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Monday, October 29, 2007

Rock Groups as Themselves (originally published 3/97)

In these multimedia times the idea of being a star in only one medium seems quaintly archaic. You can't just be a rock star nowadays; you also have to come across well in a music video if you want to claim a spot on the charts. And yet, believe it or not, there was a time before MTV when pop stars mostly had to make it on the sound of their tunes alone. Still, even in the olden days a few forward looking groups managed to parlay their music stardom into a brief moment of glory on the silver screen. As if to commemorate those long-ago times, the Spice Girls recently took some time off from making music videos to make an old-fashioned pop star movie vehicle.

When a movie is made to showcase an individual performer, as in the case of Elvis Presley's films, it is easy enough to cast the star in a fictional role and build a story around that character. It isn't so easy to create a fictional film around a musical group, however. A character must be invented for each member of the group, and each member must receive a fair share of screen time. The easy way out is to forget about creating a storyline and just make a documentary about the group. "Spice World" splits the difference by telling a fictional story but having the group members play themselves rather than invented characters. It's a sensible compromise that has been used effectively by pop groups of the past. Here are some earlier examples of that same formula. Each is available on home video.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964). Director Richard Lester's classic showcase for The Beatles is, needless to say, the granddaddy of them all. Bringing his experience with British comedy to bear, Lester keeps the mood light and the gags coming thick and fast. He also had the foresight to take out a bit of insurance by casting a veteran comic, Wilfred Brambell, as Paul's grandfather just to make sure the laughs would be there when he needed them. The result goes far beyond the modest goal of keeping audiences amused until the next song comes along. In the oft-quoted words of critic Andrew Sarris, this is indeed "the 'Citizen Kane' of jukebox movies."

"Having a Wild Weekend" (1965). Other pop groups were not long in following The Beatles' example. The Dave Clark Five, as it happened, already had a foot in the movie studio door. That's because Dave Clark's day job was movie stunt work. This film presents him and his group in that capacity. We follow them as they take off for a wild weekend in the company of an actress they have befriended. Like The Beatles, they were fortunate in their choice of director. John Boorman, who made his directorial debut with this film, would go on to become a highly respected filmmaker, numbering among his credits the excellent film adaptation of James Dickey's "Deliverance" (1972).

"Head" (1968). By the time The Monkees got around to making a movie, they had already had all the exposure they could stand on their popular television series. The series had, in fact, already been cancelled, leaving the group free to poke a little fun at their own image. Legend has it that director Bob Rafelson and his buddy Jack Nicholson went into seclusion with The Monkees for a weekend of heavy dope smoking and emerged with a completed screenplay. There's no way to verify the story, but this was the sixties after all, and Nicholson does share screenwriting credit as well as a co-producing credit.

"Abba: The Movie" (1977). At the height of their reign, the monarchs of Europop took their act to the big screen. In the film, they are pursued throughout their concert tour of Australia by a disc jockey from Sidney (played by Robert Hughes) whose assignment is to get an interview with the group for his station. He's not taken seriously because he doesn't have his press card with him, but he's been told to get the interview or else.

Abba's foray into filmmaking was one of the last such ventures before MTV signed on in 1981. From that point on, singing for the camera became the norm, not the exception, which is why "Spice World," although undoubtedly intended to be hip and happening, can't help having a decidedly retro feel.

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