is not exactly “musically relevant.” Jimmy delivers a monologue in which he compares the Irish people to American Blacks, but the thought is not really developed. In fact, Roddy Doyle has admitted in interviews that The Commitments were a soul band simply because that allowed him to have a larger number of characters and plausibly include more females. The portrayal of a band’s interaction and jabs at musical deities are probably the most relevant pieces for inclusion. Doyle often utilizes the Irish gift of “taking you down a peg.” For instance, when Jimmy’s father (Colm Meaney) asserts, “Elvis is God,” the younger Rabbitte quips, “I never pictured God with a fat gut and a corset singing ‘My Way’ at Caesar’s Palace.” Other highlights include the line, “Jazz is musical wanking, if you want to wank, use [your dick]” and a well-deserved shot at the music press (this website excepted, of course) when two writers are caught peeking at each other’s notes.
Soundtrack Verdict: It’s Irish people singing covers of 60s soul, what do you expect? The only surprise is the amazing voice of lead singer Decko (Andrew Strong). Strong, 16 years old at the time, live-recorded his extremely powerful vocals for the film, doing his best to save rather lackluster instrumentals.
Film Verdict: The Commitments has a lot of spirit but meanders as though the screenwriters were undecided as to which storylines should develop for the film version. Also, the ending, which was intended to be a musical version of Rocky going the distance, is less than triumphant. The tone is perhaps more honest than Rocky, but doesn’t do much for Doyle’s “going for it is the important thing,” theme. Overall, however, the film is quite likeable and provides more than a few good laughs.
[2000, Dir.: Cameron Crowe, Starring: Patrick Fugit, Francis McDormand, Kate Hudson]
Plot Summary: Essentially the unofficial autobiography of a young Cameron Crowe, who at 15 years old was already a music journalist writing articles for Rolling Stone. The Crowe character, William Miller, is a young-for-his-age high schooler in the early-mid 70s taken under the wing of respected rock critic Lester Bangs and eventually gets a chance to write an article for Rolling Stone, going on the road with fictional MOR rock band Stillwater. There he befriends lead singer Russell Hammond, falls in love with “band aid” Penny Lane, and finds himself torn between the rock n roll lifestyle and having the life of a normal fifteen year-old.
Musical Relevance: Almost Famous tells an idealized story about perhaps the least idealized time in musical history, the dredges of American rock towards the end of the first half of the 70s. Stillwater, the imaginary band the story is based around, is not an exceptional band, nor are they meant to be—in fact, the Crowe figure has an artistic dilemma between writing a true story about the band’s mediocrity or being kind to his new rock star friends. However, despite the dire musical times, it’s a credit to the movie that the thrill of music is still palpable in every single second of this movie. The Miller character is at an age too young to possibly already be jaded about popular music (unlike his mentor, the non-fictional Lester Bangs), and so with every musical moment in the movie—the rush of Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” the comedown of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine,” or even at Still water’s very own “Fever Dog”—we share his excitement for the times.
Soundtrack Verdict: It’s a tough one to call, since some of these songs would seem so vile just if caught on your regular classic rock station, but together, in conjunction with the movie, they really give a sense of what it must’ve been like to be young and idealistic in the early 70s. Some of the songs—Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way,” Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”—are legitimate classics, others, like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” are only enjoyable in context of the movie, and some inclusions, like David Bowie’s sub-par cover of VU’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” are slightly puzzling. This isn’t a soundtrack you really need to own, most likely when listening you’ll just wish you were watching the movie instead.
Film Verdict: An account of what it’s like to love music against all odds from a guy who really knows, Almost Famous was a deserved success when released in 2000 and justly won Cameron Crowe is first ever Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Combined with a couple of legitimately thought-provoking musical questions—can passion make up for a lack of artistic integrity, what does it mean to truly love a band, and so on—Almost Famous surely ranks as one of the best non-fictional movies ever made about the subject.
[2000, Dir.: Stephen Frears, Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle]
Plot Summary: So Rob Gordon, see, he’s a record geek. And his long-time, live-in girlfriend Laura is moving out. Why? Well, it’d be reductive to say it’s because he’s a record geek, but let’s the reasons have common cause with the geekiness. Not much happens in strict plot terms after that, but Rob keeps looking up old girlfriends and eventually Laura comes back. Rob may or may not have grown as a person. It’s more entertaining than it sounds, I swear. Nick Hornby’s book was pretty popular, but this mostly got made because John Cusack wanted to play Gordon, apparently.
Musical Relevance: Although music fans tend to love seeing their foibles and habits played out on screen (I know for me, this was the first time a film character that was noted for his listening habits actually listened to stuff I liked), and that scene where Cusack plays the Beta Band or the one where Jack Black dismisses Belle & Sebastian (both not in the book) provoke little thrills of recognition, this is one that plenty of guys who don’t really care that much about music really liked. See, Rob makes many of the mistakes guys tend to make, and unlike most of us he’s able to learn from them (hopefully). Plus, what guy wouldn’t want to see his tendency to say and do stupid things portrayed by John Cusack?
Soundtrack verdict: Pretty decent. Bob Dylan’s immortal “Most Of The Time” makes a strong showing, the Velvet Underground makes two appearances, but there are plenty of tracks that don’t qualify as the usual suspects. The Thirteen Floor Elevators need to be in more movies, the Beta Band chip in with “Dry The Rain,” and even Black’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On” can’t ruin this.
Film verdict: Cusack does his usual masterful job playing a guy who doesn’t know what he wants but has the sinking suspicion that (a) what he has isn’t it and (b) his vinyl collection may not be enough to offset that. What makes High Fidelity so strong is that although (b) winds up being true, (a) doesn’t. The music stuff is honestly just window dressing (although if you’re any sort of collector, it will still resonate with you), the real story is a guy actually growing up, just a little. Hornby is justly regarded as an acquired taste (to be polite), but this one is loaded down with enough of the entertaining minutia of Rob’s hobby/work and the story emulates real life well enough to be affecting (it’s almost anti-romantic, if we take the word in the Hollywood scene; how many other movie couples get back together because they’re “tired”?).
[2002, Dir.: Curtis Hanson, Starring: Eminen, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer]
Plot Summary: Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith (Eminem) is a pissed-off kid from a broken family in the slums of Detroit, featuring a slutty, frequently drunk mother (Basinger) who can barely make payments on their trailer. He’s a white kid hanging out with black guys who often regard him with curiosity at best and open contempt at worst, and works a dead-end job at the local stamping plant with a bunch of broken-down ex-cons. Oh yeah—he’s an incredibly gifted rapper who only needs a dose of self-confidence to take him straight to megastardom.
The plot is essentially an updated version of the Horatio Alger template (working kid from the slums makes good), but director Curtis Hanson layers it with enough depth and complexity to save the film from wank-off cultural moralism. It’s as much a depiction of idealism within the confines of the ghetto as it is anything else, and when that idealism is (somewhat) rewarded at the end of the film, it’s a triumph that feels well-earned.
Musical Relevance: Eminen, of course, is now a cultural and musical icon, so any movie featuring his music automatically has some relevance conferred upon it. But more interesting are the depictions of the rap “battles” that define hip-hop credibility on the street. As scenes in a film, the battles are electrifying, but as a window into how a whole genre of music often gets its visceral energy, the 8 Mile battles practically function as journalism.
Soundtrack Verdict: As a whole, the soundtrack creates a solid, if not great, hip-hop record. But of course, it features the anthemic “Lose Yourself,” which you might have heard if you’ve been living on the planet Earth for the last three years.
Film Verdict: Surprisingly strong acting from Eminem and typically assured direction from Hanson elevate 8 Mile above its formulaic origins. A more-than-solid film.
[2002, Dir.: Michael Winterbottom, Starring: Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Paddy Considine, Lennie James, Sean Harris, Andy Serkis, Danny Cunningham, Chris Coghill, Martin Hancock ]
Plot Summary: 24 Hour Party People is the story of Madchester kingpin and television personality Tony Wilson. After seeing The Sex Pistols play their famous Manchester gig in 1976, Wilson was inspired to form the Factory Records label and club, and later on, the legendary Haçienda. The film follows Wilson throughout his work with famous Madchester bands like Joy Division and Happy Mondays, as well as through his personal life, with his television career, failed first marriage and ultimately successful second. But, as Wilson himself says, he “is a minor character in his own story,” and the movie focuses just as much on characters like doomed Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, gigantic madman producer Martin Hannett and brilliant but childish Happy Monday Shaun Ryder. 24 Hour Party People follows Wilson until the demise of Factory Records and the Hacienda in the early 90s.
Musical Relevance: Arguably the first non-documentary to ever focus on the post-Sex Pistols UK scene, 24 Hour Party People essentially gives us a history of British indie music from 1979-1992, through the post-punk grip of Joy Division and A Certain Ratio, turning into synth-pop with New Order and into acid house and the Madchester explosion with Happy Mondays. Though the story itself is quite fascinating—Tony Wilson, as played by Steve Coogan, is truly a phenomenal character, and such anecdotes as Paul and Shaun Ryder feeding rat poison to hundreds of pigeons are as hysterical as such scenes as Ian Curtis’s untimely suicide are heart-rendering—ultimately, the music is the real focus here. And Wilson himself is the biggest fan of all—whether he’s comparing The Sex Pistols’ gig to the Last Supper, dancing to Durutti Column playing live to an empty floor or conceding a net loss for every copy sold of New Order’s “Blue Monday” 12” just for the sake of the cover art, his sheer excitement and love for the music is always intoxicating.
Soundtrack Verdict: The soundtrack has absolutely no flow or semblance of order, has a couple real duds (Marshall Jefferson’s horribly dated Chicago house anthem “Move Your Body,” Moby’s stilted cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades”) and gives no sense of chronology whatsoever. However, it’s still quite possibly the greatest one-disc compilation of the British post-punk era that exists today. The number of timeless classics—New Order’s “Temptation,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love,” Happy Mondays’ “24 Hour Party People,” The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in The UK”—is undeniable, and though a fair amount of musical territory is covered between the death disco of JD’s “She’s Lost Control” through the acid house of A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” and the post-rock of Durutti Column’s “Otis,” it all feels like it’s coming from the same place and same time. And thus, it’s one of the most cherished CDs in my collection. And what’s more, there’s enough music from the movie not included on the soundtrack for an equally excellent volume two.
Film Verdict: Simply put, 24 Hour Party People is one of the best movies about music ever made. Though those without at least a general background understanding of the major musical events that take place in the movie might get a bit lost, ultimately anyone with a love for music can relate to what goes on, and the movie—right from the first time that Coogan turns to the camera to berate the audience for not knowing who Icarus is—is always incredibly entertaining. Innovatively filmed and structured, with a healthy bit of irreverant self-awareness, the movie splendidly packs a near 20-year musical period into under two hours with no sacrifice of plot or character development. An absolute must-see, and one of the best movies—music or otherwise—of the decade thus far.
By: Stylus Staff
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