The first rock and roll movies had little or nothing to do with rock and roll music, and everything to do with the rock and roll ethos–with defining teenagers as a dissatisfied, self-consciously distinct group within American society as a whole. The Wild One (1953, directed by Laslo Benedek) predated the general emergence of rock by about a year, but what mattered was that the movie, like the music that was to follow, affirmed the action taking place on the fringes of American life and culture, while ignoring–or assaulting–the mainstream. The identification teenagers made between Marlon Brando’s bitter lone-wolf biker (Girl: “What’re you rebelling against?” Brando: “Whatta ya got?”) and the Elvis Presley of two years later was not only automatic, it was correct.
Then, in 1955, Rebel without a Cause (directed by Nicholas Ray) gave us James Dean, the mixed-up-kid-as-existential-hero (shortly, with his death in a classically “meaningless” auto accident, he would serve as the mixed-up-kid-as-martyr–an icon the mythic force of which has yet to completely burn out). Dean, in Rebel (and as the “bad” son in East of Eden, released that same year), seems in retrospect to stand for, not the rock and roll star, but the rock and roll listener; if Brando symbolized the visceral power the first rock heroes would have to convey, Dean represented the deep and unfocused needs of the audience rock and roll would reach. Both men, though strictly nonrock figures (Brando first expressed himself on rock and roll when Bob Dylan toured with the Hawks in 1965; Dean liked jazz and played bongos), were crucial to defining what rock meant. As music, rock and roll would have taken shape without them; as culture, it very well may not have.
Also released in 1955 was The Blackboard Jungle (directed by Richard Brooks). It had a prerock setting (the high school rumblers were into Perry Como, not Little Richard), a well-honed good-boy-goes-bad-goes-good story line, and, most importantly, it had Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock around the Clock” on the soundtrack. Suddenly, the festering connections between rock and roll, teenage rebellion, juvenile delinquency, and other assorted horrors were made explicit. From Cleveland to Liverpool, the response was the same: chaos. Kids poured into the theaters, slashed the seats, rocked the balconies, they liked it.
Something else was made explicit: rock sold movies. Without missing a beat producers watered down plots and pushed the music forward. A seemingly endless series of quickies hit the cinemas: Rock around the Clock (1956), Don’t Knock the Rock (1957), Rock, Pretty Baby (1957), Rock around the World (1957), Let’s Rock (1958), Hot Rod Gang (1958), and many more. Commonly featured were Bill Haley and His Comets, Fats Domino, Alan Freed (notably in Mister Rock and Roll), Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Rock, Rock, Rock), Chuck Berry (Go, Johnny, Go–though “Johnny” turned out to be Jimmy Clanton, not Mr. B. Goode), and the Platters–along with dozens of assorted titans, pygmies, has-beens, and never-weres.
Plots were not complex. To quote rock historian Mike Daly: “… The kids are putting on the Seniors’ Hop and somehow they get all these great rock roll stars to appear from out of nowhere and play for them for nothing (oh sure, yeah) but the parents and the school committee won’t let them put it on because it’s bad or something and somehow the big crisis is resolved and near the end Bill Haley or somebody is playing and the kids are all bopping away and the parents are standing around watching, supervising, and the camera shifts to the parents’ feet and their toes are tapping; you know, and they’re snapping their fingers and their heads are bobbing back and forth, looking at each other and saying: ‘Gee, this music ain’t so bad after all is it? Kinda catchy.'”
Out of this limited milieu came countless memorable musical performances, and two first-rate movies.
The Girl Can’t Help It (1956, directed by Frank Tashlin) opened with a towering rendition by Little Richard of the now-classic title song; the story centered, hilariously, on the music business, which was presented as controlled from top to bottom by warring mobsters. It was a freewheeling flick: a major Hollywood bandleader, playing himself and using his own name, was portrayed as being under personal contract to one of the hoods; Tashlin’s setup of Jayne Mansfield strolling along a street with two huge milk bottles clutched to her breasts represented a landmark in rock-film tastelessness unsurpassed until Ken Russell drowned Ann-Margret in baked beans in his much-ballyhooed production of Pete Townshend’s Tommy (1975). With all this and more going on, Tashlin still found time for classic performances by Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and two more tunes by Little Richard.
Then there was Jailhouse Rock (1957, directed by Richard Thorpe), Elvis’s third movie. (Love Me Tender and Loving You had preceded; the exciting King Creole would follow. After that, Elvis’s movies, picking up again with Flaming Star in 1960, would have only the most marginal relationship to rock and roll; they became Elvis movies, a genre unto itself.) Jailhouse Rock stands as Elvis’s finest film, thanks to his utterly convincing portrayal of the violence-prone young rockabilly singer, Vince Everett, and to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s sizzling set of soundtrack tunes. The flick played off Elvis’s humble beginnings, his temper, his vanity, his burning ambition, and his magnificent contempt for the highfalutin. One need only recall the scene of Vince–just out of prison, where he had been sent on a manslaughter rap after killing a man in a barroom fight–at the home of his girl’s parents, where they and their high-class friends patronize Vince/Elvis with a discussion of modern jazz. “You’re a musician, Mr. Everett,” says a 40-ish woman with undisguised condescension. “What’s your opinion?” “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” is the immortal Presley response.
And now we must leave the Fifties (but not without noting Jack Arnold’s wonderfully sordid 1958 High School Confidential, which starred Russ Tamblyn as a junior narc breaking up a teenage dope ring, and featured a cataclysmic assault on the title tune by Jerry Lee Lewis), and leave as well the early Sixties imitations of the Fifties, such as Don’t Knock the Twist (an unwatchable horror from 1962, starring, of course, Chubby Checker), the various Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, like Beach Party (1963), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and the nicely titled How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965–some said Kleenex, others cotton), not to mention various other pallid attempts to exploit the youth of America out of their Levi’s, and move on to the Beatles–pausing first in brief homage to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964).
An astonishingly lurid, hard-hitting work that explored the images of Brando and Dean as magical, homoerotic incantations, Scorpio Rising introduced rock and roll into cinema as pure soundtrack, utilizing records to comment on action in a manner that would not even be successfully imitated until years later, with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1968), Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (see below), Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). Unlike, say, Dennis Hopper with Easy Rider (1969), or Antonioni with his unfortunate Zabriskie Point (1970), both of whom used rock records to score their movies, Anger, Scorsese, Henzell and Lucas saw the music not as decoration but as essence. One thinks of Mean Streets with a fight played out to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” or the dance in the bar to Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” foreshadowing doom; one thinks of the way Lucas faded a constant soundtrack of Fifties rock and roll tunes up and down, as if the music never stopped, which of course, in the teenage world he was presenting, it never did. But in Scorpio Rising Anger caught the spirit of the music with a verve no later director has matched, particularly with a shot of Jesus, riding on an ass (taken from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 The King of Kings) accompanied not by the chants of his disciples, but by the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.”
Well, the Beatles. In 1964, the group broke internationally, and like pop figures before them, they signed to make a movie. (Earlier, they had shot one extended concert film for British TV, Around the Beatles, plus What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., a 55-minute documentary by the Maysles Brothers, which never went into general release.) No one expected the Beatles’ first major cinematic outing to be anything more than a bouncy vehicle for the promotion of Beatle records, Beatle lunchboxes, and Beatle bubblegum cards, and precisely for that reason, A Hard Day’s Night (1964, directed by Richard Lester) was a shock. The punning wit of the title bespoke the intelligence of the movie: here were the four mop tops, playing themselves in a standard can-they-make-it-to-the-show-on-time story, and they charmed the world. The film, probably more than their music, took the Beatles across social barriers, won them an audience among the intelligentsia, and broadened their hardcore base from teenage girls to rock and roll fans of every description–if rock and roll was about fun, then this movie was rock and roll.
The Beatles on film were, in a word, irresistible. Lines from the movie (Woman: “Are you a mod or a rocker?” Ringo: “A mocker”) were used as catchwords among fans for years; scenes were imprinted on a collective memory. It was not uncommon to find people who had seen the film 50 times–in fact, it was almost impossible to find a person who, having seen the film, had seen it only once.
The movie drew on the jump cutting and breakneck pacing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, on the superfast, supershiny techniques of TV commercials, and most vitally, it drew on the personalities of the Beatles themselves. For an hour and a half they were alive, funny, quick, iconoclastic and gorgeous, and the pop world fell back before them and created itself again in their image. It was a movie of, and about, innocence: that of the Beatles and that of the audience. Frame by frame, the film sparkled, glowed. Seeing it today, one can hardly help but cry, realizing how completely the world of this film is gone for good.
As with everything else the Beatles touched in the Sixties, A Hard Day’s Night resulted in new rules and opened up new possibilities. A few traditional pop films followed, such as Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965), which starred those sailors in the Beatles’ wake, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, and the now-forgotten Fourmost; there was John Boorman’s Having a Wild Weekend (1965), which starred the Dave Clark Five, and boasts a solid cult reputation, though few saw it in its day. And there was, in 1966 and 1967, The Monkees (created by Don Kirshner), that infamous television imitation of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! (1965), the Beatles’ second movie, which was distinguished from the first by color, a weaker script, and a somewhat forced enthusiasm. (The Monkees themselves, desperate for respectability after finding–briefly–careers as artistic frauds, in 1968 made a failed “trip” movie, Head, directed by Bob Rafelson, coauthored by Jack Nicholson, and costarring Annette Funicello and Frank Zappa.) The Rolling Stones, eager as always to outdo the Beatles in sophistication (they would not play themselves, they would act), took an option on film rights to Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, which they never made; considered filming The Only Lovers Left Alive, a saga of teenagers loose in post H-bomb/apocalypse England, which they never made either; and, following their drug busts in 1967, flamboyantly shot a few abortive scenes for a planned film about the trial of Oscar Wilde (with Keith Richards as the Judge, and Mick Jagger, naturally, as Wilde). But aside from Charlie Is My Darling, a spottily released hour-long tour documentary from 1965, the only major appearance of the Stones on film in the mid-Sixties took place when they closed the monumental T.A.M.I. Show. It was, some have argued, enough.
The T.A.M.I. Show (1965, directed by Steve Binder, later responsible for Elvis’s superb 1968 comeback TV special) was the first great rock performance film, significant not only for the quality of its music but also because it brought together on one screen virtually every strain of rock with a catholicity of taste demonstrated by no subsequent movie.
One year after the Beatles’ releases, and before Bob Dylan and folk rock sprung forth to divide audiences by taste and class, there were no serious cracks in the concept of pop music–be it Motown, solo singers, English heavies and lightweights, surf music or garage bands, it was all rock. And so, kicking off with Jan and Dean skateboarding across L.A. while singing, “They’re coming from all over the world,” and then segueing into a shot of Diana Ross applying gloss to lips that filled the entire screen, The T.A.M.I. Show offered Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry and the Pacemakers trading riffs with Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, the Barbarians (a Boston group known for “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl,” and for their drummer, Moulty, who had a hook), James Brown, and the Stones. Brown preceded the Stones, and took ten minutes for a staggering version of his No Man Alive Can Make Me Leave the Stage routine; when he finally did leave, even the white, middle-aged studio band stood and applauded him. Jagger couldn’t hope to match Brown’s dancing, and he didn’t try; he minced, pointed and rocked, leading the Stones through a crushing set that finally exploded with “It’s All Over Now.” The T.A.M.I. Show stands as an expression of the power and pluralism of rock and roll at its best.
The T.A.M.I. Show inaugurated an era of performance movies. In 1966 Phil Spector produced The Big T.N.T. Show, an attempted T.A.M.I. followup that never caught fire (featured were the Ronettes, Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Ray Charles, Donovan, and Joan Baez, who with Spector backing her on piano contributed a horrendous version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”). The year 1968 brought Monterey Pop (directed by D.A. Pennebaker), a superb color record of the festival that had taken place the previous year, a film that reached its height when it presented Janis Joplin singing “Ball and Chain” with an intensity and artistry she never achieved on record (also included were Otis Redding, the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and many more). In 1970 came Woodstock (directed by Michael Wadleigh), three hours of footage from the great 1969 gathering, an attractive vision of benign community that effectively utilized split screens to put across memorable performances by the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, and others.
Following the enormous financial success of Woodstock came a deluge of straight performance films, as well as many on-tour “documentaries”–the rock version of the backstage musical. The first and best of these, however, came in 1967, with Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back (directed by D.A. Pennebaker). A “cinema verite” account of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, Don’t Look Back was a rough, grainy depiction of Dylan’s reach for pop stardom, the first close look at a pop figure at work since the Canadian Lonely Boy (1964), the story of Paul Anka. There were many unforgettable segments: Dylan, taunting a Time interviewer, or a science student, or a guest at a party; Dylan, softly singing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in a hotel room, while a worshipful Donovan looked on; Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, talking down a scuzzy British agent. For nerve and movement, no later film of this type was to touch it. (In 1966, Pennebaker again shot Dylan on tour in England, this time with the Hawks. Dylan has never permitted the film that resulted, You Know Something Is Happening, to be released, but used much of the footage for his own Eat the Document. Pennebaker’s movie is simply a masterpiece, with indelible scenes of Dylan quietly working out a song with Johnny Cash, sparring viciously with John Lennon, and singing with a power that is almost not to be believed, cupping his hands around the mike, his hair flying, screaming, “How does it feel?”)
And so the films came, as they come still, most of them sharing the motives of the Fifties exploitation movie, but lacking its liberating vulgarity, and adding the smugness of big-time narcissism: you put a camera on a star, he sang, maybe he mumbled something backstage, jumped into a limousine, looked wasted and people paid to see it. There was the Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), released after Paul announced he was leaving the group, and a sad look at the band’s attempt to record what turned out to be its final album (the Beatles had earlier made an animated film, Yellow Submarine, 1968, which was a delight, and a television film, Magical Mystery Tour, 1967, which was supposed to be a delight, and wasn’t; 1978 would see Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned into a horrendous musical featuring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and the overweening arrogance of pop mogul Robert Stigwood). There were the Stones, in One Plus One (1969), working through version after version of “Sympathy for the Devil” while, outside the studio, London suffered the inspired pop politics of Jean-Luc Godard. There were The Concert for Bangladesh (1972), Soul to Soul (1971), Wattstax (1973), Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971), Elvis’s That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972), the disastrous Farewell of the Cream (1969, originally released at live concert prices!), plus numerous filmed shows, self-indulgences and self-promotions by such as Neil Young (who began the Seventies with Journey through the Past and ended them with Rust Never Sleeps–buy the albums), Frank Zappa (200 Motels, Baby Snakes and Vomit Love), various oldies hustlers, and Bob Dylan–with the controversial and endless (and then shortened) Renaldo and Clara (1978). The deaths of Jimi Heridrix and Janis Joplin inspired compilation documentaries (and, in the case of Janis, also the loosely fictionalized The Rose, a shrill and unconvincing Bette Midler vehicle released in 1979.) Late in the decade the Who summed up its story with The Kids Are Alright (1979), and, for those who could find them, there were also films on reggae (notably Rockers, starring Burning Spear), punk (The Original Punk Rock Movie–the Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle is still pending), and, in countless New York lofts and clubs, showings of countless video takes on countless new groups. There were also a few nonfiction rock and roll movies of enduring interest.
The first was Gimme Shelter (1970, directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), an account of the Stones’ 1969 American tour, which ended in the disaster at Altamont. The film was cut to build to the finale, with shots of the last-minute preparations for Altamont interspersed with footage of earlier concerts, road scenes and the like. At Altamont, the cameras caught a few seconds of the murder of Meredith Hunter by a Hell’s Angel, which took place in front of the stage as the Stones’ played “Under My Thumb”; their performance in the midst of the carnage was the best of any they have ever put on film. A compelling movie, Gimme Shelter failed in that it refused to confront the question it raised about youth culture and star cults: the Stones (who, given their slapdash organization of Altamont, might have been considered criminally negligent–or, as Robert Christgau suggested, criminally ironic) were shown simply as victims, as if the purpose of the film was not to deal with real events, but to absolve those who had paid for the film of any responsibility for those events.
Then, in 1972, again touring the States, the Stones hired the great photographer Robert Frank to make a second movie. Cocksucker Blues (never officially released, though after long and bitter negotiations Frank won limited rights to screen it on his own), named after a song Jagger sings as the film opens, was Don’t Look Back, Stones-style: cold-eyed, mean and revelatory, even if some of the more scabrous moments (groupies fucking in airplanes, junkies shooting up) were staged by Frank. Frank meant to shoot the tour, not its publicity; like One Plus One and unlike Gimme Shelter (or Ladies and Gentlemen: the Rolling Stones, a straight performance flick the Stones substituted for Frank’s effort), Cocksucker Blues was a filmmaker’s, not a rock star’s movie, and thus it did not protect its subjects. Rather, it offered a heightened sense of the complexity of stardom, which is to say that one looked right into the face of its horror, triviality and boredom.
Far more benign was The Last Waltz (1978), which caught the Band’s final concert–an all-star lineup that included Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and more. Abjuring the traditional hand-held camera for elegant dolly shots and zooms, Martin Scorsese directed what will stand for a good while as the finest of rock concert movies–a movie that was, in fact, more exciting than the concert itself. Muddy Waters held the screen in closeup for six solid minutes of “Mannish Boy”; Paul Butterfield blew the harp of his life on “Mystery Train”; and the sound cracked, shuddered, ripped and tore. The film was altogether graceful, threaded with interesting contradictions (an interracial, male and-female, North-and-South version of “The Weight,” cut by the Band with the Staples, led straight into a furious “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), and so far, no one has even tried to match it.
As the mid-Sixties turned the corner, the fictional rock movie, which in terms of theme had not progressed much beyond the Fifties prom-crisis film, made a comeback, beginning perhaps with Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Not formally a rock movie (though a sizzling live performance by the Yardbirds was featured), Blow-Up was a sometimes accurate, sometimes hopelessly high-minded exposé of the moral emptiness of pop culture in general and Swinging London in particular. The problem was that Antonioni captured the shiny vitality of the London scene all too well; in spite of his moralizing, just about everything he put on the screen looked–well, groovy.
Then, as was proper, vulgarity took over, first with the pretentious Privilege (1967), a muddled attempt to explore the fascist potential of the music (i.e., big crowds) and then with Wild in the Streets (1968, directed by Barry Shear, and co-starring a very young Richard Pryor as “The Hook”), an often hilarious attempt to explore the fascist potential of the music (the youth of America, after forcing a reduction in the voting age to fourteen, elect a rock singer president–on the Republican ticket!–put everyone over thirty in concentration camps and feed them LSD). More wild-youth entries followed, along with a spate of ghetto Westerns (which peaked in 1972 with Super Fly and Curtis Mayfield’s ironic soundtrack), but the genre produced only two memorable films before the avalanche of rock movies that closed out the Seventies.
Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) went where no fictional rock film had dared to dread: Jamaica. This was a crude, electrifying study of a country fool (played by reggae singer Jimmy Cliff) who comes to Kingston with hopes of stardom, and realizes them by making the pop charts and the Most Wanted List at the same time. Henzell used the strongest reggae on wax to spark the action–shots of Cliff running for his life as the Maytals chanted out their ferocious “Pressure Drop” remain unforgettable. Performance (1970, directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg) also braved new territory: the abyss. Mick Jagger played the aging pop star Turner, sharing a decaying mansion with Anita Pallenberg and Michel Breton; their slow bacchanal is interrupted by the arrival of a hitman on the run from the Mob, played by James Fox. Turner, his glory days behind him, spends his nights trying to coax the spirit of a dead Mississippi blues singer out of his synthesizer, but once Fox arrives, settles on the mansion as a refuge and begins to trade his identity for Turner’s–a switch Turner is only too happy to make–demons take over the story. (They were not long in taking over Fox; after making Performance he quit the movies, joined a religious cult and was last seen wandering the British countryside prophesying the end of the world.) The film slammed home with “Memo from Turner,” a terrifying song that Jagger, dressed as a gangster for a hallucinatory scene, sings to an assemblage of corpulent Mob bigwigs–and, suddenly, the themes of suicide, murder, sadomasochism, homosexuality and insanity that had crawled for years beneath the surface of the pop life broke loose with a satanic cry of glee. This is what it’s really all about, the movie seemed to say to rock and roll: say your prayers.
It is a vision rock and roll movies, not to mention rock and roll musicians, have been dodging ever since, but as the Seventies neared their finish the rock film changed drastically.
More than two decades of rock and roll had expanded the music’s audience enormously; the best young filmmakers were by now instinctively knowledgeable about and sympathetic to rock; and, as a corollary to both factors, events in rock history could now be taken, by filmmakers and by a broad, mass audience, as historical events pure and simple. No special audience or genre premise was needed to justify rock as subject matter. This meant there was no longer any need for writers and directors to burden themselves with tried-and-true formula plots, or to connect “rock” to “something bigger” in order to prove themselves serious. A new naturalism in the filmic treatment of rock became possible–and so did a new kind of money.
The cycle of late Seventies fictional rock films began with John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977). Based loosely on Nik Cohn’s magazine piece about Brooklyn working-class disco culture, produced by Robert Stigwood, and starring the astonishingly magnetic John Travolta, this was a tough, raw, brutally galvanizing movie–after The Godfather, probably the most important cross-cultural film of the decade. It took an outsider’s culture (as rock had been in the Fifties) and said to the country, “You have to look at this–and once you get a peek at our star, you’re gonna want to.” In other words, this “disco movie” was not made for a “disco audience,” as rock films had been made strictly for “rock audiences”–yet neither was it compromised, and so the disco crowd came along with everyone else. The soundtrack, mostly by the Bee Gees, dominated the radio for months, and may well have outgrossed the film, and this established the crucial premise of the new rock movie: the possibility of double profits.
Saturday Night Fever shocked the cinema world–Travolta was nominated for an Oscar, an unprecedented achievement for an actor in a pop-cult movie (though, true to form, rock remained barred from the Best Song category)–and what followed was an explosion. In 1978, The Buddy Holly Story, presented as myth, music and generational history, was released; though numerous facts were trashed, Gary Busey’s startling impersonation of Holly burned its way into the minds of the audience (securing yet another Oscar nomination). Also in 1978 were I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a re-creation of the week the Beatles arrived in New York in 1964; FM, a pastiche of Sixties liberal clichés about Woodstockian idealism vs Bad capitalism that failed at the box office and cleaned up at the record stores; Thank God It’s Friday, a disco musical co-produced by Motown and Casablanca; and, topping them all in film and soundtrack grosses, Grease, another Stigwood hit, based on the Broadway play about Fifties rock kitsch, and again starring the unstoppable Travolta (he was stopped later in the year when he appeared with Lily Tomlin in the non-rock flop Moment by Moment).
As rock films broke through the boundaries of sectarianism, TV followed, first with Dead Man’s Curve, a cooly honest dramatization of the Jan and Dean story which offered the career of two Southern California rockers as if it had interest in and of itself, and then with All You Need Is Cash, Eric Idle’s inspired Beatle parody. NBC’s Saturday Night Live, by then a huge hit on late-night TV, used rock history (fairly obscure set-ups based on Roy Orbison, James Brown or Motown) as lingua franca. 1979 brought Quadrophenia, a serious study of mod culture based on the Who’s 1973 double-LP, plus TV movies about Elvis and the Beatles, neither of which were nearly so terrible, nor so cowardly, as each might have been only two years before, and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, a cheesy wild-youth effort starring the Ramones: a step back. The question of how to create cinema for a minority audience was obviated, and the result was an amazing openness, as the details of pop life, always its soul, came to the center of the screen.
Of all the new films, one stood out: one claimed the new naturalism as its own and took it as far as it would go, working on the premise that a substantial, informed audience existed for the most arcane and unexcavated aspects of the rock tradition. This was Floyd Mutrux’s American Hot Wax (1978). It was not a hit, but its momentum and flair were undeniable, and both clearly came from the new license to treat rock not as youth culture, or drug culture, or counterculture, but as American culture.
American Hot Wax presented a week in the life of founding rock and roll DJ Alan Freed, about to fall to the payola scandals of 1959. Slipping bits and pieces of more than fifty rock classics onto the soundtrack (mostly doo-wop, though one saw the true Frankie Ford cutting “Sea Cruise”), drawing on the lost bravado of Preston Sturges and the spirit of the Monotones, the film may have jumbled the facts, but it was the most emotionally accurate rock and roll movie ever made. It caught what early rock felt like; it made you understand why and how it changed so many lives. With fine work by Laraine Newman as a teenage songwriter, Seventies Hollywood record producer Richard Perry as a Fifties New York record producer, the Chesterfields as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Chuck Berry as Chuck Berry, and a brooding, beautifully underplayed performance by Tim McIntire as Freed, the film transcended its Don’t Knock the Rock plot, and set the standard rock and roll movies will have to meet as surely as did The Last Waltz or Performance. Perhaps more to the point, this film is now as keenly a part of the rock and roll legacy as is “There Goes My Baby” or “She Loves You”–and that, in the end, is the goal rock cinema has been blindly seeking, ever since the real Alan Freed stepped before a Hollywood camera and, head held high, declaimed the New Gospel of the big, bad beat.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1979, edited by Jim Miller