Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Top 10 Rock Musicals

You may find my taste in music (and films) on the old fashioned side, but ladies or gentlemen, whether you like it or not, I present a list of my favorite rock musical movies, in chronological order.

A Hard Day's Night (1964) - There had been rock 'n' roll musical films before, notably the Elvis pictures, but this was the first time we saw the beginnings of a very different attitude and style being associated with the genre. A cinéma vérité exercise with no real plot, "A Hard Day's Night" is a little satire, a little mockumentary, and a lot of irreverent charm and humor. The Fab Four genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, winking at the media and their fans. Sadly the later Beatles films never again had the spontaneity and carefree ease of their first feature.

Head (1968) - This is the movie often credited for destroying the Monkees. This is fitting, since "Head" essentially takes the polished, commercial image of the Monkees and deconstructs it. From a psychedelic romp through a series of artificial television landscapes, full of non sequiturs and random cameos, emerge moments of surprising wit and dark comedy. Director Bob Rafaelson and writer/producer Jack Nicholson lent the film so much counterculture verve, it proved too much for mainstream audiences to handle, leaving "Head" to become a beloved cult film.

Yellow Submarine (1968) - Almost an afterthought to the Beatles filmography, "Yellow Submarine" became an animation classic. The visuals created by Heinz Edelmann, George Dunning, and Charlie Jenkins look like nothing made before or since. Experimental techniques, psychedelic imagery, and pop art graphics help to create a bizarre onscreen universe that is a perfect complement to the Beatles' evolving music of that era. Watch the "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" segment, and you'll never hear the song without thinking of rotoscoped dancing girls again.

Tommy (1975) - The first bona fide rock opera, and a major influence on all the rock narratives that followed. Was there ever an icon of youth alienation to match Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard whose true desire was human connection? The rise and fall of a messianic figure and the quest for spiritual enlightenment come up a lot in these movies, but nobody did it better than Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. "Tommy" is one of the most genuinely moving films of its era, and has one of the best finales of any musical, rock or otherwise.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - "Rocky Horror" has been in theaters continuously since 1975, and there are no signs that it's going away any time soon. It is the ultimate midnight movie, a horror film parody populated by a cast of lovable deviants and freaks. To try and explain its cross-dressing, cannibalistic, mad doctor, alien sex fiend charms is an exercise in futility. It is simply a movie that you have to experience first hand, preferably with a costumed crowd, very late at night, that knows all the words to "Time Warp."

Hair (1979) - High energy and youthful enthusiasm carry "Hair" through its sillier moments and shore up a minimal script. Most remember the movie for its portrayal of New Ageism and hippies. I always remember it for the toothsome, naughty lyrics in songs about free love and interracial mixing. Oh, and Ren Woods' spectacular power vocals, the groovy Twyla Tharp choreography, and the best song ever about the joys of long hair. Alas, no one gets naked, like they do in the stage musical, but I'm fairly sure that everyone got high.

The Blues Brothers (1980) - I'm cheating a little, since "Blues Brothers" is far more motown, blues, and soul than rock. But how could you leave this one off a rock 'n' roll movie list? The film's comedic and action bona fides are endless, but I'll always remember it for all the great musical stars they managed to round up for performances: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway singing "Minnie the Moocher" one more time, and so many others. Heck, even my mother, the stalwart classical music champion, loves this film to bits.

The Wall (1982) - Easily the darkest entry on this list, and one I admit I like much more for the Pink Floyd soundtrack than what's happening at any point on screen. But then, there are those fascinating Gerald Scarfe animated sequences, and the sight of a giant grinder turning British school kids into processed meats. The story is often incoherent, full of obtuse symbolism and gritty visuals, but it's a riveting watch nonetheless. "The Wall" is among the angriest of the angry yong man movies, and offers up the potent dark side of the rock musical.

Velvet Goldmine (1998) - David Bowie never did get around to making a "Ziggy Stardust" movie, so director Todd Haynes more or less did it for him. A gorgeous, nostalgic paean to the age of the glam rock gods, "Velvet Goldmine" charts the rise and fall of a Bowie-like figure, wrapped in a present day crime mystery. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christian Bale put in great pre-stardom performances, but the highlight for me is Ewan MacGregor, playing a feral Lou Reed/Iggy Pop amalgam, who at one point literally sets his own stage on fire.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) - Our hero/heroine, after suffering a sex reassignment surgery gone wrong, staves off despair by adopting the persona of Hedwig, a wronged rock goddess with a lot of pain to share. "Hedwig" takes a deeply personal struggle with gender and sexuality issues, and renders it magnificent through a brilliant soundtrack and the performance of John Cameron Mitchell. It is easily the best rock musical of recent times, being one of the few that is so distinctively of our times. Alas, too few in the last decade have followed in its footsteps.

Whatever became of that "American Idiot" movie? Or the Gorillaz movie? Come on Hollywood. We wanna rock!

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