Hey Stuffies! Yo Ampersandoids! ‘Sup Thatters!
SteveForTheDeaf here. Riding the crossover from my song a day page Steve For The Deaf right over to the youthful and enthusiastic Stuff And That to turn your heads onto some Stuff (and That) which I think you might like. Milo is going over to SFTD to work around the middle aged man garbage clogging up that site with some recommendations of his own.
I’m going to branch out. Rather than telling a little story about how I missed the bus home and got stuck listening to Suede in the rain on a cassette Walkman in the 90’s, I’m going to talk movies.
I’m going to talk about rock movies.
And as I’m free from my ‘one a day’ template. I’m going to do a list. Middle aged music fans and lists feature heavily in this genre (Cusack and High Fidelity I’m looking at you) but it’s not just a list. Think of it more as a barometer. A scale. A unit of measure if you will.
So we’re going up top to the best. We’re setting a standard in the middle and we’re dipping below the line with ones that suck right the way down to the absolute worst.
Before I do though. There are some ground rules. What constitutes a rock movie in SFTD world? Well there has to be music for sure. It has to be about music. Real or imagined. I’ll take Josie and the Pussycats right alongside Walk The Line. But it can’t just have a lot of rock in it. The Vampire Lestat is not a rock movie. Nor is Jennifer’s Body or Trick Or Treat. They’re horror movies with rock music as plot devices. They’re also all so bad they’re great and you should definitely see them.
Trainspotting is not a rock movie (suck it NME), Ricki and The Flash is a rock movie. The Beatles – Help is a rock movie, Metallica – Through The Never is a concert video, with a plot. Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains The Same is a concert video, which thinks it has a plot, but it just has huge bags of drugs. Madonna – Truth or Dare is a concert video, which thinks it is a documentary but it is in fact a huge bag of dog poo set alight on your doorstep. Hell, I don’t make the rules. Except that I do. These are my rules. So you see how it works right? Good. Here we go.
If Top of the Pops has taught us anything it’s that you don’t start at number one. So I’m going in via the basement.
-5. Rock Of Ages (2012)
Without a doubt the worst Rock Movie of all time is quite a recent entry. It’s the barometer of all that is bad when it comes to good music on film. If you can take the back catalogues of Poison, Bon Jovi and The Who and suck all the fun out of them. If you can make a hair metal comedy and not get the jokes to be funny. If you can dress your actors as Motley Crue but have them sing Foreigner without irony. It shows you up. You don’t know the genre outside of a Driving Rock compilation and you have failed us all.
So step forward Rock Of Ages. A game of dress up by a cast so un-rock and roll they failed to make the biggest dumbest fakest scene in rock history look convincingly like it was any real fun. They got all the song choices wrong. They missed the built in humour in the original Sunset Strip scene and it was utterly boring. Rock Of Ages is the hair metal equivalent of a comedy sketch where they put a sideways baseball cap and bling on a pensioner and make them rap. Worthless tat.
-4. The Boat that Rocked (2009)
Almost as horrid is the equally un-cool, middle class, middle of the road, middle England muddle of The Boat That Rocked. The trouble here is that the music is good. It’s could have been really excellent for the most part but again, safe choices were made over real ones. Unfortunately, even the very best tunes are all squandered on shots of people dancing in their huge 1960’s Y-Fronts instead of decent screen writing and a plot.
There’s a superb cast. All wasted on a cosy lazy bunch of pages that fail to tell the story of the rock and roll revolution happening in the margins of youth culture. Instead this film would have you believe the world was crying out for pirate radio in the hospitals, high street and homes of the UK played loud and proud, were it not for ‘The Man’ missing the point. Most people in England in the 60’s thought rock and roll was a fad, even some of the fans.
It was only the hip kids and future heads who ‘got it’. Richard Curtis would have you believe everyone was acting like naughty public school kids, sneaking transistor radios into their dorms to bop by the light of the dial. In doing so he defangs rock and roll during its most abrasive decade. SHAME.
-3. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
Next we come to the Promo Flick. There’s quite a few stinkers around this level of rock movie. Even Elvis made a few. Bad films with bad scripts which are thrown together just to showcase one or two decent (or decent-ish) new singles put out by the stars. Elvis wasn’t the only one to do it. Cliff Richard, Eminem and Motorhead have all appeared in ropey movies to promote their latest single. The bench mark for this I think, has to be the tribute movie Roger Corman made with The Ramones. It came after Summer Holiday and Blue Hawaii but was enthralled to them and everything that went before. At least it owns its trashiness. It’s Roger Corman and The Ramones.
It’s all meant to be knock about fun, but it’s actually not much more than cheap sit com, until we get to the songs. The songs save Rock ‘n’ Roll High School because who doesn’t want The Ramones to come to their school and pre-empt Ferris Buller’s Day Off with a punk twist? There’s one or two great moments or bright ideas in the film (mostly the staging of each tune). Problematically, The Ramones can’t act. This is a bad sign. The band were high during filming. The cast don’t have that excuse and it would appear their lack of acting talent is entirely natural.
There’s a fairly fast mix of naff pun and goofy fun to keep you watching… just about. You can get all the way through Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but it’ll be on in the background when the band aren’t playing. The movie might have scored higher with me if the lead character hadn’t scribbled her name in marker pen all over her record sleeves. These kids have got no respect.
-2. Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971)
As a cinematic experience Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels is pretty rough going. It’s messy, it thinks it is really clever and it’s obvious that most of the scenes were barely written down anywhere at all before cameras started rolling. The music is obtuse and if you’re not in the right headspace its logic is impenetrable. But it’s up on the three previous entries for a couple of reasons. If you’re a fan of Frank Zappa you’re likely to want an impenetrable mess of clever head scratchers in a movie about Frank Zappa by Frank Zappa. It’s a very representative of the time and genre piece. It’s not the film The Monkee’s Head is. But it might be the inside of Frank Zappa’s head on film.
200 Motels is supposed to represent the crazy world of life on the road in a rock and roll band. The filmmakers figured the best way to do this was cast Ringo Star as Keith Moon, Keith Moon as Ringo Star, have the middle of the movie as an animated dream sequence and end the whole thing with an orchestra playing household appliances.
Which is all well and good if you’re in the film. If you’re thinking of watching it, I’m reminded of a story space cadet Julian Cope used to tell about another artefact of avant-garde rock. Julian was aware of the reputation Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album had as an important and challenging work of art, but he found it a difficult listen. So he used to put the album on and go out. Thus, it was getting played. The genie was out of the bottle and yet he didn’t have to sit through it.
-1. Spike Island (2012)
The most relatable aspect of rock and roll is the fandom. There are more of us than the bands. It’s a requirement for the numbers to work. Being into a scene, when it happens is one of the things that makes music obsessives for life. So, telling a story about the birth of a scene, about the how, the why and the when, that ‘something’ caught light before burning bright enough to be seen across the world (even if only briefly) is a staple in the rock movie genre.
Spike Island tries to tell the story of The Stone Roses coming to prominence in Manchester and inventing indie for the 1990’s, through the eyes of some fans. It almost does what it sets out to do. But limitation is not always the mother of invention. There’s a distinct lack of actual Stone Roses in Spike Island. While the whole arc is a simple plot about a bunch of cheeky lads who play in a band together trying to score tickets for the legendary gig of a generation there’s a few things that don’t ring true.
The bands records, lyrics, poses and style inform much of the film screen time, but the adulation feels too ‘I’d like to buy the world a coke’ and not real enough.
The band never actually appear and getting around this as the films finale plays out is deftly handled. But it doesn’t make up for a script that would have benefitted from some Shane Meadows style realness and an anti-climax for a climax.
0. Tenacious D in The Pick Of Destiny (2006)
Right at the tear in standards that will bring us through The Upside Down and into the world of quality is Jack Black and Kyle Gass’ band of Two Kings. Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny by rights ought to be on the other side of the line. Heavy metal comedy has a great pedigree and The D had previously smashed it on record and on MTV. On paper this is a no brainer. Doing a Wanye’s World should have been like shooting fish in a barrel.
But they did the thing that fanboy projects do so often. They weren’t critical enough of their own standard when it comes to the gags. The film is so full of what must have been hits of fun on the set it shows in the near misses on film. I’m sure Jack Black had a ball. I’m sure they were psyched to get Dio. I was psyched to see him. But how funny really is the material? By removing the prism of comedy prebuilt into in Holy Diver and into much rock iconography already, by going straight for rhyming ‘wanna rock’ with ‘suck a cock’ the D drop the ball.
Compared to the other Jack Black heavy metal comedy School of Rock this is found wanting. A film with Dio, Grohl, Meatloaf and a chance for a new soundtrack album by the band who wrote Tribute, Wonderboy and The Metal should be a cult classic. Their album makes a funnier listen. Their videos make better viewing.
+1. Almost Famous (2000)
The first worthy movie of quality on this list is here for treating its subject matter with the respect it deserves. Almost Famous approached 70’s rock and roll like period drama. This is the Downton Abbey of cock rock. This got right everything the films further down the list got wrong.
Almost Famous lead to series like Vinyl and The Get Down having the production values invested in them that they did. It gave us a great fictional band in Stillwater and their incendiary song Fever Dog. Life inside the rock and roll circus did look the way every kid pressed up against the stage door imagined it could be. The lows, the come downs and the selfishness of the various insiders didn’t pull punches either. So it was clear the party was only as strong as the night was long.
There are some genuinely great dramatic moments in Almost Famous. The passing on of the record collection from Big Sister to Little Brother is only the first. But it’s the one I bet resonated with most people.
Tiny Dancer on the tour bus fixing up a broken group of souls and turning them back into a band is the stand out scene. The overdose and “Seats and tray tables” is another, from the adolescent fantasy of “Let’s deflower the kid”, meeting Lester Bangs, the legendary “I am a Golden God”, The ‘telephone voice’, “Hey Red Dog”, William’s mum telling the band off, “We can’t pull the bus over every time you guys see some high school girls”, the film is endlessly quotable and plays like the greatest hits of these ‘life on the road’.
+2. Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll (2010)
Rock biopics were a big thing for a while. There have been solid earnest ones like Walk The Line or Ray. Dewey Cox neatly saw to the end of that era by skewering the clichés in one long bizarrely plausible slapstick compendium. There have been oblique arty ones like Jimi: All Is by My Side, Sid And Nancy or Last Days which are usually hindered by a lack of access to the actual music of the bands they’re telling the stories of. And there have been really bad ones like The Karen Carpenter Story or Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story which just plain old suck.
Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll tells a more unique tale of a rather unique type of rock star. It really helps that the leading man is a phenomenal actor. You might not recognise him right away as he rarely uses his own face. But here playing Essex Punk Legend Ian Dury, Andy Serkis gives one of the best rock star performances ever caught on film.
I think it also helps that Dury is a bit-part figure in the rich tapestry of rock history. He’s an important cog but he’s not an A-List name. He’s not posh, he’s Arts and Crafts.
The way the music and the image is used to tell the story is one of the things that elevates SADARAR. It’s an artistic blend of Dury’s own self-referential lyrics, music hall retrospective and pop video.
Taking the poor crippled boy from post war London to the top of the charts, through wilderness years of poolside excess to the final bow all in one night. The opening scene grabs the viewer and takes them on a slick rollercoaster ride of squat gigs, accidental success, chemical excess and the perils of raising a family as a road dog. All with an authentic accent and some brilliant songs. The only downer is the inevitable sad ending. If you’re going to do the whole story. It’s going to end with the sad bit.
+3. Good Vibrations (2012)
Now we’re going back to fandom for the next entry. Good Vibrations is primarily about the love of music. It’s also about DIY Punk, it’s about Ireland and it’s about standing up for what you believe in. It’s a true story and it’s fucking beautiful.
Telling the life story of Terri Hooley, a record shop owner who starts a label and becomes a key figure in the Ulster Punk scene the film is dashed through with pathos, with humour and with all the vital ingredients that give rock music purpose.
It helps that Terri is played as a really funny guy. Scenes of his drunken buffoonery and his gentle wit rub along with the warmth of the man and his grace under pressure.
I’ll give you an example of the deft handling of these subject matters in such a skilful, loving and exciting way.
There is a moment in the movie where Terri is present in the studio for the recording of The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. Now that song is universally recognised as one of the greatest 7” singles of all time. But the film could run the risk of over exposing the track as it needs to play here, when the band hit big, when John Peel plays it on the radio (twice) because it’s so irresistibly good and at some point near the end.
So Terri is the other side of the studio glass, without headphones. Essentially you’re watching a band mime with the sound off. And yet you know every note that being played.
There are endless beautiful moments like this. From “Officer I’d like to report a Civil War outside” to the empty pub gig, to the manic record company dash around London to the ‘If you don’t cry you have no heart’ ending.
Good Vibrations is the greatest punk rock movie ever made.
+4. The Doors (1991)
The biggest (and fortunately the best) of all rock biopics is Oliver Stone’s The Doors. This film comes in so high because of the sheer ambition of the thing. Val Kilmer is mesmerising as Jim Morrison. He’s not afraid to play him as the arse hat he really was. Aloof, selfish and elegantly wasted should not look cool. But when you’re playing in the greatest American rock and roll band of the 1960’s and swallowing booze, drugs and groupies in a whirlwind of cultural-revolution, psychedelia and anti-establishment excess it’s really hard for it to not look fun.
The music cue’s the editing in the way Goodfellas and Stone’s own Scarface had established a decade before The Doors hit the cinemas. When it did, the shock wave that went through the contemporary music scene was palpable. You’d be hard pressed to find a Grunge fan who was into the Seattle scene in the early 1990’s who was not also a fan of The Doors.
Stone didn’t just make a movie about the 60’s and about his favourite band. He influenced the youth culture 30 years after the film was set. Jim Morrison was a relevant and cool cultural icon all over again on the back of this movie.
You’d be hard pressed to pick a stand out moment as the whole film is a kaleidoscope of cool looking rock fantasy, beautiful people and hard partying that swoons and tilts from one locale to another on a megamix of The Doors, The Velvet Underground and other 60’s legends. Even the scenes where Jim is too gone to perform (on stage and in bed), where the band are despairing at the mess he has become and his nearest & dearest are in tears because of his actions sidle on by in a woozy haze. Interspersed with his hard drinking friends (the leader of whom is played brilliantly by Billy Idol) egging him on and encouraging him to party more.
Jim is given a good ending too. We all know what became of Jim so it’s just a question of seeing how the film handles it. The way Oliver Stone lays Jim Morrison to rest shows him as a true fan to the end. Every rock and roller who sees this movie (if they weren’t already) becomes a fan of The Doors by the end.
+5. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The pinnacle of rock music on film. The standard by which all rock entertainment aspires to. This Is Spinal Tap is the Daddy of (if you will) Rockumentary. It helps somewhat that Spinal Tap aren’t a real band. Despite them being utterly convincing. So convincing many bands who saw the movie in theatres when it was released were furious because they thought it was about them (Steven Tyler from Aerosmith was so offended by the obvious leaks from someone close to him he walked out) but no, it is all a fiction. It takes a real work of storytelling to put the proper perspective on rock & roll (too much perspective?)
The comedic talents that were yet to bring us such wonders as The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Best In Show, When Harry Met Sally and A Mighty Wind might not have known they were having the last word in rock music on film when they were making This Is Spinal Tap. Today it is so beloved by the subjects it digs out, that the film is seen as essential to a newbies rock and roll education as a copy of Sgt. Pepper or a pin badge on a leather jacket would be.
In the world of rock, you don’t get to play with the grown-ups if you don’t know Stonehenge, “mime is money”, Polymer Records, Marty DeBergie, The New Originals, death by bizarre gardening accident, “If I told them once, I told them 1000 times – Puppet show first, then Spinal Tap”
Every second of this film drips golden nuggets of rock and roll truism. The dead pan delivery and absurdist comedy delivered as documentary is such a successful recipe. Spinal Tap doesn’t need toilet humour or gross out when it has beautiful aria’s called Lick My Love Pump and cucumbers wrapped in tinfoil down its trouser legs at airports.
Let us not overlook the songs. The Spinal Tap soundtrack album comes wrapped in the ‘none more black’ sleeve of Smell The Glove (it’s a thin line between clever and stupid after all). Metallica knew what they were opening themselves up to when they released The Black Album in 1991. They were in on the joke too. But the Spinal Tap album spawned them becoming a real band. I’ve seen them live. I’ve sung along to Big Bottom (“talk about mud flaps, my girls got ‘em”) and Tonight We’re Gonna Rock You in a stadium and I can’t tell the difference between these guys and the real thing.
So there’s the list. 11 units of measure by which all rock and roll movies should be measured. From the bottom to the top there are a lot of vital films missing. High Fidelity for instance fits in below Good Vibrations but above The Pick Of Destiny. Rock Star is better than Rock And Roll High School but not as good as Almost Famous. Backbeat is better than most but not as good as The Doors. There’s loads missing. And ultimately a lot of that comes down to how much you like the artist and the music portrayed in the film.
I just want to conclude by saying ‘thanks’ to the Stuff And That crew and to Milo in particular for asking me to write something down. I don’t normally prattle on for this long. But when you’re doing the entire history of rock in movies in 11 bullet points you need to know which ones would be a real bore and which will get scratched right in.