Never mind the movie, feel the beat

Why is it that even the coolest rock acts so often appear risible on the silver screen? A movie about the music business can succeed - but it's a perilous endeavour that can easily end in disaster. Nick Coleman separates the moments of musical majesty from the rock'n'roll suicides
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The Independent Culture

Right. Quick as you can. Make a list of the best "rock movies" you can think of - the ones that you might have a look at if they were on telly tonight. Here's a starter:

Right. Quick as you can. Make a list of the best "rock movies" you can think of - the ones that you might have a look at if they were on telly tonight. Here's a starter:

Don't Look Back

Gimme Shelter

The Song Remains

the Same

The Last Waltz

This is Spinal Tap

Sign O The Times

The Filth and the Fury

Most of rock's majesty registered in a humble list, I'm sure you'll agree. The Song Remains the Same? We'll come back to that one.

Now, even quicker, a list of the worst rock movies you've ever seen. Go on. Here's mine:

The Doors

Hearts of Fire

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely

Hearts Club Band

Breaking Glass

The Wall

Velvet Goldmine


You'll have noticed no doubt that whereas the "best" list is chronological, the "worst" list is a hierarchy of awfulness. I can't really separate the items on the good list from each other, largely because each film mines something different from rock's motherlode. So I've put them in order of manufacture - together, they make an inventory of the several ways in which rock music can be a splendid and a dubious thing.

The second lot don't do anything of the sort. They speak not of a plurality of rock-related joys and failings, but of the singular way in which rock simply doesn't lend itself to cinematic treatment. They're all awful. If any one of them were on telly tonight, you'd play a record instead.

The other thing you'll have quickly noticed about the two lists is that, although they're composed of what we are amused to call rock movies, they're also manifestations of distinct cinematic idioms. The "good" list is a list of documentaries, pseudo-documentaries and concert films; the "bad" list is a list of dramas.

Rock music is not, in and of itself, completely undramatic. In fact, you could argue that some of the funkiest cultural dramas of the past 50 years have been enacted in the popular music field. No, the point is that rock is only dramatic in and of itself. Its narratives are fixed, its real glory entirely musical (Keith Richards' hair in 1969 notwithstanding - and I'd defy even Julien Temple to make a full-length feature out of that). After all, what can you do with a rock story, apart from set your protagonist the task of scaling the mountain of ambition and then watch in horror and/or amusement as he or she falls off the top?

You might go on to argue that this is the Aristotelian model of tragedy, a narrative structure that has worked well for millennia. It's Macbeth. But Macbeth, unlike Jim Morrison of The Doors, was interesting, and interesting things happened to him, resulting from the collision of early medieval politics with his personal flaws. He didn't show his willy to a civic hall full of hippies and imagine it to be a revolutionary act; he killed the King of Scotland. Macbeth might well have been weak and narcissistic but he was not vain and silly, and his self-destruction could never be construed as a feature of his personal style - a mere continuation of his trousers by other means.

To be fair, not all attempts to hew celluloid drama from the living rock have been utter failures. The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night remains a curiously engaging film that at one level captures the spirit of spontaneity which characterised pop manufacture in the early Sixties. It's basically a chase movie, a fugue (significantly in faux-documentary form), and it depends largely for its impact on the capacity of the Fab Four to lark well to camera. It certainly has a lot more in common with This is Spinal Tap than it has with Backbeat (a drearily overplayed account of the Beatles' early days). That's because it's the gags and not the dramaturgy that rock.

There are others. It might be the extravagant levels of scuzz in That'll Be The Day (1973) and Sid and Nancy (1986) that make them both watchable; scuzz and the fact that, in the former, we enjoy David Essex scurrying like a ferret up the trouser leg of austere post-war Britain and, in the latter, Gary Oldman (as Sid Vicious) going in the opposite direction down post-permissive Britain's plughole with a gurgle, a belch and some amazing vowels. But these are strictly post-modernist modes of enjoyment, and neither film is actually much cop as a drama.

Oliver Stone's The Doors remains the model of all that is idiotic about the rock film as dramatic vehicle. Stone - rather as you suspected he might - divines in Jim Morrison's struggles with his half-remembered past some kind of symbol of America's Sixties. Jim is mystically inclined, shamanistic, chaotic, narcissistic and haunted by the ghosts of Native America. He pouts his way to the mountaintop, overbalances and falls off, the force of gravity on his overextended lips plunging him into an early debaucher's grave. There is no useful conflict in the film, just a linear parade of bad wigs, blow-jobs and clanky music, all of it contorted by the sense of strain you get whenever you try to manufacture drama by confusing something small and nuclear with something large and symbolic.

I doubt that anyone has ever been poleaxed by rock music because of what it symbolises. Rock's ludic spirit might have found corporeal form in its Jims and Elvises and their jubilant self-regard; but its actual substance is entirely manifest in its sound, in the confined, uncontrollable blast that goes off in the small back room of your head when you hear something you like. And you can't make films about that.

You can show rock music, though. And you can rummage around in its bins.

Hence the good list. Leave rock to come at you more or less on its own terms and film can be quite an effective form of conveyance. Nobody has ever got closer to the ugliness, excitement, tedium, moral friability and delusion of the rock thing than DA Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers did with Don't Look Back and Gimme Shelter. They didn't invent dramas to represent rock's contumacious blast; they went out and found them.

It's in that spirit that The Song Remains the Same presents itself as a rather better movie than you might remember it as. In case you'd forgotten, Song is the vanity film Led Zeppelin gave to themselves in the mid-Seventies as a present for being the biggest, hairiest beast in the rockin' universe. It comprises many hours of concert footage of the band playing live at Madison Square Garden in 1973, leavened with many more hours of band members acting out fantasies about themselves (Jimmy Page scrambles up a precipice in Stygian darkness to consult the figure of an ancient seer, only to find on arrival that, yip, that ancient seer is Jimmy Page). Being extremely partial to the group at the time, I remember weeping hot, part-time punky tears of embarrassment and blustering for hours afterwards about the imminent bankruptcy of rock.

Now, it all seems rather satisfactory. This is because the juxtaposition of silly nonsense and the unmediated, reductive blast of the first three numbers - "Rock and Roll", "Black Dog" and "Since I've Been Loving You", since you ask - seems just about right, both as historical artefact (this is really how things were) and as entertainment (this is what rock is in its essential form). Sure, things take a turn for the worse after the first 25 minutes, but what a 25 minutes they are - a tumultuous essay on the utter pointlessness of trying to make rock roll on narrative wheels.

But it ought to be feasible to make a decent movie around rock music; one that finds in rock's ever-shifting social sands a drama that isn't simply about pouting and comeuppance.

In two weeks, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous opens. It's a rock movie in every sense of the word, being about rock, having rock in it and in making an almighty effort to make the rock world serve as a basis for a story that means something to everyone. Oooo-er.

It's also a film "around" rock, in which the rock stars are a bunch of silly Spinal Tap-like self-deluders but everyone else is in search of truth and fellow feeling, weaving in and around the powerchord theme of rock tragedy like passing widdles in a Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar solo. Like an addict, Crowe can't help but submit to the urge to explain and ennoble rock: as a continuation of America's long search for America.

It's big, it's glossy, it's got one foot up on the monitor and something soft is hanging out.