Great Fictional Rock Movies: An Argument
Recently, I had a fun, characteristically robust email exchange with my friend Michael Azerrad, a music journalist and co-producer of A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son, about the various ways that rock musicians have been depicted on film. Why have the efforts of so many filmmakers to imagine the lives and careers of rockers, headbangers, punks, mods, queercore ranters, glam artists, and other imaginary ax men and preening lead vocalists been so uniformly lackluster? He was still waiting, he confessed, to lay eyes on the Great Fictional Rock Movie. Even so, we both acknowledged that Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap had nailed all the absurdities and clichés of the post-Beatles, stadium-rock milieu—the hilariously fraught dynamics between bandmates, bookers, hangers-on, and oily management types — with gleefully incisive brilliance. Who could top that? With Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil finally thrashing its way into theaters today after a triumphant, yearlong festival run, it’s tempting to say that life has imitated farce. Nevertheless, you can be sure this tenderly wrought, wryly funny, bittersweet portrait of two nearly senescent Canadian rock’n’rollers on the skids after a brief period of fame in the High Metal Era (the ’80s!) will enter the annals of great rock docs about musical has-beens. But leaving aside documentaries, biopics, and films starring established bands essentially playing (or playing up) a version of their public or artistic personas (you could count everything from Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night to Wayne Coyne’s Christmas on Mars in this category), how many great rock movies can you name? That is, fables born of the imagination rather than original research, interviews, published bios, or lurid tell-alls? Not many, I’d wager.
“Why do you suppose rock movies tend to be lousy?,” Michael wondered after mentioning a couple of cult classics (Get Crazy, Phantom of the Paradise) that had struck a chord, so to speak, but really weren’t great films. “Is there something inherent about the subject matter? Does the fact that the actors also have to be musicians somehow hinder the prospects of the entire film?”
I don’t think the problem with depicting rockers on film has to do necessarily with the musical talent of the actors: Jamie Foxx is an accomplished pianist and a talented actor, but Ray was atrocious. Control was quite good, and those actors, who performed Joy Division songs with impeccable verisimilitude, were convincing. But again, these were biopics, which is a species of film in which mimicry so often becomes the primary goal of performance and the sole criterion of whether or not it is “true to life.” Besides, a few decent rock biopics (24 Hour Party People, Sid and Nancy) don’t quite erase the memory of all the lousy ones. (The Doors, anyone? La Bamba? Balls of Fire?) To make things worse, the story arc for Hollywood-style biopics is maddeningly predictable, reducing the lives it depicts to five essential stages: 1) humble beginnings, 2) halting attempts at crafting a signature sound, 3) the Big Break, 4) fame and stardom, 5) meltdown/flameout/controversy/death. The only filmmaker to have broken the mold on this tired and useless model is Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There), whose rock films are not, properly speaking, biopics so much as bold, adventurous explorations of personal mystique. Traditionalists needn’t worry: there are many, many more award-baiting rock biopics starring A-list actors coming our way. (And one I’m actually looking forward to.) As for narrative features about nonexistent rockers, the playing field is truly disastrous. Eddie and the Cruisers? No thanks. Rock Star? Awful, awful. Dogs in Space? Ditto. Almost Famous? Laurel Canyon? Just gag me. I’m banking on someone one day adapting Don Delillo’s Great Jones Street, and then we’ll see. In the meantime, Olivier Assayas’s Clean is not a bad stab at this underrealized subgenre, although it’s really a character-driven story about the psychology of addiction recovery (rock hard + live the dream = pay the price) that begins after the music (and a made-up British post-punk icon) has died. One ray of hope is John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, adapted from his off-Broadway production, which stands today at the head of the class.
Still, I think the Great Fictional Rock Film has yet to be made, and after pondering this conundrum for a while, I decided it boils down to this: It is difficult to capture, in a meaningful and honest way, the creative process of an artist. This goes for all the arts. Filmmakers have had little trouble telling stories about fictional filmmakers and the movie business (from Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Truffaut’s Day for Night to Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion), the fateful lives of actors on the rise (A Star Is Born, All About Eve) or those trapped in a nightmare of schizoid consciousness (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire). So why do screenwriters and film directors falter when they attempt to get inside the mind of other art practitioners? Painters have fared well, but again mostly in docs and biopics (Minnelli, Pialat, and Altman all man-handled Van Gogh). Perhaps because so many film artists have trained as painters and work in a visual medium, albeit a collaborative one, this is an easier leap of imagination to make. Think of Rivette’s colossal La belle noiseuse, for instance, which is the most enthralling narrative film I’ve ever seen about the agonies of craft and obsessive perfectionism. Is there an analogue in film about the time-sucking frustrations of making intelligent rock music? Do we even want there to be, or would it just be too dull? One problem with rock is that it’s too easy to romanticize, too easy to mire in clichéd images of decadence, dysfunction, and destruction. We associate it with adolescent exuberance and irresponsibility, youthful defiance and unbounded hedonism, not hard work or intellectual resourcefulness. It’s a popular art form we project all kinds of fantasies into as well, whether through our infatuation with musical technique (e.g. Activision’s Guitar Hero video-game series) or the thrill of live performance and insta-celebrity (American Idol), without understanding it all too well from the inside. I love Dig! and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but we are still waiting for their fictional equivalent on film.
Despite my misgivings, there are at least a handful of dramatic films I’d list as current contenders for the Great Fictional Rock Movie title. (It’s a start, anyway.) In the second category, I’ve listed some B movies and cult classics that, while not great, are at least fun, even if they break my GFRM rule about movies starring well-known bands or real-life rockers playing off their stage persona.
Great Fictional Rock Movies
Once (Dir. John Carney, 2007)
Brothers of the Head (Dir. Keith Fulton, 2006)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
This Is Spinal Tap (Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984)
Velvet Goldmine (Dir. Todd Haynes, 1998)*
*Although this glam-rock fantasia draws on recognizable stylistic traits and biographical details ascribable to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, I include it here because it is not easily categorized either as a fact-based drama or a straightforward biopic.
Non-Biographical Rock Movie Cult Classics
Tommy (Dir. Ken Russell, 1975)
Get Crazy (Dir. Allan Arkush, 1983)
Smithereens (Dir. Susan Seidelman, 1982)
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Dir. Lou Adler, 1982)
That’ll Be the Day (Dir. Claude Whatham, 1973)
Flame (Dir. Richard Loncraine, 1975)
Rock’n’Roll High School (Dir. Allan Arkush, 1979)
Head (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968)
Performance (Dir. Donald Cammell, Nicholas Roeg, 1970)
Christmas on Mars (Dir. Wayne Coyne, 2008)
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (Dir. Gordon Hessler, 1978)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Dir. Russ Meyer, 1970)
Purple Rain (Dir. Albert Magnoli, 1984)
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (Dir. Eric Idle, 1978)