If you’re reading this article–and it appears you are, yes?–it’s likely that you’ve engaged in a barroom discussion about rock ’n’ roll movies at some point in your life, if not in the last week or month. And it’s a totally appropriate, never-settled topic, really.

If you get into Nick Hornby mode and start making up a list to go along with the inevitable argument, you’re likely to find some titles popping up again and again, the presumed classics that define a broad genre. For example, the army of Beatles fans will offer up their heroes in everything from the tense, claustrophobic doc Let It Be to the inanely gorgeous Yellow Submarine . Stones supporters will cite the preening and posturing of the boys in the Altamont-era Gimme Shelter . Concert-film lovers will cite Stop Making Sense ; punks, The Decline of Western Civilization ,Times Square , and Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Irony seekers, meanwhile, will try to out-fox you by name-checking KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park or, for ultra-perversion, the cotton candy of Spice World.

Count on a smattering of other sure bets to crash the conversation, a mix of concert films and artistic conceits like Pink Floyd: The Wall,Woodstock,Purple Rain, Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and This Is Spinal Tap, of course. So many choices, so many you-oughta-see-it contenders.

Today, though, we’ll plumb just below the A-list, offering up a subjective review of worthy rock (and rock-inspired) movies that you may’ve missed. Some you’ll be able to find at the local video chain, while others are long-out-of-print gems that’ll keep you scanning both eBay and specialty catalogs. We like ’em, though, and recommend you find ’em at your earliest convenience.

By 1987, humble, little Athens was a thriving center of off-kilter pop and rock, evidenced by the burgeoning success of R.E.M. and the B-52s, along with the near-misses of acts like Dreams So Real and Pylon. Tony Gayton’s winsome look at the scene, Athens, GA Inside/Out (1987) is loaded with interviews of the bands, in addition to plenty of local color with scenesters, poets, BBQ shop owners and "outsider" artists, who seemed to grow like kudzu in the Athens of the mid-’80s. A pleasant enough snapshot of a self-sufficient, self-conscious scene, Athens, GA successfully mixes low-key concert footage with archival interviews to form a nicely rounded look at a more innocent time in rock history. Which, really, wasn’t all that long ago.

Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life (1998) isn’t a rock film, specifically, though it’s score pulses with the sounds of Yo La Tengo, David Byrne, and Ben Watt. (A quality soundtrack is a prerequisite to any Hartley effort, as important as snappy, staccato dialogue.) The film also benefits from the striking PJ Harvey, cast as Mary Magdelene, who matches wits with both Jesus and Satan in a battle for souls on December 31, 1999. Complex and dreamy, The Book of Life is driven by a demanding, thick plot; a gauzy, deeply saturated look, and music that perfectly complements (and insinuates itself into) the storyline.

Director Michael Winner would move on to such overtly commercial fare as Death Wish, but in 1966 he did well in crafting a little-seen piece of beat cinema, The Girl Getters (which was also released as The System). Set during a long, idle summer, the film offers Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, and some rakish pals creating their own, disaffected fun in a sleepy beach town. Fueled by the mod-pop of British Invasion also-rans the Searchers, The Girl Getters bristles with youthful energy–and equally youthful clichés. Featuring some lovely cinematography and suitably droll acting from the "rebellious" young cast, the sly black-and-white film almost lives up to its billing as "Britain’s original summer lovin’ rock and roll movie." Anglophiles are advised to seek this one out immediately.

As in most Elvis films, the King is faced with a host of dilemmas in King Creole (1958). Does he settle for the lovely, girl-next-door Nellie (Delores Hart) or does he pursue the saucy moll Ronnie (Carolyn Jones)? Is buddy Shark (Vic Morrow) a friend or foe? Will he keep his singing talents aligned with the struggling impresario Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart) or should he cast his lot with Bourbon Street nightclub boss Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau)? Hell, is he even going to finish high school? No matter what soul-searching route he chooses, Elvis’ alter-ego, Danny Fisher, will sing and dance all along the way. Though more-or-less a B-level star vehicle for a young Elvis, King Creole is directed by a screen legend, Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca), who gives the film a seedy noir-ish bent one minute, a bright-and-cheery, mainstream musical feel the next. Not necessarily one of Presley’s most known films, despite being one of his most-solid efforts.

There might not be a lot of competition for "Best New Romantic Dramedy," but if there were, ABC’s Mantrap (1983) would be a prohibitive favorite. Directed by 1980s MTV auteur Julien Temple and starring the cocksure, high-haired boys of ABC, the film follows our dapper fivesome as they dash about tony London, instruments in one hand, martinis in the other. Set against a hyper-stylish background, Martin Fry and company get involved in a bit of spy-play, while their hits like "The Look of Love" and "Poison Arrow" provide the ice-cool soundtrack. Moving along at a brisk (if nonsensical) 60-minutes, Mantrap is filled with beautiful, mysterious women, slender, tuxedoed men, and numerous James Bond trappings. A New Wave classic that’s both laughable and hummable.

Reflecting the subject’s own trans-Atlantic meanderings, Nico/Icon (1995) traces the former Velvet Underground chanteuse through her years as model, vocalist, artistic muse, junkie, and Bohemian mother. Incorporating interviews with a true rogue’s gallery of her contemporaries, songwriting (and smack) partners, and former loves, director Susanne Ofteringer paints a bleak picture of Nico’s four-plus-decades on Earth. Even during her star-turning days, there was a profound melancholy to the German beauty; by the time the film ends–with Nico’s odd death in a bicycle accident–she’s descended into a far worse world of heroin use and creative bankruptcy. At times rough around the edges, the shot-on-video Nico/Icon flits across an intriguing, doomed life, painting a decidedly sad portrait of its namesake.

Attractive both visually and aurally, Pop in Reykjavik (1998) is a stunning look at the remarkably dense music scene in Iceland’s one, actual city. Though nominal "host" Paul Oscar gets in the way more than he amuses, the clear focus is on the music. Sigur Ros, pre-critical stardom, is featured, as is internationally known electronic collective Gus Gus, along with acts as diverse as Mum, Quarashi, and Bellatrix, all of which have released albums in the States to varying degrees of success. If anything, the film–which clocks in well under two hours–could be padded with more performances. Sigur Ros, among others, simply shines live. A part of some traveling Icelandic film packages in the last couple years, Pop in Reykjavik deserves a wider audience.

Ed Wood’s dodgy romp The Sinister Urge (1960/61) could rightly be dismissed as schlock, a cobbled-together mess worthy of Wood’s unique stamp of (low) quality. And, granted, we wouldn’t argue the point. Mostly dealing with a cracked script about good girls gone bad through photography, of all things, the film also delves into the day’s still-smoldering threat to civic peace: rock ’n’ roll. In fact, whenever teenagers in the film hear the dreaded rock music, they go wild and brawl in footage that was originally intended for another Wood project, the half-completed Rock and Roll Menace. Never one to waste already-shot film, Wood simply appended his MIA shock-rock film into his partly funded slasher epic. The results, you can imagine.

While not an out-and-out music movie, Richard Linklater’s genre-busting debut, Slacker (1991) is rightly credited with a cast including "a lot of people." Among the sprawling ensemble cast are numerous Austin rockers of the era, members of standout Texas bands like Ed Hall, Glass Eye, and Jean Caffeine. Gritty clubs, lyrics-spewing philosophers, and spaced-out street performers are the rule in this stream-of-consciousness experiment, which still holds up okay, a decade after it marked Linklater as a director to watch. If you’ve ever wondered why a movie can never get a "club scene" right (think of the half-baked nightlife of Slacker-contemporary films like Less Than Zero, Singles, etc.), then watch this low-budget breakthrough. You’ll see how underground music (and musicians) can be captured with smarts, humor, and realism.

Mercifully only a short, Jane’s Addiction’s Soul Kiss (1989) is a real curiosity of the late ’80s/early ’90s, as viewers get to witness what happens when a stoned-out-of-its-gourd art-metal band is given a video camera and a ton of money from a record label. Mixing the requisite "behind the scenes" shots of L.A. parties and wacky, drugged montages featuring eels and poultry, Soul Kiss is a slight period piece, a love letter to all-out, rock excess.

 

Visit Thomas Crone's website at, naturally enough, www.thomascrone.com.

 

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