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Reelist: Rock Films

The Reelist: Music Movie Magic

You may have noticed, as the New York Times did recently, that we’re living in a golden moment for music movies. Two Bob Dylan movies played the New York Film Festival—Todd Haynes’ much-anticipated narrative feature I’m Not There and Murray Lerner’s documentary The Other Side of the Mirror, about the young Dylan—alongside Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty doc Running Down the Dream. The music of the Beatles has been filling theaters in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. A pair of late musical icons are getting new looks—Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s biopic Control and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in AJ Schnack’s evocative documentary About a Son. The upcoming doc Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, about the great singer of The Clash, will soon make it three, and a documentary about Joy Division is also on the way.

It’s not exactly a brand new phenomenon, but the natural culmination of a rock doc trend that’s been building over the last few years, which has helped shine a new light on numerous cult greats—like Roky Erickson, the frontman of psychedelic pioneers The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, in this year's You’re Gonna Miss Me; outlaw country troubadour Townes Van Zandt in Be Here To Love Me; lo-fi savant Daniel Johnston in The Devil and Daniel Johnston; and dysfunctional garage revivalists The Brian Jonestown Massacre in DIG!, to name a few.

The Tribeca Film Festival has had a hand in all this too, with films like TFF ’07 selections Scott Walker: 30 Century Man and Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, and past entries such as End of the Century (about three-chord punk pioneers the Ramones), Rock the Bells (about the Wu-Tang Clan) and the recently released Air Guitar Nation (about competitive air guitar performers). With all this music movie magic flooding theaters, we thought it was high time to compile a list—highly subjective and unscientific, of course!—of a dozen essential music movies. And we're giving away two complete sets, absolutely free, so enter to win!


Dir. Richard Lester, 1964 The Beatles’ early image—humor and haircuts—can be boiled down to one exchange, in which George is asked, “What do you call that haircut?” and replies, “Arthur.” As John would declare a few years later, in the animated Yellow Submarine, “Nothing is Beatle-proof!” and the Fab Four’s invasion of the film world began here, with four more Beatles movies to follow, each derived from a new record. A Hard Day’s Night established the template for the album-driven band movie, begetting such subsequent classics as The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Prince’s Purple Rain.

12 More

Chuck Berry: Hail Hail Rock and Roll
Dir. Taylor Hackford, 1987

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Dir. Todd Haynes, 1987

Velvet Goldmine Dir. Todd Haynes, 1998

Almost Famous Dir. Cameron Crowe, 2000

Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1988

Lady Sings the Blues
Dir. Sidney J. Furie, 1972

Bound for Glory
Dir. Hal Ashby, 1976

Coal Miner’s Daughterr
Dir. Michael Apted, 1980

200 Motels
Dir. Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa, 1971

Dir. Bob Rafelsen, 1968

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle
Dir. Julien Temple, 1980

High Fidelity
Dir. Stephen Frears, 2000


Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2002 With Control in theaters now, it’s worth taking a second look—or a first—at the first screen depiction of Joy Division. It came in British iconoclast Michael Winterbottom’s kaleidescopic DV biopic of legendary rock impresario Tony Wilson, the founder of the seminal Manchester post-punk label Factory Records who passed away earlier this year. Speeding through a nearly two-decade history that spans from Joy Division’s dour asceticism to the Happy Mondays’ colorful Ecstasy-fueled excess, the film is both a postmodern deconstruction of rock-and-roll mythmaking and a striking tribute to a particular time and place.


Dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1981 Penelope Spheeris’ film was a definitive portrait of the culture of early punk in the United States—not just the bands themselves, but all the people around them. The film includes performances by Los Angeles legends X and Black Flag, as well as the especially nihilistic Germs, whose singer, Darby Crash, would commit suicide shortly after film was shot. Spheeris went on to make a second installment, about Los Angeles hair metal bands, in 1988, and a third, about gutter punks, in 1998. She’s reportedly at work now on a documentary about Janis Joplin.


Dir. Franc Roddam, 1979
Everyone remembers Ringo Starr’s answer (in A Hard Day’s Night), when asked, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” (Ringo was a “mocker.”) Fewer remember that the mods and rockers were sworn enemies, as diametrically opposed as cats and dogs, Democrats and Republicans, or Yankees and Red Sox, whose antipathies boiled over in 1964, leading to a series of riots around the UK. Based on one of several concept albums by the Who, the film’s 1979 release prompted a resurgence of interest in mod culture, led by Paul Weller’s legendary band The Jam. The film featured a young Ray Winstone, and was Sting’s screen debut.


Dir. Jonathan Demme, 1984
Jonathan Demme’s feature-length documentary debut chronicles three days of Talking Heads shows at the Pantages in Los Angeles, looking as much at the concerts’ execution as the performances themselves. Though much better known for fiction features like The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme has also made excellent documentaries about Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young.


Dir. Joe Berlinger, 2003
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed the world’s most successful metal band for more than a year, documenting their collective midlife crisis as they attempted to record their album St. Anger while working out their conflicts with a psychologist. It’s a one-of-a-kind look at the inner turmoil of a band, which puts a whole new spin on the phrase “group therapy.”


Dir. Alex Cox, 1986
The film that made Gary Oldman famous, Sid and Nancy is the morbid tale of the lead singer of the Sex Pistols and his drug-and-sex-filled relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The film anticipated the relationship between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, an analogy hammered home by Love’s bit part as one of Nancy’s junkie friends.
12 From Tribeca

Rock the Bells Dir. Denis Hennelly and Casey Suchan, TFF '06

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Dir. Stephen Kijak, TFF '07

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
Dir. Jim Brown, TFF '07

Air Guitar Nation
Dir. Alexandra Lipsitz, TFF '06

Prey for Rock and Roll
Dir. Alex Steyermark, TFF '03

Eric Clapton and Friends
Dir. Jana Bokova, TFF '03

Brothers of the Head
Dir. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, TFF '06

Dir. Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin, TFF '06
Dir. M. Ruskin and S. Rosenberg, TFF '06

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones
Dir. M. Gramaglia, J. Fields, TFF '03

Punk Attitude
Dir. Don Letts, TFF ' 05

Lets Rock Again!
Dir. Dick Rude, TFF '04


Dir. Albert Maysles, 1970 Both one of the greatest rock documentaries ever made and a valediction to the optimism of the ‘60s, Gimme Shelter chronicles the Rolling Stones’ tragic 1969 Altamont concert, which degenerated into a riot after the band’s hired security—the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels—killed a black spectator. Directed by Direct Cinema proponents Albert and David Maysles, and lensed by the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler.


Dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001
John Cameron Mitchell’s big-hearted rock opera, based on his off-Broadway musical, tells the story of a transsexual Berlin punk rocker (Mitchell) in love with the glam era, who goes on tour in America with her band The Angry Inch, a name which references her own botched sex-change operation. Featuring a terrific soundtrack (performed by Girls Against Boys and Bob Mould), the film has proven an enduring, if idiosyncratic, parable about the search for love. It also spawned the documentary, Follow My Voice, which screened at TFF ’06.


Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1978
Often considered the best-shot concert documentary of all time, Martin Scorcese’s visual essay on the influences and career of The Band is set against the group’s last performance on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Studio segments and interviews weave in and out of footage of live songs (featuring appearances by Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, and Eric Clapton in addition to The Band), creating an enduring portrait of a musical generation in the midst of growing up. Scorcese revisited that generation with his epic PBS Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, and will do so again with a just-announced documentary about George Harrison.


Dir. Rob Reiner, 1984
’s still the ultimate musical mockumentary, topping even the classic The Rutles, and perhaps it always will be. A parody of ‘70s proto-metal excess, the story of an aging, oafish rock band attempting a comeback has given us such treasured cultural touchpoints as the exploding drummer, the miniature Stonehenge, and the amplifier that goes up to 11. While dimly viewed at the time of its release, many bands reported that the satire hit the nail on the head, and like so many other music movies, the film eventually became a midnight staple. Christopher Guest, who played band member Nigel Tufnel, went on to become a master mockumentarian, skewering the folk circuit in A Mighty Wind. Spinal Tap recently reunited to play one of this year’s Live Earth concerts, and a new mockumentary short about them screened as part of the opening night festivities of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.


Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967 What A Hard Day’s Night is to band movies, Don’t Look Back is to rock documentaries. The film chronicles Dylan’s 1965 British tour and the beginning of his chameleon-like ways, showing him being booed by fans angry about his transition from folkie to rock star; backstage, he ignores Joan Baez, makes jokes about Donovan, and attempts—often unsuccessfully—to manage the burdens of his massive fame. The cinema verite legend Pennebaker practically deserves a list of his own, having also shot the seminal concert documentary Monterey Pop and the David Bowie film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With Scorcese’s No Direction Home still fresh and I’m Not There on the way, it’s a perfect time to revisit Don’t Look Back.


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