Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Music Movies"

I watched Rock N' Roll High School last night, the Ramones movie. That's all it is, a zany high school setting with a threadbare story about how teenage babe Riff Randell, played by PJ Soles (the girl who gets strangled with a phone cord in Halloween) is their #1 fan and eventually gets them to come rock out the high school, and anarchy abounds even in the face of an evil principal. There's a lot of friendly faces from the Roger Corman entourage - Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov...Dean Cundey, one of John Carpenter's greatest cinematographers, is the DP. Joe Dante co-created the "story." There's tons of Ramones songs, a couple sung in music video style by or with PJ and The Ramones.

Calling the movie a "musical" just doesn't fit. There's something about the nature of rock songs that don't lend themselves to the movie-musical mold. Even Ken Russell's 1975 adaptation of "Tommy" was billed as a "rock opera," the moniker jokingly created by Pete Townshend in an interview about the original 1969 album. The term stuck. Before THAT, The Beatles' groundbreaking A Hard Day's Night integrated plenty of concert footage and even some songs within scenes, but the fact the story was about a real band, and that The Beatles were so removed from the genteel stylings of then-current MUSICAL musicals like The Sound Of Music made the "musical" categorization insufficient. A rock-musical? Doesn't sound too appealing, like the two parts contradict by nature.

So, "Music Movie"?

The sub-genre of "Music Movies," as opposed to musicals arguably started with A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964) considering it inspired a rash of cheesy movie vehicles for music acts as shitty as Sonny and Cher and as conceptually bold as The Monkees' Head, which got me thinking about this.

Rock videos used to be slower and more cinematic, and so movies with music after The Beatles more or less created "The Music Movie," which is rock music oriented 90% of the time. Ken Russell's frustrating but frequently rewarding Tommy elevates cinematography into a musical-style total film production of an album - no spoken dialogue. The traditional musical style of the past manifests in the casting of Oliver Reed from Oliver! and no, he didn't play an orphan boy, he's a compellingly ugly grown man. Swedish import Ann-Margret was something of a cross between traditional 45' LP record vocalists of the time like Doris Day, and a Rock N' Roll harlot. She has a deliciously Oedipal role with the titular Tommy, played by Roger Daltry, the real deal singer from the album, of The Who, at the peak of their abilities.

I was OBSESSED with this movie, and quickly collected the various recordings from album to shitty Broadway musical revival. The best recording is the London Symphony. The main criticism to be made is that it maintains the same high level of pitch and energy for each song, without pacing. The corollary to that is that some scenes are directed close to freewheelingly staged and edited music videos, and some scenes are paced like the high melodrama of theatrical stage musicals.

When people think "rock opera" and they have anything to think of at all, they'll think either Tommy or Pink Floyd The Wall, which happens to be another straight adaptation with much slower pace. The constantly frenetic Tommy has Looney Tunes levels of gags in addition to dime store pathos. It's tacky and compassionate.

I became obsessed with the more dour The Wall after Tommy. Half of Pink Floyd The Wall is based on animation from a theatrical musical-style tour that accompanied the original album. The other half is director Alan Parker, who became a semi-respectable mainstream stylist, working from the loose story of the rock operatic album. Musicals and rock operas and music movies don't need more than loose stories. Alan Parker directs at a slow pace to fittingly baroque rock n' roll.

The other two other Music Movies adapted from full albums that I know of, and they're not rock n' roll. The cheaply Japanese animated Interstella 5555: The 5tory Of The 5ecret 5tar 5y5tem (sic) was expanded from the music videos of electro geniuses Daft Punk from their album Discovery. DJ Q-Bert's Wave Twisters is based on that DJ and his titular album, and is animated like an Adult Swim cartoon. They looks bad, though Interstella benefits from designs in homage to 1970s space adventure Japanese animation. In both, the music carries the weight of the visuals instead of working in synch.

Hmm. I thought there some pure and original "music movies" outside of pre-existing album work when I began this post, but the only one I can think of his Neil Young's hard to find 1979 The Human Highway. I haven't seen any of it but Devo's excerpted scenes, which contain the original composition and the high-budgeted (for Devo) visuals of It Takes A Worried Man.

Music movies helped bring music videos into the mainstream after the incredible short films/"music videos" of The Residents and Devo.

There are a couple music movies which are rap movies - 1982's Wild Style, a verite-style stream of consciousness narrative about graffiti kids in New York, and the 1985 Hollywood "rap movie," Krush Groove. They feel like "Music Movies" because they simply don't have musical-style music, and are driven by dialogue driven scenes with frequent music interludes. Wild Style is immeasurably superior:

Then there's the 2001 would-be tailor made insta-cult classic that wasn't, The American Astronaut, a well designed if mildly unambitious bit of dry, monochromatic space Western fantasy poetry. The music is bluegrass and rockabilly...

Finally and speaking of rockabillly is 1998's Six String Samurai, another genre mashup, this time Samurais meets Mad Max post-apocalypse. The music is crazy White guy showoff Steve Vai / Buckethead dickery. The production values are better than Astronaut but the overall quality is about equal in terms of integrated music and conceptual work.

Tenacious D recently had their chance to do good adaptive work with Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, improbably funded by Jack Black's mainstream success years after the fictive band performed, starred in precious few episodes of a Monkees-esque HBO music/sketch show for young adults, and released an album. The movie only comes alive in the musical sequences, similar to the HBO sketches with high production costs. The rest was like a 90 minute episode of the show's interstitial dialogue scenes, which is not the format they function well in.

What if they'd made an entirely musical rock opera film? The future of "Music Movies," if there is one, lies in the full length music in lieu of dialogue, coupled with original and exciting story framework. Music and film are a marriage made in heaven, and few have attempted the full ambitious melding outside the realm of traditional musicals - even the strange, conceptual musicals like Forbidden Zone and Pennies From Heaven.

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