Remember rock ‘n roll? Remember how much fun it was? How invigorating and life-affirming? Remember driving around in your car when a song like “Satisfaction” came on and you’d roll down the windows and sing along? The driving backbeat. The simple chord structures. The loud, messy way it expressed what you were feeling when you were angry or lonely or falling in love. Yeah, that. That was rock ‘n roll.
Pop music is still around, and always will be. Rock ‘n roll? Not so much. In fact, its waning power as a cultural phenomenon is best evidenced by the absolute dearth of rock ‘n roll movies in the past three decades. Not only do they not make ‘em like they used to, they don’t seem to make ‘em period. Okay, that’s not completely fair. School of Rock (2003) was a light-hearted and affectionate tribute to the power of rock ‘n roll. I just don’t find it makes the cut here. So let’s take a moment now and enjoy the best of the rock ‘n roll movies.
This movie caused a sensation when it came out and it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Here we have a melodrama about teachers working in a racially-mixed intercity high school (city unspecified but it sure looks like Brooklyn, NY, to me). Glenn Ford plays the new teacher who tries to get his angry, disenchanted, distracted students interested in education as a way of improving their lives. They’d all rather dance to rock ‘n roll, however. The movie is more than a little dated nowadays in its earnestness but is certainly worth a rental.
One more big reason: this movie was the breakout film for a young Bahamian-American actor named Sidney Poitier. The film also has a ground-breaking soundtrack, including Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” a minor hit that exploded in sales when teenagers started dancing to it in the theater aisles during screenings (and then getting into fistfights afterward.)
At the height of Beatlemania, this film supposedly chronicling 36 hours in the lives of the band came out and you would think that it was just the crassest form of cashing in on a hot trend… and you’d be right and wrong. Yes, it’s a silly confection that is lighter than air. And yet, it remains to this day remarkably charming, clever, amusing, and entertaining. In fact, in 2004, Time Magazine rated it as one of the 100 greatest films of all time. And what a soundtrack! In addition to the title track, the movie also features “I Should Have Known Better,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “She Loves You,” and “If I Fell,” among many others. Here’s what you do: invite your parents over and watch it with your kids and their grandparents. You’ll all just love it.
Back in the summer of 1969, my friend Gary told me his brother Daryl had just left that morning to hitchhike with some friends out to New York to go to some rock concert in Woodstock, New York. Daryl wasn’t even a senior in high school. And neither were any of his friends. Can any of you imagine parents in our day and age letting their high school-age kids hitchhike halfway across the country to go to a rock concert? It boggles the mind. But it was nothing too out of the ordinary in my neighborhood in those days.
The film of the legendary concert is remarkable, and as a cultural artifact, it is worth watching again. Amazing performances, lots of mud and hippies and acid-dropping idiocy, and one absolutely searing and unforgettable moment: Jimi Hendrix’s terrifyingly brilliant cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Wow…
All due respect to Woodstock, but this is the greatest concert film of all time. Martin Scorsese directs this remarkable documentary about the Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert by “The Band” at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Joining The Band for various songs are Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond (!), Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, and the Staples Singers. My three favorite moments from this concert: “Caravan” with Morrison and The Band, “I Shall Be Released” with Dylan and The Band, and a studio version of “The Weight” with the Staples Singers. You might also want to watch Scorsese’s other rock documentary, No Direction Home (2005). It’s a peerless biography of Bob Dylan.
Back in the early 1970s, when Cameron Crowe was 15 years old, he managed to sell a couple of stories to Rolling Stone Magazine. He traveled on tour with several huge bands and wrote about life on the road with rockstars. This film is a semi-autobiographical retelling of this story. It’s a fine film and enjoyable throughout. And yet… somehow I think the real story must have been even better. Patrick Fugit plays the lead, and the movie also features Frances McDormand in a fantastic performance as his worrying mother. Philip Seymour Hoffman also puts in an appearance as the mentoring writer to Fugit’s novice and watching this film we are again reminded about what a big loss Hoffman’s early death was.
Other notable performances are put in by Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup. This is a love letter to rock ‘n roll of the early 70s, and it is imbued with a unsentimental wistfulness for those years. I think it’s Crowe’s best movie; in fact it’s probably his last really good movie. If you saw it when it first came out, you may have forgotten how charming it is, and it really merits a rental.
Christopher Guest didn’t invent the mockumentary (precursors include projects from Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles, the Beatles, etc.), but he certainly perfected it. This film presents itself as a documentary about a fictional British band, Spinal Tap. They’re pretty terrible as musicians and as human beings, and what they lack in musical talent they more than make up for in just plain stupidity. Marvelous performances here by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean. The idea was to make fun of earlier rock documentaries that were overly serious, such as Gimme Shelter (1970) and The Song Remains the Same (1976). Rob Reiner is absolutely hilarious as the supposed director of the film and all-out fanboy of Spinal Tap. So much fun.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.