Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Best Genuine Rock’n’Roll Films You’ve Never Seen

The Happy Mondays, as portrayed in "24 Hour Party People" (C) 1991 Heather Harris

Everyone's caught DIG!, Some Kind of Monster, No Direction Home, Mark Wahlberg's weird turn in Rock Star, etc. Here's the best rock 'n' roll films, both fiction and non-fiction, that you've never seen and should. Some are readily available, others require deep Googling.

STILL CRAZY (comedy, fiction) Didja like This Is Spinal Tap, comrades? Still Crazy is its companion film, done Brit-style, and with a soulful redemption story at its core. Rife with musician in-jokes galore like the former, it follows a reunion of 70's Brit-rockers 25 years later, which prompt fist pumping yells of "rock and roll!" to be immediately followed by doubling over in back pain, as we geezers are wont. And it forecast the Chainsaw reunion tour of Italy I later photographed with Mr. Twister 28 years after their punk glory days disturbingly accurately, venue-wise.

Great cast with Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Carribean, and far better, with expansive screen time and more authentic as a rocker than in Love Actually), Timothy Spall (Harry Potter and the Assorted Movies), Chris Rea (The Crying Game, the surprised one) Juliet Aubrey (Primeval's mad Jurassic scientist) amongst others, and a mysterious Syd-Barrett/Richie Manic character buried in ghosts from the past. Everything rings true, rare as we know in films about rockers. Treat yourself to a parallel universe Spinal Tap.

24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (comedy, non-fiction) I photographed the Happy Mondays in 1990, the film about the subject, its origin and expanded universe of its surrounding phenomenon came out in 2002, and the film's real life main character died about two years ago, completely off the map to my fellow Americans. I just saw the movie for the first time recently on cable. Are we all too late to the dinner table?

Nosirree. Share the fun in retrospect, for the film 24 Hour Party People remains one of the alltime best music films ever, wholly successful in conveying its subject matter accurately- despite its Python-esque edge- and bringing to life a specialty music understandable to the non-cognescienti. It's also hilarious, insider-joke-heavy which matters not a whit to non-insiders cinematically overall, and features a commanding, intellectually fun and dry as champagne performance by its lead, Steve Coogan (already godhead to myself and others for his "Alan Partridge" satire on punitively vacuous talk shows.)

24 Hour Party People traces the beginning, full flowering and decline of the Rave phenom,first pollinated in Manchester, England before germinating worldwide,as it was engineered by a single human being, Tony Wilson. Wilson found the bands, started the music label with assorted deranged partners, owned the main music/dance club and held it all together, all the while keeping his "day job" as a British television personality, both reporting features and even helming the U.K. Wheel of Fortune!

The movie follows Wilson's dry-humored (over-educated Oxbridge bombast as sound bytes, and solumnly intoned asides with narration like "This is my date Miss United Kingdom. I like her for herself. I know what you're thinking, and we're still together.") ascent and decline, and that of his colleagues, while being utterly true to its subject and as entertaining as if Monty Python fashioned a music documentary.

Biographical depictions include Ian Curtis and Joy Division, Happy Mondays and New Order, all ascending and declining as well. Actor Andy Serkis (Gollum) turn as a renegade producer is a hoot, and the music is to die for (as Curtis unfortunately proved.)
My personal ethos of non-censorship comes into play in recommending this picture whole-heartedly, since there's an animal cruelty scene that I personally must fast-forward, and a LOT of (don't do as we did boys and girls, do as we should have done) drug-taking, but these indeed further the story.

And it's a singularly fascinating one of a lone, creative man finding himself, as he puts it, "in the right place, with the right music, the right bands, the right record label, the right partners, the right club and the right drugs, all at the right time." The place was Manchester, England, the man was Tony Wilson, and the movie was 24 Hour Party People. They are still yours to enjoy immensely.

EDGEPLAY (documentary) Former bassist of subject turned director Victory Tischler-Blue ("Vicki Blue") cajoles The Runaways, their associates and family to explain what went right and what went wrong in the legendary teen girl group who were monster players as well as jailbait.

Shot without legal authorization of Joan Jett, copyright holder of most of their original songs, it fills this vacuum very cleverly with a soundtrack wafting in and out of the few Runaways' live numbers in a dream-like fashion, very apt for hazy by nature recollections of thirty years ago that can be pleasant or genuinely nightmare-like, depending on the memory invoked. You're not going to envy the Runaways...

SUNSET STRIP (comedy, fiction) Sunset Strip should be viewed as a character study companion piece to Almost Famous with far more accurate verisimilitude. Famous is a wondrous pastiche, lotsa entertaining bang for your buck. But Sunset Strip represents the real sh-t. I know. I was there. And here's why you should take my anonymous word for it.

When I first saw this movie I was astonished that I didn't recognize the name of its writer, for I recognized every one of his characters, literally as well as figuratively. The writer obviously was exactly the same age I was, worked in the exact aspects of the entertainment industry that I did, at the exact same time in the early 70's at the exact same spots in Hollywood and knew the exact same people I did (or knew of.) Anna Friel was Genie the Tailor, who did in fact die in an auto accident with several members of British band Fairport Convention. The geeky manager was seemingly an early Geffen clone. The dissolute songwriter was a Warren Zevon-alike, while Jared Leto was, dare I say, a completely interchangeable popstar type of the era. My own future beloved, popstar of that era, lived in the exact same Laurel Canyon mountain aerie depicted in the film (replete with same benevolent landlord), while I worked as a music photographer amongst the main protagonist's doppelganger.

And I did know who he was. He was one of the names you'll recognize on photo credits of the era, who owns a major restaurant here. But he didn't want his name on the writing credits, so I'll respect that.
Sunset Strip is a highly entertaining character study that is unbelievably accurate in its depiction of an assortment of characters on the perimeter, or the earliest stages of ascent, of the music scene in Los Angeles in the early 1970's. It's all true. And we did go out there every night. . .

I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES (documentary) Producer, eccentric musician and genuine good guy in the business Don Was fashioned a documentary about the mid-1990's Brian Wilson that explained the latter's genius to musicians and fans alike better than anyone ever has. You'll actually understand the enigma, as rare in films as it is in real life.

C.S. BLUES (documentary, and the title here a family-friendly version for this site. It stands for C--k S----r Blues, the scatological song Jagger wrote and the Stones recorded to get out of their one-single-left London Records contract.) Acclaimed photographer Robert Frank had all-access to the early 1970's Rolling Stones touring. He documented just what you'd expect, but artily. It's strange and sad to see You Know Who actually topple over unconscious in a quasi-O.D., and everyone behaving really badly in the process of making legendary music. It will be pretty obvious why this was banned, despite Frank's superb reputation in the art world.

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (comedy, realistic fiction) Yes, everything you see depicted here is utterly 100% true about the genesis of Beatlemania in the U.S. Robert Zemekis' first film, and quite well done. Girls really did every single thing depicted here, and all youth celebrated the rebirth of actual rock and roll here during a decade of otherwise mellowmush.

ALL DOLLED UP (documentary) Bob Gruen and first wife Nadya's video documentary of the New York Dolls, young, fresh, outrageous, believable show-offs, so alive. Probably the all-time best roc doc to show actual backstage shenanigans as normal, with priceless live footage. If you know nothing of the NYDolls, you'll understand the appeal instantly, it's that good a documented depiction thereof.

MC5: A TRUE TESTIMONIAL (documentary) Wow. Quite possibly the greatest rock documentary ever, and it's still held up in the courts unwatchable to you the public. Totally portrays historical context, personalities involved, greatness of and uniqueness for the times music canon, and the prototypical rise, fall and rediscovery of this rowdy band of late 60's, mega-influential Detroit legends.

Do you remember hard-assed smartypants John Lydon uncharacteristically being reduced to tears talking about his dead friend Sid Vicious in The Filth and the Fury, acknowledging they were all too young to know how to help their out of control chum? Multiply that times two and eat yer heart out Barbara Walters, for the interview honesty here, yet without any of the innate fun-ness of the band being surgically removed from the DNA.

Worth every second of the film and special features. Widows of the two deceased end the film by yelling "Kick out the jams, M---r-f----rs!" despite their now boho but matronly appearance. Yes, fun!
Work this out already, litigators, it's only the best roc doc ever!

30 CENTURY MAN: SCOTT WALKER (documentary) (review circa 2008, now available worldwide)
It's not released in the U.S. yet, but eventually should be. The subject is American, but his pre-eminence is strictly European. Fans of Absolutely Fabulous should remember Patsy's older sister claiming she was the subject of a Scott Walker song, fans of director Minghella's first (and best) film Truly Madly Deeply (comedy-tragedy-ghost story: deserves own eventual blog) should remember the woman and her ghostly dead lover singing a raucous cover of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," while fans of oldskool retro-60's classics on classics radio should recall "Make It Easy On Yourself" plus many anthemic others done with the same sonorous baritone over an orchestral sweeping vista.

The film is 30 Century Man and the subject is Scott Walker. Once upon a time in the 1960's, three typical tall, skinny Sunset Strip denizens with long hair and bangs past their eyebrows plus failed C.V.s as musicians moved to England, wherein the intrinsic lack of tall, skinny Sunset Strip denizens with bangs past their eyebrows would allow them to actually stand out. And they did, to eventual mega-stardom.

Precursors of the Ramones' hat trick, these unrelated chums named themselves the Walker Brothers, surrendered to mainstream pop, and had enormous hit after enormous hit there, with their flagship sound of Scott Walker's baritone crooning. However mushy the MOR slop tended to be, at least it was interesting having "one of our own" youth culturers singing this way, and all three looking so shaggable. Believe me, David Bowie was listening INTENTLY to this particular sound, and you can hear it every concert he sings to this day.

Huge hits written by the era's best other songwriters, genuine Beatles-esque fan mobbing, compromises, breakdowns, substance abuse, what photographer/director Larry Clark called "the usual betrayals in the music biz," then it gets weird. Prettiest boy and main voice Scott derails, joins a monestary, emerges as a Jacques Brel interpreter, then a techno-artist songwriter before there actually is techno, then avant-garde orchestrator cum performance artist for music that has no categorizing description, all of which he warbles the highest brow intellectual themes over. He releases his work maybe once a decade.

This is the story of Scott Walker, a man rightly called the most enigmatic figure ever in the history of popular music, depicted from infancy to 2006 in 30 Century Man.
The director gives us "listening heads" instead of the talking variety, what with David Bowie coming aboard, Radiohead, Brian Eno and others chatting about Walker's influence upon their own work. Even 60's compatriot Lulu inquires to the only director that's managed to snag an interview with Walker if he's still gorgeous (A: yes, in a tall, skinny, bit of receding hairline, wildly creative, intellectual mien way. Plus he's sober now for decades. The guy laughs a lot for a supposed morbidly reclusive type, too.)

Many depicted fans of old don't "get" his newest work, voicing Luddite disdain for something so far ahead of what's going on now (whenever "now" is: that's the beauty of the avant garde) that they fail to embrace pure innovation for its own sake.
You'll see recent footage of him orchestrating in the studio (replete with a percussionist pounding a huge side of pork, or recording sounds under a wooden box,) and explaining his difficult themes with assured ease and aplomb.

Thank God Scott Walker is still around, for this is one former pop star turned composer who is actually working at the peak of creative powers right here, right now, a massive acheivement for anyone, but especially former popstars. Trent Reznor should be so lucky when he's Walker's age. Check out 30 Century Man when it's released to watch a fascinating musical journey.

Bonus essays on rock-related films with sufficient veracity to warrant inclusion in the Fastfilm blog pantheon, with pix:

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