Essay: Nice rock, shame about the role

From 'The Young Ones' to 'Velvet Goldmine', 'rock' films are born to be naff.

It has been claimed that the reason so few sport films get made - despite the hold sport has on our national psyche - is that actors never look convincing as athletes. The same could be said of rock films. The history of the genre is littered with stinkers. Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's risible stab at glam, is just the latest. For all its glitzy hype and catch-a-falling-zeitgeist intent, Velvet Goldmine, like so many of its predecessors, merely proves that we haven't really moved on since Cliff slapped his thighs in the middle of that youth club in Sidney J Furie's The Young Ones and announced, "Let's do the show right here!"

Who can forget Hazel O'Connor in Breaking Glass? Slade in Flame? Buddy's Song, with Roger Daltrey and Chesney Hawkes? Or indeed Julien Temple's execrable Absolute Beginners, whose biggest crime wasn't its mis-casting of Patsy Kensit or David Bowie, but the fact that it robbed an entire generation of any desire to read the magnificent novel by Colin MacInnes on which it was (de)based. Some might say that Ken Russell is to blame for all this. If Pete Townshend hadn't allowed him to trample all over the rock opera Tommy, in the mistaken belief that because he'd done serious films about proper composers he could tackle a deaf, dumb and blind kid who played pinball, things might have been different. In the event every would-be serious rock film since the mid-1970s has born the hallmark of Russell's hideously bloated schlock-rock. Every frame screams This is Gravitas. This Is A Mirror Of The Times. Oh no, it isn't.

In the early days of the pop film, at least you didn't get the pretence of profundity. All you needed was some bubbly youngsters, their square parents and some strict moral guidelines. Early 1960s, teensploitation flicks such as Gordon Flemyng's Just For Fun and Clive Donner's Some People were basically just an excuse to cram as many beat groups into 90 minutes as the flimsy plot would allow. Some People's sub-text screamed "give us youngsters a break, or at least a Duke of Edinburgh scheme, or we'll start hanging around bus stations looking moody and delinquent". Just For Fun begins with the bubbly youngsters demanding a coffee bar. When this is turned down they form the Youth Party. Running on a give-us-a- coffee-bar ticket, they are swept to power. The film ends with a cheap- budget shot of a papier mache model of the Houses of Parliament crumbling at the prospect of Youth Power. We can chuckle at its gaucheness now, but things have hardly got any more subtle in the meantime.

From all the publicity it has generated, you might be expecting Velvet Goldmine to unzip the seamy crocodile underbelly of the early 1970s, and reveal the oozing decadence within, and to make you a snazzy pair of Alice Cooper trousers out of the skin. But it will of course do no such thing. The template for expose and insight into the machinations of the pop machine hasn't been reshaped significantly since Val Guest's cynical, sardonic Expresso Bongo, made in 1959. And even then, the film isn't so much noticeable for the fact that the Laurence Harvey agent character is based on Larry Parnes as it is for the bizarre interpretive manner in which Cliff sets about those bongos.

It's a well-aired truism that most rock stars can't act. Elvis exhausted his entire thespian repertoire in King Creole and then settled for a career of pure Technicolor cornball. His ineptitude during reaction shots was perhaps matched only by Cliff's. Sting, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Michael Hutchence and the hapless Hazel O'Connor have all conclusively proved at different times that they can't act, even when required to play themselves. But why is it that most actors can't act like rock stars? Ewan McGregor looks far more like a teen icon stomping down the street to Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" in Trainspotting than he does while pretending to be fashionably wasted in Velvet Goldmine.

For some reason the dialogue is never convincing either. Beat Girl from 1961 had Adam Faith delivering lines such as "Don't be a cuboid," and "You're straight from the fridge", but was redeemed by its cracking John Barry score. And who can forget that portentous moment at the beginning of Oliver Stone's The Doors biopic, when Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison climbs in through a window at a party and proffers sagely: "I have no use for doors"? My own benchmark for unfeasible hip dialogue occurs not in a pop film at all, but in Clint Eastwood's otherwise spine-tingling directorial debut Play Misty For Me. Clint's DJ character is invited out to a business lunch by an important media client. Unfortunately, in outlining her pitch, Clint's hostess delivers possibly the most shockingly unconvincing line of hip dialogue ever uttered. "Tell me what do you think of the concept," she begins promisingly, "the unstructured loosy-goosy Monterey Pop, Woodstock kind of thing." Actually there is a short "mmm" between "Monterey Pop" and "Woodstock", as if she is straining to recall other open-air events that might fit into the unstructured loosy-goosy scheme of things. At this point, thankfully, Clint's unhinged stalker turns up again and spares us from further hokum. I think of that line every time I hear the feeble homilies and non sequiturs that pass for industry-speak in your average rock film, lines that, if they were ever delivered in the real showbiz world (excuse the oxymoron), would have even the most loyal PA sniggering behind her hands. Not to mention roadies queuing up to give their charge a good slap.

A common failing in these films is the bludgeoning emphasis on the star syndrome, with its predictable rise-and-fall scenario. Surely there's a good rock'n'roll film to be made about a group that gets absolutely nowhere? Alan Parker's The Commitments, a warm, witty, understated film for its first half- hour, almost fits the bill - but then it gives way to an unlikely fable about a mediocre pub- rock combo who inexplicably gain a following by taking a chainsaw to soul classics such as Midnight Hour and Knock On Wood. There's even a Cliff-and-Una-style dance routine on the top deck of a bus. Parker tries to have it both ways in The Commitments. The band's unlikely ascent is countered by it all going pear-shaped at the precise moment when we've suspended enough disbelief to turn them into the new Beatles.

Rock films strive earnestly to achieve authenticity; they pile on what they assure us is a gritty, insightful realism, but succeed only in convincing us that this is no known rock world. This failing is matched by the one- dimensional characterisations that are trotted out: the shark-like manager, the spurned lover, the devoted fan, the indolent star slouching about. (Velvet Goldmine has indolent slouching by the cartload.) Such casting is matched in lack of subtlety only by the ham-fisted visual signifiers that are crowbarred into every rock pic. Consider that hardy perennial, the passing of the joint. It is passed surreptitiously, cupped parade- ground style in the hand, dramatically inhaled once, just once, before being passed reverentially to the next eager reefer madness victim. The iconography screams, THESE PEOPLE ARE SMOKING POT. Yeah, but not, I suspect, in a way anyone has ever smoked it in the real world.

It says something about the crude, in-your- face nature of such efforts when you consider that epoch and iconography are often best conveyed in the incidentals. In this respect Mike Hodge's crime thriller Get Carter manages to say more about Britain in the early 1970s than any satin-and- tat glam biog. Similarly, controversial 1977 cruising expose Looking For Mr Goodbar, starring Diane Keaton, is quite unintentionally a far better disco movie than many of the recent Studio 54 cash-ins.

Of course, the pop world is both more bizarre and more banal than any mere rock movie can convey. It shouldn't surprise us, therefore, that the manifest unreality of this habitat is often best served up as satire and parody. In Bob Rafelson's Head, from 1968, the Monkees, then at the height of their fame, deconstructed themselves with a savagery which was way beyond the mild self mockery displayed in Spice World - The Movie. At one point in Head, Messrs Tork, Jones, Dolenz and Nesmith are required to act as dandruff in a TV commercial.

And finally, all roads lead to Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's merciless account of backstage prima donnas and tragi-comic scheming; the film that Shaun Ryder thought was a documentary. Towards the end of Spinal Tap, the interviewer asks Tap members Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins whether they think their largely all-male, white following could be construed as racist. "Oh no, of course not," they protest. "We say 'love your brother'. We don't say it really. We don't literally say it. We don't really literally mean it. That message should be clear anyway." I bet they have no use for doors, either.

'Velvet Goldmine' (18) is released on Friday.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most