Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Rocking the Screen (originally published 10/01)

Very early on in its history, the American film industry organized itself around the public appeal of its stars. From that point on, star power became the engine that drove the economy of the business. As a consequence of the money and adulation enjoyed by these stars, Hollywood quickly became the national touchstone for glamor and privilege.

The mid-century, however, saw the rise of another entertainment juggernaut that would seriously rival Hollywood as the epitome of glamor: rock and roll music. Since that time, Hollywood, recognizing a kindred spirit, has embraced the milieu of pop music by using it as a frequent backdrop for movie storylines. Recent examples include "Rock Star" and "Glitter," but the relationship between movies and pop music goes back to the very beginnings of rock and roll. Indeed, Alan Freed, the disc jockey most closely associated with its emergence, produced and/or appeared in a number of low-budget Fifties movies promoting the new music and its performers. Since then, dozens of movies have been made showcasing the pop stars of the moment. Here are a few to look for on home video.

"A Hard Day's Night" (1964). What better place to begin than with the movie debut of the Beatles? This began as a quickie production designed to capitalize on the intense popularity of the group. It wasn't expected to be a work of lasting value, and yet that's exactly what it turned out to be. Bringing his considerable experience with British comedy to bear, director Richard Lester kept the mood light and the gags coming thick and fast. He also had the foresight to cast 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."

"The Harder They Come" (1972). The renewed interest in Reggae music here in the United States can be directly traced to the release of this gritty little movie, the first ever produced in Jamaica by Jamaicans. Jimmy Cliff plays a scruffy young fellow from the country who comes to the city (Kingston) with hopes of making it as a singer. Unfortunately, he can't seem to stay out of trouble. You'll notice that this film is not as polished as most Hollywood products, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in heart. And, of course, it has that irresistible music to bind it together.

"Head" (1966). 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. Also, as the title suggests, they felt free to exploit the psychedelic imagery of the time. 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.

"The Girl Can't Help It" (1956). In many ways, this Jayne Mansfield vehicle is similar to lots of other Fifties comedies. Edmond O'Brien plays a gangster who hires an agent (Tom Ewell) to make his girlfriend (Mansfield) a recording star. What makes this film different is that it features performances by many of the top pop artists of the day. We see Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and a host of others in performance.

"Go, Johnny, Go" (1958). Here's an example of one of the Alan Freed productions that helped make it all happen. This one, like most, has a negligible plot, but lots of good music performances. You'll see Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, and Jackie Wilson among others. It's a great time capsule, if nothing else.

With so many rock luminaries on the big screen through the years, it's hardly any wonder that the distinction between rock stars and movie stars seems fuzzy at best. The end result of this cross-pollination has been an entertainment firmament that knows no borders.

No comments: