Orion £16.99 (430pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030
Popcorn, By Garry Mulholland
Friday 09 April 2010
It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see why film directors find rock bands so compelling. Their stories invariably take in the crucial components of drama – rebellion, egotism, money, sex, drugs and, in the more extreme cases, death. And they have never been so popular. Recently we have seen Anton Corbijn's Control, about Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, about a youthful John Lennon, and Mat Whitecross's paean to Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock'n' Roll, as well as a deluge of rock-docs on the likes of Dr Feelgood, Joe Strummer and Anvil.
The history of this frequently overlooked genre is examined in Garry Mulholland's archly entertaining and often passionate anthology of "50 years of rock'n'roll movies", which celebrates and bemoans music movies in all their vivid, outlandish and occasionally brilliant glory. Happily, the book has a broader remit than the biopic. There are concert movies, musicals, documentaries, comedies and that ill-advised project, the pop-star vehicle.
Some of the pictures discussed here, such as The Girl Can't Help It, Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, American Graffiti and Bulworth, might appear to be outside the parameters of the rock movie, though Mulholland offers persuasive argument for their inclusion in a book as much about the aesthetic and spirit of rock'n'roll as its primary product: music.
He acknowledges the intrinsic difficulties in conveying the visceral excitement that is a new sound or scene on the big screen. The fact that few rock flicks have been admitted into the critical canon is also conceded, though Mulholland suggests, not entirely convincingly, that this may be as much to do with the anti-populist tendencies of critics as the quality of the pictures. In taking us chronologically through the rock-themed films of the past 50 years, the book charts the crucial developments of youth culture and of rock and pop itself, from the burgeoning teen cool of the Fifties and the early optimism and then shattered dreams of the Sixties through to the canned entertainment and self-conscious post-modernism of the Nineties and Noughties.
Mulholland flits seamlessly between the mainstream (Almost Famous, School of Rock) the cult (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Performance) and the downright obscure (Beat Girl, Privilege) and is not afraid to slay some sacred cows. While acknowledging the easy charm and provocative qualities of A Hard Day's Night, he concludes that it is "a small, empty vehicle which collapses all the good and bad things the 1960s has come to mean". Possibly as contentious is his decision to exclude Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same on the grounds that it is "unforgiveably boring".
Clearly this is a far from objective trawl through the past half-century, and therein lies its charm. Mulholland's love of Elvis, which goes back to the time when his mother took him to see Elvis on Tour (1972), fuels his aching disappointment in Viva Las Vegas and indeed any of Presley's post-army pictures. His compassion for Mick Jagger after viewing Gimme Shelter, the film that documented in horrifying close-up the murder of a Rolling Stones fan at Altamont, is enormously moving. "Who amongst us," he asks, "hasn't had a moment of unbelievable hubris, and how lucky we're not so famous and adored and idolised that these moments lead to people dying."
Crucially, the book compels us to revisit and reappraise films either forgotten or simply unloved. It also proves that, despite popular opinion, rock'n'roll movies can in the right hands be beautiful too.
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