Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rocktober: 'La Bamba' (1987)

Although it was made nine years later, La Bamba is sort of a companion piece to The Buddy Holly Story, telling the story of the brief life and career of another of the musicians who died in that momentous plane crash in 1959 (the world is still waiting for the Big Bopper movie, apparently). Ritchie Valens was only 17, younger even than Holly, when he died, and he'd only released three singles, so he doesn't have the same kind of whirlwind musical career to focus on as Holly did (it's amazing how many classic songs Holly wrote and recorded in less than two years). Writer-director Luis Valdez instead focuses the movie on Valens' home life, and nearly half of it takes place before Valens has any success at all.

La Bamba is nearly as much about Valens' half-brother Bob (Esai Morales) as it is about Valens himself (played by Lou Diamond Phillips). While Valens is a straitlaced, ambitious kid, Bob is a screw-up and a drunk, who begins the movie having just been released from prison and proceeds to get himself into numerous scrapes, mistreat his pregnant girlfriend and eventually express resentment over Valens' success. Morales kind of overdoes the tortured-bad-boy routine at times, but the relationship gives Valens' story a depth that Holly's didn't have, showing the troubled background he had to overcome to pursue his dreams.

Valens' untimely death still means that there isn't much to his showbiz story, although Valdez, unlike The Buddy Holly Story director Steve Rash, shows the events leading right up to the deadly plane crash, and he plays up Valens' fear of flying and premonition that he would die on an airplane. That makes the coin toss that puts Valens on the plane especially tragic, which goes along with the way the movie emphasizes his volatile home life. It's less of a music story than a family melodrama, but La Bamba still makes a better case for itself narratively than The Buddy Holly Story managed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rocktober: 'Rock Star' (2001)

A few months ago, I wrote a story for Las Vegas Weekly about Las Vegas as the new capital of hair metal, and I asked most of the musicians I interviewed for their thoughts on the Rock of Ages movie, which had just been released. They almost universally loathed that movie (I did too), but I was surprised to hear from a couple of them that the movie they felt better represented their experience in the '80s rock scene was the 2001 Mark Wahlberg flop Rock Star. I wouldn't have considered it as some bastion of authenticity to seek out for this project, but hearing people like Ron Keel heartily recommend it made me wonder if there was something about it that everyone else had missed.

I can certainly see how '80s rockers would have embraced Rock Star, if for no other reason than it employed a bunch of them (including Miljenko Matijevic of Steelheart, Blas Elias of Slaughter, Jeff Pilson of Dokken, Jeff Scott Soto of Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force and Zakk Wylde of Ozzy Osbourne's band). The movie also totally glorifies the excesses of hair metal, even though main character Chris Cole (Mark Wahlberg) ultimately walks away from it all. If it's an authentic representation of how life was for these guys in the '80s, then life must have been pretty amazing, since Chris, even as the plucked-from-obscurity replacement for a hugely popular singer, has women constantly throwing themselves at him, buys fancy cars and clothes, has access to fabulous parties, and never develops any issues with drugs or alcohol.

The movie is very loosely inspired by the real story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, who went from singing in a Judas Priest tribute band to fronting the real thing when singer Rob Halford left. That basic idea is all the movie takes from real life, though, and Judas Priest is never mentioned, nor are any of their songs on the '80s rock-filled soundtrack (the band later even disavowed the movie). Although Owens joined Judas Priest in 1996 as the band's fortunes were already fading, Rock Star moves the setting to 1985, when fictional hair metal band Steel Dragon is producing hit singles and selling out arenas. When the band's singer quits in a huff (outing himself as gay, in the movie's one other reference to Judas Priest), the remaining members hire Chris, fresh from his own working-class tribute band, as the replacement.

Cue the rock-star cliches, as Chris gets caught up in stardom, neglects his saintly girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) and discovers the perils of fame (i.e., he gets no respect from the other members of Steel Dragon). It's all laid out in a straightforward and fairly dull fashion, and Chris never descends into any truly tragic or dangerous circumstances. In the end he just casually walks away from Steel Dragon and apparently into the beginning of the grunge movement, in a ridiculous ending that finds him in Seattle with a greasy haircut and a sweater singing a terrible wuss-rock song in a coffeehouse. I was actually sort of optimistic early on, when Chris and his girlfriend seem to be equally embracing a hedonistic lifestyle, that the movie would go in an interesting sexually progressive direction instead of turning the girlfriend into the typical nag. But this isn't a movie interested in doing anything but the obvious thing, which does a disservice to the real '80s rockers it's supposed to celebrate. The Steel Dragon songs are pretty good, though.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Buddy Holly Story' (1978)

Buddy Holly had such a short life and even shorter career that there's not a whole lot of material to put in a movie about him, and director Steve Rash ends up altering much of it anyway for the entertaining but insubstantial The Buddy Holly Story. Unlike a lot of showbiz biopics, Story doesn't get to include a rise-and-fall story, since Holly was still going strong when he died in a plane crash in 1959 at age 22. So there's little tension to the story of Holly's success, which involves only mild hardship on the way to universal acclaim. Rash tries to make something of Holly's small-town roots, but the scenes of his parents and girlfriend trying to hold him back don't have much weight to them, and Holly achieves success so quickly that no one really has time to question his choices.

Likewise, the two band members of the Crickets (fictionalized versions of the three real people who played in Holly's band) are mostly relegated to background noise, and their brief conflicts with Holly (annoyed by his embrace of fame, critical of his Latina wife) don't amount to much. I kept waiting for Holly to develop substance-abuse problems, or end up in a toxic relationship, or get screwed over by an unscrupulous music-industry executive, but none of that stuff ever happened. In reality, there were a lot more twists and turns on Holly's road to success (he actually did get screwed over financially by his manager), but Rash chooses to focus on the positive, and it's surprisingly enjoyable much of the time.

Without a lot of drama to include, Rash focuses on the music, and that's where the movie really shines. While most musical biopics might just show enough of a performance to give the audience the sense of how the music came across, Rash shows Buddy and his band playing numerous songs in full, including an entire performance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (where Holly and the Crickets won over an all-black audience) and nearly 10 minutes of Holly's final performance before his death. The actors played the music live, so there's an excitement to seeing what ends up looking like a concert movie, even if Gary Busey isn't anywhere near the performer and musician Holly was.

Contrary to his crazy-man persona later in life, Busey gives a solid, measured performance as Holly, and re-creates the songs well enough. He probably didn't deserve the Oscar nomination he got for the movie, but he's still enjoyable to watch, finding nuance in a portrayal of an essentially decent, upstanding guy. Rash makes the curious choice to end the movie without showing any of the drama leading up to Holly's death, but closing on the triumphant note of Holly onstage emphasizes one last time that this is a movie about music, not tragedy.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Song Remains the Same' (1976)

I'm a big Led Zeppelin fan, but even I got a little bored during some of the shapeless jamming in the band's concert film The Song Remains the Same. The footage of the band performing at Madison Square Garden in 1973 is often powerful, and certainly the band members are strong enough musicians to warrant extended solos, but when "Dazed and Confused" extends to nearly half an hour all on its own, it's hard not to get a little restless. So many of the songs ended up being long, drawn-out jams that by the final third of the movie I was really hoping the band would play something short and punchy. Even so, solos by guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham are often fascinating to watch, and it's exciting to see the band at the height of its creativity.

There's more to The Song Remains the Same than just a straightforward concert documentary, though: The performance footage is broken up by silly fantasy sequences meant to represent the inner lives of the band members, and while it's smart for director Joe Massot not to call on the band members to speak any dialogue, the wordless music video-style interludes feel superfluous without an overall narrative tying them together. The Song Remains the Same isn't a rock opera, and so the fantasies don't have much meaning other than the band members goofing off. It is a little amusing to see how grandiose John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's segments are (Jones is a masked hero of some sort; Plant is a knight saving a damsel in distress; Page climbs a mountain and meets a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be his older self) compared to Bonham's, which involves him working around the house, spending time with his family and racing cars.

I was more amused by the backstage footage (which, as a disclaimer notes at the end, was not shot at Madison Square Garden), including band manager Peter Grant berating a promoter for not cracking down hard enough on bootleg merchandise. It would have been nice to see more of that, maybe a more varied documentary on Zeppelin's tour, but the performance footage is still worthwhile for fans, even if the fantasy stuff doesn't really add anything to it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rocktober: 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (2001)

Like a lot of the movies I've written about for this project (The Wall, Tommy, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle), John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more impressionistic than it is a straightforward narrative, with musical numbers holding together a loose story about the tragic life of a transsexual rock singer (Mitchell). In the original stage version, Mitchell's Hedwig told the story of her life directly to the audience while backed by a live rock band, and while the movie opens up that format, it still feels at times like a one-man performance rather than a fully realized movie.

The story unfolds in fragments, often through the songs that Hedwig sings, as she tells of growing up as a boy in communist East Berlin, falling in love with an American soldier, getting the botched sex-change operation that left her with the titular "angry inch" and then moving to the U.S. The glammed-up flashbacks to war-torn Germany are definitely reminiscent of The Wall, and the occasional animated interludes also owe a bit to Pink Floyd.

Once in the U.S., Hedwig loses her husband and finds herself stranded in the Midwest, where she meets sheltered teen Tommy (Michael Pitt) and starts teaching him about rock n' roll and deviant sex. He becomes a rock star but disavows her, and so she's stuck playing low-rent seafood restaurants and telling her sad tale to the audience (hence the structure of the stage play). My favorite aspect of the movie was Hedwig's deadpan sense of humor; you'd expect such a larger-than-life character to be melodramatic and bombastic, which she is, but Mitchell does a great job of playing up the sarcastic jokes, and I could have used more of those.

Instead we get a muddled plot that's sometimes hard to follow, hammy musical numbers that are not particularly impressive, and some philosophical musings that fit awkwardly into the story. I really had trouble getting a handle on the relationship between Hedwig and Yitzhak, her husband/sidekick who doesn't really do anything in the band, and hangs out in the background looking vaguely put-upon. Yitzhak's journey figures prominently into the movie's climax, but I couldn't really figure out what it was supposed to mean. He's played by a woman (Miriam Shor) but as far as I can tell is meant to actually be a man who longs to be a woman (and not a woman in drag as a man). It's needlessly confusing and distracts from the central story about the relationship between Hedwig and Tommy.

Too much of the movie is like that -- needlessly confusing and distracting -- for it to hold together as a narrative, and even though I wasn't that taken with the songs, I can see how they might be enjoyable presented in the more straightforward format of the stage show. Hedwig makes for a pretty good rock star, but she's less successful as the main character of a movie.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rocktober: 'Purple Rain' (1984)

Prince is nobody's idea of a leading man. He may be a brilliant musician and a charismatic stage performer, but with his short stature, wispy mustache, soft voice and penchant for puffy shirts, he's not exactly movie-star material. Purple Rain ignores this and treats him like a dashing matinee idol, and it only makes his character more unsympathetic. Known only as "the Kid," he's a sullen local Minneapolis musician in competition with a flashy rival played by Morris Day. Virtually the entire cast is made up of Prince's musical associates playing versions of themselves (generally poorly), and somehow Prince comes off worst of all, with the Kid behaving like a petulant egomaniac, treating his band members and girlfriend terribly. The movie ends with his supposed redemption, but there's nothing to indicate that he's changed at all, nor any reason for any of the other characters to suddenly appreciate him.

Not that the plot is particularly coherent before that, either. The big conflict seems to hinge on whether Day will oust the Kid's band The Revolution (played by Prince's actual band The Revolution) from the nightclub where they both play by replacing them with a new girl group led by Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). But the stakes never seem to be very high, and the Kid doesn't seem to care much about whether the band keeps its gig or not. Throughout the movie, he dismisses a new song written by band members Wendy & Lisa, only to finally embrace it at the end, when it turns out to be "Purple Rain." In real life, Prince, not Wendy & Lisa, wrote "Purple Rain," and Wendy & Lisa left The Revolution out of frustration that their contributions weren't being recognized. That's some heavy irony right there.

So the Kid treats his band members like trash, and when he hooks up with Apollonia, he treats her terribly, too, slapping her across the face when she says she's going to join Day's new girl group. It's implied that this behavior is a product of the Kid's origin in an abusive home (his father, played by Clarence Williams III in one of the movie's only performances by an actual actor, frequently beats his mother), but he never apologizes or appears to change his ways, and yet he gets the girl in the end anyway. When he's not slapping her, he belittles her and takes her for granted, and never seems to support her musical ambitions. Kotero, who recorded a Prince-produced album with girl group Apollonia 6, functions primarily as eye candy, and her love scenes with the Kid are hilariously cheesy.

I've never been a fan of Prince's music; I respect his talent, but his songs don't do anything for me (even when I've seen him perform live). But the live performances are easily the best part of Purple Rain, and given how half-assed the plot is, the movie probably would have been better off as a Prince performance film. That's essentially what it turns into in the last 15 minutes, when it gives up any semblance of story and just throws all the plot points out the window, declaring them resolved despite nothing having changed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rocktober: 'Almost Famous' (2000)

Hey, remember when we all thought that Kate Hudson was a promising actress? Watching her performance in Almost Famous knowing how poorly she squandered her subsequent career helped me focus on all the other great performances in the movie, which remains one of my absolute favorites. I put it near the top of my list of the best movies of the '00s a few years ago, but I actually hadn't seen it in quite some time and was a little worried that it wouldn't hold up. But it's still fantastic, a joyous celebration of rock n' roll and adolescence and self-expression, just one of the most heartfelt and uplifting movies I've ever seen. It's certainly the definitive statement of Cameron Crowe's career, and his personal attachment shines through in every moment without ever overshadowing the storytelling or the performances.

As someone who writes about entertainment for a living and who's interviewed a decent number of moderately famous people (although not on the level of the people that Crowe wrote about, and not for as prominent a publication as Rolling Stone), I can say that nothing even remotely resembling what happens to William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Almost Famous has ever happened to me. Maybe stuff like that does still happen to people who write about big stars for big publications, but it seems like it's a relic of a more decadent era, and the movie captures that excitement and excess of rock n' roll as something to be cherished, even when it shows the dark side of it. Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells William that rock is dead or dying, and as much as Lester loves rock, he's clearly also very cynical about it. William (and by extension, Crowe and the movie itself), however, is completely in love with everything about rock, and finds the beauty in even its ugliest and darkest moments.

I think that's one of the great things about the movie, that it can show rock stars treating women like disposable toys, tragically sad "band aid" Penny Lane (Hudson) overdosing and nearly dying, musicians and managers and journalists all eager to sell out, and yet still come away as a paean to the transcendence of rock n' roll, to music's power to change people's lives and give them meaning. I don't think I've ever felt about a band (or any piece of art or entertainment) the way that William feels about Stillwater, but I can understand that feeling while watching Almost Famous, and there's a wistfulness to the movie for a sort of innocence that William doesn't even know that he's losing (and that Crowe, however, seems to have never lost).

However disastrous her career turned out to be, Hudson is still fantastic in this movie as the lonely, damaged girl who hides behind a facade of rock n' roll indifference, and the rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. Fugit's career has basically gone nowhere, and he was overshadowed by his co-stars when the movie came out, but he's excellent at conveying William's mix of intelligence and naivete, and the way that shy nerds can get easily caught up in attention from people who are cooler and/or more attractive than they are. Billy Crudup radiates charisma as rock star Russell Hammond, so that it's easy to see how William and Penny both become infatuated with him in their own ways, and how he commands the attention of everyone around him.

The performance that struck me most this time around was Frances McDormand as William's mother, who is overprotective and never approves of his rock n' roll career path but also loves him unconditionally, respects his ability to take responsibility for himself and stands up for him when he's mistreated. Although based on Crowe's real-life mother, the character could certainly have turned into a stereotypical nag, but instead she sticks to her convictions while loving and supporting her children, and McDormand plays that balance beautifully.

Very few filmmakers are able to make unabashedly sentimental movies that avoid being manipulative or cloying, that tell positive, feel-good stories about real life without seeming false or contrived. Almost Famous is the best example of Crowe's ability to do just that, to take his real-life journalistic experiences and love for rock n' roll and passion for the people around him and transform that into a funny, touching, engrossing and wonderfully crafted piece of cinema.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rocktober: 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' (1970)

According to screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is meant to be a satire, but it seems like not everyone involved in the production was in on that intention. Originally conceived as a sequel to infamous 1967 stinker Valley of the Dolls, the movie was eventually reimagined to stand on its own, so definitively not a sequel that a disclaimer at the beginning asserts that it has no connection to the original movie. That's a good thing for me, since I've never seen the original (which, not being about a rock band, doesn't fit within the parameters of this project). Whether it's serious or satirical, though, Beyond is a total camp train wreck, filled with memorably awful lines ("This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"; "I'd like to strap you on sometime"; "I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn that all four of them habitually smoked marijuana cigarettes"; "Up yours, ratso!"; etc.), overheated characters, storylines that make no sense and so much psychedelic excess that it must have been Austin Powers' favorite movie.

The plot, such as it is, involves a trio of young women who move to Los Angeles to pursue their rock n' roll dreams, accompanied by their manager, who's also the lead singer's boyfriend. Dubbed the Carrie Nations, they achieve instant success and are drawn into a hilariously seedy showbiz underbelly of drugs, promiscuous sex and, um, occult violence, featured in the out-of-nowhere climax that was apparently conceived at the last minute as a response to the Manson Family murders (Sharon Tate was in the original Valley of the Dolls). The loose story is mostly an excuse for director Russ Meyer to show as much naked flesh as possible, and this movie is definitely in the running for the most naked breasts ever featured in a major studio release.

Some of the scenes are clever in the way they send up the culture of free love and drug-fueled indulgence, and there is a level of excitement to Meyer's envelope-pushing, which is pretty risque even by today's standards (he manages to get in a lesbian love scene as well as a male-on-male kiss -- sort of). But it's such a jumble of hippie parody and straightforward rock musical (the Carrie Nations play a number of songs in their entirety) and violent fever dream and sexploitation movie and hypocritical morality play (the ending features a somber voice-of-God narration about all the mistakes the various characters have made) that it ends up completely at odds with itself. If Ebert and Meyer were actually making a satire, the only thing they really succeed at satirizing is their own movie.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rocktober: 'Satisfaction' (1988)

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Satisfaction may be the '80s-est movie I've ever seen, or at least the '80s-est movie I've seen in a very long time. It has all the elements you'd need to put together a parody of bad '80s teen movies: a once-hot TV star (Justine Bateman); currently respected actors who are no doubt ashamed of their participation (Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts); "fun" in the sun; beach volleyball; a drug-abuse subplot built mostly around occasional pot-smoking; denim jackets; blazers worn over T-shirts; terrible pop music; a "tough" girl who gets a glam makeover; lame sex jokes; "gangsters" who look like refugees from The Warriors; spoiled rich people who treat our heroes poorly; and Debbie Harry.

Believe it or not, I could go on, but I think you get the point: Satisfaction is pure cheese from start to finish, notable mainly for the people who appeared in it before going on to better things (even Justine Bateman's relative obscurity has to be preferable to starring in this movie). Bateman, hot off the success of Family Ties, stars as Jennie Lee, lead singer of all-girl band Mystery, who get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the summer house band at a bar in an unspecified beachfront community. Her bandmates include Julia Roberts, in her first film role, as bassist Daryle (the girly girl) and Britta Phillips, these days best known as a member of indie band Luna, as guitarist Billy (the druggie). Mystery picks up a token dude on keyboards and heads to the beach, where they find love, heartbreak, potential fame, etc.

For a movie with so many subplots, Satisfaction feels like it has no dramatic stakes. The love story between Jennie and bar owner/former music-industry hotshot Martin Falcon (Liam Neeson, clearly embarrassed) lacks any passion whatsoever, Billy's recovery from drug addiction basically involves her saying, "Hey guys, I'm not going to do drugs anymore," and the gangsters who show up to menace the band in the movie's climax are completely ineffectual. Even the supposedly important booker about to give Mystery its big break has maybe one or two lines.

A movie like this is just about having goofy fun, but the beach scenes are tired, and the various musical interludes only highlight the folly of whoever told Bateman she could sing. Mystery's songs are all '80s-fied versions of golden oldies (including the titular Rolling Stones cover), and the only decent musical performances come from Phillips, who provided the singing voice of Jem on Jem and the Holograms and sings lead on a handful of songs in the movie. Going from Jem to teen movies to indie rock is a pretty fascinating career progression, and a movie about Phillips' life would probably have been a lot more entertaining.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rocktober: 'Head' (1968)

Even more than 40 years after their show ended, The Monkees are still generally known as a silly made-for-TV band with a catchy theme song, and in 1968 the four members of the group were desperate to change that image. A notorious flop that's since become something of a cult classic, Head failed to reinvent The Monkees, but it's still impressive to see how far the band members were willing to go to present themselves in a new light. Head is light and silly but also extremely bizarre and confounding, and about as far from a predictable sitcom as you can get. It has nothing in the way of narrative coherence or even recognizable jokes, instead careening from one strange set piece to another, often with no connective tissue whatsoever.

The four band members play themselves, as usual, and the whole thing is apparently some sort of metaphor for how they were being held back by the producers of their TV show (they're frequently trapped in a giant box). Mind you, I only know that because I read it on Wikipedia, and watching the movie gave me no sense of any message or allegory, just a series of nonsensical jokes, sometimes entertaining musical numbers and various stylistic pastiches that don't really fit together.

For people who were eager to prove their talents beyond bubblegum pop and sitcom stardom, the Monkees themselves come off as a little lost within their own movie, cracking jokes and singing songs but never really commanding the screen. Parts of Head are fun to watch, but it quickly becomes repetitive (perhaps deliberately so, as the movie returns over and over again to certain locations and scenarios). I don't think I would have been able to sit through the 110-minute director's cut, since 85 minutes ended up feeling interminable after a while. Director Bob Rafelson (who also co-created The Monkees TV series) went on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the '70s, so it's interesting to see the roots of his style, but Head functions mostly as a curiosity for Monkees fans.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Doors' (1991)

Its title may be The Doors, but Oliver Stone's film ostensibly about the influential 1960s rock group might more accurately be called Jim Morrison: Portrait of a Douchebag. The other three members of The Doors (Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore) barely register in Stone's drug-soaked opus, which often resembles the muddled headspace of its main character. The movie could have used a break from Morrison's egotistical ramblings, but instead of chronicling the tumultuous career of The Doors, Stone chronicles Morrison's every volatile outburst and psychedelic freakout, minimizing the music in favor of glorifying Morrison's egocentric behavior.

No one depicted in the movie was particularly happy with how it turned out, and I'm willing to believe that Morrison wasn't as insufferable in real life as Stone and actor Val Kilmer make him in this movie. But spending a little over two hours with the guy is a real chore, from his supposedly formative experience as a child witnessing a group of Native Americans in a car accident (which leads to the recurring motif of Native American spirits appearing to him, memorably spoofed in Wayne's World 2), to his manner of courting his longtime girlfriend Pamela (Meg Ryan, seriously miscast) by following her home and climbing up onto her porch, to his numerous drug freakouts. It doesn't help that I'm less than impressed by the band's music as Serious Art, although Stone does little to win over any skeptics.

Kilmer gives a very spirited performance, to say the least, and it's hard to blame him for Morrison's excesses that were either real or written into the script or both. Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley, who play the other band members, don't really get much to do, and Ryan is never quite convincing as a free-spirited druggie. The whole movie comes off as a self-indulgent mess about a self-indulgent mess, and if anything made me less inclined than before to bother with the music of The Doors. Kilmer does do a pretty good approximation of Morrison's voice, at least.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Rocktober: 'Tommy' (1975)

Subject matter that sounds epic and emotionally resonant in a song can come off as ridiculous and comical when depicted literally, and much of the problem with Tommy, Ken Russell's movie version of The Who's 1969 rock opera, is that the actual characters and story of Pete Townshend's songs are totally silly. There's some very personal material in Townshend's story of a traumatized boy who grows up into a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champion and later a messiah, but its realization on film is a mess of bad performances (both musical and dramatic), absurd plot twists and general surrealist excess. Some of the more bizarre set pieces are striking in their grotesquerie, and of course much of the music is very good.

It's not, however, nearly as good when sung by the actors in the movie as it is when performed by The Who themselves. Frontman Roger Daltrey plays the title character, so he does get to sing a few of the numbers himself, but since Tommy spends much of the movie unable to speak, the majority of Daltrey's performance involves staring blankly into the middle distance and trying to evoke trauma. Unfortunately Daltrey completely fails at this task, and instead conveys what looks like mild mental retardation.

Once Tommy recovers and Daltrey is able to finally draw on his rock-star charisma, his performance finally warrants the attention it gets, but until then Ann-Margret (as Tommy's mother) and Oliver Reed (as his nasty stepfather) have to carry things, and they're not quite up to the task. Ann-Margret was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, but she's a little too delicate to play the volatile woman who traumatizes Tommy so thoroughly. And Reed, while effective as the unctuous stepfather, is such a terrible singer that every time he opened his mouth I couldn't wait for a different character to take up the vocals.

That's the other thing about Tommy: It's a true opera, in that there's no spoken dialogue, only singing. Again, on record this approach makes sense, and the songs don't need transitions between scenes or coherent plotting. Russell takes a surreal approach to much of the filmmaking, but the movie is still straightforward enough that the plot has to move coherently from one event to the next, and the songs just don't provide enough connective tissue. As an album or a live concert experience, Tommy is no doubt powerful, but as a movie it's sort of a disaster.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle' (1980)

Produced after the Sex Pistols had essentially broken up (Johnny Rotten had left the band, which would ultimately not continue), The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle is a bit of a swindle itself. It's a self-aggrandizing vehicle for band manager Malcolm McLaren, who stars as himself, giving a sort of "lesson" about how he invented both the Sex Pistols and punk rock itself, and then used both to bilk hundreds of thousands of pounds out of record companies and leave the musicians and the public in the dust. It reduces the band members to pawns in McLaren's scheme, and although Rotten's three bandmates (Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious) do appear in the movie, their presence is secondary to McLaren's pontificating, which frames everything else (including archival footage of Sex Pistols performances and interviews, which were the only way to get Rotten in the movie) as a function of his vision.

Although it's structured as a series of guidelines for duping the public, Swindle doesn't really have anything to say about the music industry or the career of the Sex Pistols. Its Monty Python-esque freewheeling style is more disjointed than surreal, and writer-director Julien Temple (who 20 years later made a more straightforward documentary about the band, The Filth and the Fury) throws together the material as best he can, although he was undoubtedly working under serious constraints. Elements like the animated sequences and the lengthy travelogue footage of Jones and Cook in Brazil feel like filler cooked up to bridge the gaps between performance clips.

Jones does an amusing job playing himself as a "detective" tracking down McLaren for the money he's owed, and McLaren himself is an entertainingly hammy screen presence. But the movie's relentless cynicism is completely unearned, since McLaren's supposed scheme has been invented in hindsight. The Pistols are both more significant and less cunning than this movie makes them out to be, and its existence as a postscript to the band's career (underlined by the news reports of Vicious' death that appear after the credits) highlights what a pathetic cash-grab it really was.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Rocktober: 'Jailhouse Rock' (1957)

Despite his connection to my hometown of Las Vegas and his pop-cultural importance, I'd never seen an Elvis Presley movie until watching Jailhouse Rock. Presley movies seem sort of like the From Justin to Kelly of their time, churned out quickly to capitalize on the popularity of a teen idol. But Jailhouse Rock is the most highly regarded and, along with Viva Las Vegas, the most recognizable, and it has endured as a classic beyond its opportunistic origins. Although, really, I would imagine that most people only know one scene from Jailhouse Rock, the performance of the title song, which is every bit as electrifying and indelible as any of Presley's best moments. It's a creatively staged, almost impressionistic production number, with a style that prefigures music videos, and the song itself is a catchy barn-burner.

The rest of the movie is kind of a dud, though, with a flat, mumbly performance from Presley as a sullen jerk who becomes a rock star almost in spite of himself. Not being familiar with anything about the movie other than the aforementioned performance, I was sort of surprised to see Presley's character, Vince Everett, spend only about 25 minutes of the movie in prison, and then move on to a fairly rote rags-to-riches story and a ho-hum romance. While in prison, he rather improbably gets to perform on a nationally televised prison variety show (or something like that), after he's just learned to play the guitar seemingly a week earlier.

Vince's entire career is a series of happy accidents like that, and Vince himself doesn't seem to care much about making music or performing. He's short-tempered and inconsiderate, and his romance with music promoter Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) involves him insulting her, ignoring her and at one point literally smashing his face into hers. Somehow this leads to their living happily ever after at the end, but only after Vince gets in a fistfight with his mentor/former cell mate, which nearly causes Vince to lose his voice. The movie is constructed out of those haphazard events, as Vince stumbles into success as a musician and an actor without seeming to have passion for anything but money.

Vince is presumably meant to have a heart of gold (he goes to jail for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight while defending a woman's honor), but Presley's performance never makes him seem more than immature and petty, and the movie ends abruptly without anything resembling a redemptive story arc. Watching that wonderful production number midway through the movie, it's easy to see how Presley could be mesmerizing onscreen, but nothing else in the movie comes close to matching it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rocktober: 'Rattle and Hum' (1988)

These days, the pomposity of U2 is well-known and taken for granted, and anyone who can't stand Bono's grand pronouncements and self-importance probably stopped listening to the band a long time ago. But in 1988, as The Joshua Tree had just made the band into international superstars, the idea that they took themselves way too seriously was just starting to take hold, and the documentary Rattle and Hum confirmed for many people that the band members were insufferably full of themselves. Bono's onstage posturing and the band's sort of smug exploration of American roots music come off as rather mild compared to the bombastic performances and projects the band would be involved with later on, and Rattle and Hum features some great concert footage that captures the band at the height of its fiery idealism.

It's pretty disjointed as a movie, though, with director Phil Joanou awkwardly splitting between a straightforward concert documentary (as in the late-film series of songs taken from a concert at Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona) and a chronicle of the band's dabbling in Americana. The Sun Devil Stadium sequence especially often seems like it comes from a different conception of the movie, with the full-color footage breaking in after most of the running time has proceeded in black and white. And while the earlier parts of the movie focus on new songs (such as recordings made at Sun Studios or the B.B. King collaboration "When Love Comes to Town") or covers or reworkings of existing songs (like the gospel-choir take on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"), the later segment features the band performing recognizable hits.

While it may be odd to see a concert movie focused on material that audiences haven't heard already, Rattle and Hum is more effective when it shows the band exploring new ground. Sure, they come off as narcissistic and out of touch while touring Graceland (where Bono promises they won't film drummer Larry Mullen Jr. sitting on Elvis' motorcycle, and then they do just that), but at least the movie is offering up a candid portrait of the band's evolution. The concert footage is fine for what it is, but Joanou and the band seem uncertain of what kind of statement they want to make with the movie, and the result is a mix of compelling, embarrassing and ambitious material that doesn't really fit together very well. In that way, it's a pretty accurate indication of what U2 would become.