Since I want films about any and every sort of pop music since the advent of jazz, and about the rock music of 1966 to the present, for this topic I’m sort of overlooking the rock v. rock n’ roll distinction I insist upon elsewhere.
And since what I really want are films that convey what people were seeking socially, and even spiritually, from the particular style of pop music they were running with, i.e., since what I want are films more about the rock (or disco, etc.) scene than about particular artists, I am going to generally exclude the many career-rise biography films: Great Balls of Fire, La Bamba, Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, Bird, Selena, etc. Some of these teach us key stuff about the show-biz dynamics, or even the socio-cultural dynamics, connected to a particular time and music (Ray, for example, was able to convey the shock of his appropriating gospel tunes for night-club tunes, and in one key scene Selena showed us the true slut-cultural impact of Madonna’s example), but there’s a way in which these movies begin to blend into one another. Over time, they become less useful to us, because few of them deal with how middle-class artists pursue and deal with pop music success. It’s always rags-to-riches.
I am also excluding documentaries, concert films, and, although it boots out A Hard Day’s Night, extended band-promo “big music video” movies. Perhaps some day I’ll do a set of posts on the documentaries, so the great Les Blank films and forgotten masterpieces likes Twist can get their Songbook due.
Films considered that did not make the list: Quadrophenia, Backbeat, Absolute Beginners, Zoot Suit, Reality Bites, Swingkids, Hairspray, and close call, Saturday Night Fever and High Fidelity, both of which were just a tad too trite.
Films I haven’t seen or don’t remember clearly enough to judge: Kansas City, Cadillac Records, Eddie and the Cruisers, Sid and Nancy, Gimme Shelter, Velvet Goldmine, 54, Cotton Club, Orchestra Wives, Riot on Sunset Strip—let me know if you think any of these deserve to be on my list.
But here are my ten favorites, proceeding not in ranking, but backwards in pop-historical flow:
10.) School of Rock
Big school-worthy (and Songbook-challenging!) insights about Rock and its present role in our culture lurking amid the irresistible fun of this almost-preposterous comedy.
9.) Repo Man
Yes, only rather incidentally about early 80s So-cal punk-rock, even with its sound-track, but I just can’t resist plugging this little gem of improvisational film-making. Cheerful nihilism at its most winsome.
8.) This Is Spinal Tap
I know, I know, its proper place in any list whatsoever will always be at number eleven. Everything you need really to know about heavy metal.
7.) The Last Days of Disco
One of the Whit Stillman masterpieces. About so much more than disco, but very insightful on that. Probably the finest film here, with only #4 providing serious competition in the overall-film-excellence category.
6.) Almost Famous
A bit smug in places, but when Penny Lane says, “It’s all happening!” you feel a chill go down your spine, and understand: the film is not about fame per se, but about wanting to be a part of the happening thing, about rock’s grasping out, through its music, sales, concerts, writings, and “sumptuous” hedonism, for the glorious life lived in a heroic key.
5.) The Doors
More than a biopic…a portrayal of the 60s revolution. All of Oliver Stone’s strengths and excesses are deployed here, as he seeks to subject us to the full extent of Morrison’s (and the revolution’s) spiritual seductiveness, while also forcing us to wallow in the full extent of his (and its) repulsiveness. Film-making as aggressive as the Doors’ music.
4.) American Graffiti
The self-contained smallish-town world of the Typical American Teenager, circa 1955-1963, with Rock n’ Roll almost being as important to this world as the High School and the Car. A major achievement, and one which in my judgment reveals as much of a tragic sense as a nostalgic one.
A number of John Sayles’ films have been subjected to criminal neglect, but perhaps none more than this one. And yet no film better captures the true roots of rock n’ roll, and more importantly, the fraught relation in the blues-swingin’ tradition between the what Albert Murray calls the Saturday Night Function and the Sunday Morning Service.
2.) Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
More about a mythological South/Appalachia, concocted out of the old-time records, than really conveying what it was like to be a part of one of those old-time audiences or music groups. But America deserves some mythology, doesn’t it?
1.) A surprise title…wait and see!
In the next six or so posts I’ll be discussing these movies in greater depth, but for now, let’s focus on ones you think ought to be here, or ones that shouldn’t be.
We might also talk about the oddity of certain pop-music genres or subjects never getting a film treatment.