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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea