Movies That Rock
Still, since I work in film, but maintain my deep love of music, I figured I'd throw out a little post about some of the best (and worst) music-themed movies, in my not so humble opinion. I'm not talking about musicals (though I should throw my praise out, on that front, for Cabaret, as one of the greatest, most inventive of the lot). I'm talking music biopics, docs and/or concert docs, films about fictional bands, and the like.
I guess a good place to start will be biopics. This year's Walk the Line was pretty good, and got some good acclaim, but I think one of the reasons it didn't do better at the box office was its similarities to Ray just a year earlier. There is no question that the two films had a number of likenesses in plot and theme.
Both, however, pale in comparison to yet another highly acclaimed music biopic, and one that I think is one of the best ever: Clint Eastwood's directing triumph, Bird (written by Joel oiliness). In it, Forest Whitaker stars as great jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. One of my favorite little "footnote to life" type scenes, that supposedly is true, was a time when Bird was down on his luck, and ready to take any gig that came his way. A friend dragged him out to Brooklyn, and he played as part of a wedding band at a Chasidic wedding! I always loved that scene, because I think to myself, those people at that wedding probably have no idea, to this day, who it was that played at their wedding!
Another great music biopic is The Doors (Directed by Oliver Stone, and written by Randall Jahnson and Stone). In my mind, Stone's greatest skill as a filmmaker is his ability to manipulate his audience. I find that when I watch most of his films, I'm buying whatever he's selling. I may not feel the same an hour after I leave the theater, but while I'm in there I'm hooked 100%. With The Doors, I didn't change my mind afterwards either, and I still love that movie. Val Kilmer was, of course, awesome in the role of Jim Morrison. And the trip scene in the desert is one of the three best on film that I can think of (the other two being those from Hair and Beavis and Butthead Do America).
Flawed, but still good, and a different sort of biopic, is Sid and Nancy (Dir. by Alex Cox, written by Cox and Abbe Wool), about the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious, and his doomed and tragic relationship with Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman gives a powerful performance as the punk icon, and though the story isn't totally absorbing, it wisely focuses on one aspect of Sid's life, instead of trying to capture everything -- the flaw of less skillful biopic screenplays.
Now, while we're on punk, I have to mention a movie that most of you probably have never seen. But I loved it. Mind you, I saw it when I was in high school, based solely on the ad in the newspaper, and have never seen it since. But I did buy the soundtrack, and still love it. It starred Michael Hutchence (R.I.P.) of INXS fame, and was called Dogs in Space (written and directed by Richard Lowenstein -- I have never seen, but love the title of another of his films, He Died With a Felafel in his Hand). The film was set in the punk rock scene in Australia, circa 1979, and was a solid film, as I recall. Great punk soundtrack.
Then there are a few more solid films about fictional bands. I'm a big fan of Eddie and the Cruisers, as those of you who read my meme know already. But the sequel, Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! was an absolutely horrendous embarrassment. If you're a fan of Chinatown, think about the butchering job that The Two Jakes did to that original, and you'll have a clue what this sequel was like. Alan Parker's The Commitments (and I'm giving him possessory credit because he is a monster in the music film world, due to this and The Wall), written by Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais and Roddy Doyle, on Doyle's book, is another unique and solid film about a fictional band. The soundtrack, sung by the actors who were culled largely from Irish bar bands, is excellent, and the story has a fresh feel to it, unlike so many other music themed films. Back on a theme, I bought that soundtrack, but also one or two albums of individual actors' bands.
While I'm on fictional band films, I must mention what I consider the absolute worst music themed film ever made (at least among those I've seen). I doubt I'll get much argument from anyone whose seen it (at least I hope that's the case). Satisfaction was God awful. Terrible acting. Cheesy, predictable, hackneyed plot. And most importantly: really, really bad music.
Another good one that I suspect many of you have not seen is from 1961. Too Late Blues (written by Richard Carr and John Cassavetes, dir. by Cassavetes) starred Bobby Darin, looked beautiful, and though melodramatic at times, caught some great moments of a musician caught between his band and the beautiful girl (singer) he loves. So I guess this was a theme long before people started blaming Yoko for breaking up the Beatles.
Speaking of which. I have never seen the (made for TV, I think) film version of The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (written by Eric Idle, directed by Idle and Gary Weis), but the music from the film is a hilarious send up/mockery of the Fab Four. Of course, the mockumentary style (and the woman coming between band members) also brings to mind the granddaddy of mockumentaries: This is Spinal Tap (dir. by Rob Reiner, written by (or improvised by) Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Reiner). I got nothing great to say about this film -- it truly speaks for itself. The film is hilarious, eminently quotable, timeless, and influential. Do yourself a favor. If by some bizarre chance, you've never seen this movie, go get it now, put it in, and turn the volume up... to 11!
Okay. Now from the mockumentaries to the ROCKumentaries. A few good ones here, and they are all quite different. I should say up front that there are actually a plethora of excellent music docs, and this is by no means an exhaustive listing of the greats. It's just a few of my personal faves.
Gimme Shelter was a primo example of a documentarian being in the right place (which in this case was actually the "wrong" place), and then making the most of it. The Maysles brothers (at least I think they are brothers, right?) decided to film the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California. The concert was billed as a sort of West Coast response to Woodstock. Unfortunately, the whole thing was haphazardly planned, at the last minute, and the Hell's Angels were hired to run security. This of course led to a horrific nightmare, in which at least one concert goer was killed.
But the Maysles did a wonderful thing to follow up their presence at a historic event. They brought another camera into the editing room and filmed Mick (and I believe Keith) watching the footage for the very first time. Catching their raw reactions to the horror is what truly made this film, in my opinion.
Another example of being in the right place at the right time was Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. In this film, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were there to witness the breakdowns and subsequent group therapy that Metallica went through while attempting to record their album St. Anger. While it at times feels contrived or staged, it never veers as far in this direction as did Madonna: Truth or Dare. It also goes a bit too long. But it is still an excellent rockumentary, even if you're not a fan of the band.
I've only seen a small portion of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, but it is widely acclaimed as one of the best concert docs ever filmed, so I must mention it. And the portions I saw were, at the least, beautifully shot and performed. One of my favorite concert films, however, because it actually has a concept and plan to it, is Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. This is about to be a minor spoiler, so if you don't want to find out, skip the next paragraph.
So, when I sat down to watch this film, I just expected a simple concert film. And therefore I didn't even catch on until I was a few songs in. But the band and set is slowly being assembled and built throughout the film, starting with just one musician and a boombox, then more musicians joining him, etc. The set is built as we watch, too. It was simply entertaining, and artful. The performances are among the best versions of these songs too ("Burning Down the House" in particular cooks). Unfortunately, on the soundtrack album (at least on the tape -- not sure if the CD has the same sequence) the songs are out of sequence from the film, so you lose some of the effect. But it still works great.
I also want to mention two final docs that were great at profiling specific musical "scenes." Penelope Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization in 1981, and it profiled the hardcore punk scene in Los Angeles. It was not just the place/time confluence again. It was also the personalities and performances. She followed it up with two more parts, with Part II focusing on music, and Part III returning to examine the aging punk scene. I have not seen Part III, and I can't quite remember whether I liked Part II or not. But the first part is still an excellent testament.
After making Hype! about the Seattle grunge scene (I didn't see this movie), Doug Pray followed it up with Scratch. The film investigated the history and current status of scratch DJing. Before I saw the film, I'd never heard of such musicians as DJ Q-Bert or DJ Z-Trip, and Mix Master Mike was little more than a name I vaguely associated with the Beastie Boys. After watching, however, I became an instant fan, and downloaded a ton of music from these artists. Amazing stuff. It isn't just rhythmic backgrounds; these guys make real music by scratching records.
One of the poorer music docs I've seen was Nico Icon, a 1995 doc about the supermodel who became a member of The Velvet Underground, then eventual junkie. The film's opening held such promise. We open on a glamorous vision of this woman, followed in smashing juxtaposition by her haggard junkie image. Clearly, the film poses the question, how did she get from point A to point B. Unfortunately, the film rambles and drags, and never digs deep enough to reach any answers, or even hints at them.
Lastly, three films that are music related, but only marginally. But I still want to include them in here. I've previously mentioned my love for Empire Records. So I shan't mention it again. ;-) But I will mention another great record store movie: High Fidelity. I loved the Nick Hornby novel on which this was based when I read it, and worried that moving it from London to Chicago would hurt the film. I was totally wrong. I guess any working class, depressed city works as well as any other! Tons of great performances in this film, and a good story too. Finally, I'll also throw Almost Famous into the mix. Cameron Crowe rocks, and this film is his most autobiographical (though I hear Elizabethtown was largely autobiographical as well). Though Almost Famous isn't 100% satisfying, I love the little window onto the time and place, and the shades of good and bad that various characters display.
Whew! A long post, eh? Go on, tell me which ones (good or bad) I missed!
Tags: music+movies, biopics, rockumentaries, concert+films