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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Movies That Rock

I can't recall, but I may have mentioned once before that movies were not my first love. In fact, I have always been more of a music fan, and I'd say that is my #1 passion. But after I graduated from college, and started to look for work in the music biz (I never had the patience to learn how to play an instrument, and though I'm a pretty good singer, I'm not good enough to be a pro), I realized that music was much too scummy of an industry for me. Not like movies are squeaky clean, but in comparison to the music biz, film is lily white.

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!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked Light Of Day with Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox and Bette Midler as The Rose

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Purple Rain -

Yes, Apollonia cannot act, yes it's incredibly self-absorbed and yes the man is short and dressed like it's Dangerous Laisons - but it really works as a film primarily because the music rocks and rocks well and you believe that they rock it themselves.

I was young but I loved this movie and whenever it's on, I gotta watch at least part of it.

The title track was recorded live at a club.

I also enjoyed HUSTLE AND FLOW and Craig Brewer told me he was inspired by the above, though the films couldn't be more different, otherwise. Really liked it, actually.

7:30 PM  
Anonymous emily blake said...

You gotta see Hype. I am a huge Pearl Jam fan, and the best part of that film was Eddie Vedder going on an angry but quiet rant about how sick people must be of seeing his own face, and how if we were them he'd want to punch himself in the face. That kind of sums up the whole movie's attitude toward what happened.

8:17 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

What, no Evita?

Kidding. You mentioned The Wall, which has always been a big favorite of mine. The Buddy Holly Story was also good; strange casting, but Busey did a great job. My favorite, however, has got to be Shine. Great movie, beautiful music, superb acting. And props on mentioning Bird. A lot of people tend to forget how great a movie that is.

Speaking of The Last Waltz, it was on IFC or some such channel last weekend. It's the first time I've seen any of it (I only watched for a half hour). Very cool stuff.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

I forgot about Hype, it is great - and a real look at how that whole movement in that space and time came about - great flick.

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding He Died With a Felafel... - the movie is not a patch on the book. It's by John Birmingham and is based on his own experiences living in various Australian share houses. Very highly recommended.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

"Crossroads." No, not with Britney Spears, folks.

Ralph Macchio's last movie that didn't suck (though I'm still on the fence about "My Cousin Vinny") with Joe Seneca's best performance ever. The best representation of a guitarist on film with the excellent Steve Vai and Jami Gertz who can do no wrong at the cinema.

It's a movie that does't quite stand the test of time, but it was pretty good when it came out and it's certainly the better of Walter Hill's forays into musicals, the other being the awful "Streets of Fire."

And as long as we are down south at the crossroads, howzabout "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" My second favorite soundtrack and third most favorite Coen Brothers film.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous chris soth said...

Well, music in O' Brother is great, but can we call it Rock?

Where are Hard Day's Night and Help!? Rock reached its epitome and then pretty much ended w/the lads from Liverpool, imo, but I'm crotchety and not too musical.

On to the more obscure: Hairspray and the fascinating early De Palma: Phantom of the Paradise...

And I think My Cousin Vinnie qualifies as a good movie...

6:33 AM  
Blogger Webs said...

"24 Hour Party People", which I just wrote a bit about on my own blog.

Odd that you'd mention "This Is Spinal Tap" but not "A Mighty Wind". I think the latter is a better movie, although less rock-y, of course.

P.S. About time you made a space for me in the left-hand column, FJ. ;)

6:50 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks guys. Let's see now...

Quill -- I never saw Light of Day, but I love Joan Jett. She kicks ass. Saw her in a great concert in Central Park a few years back (for free). What a badass!

Joshua -- believe it or not, I've never seen Purple Rain, but I do like the music.

To those of you who mentioned it, yes I do plan to see Hype. One of these days!

Shawn -- yeah, I caught Last Waltz (part of it, anyway) on IFC.

Procrastinator -- thanks for reminding me about Crossroads, and you're totally right about it being somewhat dated, but still good. And it isn't just Vai. I believe (if I'm not mistaken) that guitar great Joe Satriani played the boy's part.

Soth -- never saw Paradise, but I'd like to. And to those who mentioned O Brother, yeah, I liked it, and forgot about it too. Great soundtrack indeed.

Webs -- didn't see 24 hour, but I did see Groove, and dug that. And I haven't updated my sidebar in a LONG time. A lot of people are overdue for an add.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

"Well, music in O' Brother is great, but can we call it Rock?"

D'oh!!! Yeah, way to pay attention to the criteria, Procrastinator. I do bang my head though to "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow."

I looked it up on the IMDB and I couldn't find Satriani

Or on Satriani's credits

But IMDB is not infallible. I roadied (meaning, just moved equipment) a gig of Satriani's back when he was with The Squares, a crappy New Wave band and I'm being polite when I say "crappy."

Everybody told me how great he was and it wasn't reflected with the band he was with nor in his sound check where he just blazed through some scales at an average pace. Looking back on it, it shows that greatness is not always obvious and that everyone is better off doing what they love, as opposed doing what they think will make them successful.

1:06 AM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Hey, new profile pic. Are they after-and-before pics? I think this one led to your supine position in the last one.

I’m off topic here a just bit, but I ordered Pacino’s And Justice for All on Netflix. I saw it probably 20 years ago and loved it. I hadn’t seen it since and was sooo looking forward to it. Pacino and cast were great (“THIS WHOLE COURT’S OUT OF ORDER!”), but you know what completely ruined the movie? The soundtrack sucked!

It was 70s porn music. Chicka-chicka-bow-bow.

The content and dialogue were still topical, but the music was so dated. It made it torturous/comical to watch. They spent 20 bucks (all in singles) on the soundtrack. They should remake the music for the movie with some modern tunes; keep everything else just the same.

3:39 AM  
Blogger mernitman said...

Dude, THE HARDER THEY COME is essential.

In rockumentaries, same goes for DON'T LOOK BACK.

For contemporary rock docs, my fave is I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART (Sam Jones' Wilco film).

And just to be annoying, I'll note that Godard's "One Plus One" aka "Sympathy For the Devil" contains one of the best portraits of a rock band recording a song in the studio for real, ever made (just skip all the in-between agit-prop bull and it's well worth a look).

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

If you've got PURPLE RAIN, you have to include GRAFFITI BRIDGE as well where Prince reprises his role as The Kid. They're both bloody awful films in which nobody acts much but loadsa girls get their kit off with some great music which is a bonus. You can buy a three disc special edition of both with Prince's directorial debut UNDER THE CHERRY MOON which is one of the most bizarre movies EVER and is black and white with Kristen Scott Thomas. I've only ever been able to watch ten minutes at a time cos it's so excruciating, but like I said - music is fab AND you get ALL the 80's kitsch pop videos like KISS in the bonus features. What more could you want?! Story?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Martian --

Actually, this picture was taken about a month ago, and the other one was a few years old. But psychicly speaking, you're probably quite right!

I decided to change the pic since this one is more recognizable as me, and captures my attitude/essence well. Thanks for noticing!

7:40 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

The Blues Brothers. Not only was the soundtrack full of the classic Stax/Volt tunes, but they also got all the damn people that played on them to be "The Band" in the movie.

9:05 AM  

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