Archives: Greatest Rock Movies Ever

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Posted by Greg on November 7, 2013 at 7:20 am
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Cameron shared his Greatest Rock Movies Ever with Premiere magazine back in March, 2004. With recent docs like The Swell Season and new films such as Inside Llewyn Davis coming out soon, it might be time to revisit, but let’s check it out.

Selecting the ten greatest rock films of all time is an immediately daunting task.  Any true fan of the form can get lost in the plethora of choices,  categories, and subgenres.  So when I promptly fell victim to the many potholes along the road,  I asked PREMIERE if I could somehow mess with the structure,  and find a way to wedge in more than just ten.  Their weary answer  ”Go crazy”,    And so I have. What follows are the ten best rock ‘n’ roll films —- along with their many cousins  —- and in the spirit of the genre, an appropriate amount of excess.  C.C.

1. The “Should I really be watching this?”  Rock movie
Don’t Look Back
(1967, DIR. D.A. Pennebaker)

Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras
(1997, DIR. David Furnish)

Cracked Actor
(1975, DIR. Alan Yentob)

None of these films would exist were it not for the rare and complete access given to the directors.  All three superstars (Bob Dylan, Elton John, and David Bowie)  signed on for the “warts and all” approach, and the results are riveting — you cannot look away.

While the films are sometimes light on actual concert footage,  the overall feel is pure rock ‘n’ roll attitude.   Furnish is the most generous with the music, and Pennebaker is purposely stingy with  Don’t Look Back, which chronicles Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  He’ll give you a tantalizingly brief glimpse of a spectacular performance and then wrench you back into the often corrosive offstage life of the artist.  Don’t Look Back is the easiest to find, but the latter two are worth every moment of your eBay searches.


2. The “They’re Playing A Character Close To Themselves But Who’s Kidding Who, It’s Really Them And It Kicks Ass”  Rock Movie

A Hard Days Night
(1964, Dir. Richard Lester)

Purple Rain
(1984, Dir. Albert Mangold)

8 Mile
(2002, Dir. Curtis Hanson)

Loving You
(1957, Dir. Hal Kanter)

Kudos to these directors who made their musicians stars — The Beatles,  Prince,  Eminem,  And Elvis, respectively — comfortable enough to be themselves on the silver screen.  The Beatles in particular will forever be relevant,  as generation after generation will always be able to witness their timeless pop shimmer in every frame of  A Hard Days Night.

All these movies rock with the knowledge of what makes the artists great, and an understanding of the fans who appreciate them most. (For a guilty pleasure on the opposite end of the credibility scale,  check out Elvis’s “acid trip sequence” performance of “Edge Of Reality” in 1968′s  Live a Little,  Love a Little.


3. The “When Rock Was Young”  Festival Film

Monterey Pop
(1968, Dir. D.A. Pennebaker)

(1970, Dir. Michael Wadleigh)

Woodstock is still the granddaddy of rock festival films,  with it’s battery of exhilirated and talented filmmakers,  like young rock fan Martin Scorsese.

But Monterey Pop stands the greatest test of time.  The faces,  the atmosphere, the shooting; All are vivid,  bursting with life,  and presented with a minimum of youth culture “salesmanship”.

The concert sequences are just plain iconic,  with Janis Joplin,  Jimi Hendrix, and the Who delivering career-defining performances while vying for a place in rock history. (Or maybe they’re all just trying to steal the show.)  All of the artists brutalize one another with pulling-out-all-the-stops stage moves, but it’s Otis Redding who sequence is still wrapped in the most rock mystique.  Standing behind Redding for the now-famous “Aura Shot”,  Pennebaker stayed trained on the white-hot spotlight as the singer moved powerfully in and out of it.  (Rumor has it that Pennebaker almost went blind shooting it.)  Redding died six months later in a plane crash, and some atill contend that a premonition of the accident is visible in the strange light rings around Redding’s body.


4. The “Dubious Casting Of Actors To Play Musicians, But It Works” Rock Movie

Ladies And Gentlemen,  The Fabulous Stains
(1981, Dir. Lou Adler)

Sid & Nancy
(1986, Dir. Alex Cox)

American Hot Wax
(1978, Dir. Floyd Mutrux)

There are few tightrope-walks quite as scary as when Hollywood hired dramatic actors to portray rock musicians onscreen.  In theory,  it should work.

Both actors and musicians are famously enamored of each other, yet somehow the rhythms and the personal poetry of each camp are rarelyin sync and often very hard to watch when they cross-polinate. Here are three films that beat the house.  Alex Cox fares best,  thanks to Gary Oldman as Sid,  and a Stevie–Nicks–on–smack turn from Chloe Webb as Nancy. Plus, look for Courtney Love in an embryonic cameo.


5.  The “All Bands Should Watch This Before Their First Tour”  Rock Movie

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
(2002, Dir. Sam Jones)

Here Comes Huffamoose
(2000, Dirs. Chris Richter and Pawel Kuczynski)

Come Feel Me Tremble
(2003, Dirs. Otto Zithromax a.k.a Paul Westerburg and Rick Fuller)

The first two are beautifally united in theory.

Both Bands —- Wilco, the subject of  I Am Trying, and Huffamoose — were intact when filming began. And both were altered, with surprise lineup changes  and more,  when filming ended.

Moral of the story: There’s a price to be paid by every group of van-mates for those fleeting, glorious moments onstage. Come Feel Me Tremble, Paul Westerburg’s concert film, details what happens when the band’s already broken up,  and on shaky legs a brilliant frontman takes to the road by himself.  Westerburg solicited the help of fan footage to finish his film, and it’s the movie equivalent of his best songs. Required viewing  — a makeshift performance of “I Will Dare” turns into a hootenanny as the audience floods the stage and becomes Westerburg’s new band.


6. The “I’m With The Band” Tour Film

Gimme Shelter
(1970, Dirs. Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin)

Rust Never Sleeps
(1979, Dir. Bernard Shakey a.k.a. Neil Young)

Elvis On Tour
(1972, Dirs. Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge)

Though thematically it’s hijacked by the haunting footage of a murderat a free-Stones-concert-gone-haywire at Altamont Speedway,  Gimme Shelteris essentially a beautifully recorded, raw document of the Rolling Stones’ greatest tour (“You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do ya!?”) In 1969 , there was nothing more important in rock than this tour: The Stones were a druggy, dangerous, exhilerating, rarely-on-time mess of bluesy brilliance.

Put this one in the time capsule and save some room for Neil and The King, too.


7. The “Rock Movie That’s Not About Music But Uses It So Well That It Qualifies As A Rock Movie” Rock Movie

Harold And Maude
(1971, Dir. Hal Ashby)

The Graduate
(1967, Dir. Mike Nichols)

The Royal Tenenbaums
(2001, Dir. Wes Anderson)

Mean Streets
(1973, Dir. Martin Scorsese)

American Graffiti
(1973, Dir. George Lucas)

All five of these directors led with their hearts and their record collections.

The results are those indelible moments when celluloid and music collide, and neither can live without the other again.


8. The “Filmed Version Of A Great Album” Rock Movie

(1979, Dir. Franc Roddam)

Though some have a soft spot for Ken Russell’s goofy film version of Tommy,  Quadrophenia better captures the torment and beauty of Pete Townshend’s best writing.

If only for the aching perfection of the Steph and Jimmy characters,  this movie lives on it’s own, independent and perhaps even more powerful than the album.  It also serves as a stinging reminder of a time when music was a life or death matter,  too important and too essential ever to be sold for a TV commercial. (Special points for the conversation-piece ending. “Did or didn’t Jimmy die?”)


9. The “Because It Contains Documentary Footage Of John Lennon Playing Basketball With Miles Davis And Therefor Is Essential”  Rock Movie

Gimme Some Truth
(2000, Dir. Andrew Solt)


10. The “Reality-Based Documentary” Rock Movie

Heavy Metal Parking Lot
(1986, Dir. John Heyn)

Metallica Drummer
(Origins Unknown)

Copied and passed around like rare mix tapes, these two films perfectly document the intoxication of obsessive fandom.  There would be no rock without this kind of devotion,  which emits a high-pitched signal to anyone who ever loved a piece of music so much that they played it ten times in a row,  or decided to follow Metallica along their entire 100-city tour,  or just sang too loudly in their ear.


11. The “Because It Goes To Eleven” Rock Film

This Is Spinal Tap
(1984, Dir. Rob Reiner)

The Rutles
(1978, Dirs. Eric Idle and Gary Weis)

The Last Waltz
(1978, Dir. Martin Scorsese)

All three are essential, and all three are lumped together for no reason other than they are the product of joyful meticulousness and a tireless devotion to music on behalf of it’s creators.

Only a fanatic would work this hard to create something that looked this effortless,  and contributed so significantly to the wedded bliss of rock and cinema.

In the words of Ronnie VanZant “Turn It Up”

Forever a journo,

Cameron Crowe

P.S. Uh wait,  I left out Freebird…The Movie. And of course you can’t not give props to Sofia Coppola for The Virgin Suicides, and then there’s the garage band in Welcome To The Dollhouse, and … okay, The End

Courtesy of Premiere Magazine – Cameron Crowe – March, 2004

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