Over the Summer, Clint Eastwood (the first name you think of when it comes to either rock ‘n’ roll or musicals) took the Broadway smash Jersey Boys and turned it into something akin to Goodfellas with pop songs, with only the tunes living up to Frankie Valle and the Four Season’s original legacy. Indeed, most movies get musicians wrong, from focusing too much on their noteworthy faults (sex and drugs aren’t companions to the rock scene for nothing) and not on the amazing sounds they made. The ten choices here are a mixed bag–a TV special, a documentary, a quasi-concert film wrapped up in a disgruntled youth rebellion tale–but they remain some of the best films about “real” rock acts ever made. They may not always tell the truth, but you can tap your toes along while you’re contemplating their creative license.
A near two hour overview of what it was like to be a roadie for seminal punk pioneers The Clash during their Give ‘Em Enough Rope/ London Calling days. Ray Grange plays the disenchanted youth who leaves his dead end job in a Soho sex shop to become a witness to the rise of one of the most important bands in the history of rock. While flimsy and incredible amateurish, there is an immediacy and DIY drive that overcomes the flaws. The Clash HATED it, by the way.
While really a TV special, this brilliant take off on The Beatles could only come from their comedic counterparts – Monty Python’s Flying Circus (or, more specifically, Eric Idle and Neil Innes). Using the known media mythology about the Fab Four, the duo took a collection of songs they perfected as part of a radio broadcast and LP and turned it into one of the most pointed satires ever. Even today, it’s hard to tell The Rutles revisionist hits from John, Paul, George, and Ringos own hallowed TOTP parade.
Known as The Swell Season, bandmates and collaborators Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová decided to develop a musical about two street musicians who come together to influence and infuriate each other. The result was a massive indie hit, an Oscar winner (for the duo’s song “Falling Slowly”), and, now, a Tony Award winning Broadway smash. As for the film itself, it is a sobering experience, one which argues that, sometimes, art and its many personal facets won’t translate across cultures…or individual ideology.
#7 – Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
For those who grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the name Ian Drury is more than familiar. The late, great showman, perhaps best known for the title song and other triumphs such as “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons for Be Cheerful” had to overcome a debilitating handicap (he contracted polio in 1949) and his family’s lack of support to become one of the great music hall throwbacks of the punk/New Wave era. With an amazing Andy Serkis in the lead, this is a wonderful warts and all overview.
Yes, this is cheating a bit, especially since we specifically avoided the rest of the Lads from Liverpool’s cinematic output (A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in particular). Still, if you want to see The Beatles as bickering shadows of their former mop top selves, including the anger and resentment that comes with a pending artistic divorce, this is it. No one is happy, Paul McCartney unsuccessfully plays cheer-leader, and the result is a depressing deconstruction of the raging Beatlemania that swept the world a mere five years before.
Now here’s a true oddity. The Pet Shop Boys, fresh off a string of hit singles, decided to make a long form music video featuring new music from their album Actually. Instead, the project turned into a deranged surrealist road film with a crazed Carry On…sense of humor. For their part, the band looks fine, and we are treated to some terrific tunes (including their excellent cover of Elvis Presley’s “You Were Always on My Mind”). The rest is ridiculously nuts.
So, a couple of actors who love the blues start a fake band as a joke, which then becomes a favorite part of their TV program, then a legitimate chart topper, resulting in a deal to make a fictional biopic about said pseudo group. It must be the drug-fueled Me Decade and the seminal SNL spoof from compatriots in comedy Dan Akyroyd and the late John Belushi. As singers, they aren’t very magical. As two dudes trying to save an orphanage while restarting their jail-delayed ascent to stardom, they’re hilarious.
Todd Haynes, perhaps best known for films like Safe, Far from Heaven, and the controversial The Karen Carpenter Story (where the famed singer’s anorexia shortened career is portrayed via Barbie dolls), takes on Bob Dylan here, and in order to showcase his various media “personas,” he hires different actors to play him. As a result, we get defining work from Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger, among others. Talk about a mesmerizing experience. You’ll never look at the famed singer/songwriter the same way again.
#2 – Rock ‘N’ Roll High School
They were not the first band recruited for this film. Indeed, producers approached Cheap Trick, who couldn’t accommodate due to scheduling issues. Instead, costar Paul Bartel suggested The Ramones, and the rest is rock ‘n’ roll history. The group, in their second phase (with Marky behind the drums) don’t get much to do except sing their songs and act goofy, but it’s the personas they play within the confines of Allan Arkush’s comedy that would come to define how the public viewed them for the rest of their career.
Johnny “Rotten” Lydon considers it an abomination, a fiction forced upon his best friend by a filmmaker–Alex Cox–who had his own ideas about what the punk scene in London was like. Granted, the romance between these regressive fringe dwellers (Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen) is the main selling point, but the whole film often feels like a documentary of a specific time and place. It’s this insight, and what it has to say about the Sex Pistols themselves, that mark its greatness.