So what happens after a rock group debuts this latest documentary at their local Cineplex with all the pomp and flair of a Hollwood premiere. Well it usually gets a brief exposure at best before converting to a DVD release available at your local Wal-Mart or Future Shop or consigned to a store item on their website merchandise store. It’s a fate that has befallen such Canadian artists as Bruce Cockburn (“Pacing The Cage”) and even Rush (“Beyond The Lighted Stage”).
Even major international acts and artists are not immune to this fate with U2’s “From The Sky Down”, The Rolling Stones’ “Crossfire Hurricane” and Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day “reunion concert being three recent notable titles that only caused a ripple at the box office. Reality is that ever since the advent of the DVD format and the fact that music movies usually have a restrictive audience; there generally aren’t enough customers to justify a full scale movie campaign. But there are exceptions!
Especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s, before DVD’s became an option, a number of major releases which had a music theme were released throughout North America with some even enjoying world-wide exposure. So what follows are my top 10 music-themed movie releases of all time.
[styled_box title=”Before we start, a couple of ground rules:” color=”black”]
- No Elvis Presley movies; although a couple of his earlier efforts; “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” were pretty decent.
- No straight out concert videos (although The Band’s The Last Waltz was well received). What I am after are movies with some semblance of a plot.
- No straight out bio movies although titles like “Walk The Line”, `Ray“ and “The Buddy Holly Story” might make someone else’s list.
Before you the reader go ballistic on my choices, you will be given an opportunity to submit your lists, a selection of which will be posted on our site. So in no set order, here are my 10 most popular music-based movies of all time – in my humble opinion!
01. THIS IS SPINAL TAP
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(MGM 1984) Running Time 82 Minutes. Directed by Rob Reiner, this movie created the term `Mockumentary’ as the movie is presented as a faux documentary directed by Marti DeBergi (Reiner) who is chronicling the comeback 1982 U.S tour of legendary British heavy metal rockers, Spinal Tap, executed to launch their new album, “Smell The Glove”. Through a series of interviews with group members David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) we are presented with a series of hilarious flashbacks of the band and their flower power origins, the battle over their name (they were called The Originals, and then the New Originals to avoid conflict with the other Originals band) along with their running gag of losing drummers due to a series of accidents. This Is Spinal Tap also spoofs the pitfalls of the band on tour; battles with their record company over their sexist jacket, cancelled tour dates, stage prop tragedies, no one showing up for their record shop appearance, getting lost backstage, and then the inevitable fall outs, smaller and smaller gigs and the walkout by their manager and lead guitarist Tufnel. All of which gets resolved when a song `Sex Farm’ goes to number 5 on the charts in Japan and they are off touring again.
What is ironic about This Is Spinal Tap is that there were so many authentic British bands (Deep Purple and Black Sabbath included) who were really offended by the movie because the events shown were so realistic that they thought their own band was being spoofed. Loaded with several cameos by the likes of Fran Drescher, Billy Cristal, Patrick McNee, Paul Shafer, Dana Carvey, Howard Hesseman and Fred Willard, the real running joke as that all three British band members are established American actors who actually wrote all the movie’s music and could actually perform live.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Obviously the descending of the 18 inch Stonehenge prop which was supposed to be 18 feet – but I personally like the scene of the band getting lost trying to find the stage in Cleveland. I’ve been with so many bands who have done that and they all make the same remark; “Spinal Tap![/styled_box]
02. STILL CRAZY
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(Columbia 1998) Running time 95 minutes. Directed by Brian Gibson, “Still Crazy” Is the flip side of “This Is Spinal Tap” in its realistic depiction of 70’s rock band Strange Fruit who self-imploded on stage at the 1977 Wisbech Rock Festival. Twenty years later, the son of the original Wisbech promoter is planning to stage a reunion concert of the original bands. He accidently bumps into the band’s former keyboard player Tony Costello (played by Stephen Rea) who’s a condom salesman in Ibiza Spain. Costello tracks down go-for-girl Karen Knowles (Juliet Aubrey) who agrees to round up the rest of the band providing she can be manager. Les Wickes (Jimmy Nail), Ray Simms (Bill Nighy), and Bags Baggott (Timothy Spall) all reunite but realized one member Brian Lovell is missing – and rumoured to be dead, along with his brother Keith, the band’s former lead vocalist whom Wickes replaced. On the promise from their record company, to re-release their catalogue on CD if Knowles can whip the band into shape, the band, with road manager Hugh Case (Billy Connolly) on board, embark on a low profile tour of Holland to prepare for their Wisbech comeback. With an excellent cast of British actors, Still Crazy is both entertaining and realistic.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Lead vocalist Simms (Nighy) gives an autograph to the pizza delivery man – who is just delivering pizzas! The final concert scene is also a real tearjerker for all the right reasons.[/styled_box]
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(The Who Films 1979) Running Time 117 minutes. Directed by Franc Roddam, Quadrophenia captures the essence of The Who’s musical depiction of the Mods and Rockers conflict in 1965. Jimmy (played by Phil Danniels) is a teen, disillusioned by his parents and his boring job as a mail clerk for a London advertising firm who finds solace with his Mod pals who are planning a Bank Holiday trip to Brighton for a confrontation with their Rocker rivals. Jimmy is impressed by the coolness of Ace Face (played by a young Sting), has sex in a side alley with the girl he has a crush on Steph (played by Leslie Ash) amidst the riot between the two groups before being hauled off to court with Ace Face, who coolly waves a wad of cash at the magistrate when fined 75 pounds. Yet things go pear-shaped for Jim on his return to London. He loses his job at the ad firm, loses his girlfriend to his close friend Dave (Mark Wingett) and then has his beloved scooter crushed by a van. Looking for closure, he heads back to Brighton on the train, realizes the whole experience was a sham, discovers Ace Face (Sting) is really a hotel bell hop, steals Ace Face’s scooter and rides it along the white cliffs of Dover before driving it over the cliff.
The Who are referenced in the movie with footage of them performing on television’s Ready Steady Go and their song `Anyway, Anyhow Anywhere’ is played at a house party. The movie was almost cancelled when drummer Keith Moon died, but manager Bill Curbishley kept the project on track.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Jimmy riding Ace Face’s scooter along the Beachy Head cliffs to the music of The Who’s `Love Reign O’er Me’ before driving the scooter over the cliff.[/styled_box]
04. THE COMMITMENTS
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(20th Century Fox 1991). Running Time 118 minutes. Directed by Alan Parker and based on a novel by top Irish writer Roddy Doyle, The Commitments tells the story of Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) who wants to turn a bunch of working class Dubliners into a top American-sounding soul music group. Helped along by veteran trumpet player, Joey (The Lips) Fagan (Johnny Murphy) who regales the youngsters with anecdotes of touring America with all the great soul artists, the band actually shows some promise and start preparing for a major concert that, according to Fagan will be attended by the great Wilson Pickett himself . Pickett doesn’t show (or maybe he does!), the band collapses under the weight of their own egos and Rabbitte is left to ponder what could have been.
Fuelled by a great soundtrack of vintage Soul Music recordings including `Mustang Sally’, `Take Me To The River’ and `Try A Little Tenderness’, The Commitments band was composed mainly of unknown actors selected more for their musical prowess than their acting experience. Lead singer Deco, played by 16-year old Andrew Strong, was so impressive in the role; he secured his own solo recording contract with MCA Records. Sadly not much happened career wise for the cast yet some of them still perform a concert review in Europe as The Commitments.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Jimmy Rabbitte’s audition sessions for new band members, held at his parent’s house. Jimmy: “So what’s your major musical influence”. Person auditioning; “Bachman-Turner Overdrive”. Jimmy; “Pass”.[/styled_box]
05. THE WALL
(MGM Films 1982) Running Time 95 minutes. Directed by Alan Parker and adapted from Pink Floyd’s 1979 album of the same name, The Wall tells the story of the protagonist rock star Pink (played by then Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldof) who descends into a depressed emotional state to escape the pain of growing up knowing his father died in World War 2 and to avoid his overbearing mother. The Wall was an ambitious project to tackle the lyrical complexities of Pink Floyd’s musical opus yet critical response was generally positive. A stand-out feature of the movie was Gerald Scalfe’s animation technique’s which brought the film to life. Noted critic Roger Ebert commented The Wall “was a stirring vision of self-destruction and one of the most horrifying musicals of our time.” On viewing a premiere screening at Cannes, noted director Steven Spielberg was overheard remarking “what the fuck was that all about?”
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters had written The Wall as a thinly veiled autobiographical piece and was supposed to play the lead role of Pink – but he failed the screen test. So then, relatively unknown punk rocker, Bob Geldof was brought in and most critics thought he did a decent job. Parker himself complained he had a horrible time dealing with Waters and the rest of the band; David Gilmour, Nick Mason and the late Rick Wright were extremely underwhelmed at the final project. This led to the band breaking up after the mainly Waters authored “The Final Cut” release.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Most would go for the Scarfe-animated `Another Brick In The Wall 2 sequence yet I prefer the scene where Pink has locked himself away and is spiralling out of control, set to the song `Comfortably Numb’.[/styled_box]
06. A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
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(United Artists 1964) Running Time 87 minutes. At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, United Artists decided to make a quickie movie about the Beatles, feeling the fad would die out soon so they should knock off something on film to score a soundtrack record. Directed by Richard Lester, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had other ideas in mind. Employing noted Liverpool writer Alun Owen, to write a screenplay which accurately captured what it was like for the Beatles to live through Beatlemania, they released a film that has been credited as one of the finest music-related movies of all time. Filmed in black and white, on a budget of only $128,000, A Hard Day`s Night, which reflected a three-day spell in the band`s life where they travel down to London from Liverpool on the train to attend a recording session and perform a major concert, racked up box office receipts of over $12 million (and this is 1964 money!)
Aside from releasing an excellent soundtrack LP, A Hard Day`s Night showed the Beatles could actually act. Owen`s screenplay gave them scope to be their natural selves, top veteran actors including Wilfred Bramble (who starred in the British TV comedy “Steptoe And Son“) performed a key role as McCartney`s trouble-making grandfather and also gave the screenplay credibility. All around, “A Hard Day`s Night“ was a brilliant success and inspired the creation of The Monkees to execute the same mad-cap antics on television.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Ringo, having been told by Paul`s grandfather, to leave the band, explores a canal bank and rides a bike along a railway station platform revealing Starr possessed strong acting instincts. These were further exposed when he starred with Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian movie.[/styled_box]
07. GIMMIE SHELTER
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(20TH Century Fox 1970) Running Time 91 minutes. Directed by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwein, the unfortunate climax of this documentary of The Rolling Stones`1969 Let It Bleed U.S tour was a badly organized free concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco which resulted in 18-year-old Meredith Hunter being stabbed to death in full view of the band, reportedly because he was brandishing a gun. Scenes of the band in the director`s editing suite continually examining the incident which occurred just as they were finishing `Under My Thumb` quickly establishes that this is not your average rock tour documentary. Focused mainly around the negotiations to secure the free concert and the actual event itself, “Gimmie Shelter“ does feature other footage of the band performing at New York`s Madison Square Garden (where their live album Get Yer Ya Ya`s Out was recorded) and there is some vintage footage of the band recording `Brown Sugar`and `Wild Horses` at Muscle Shoals Studios. Yet it`s the events of December 6th 1969 at Altamont Speedway which provide most of the documentary`s drama.
The Stones caused their own problems by hiring The Hell`s Angels as security and as one member says to a call-in deejay at KSAN-FM in San Franciso, “They (The Stones) told me I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me and I could drink beer` `Which the Angels did in copious amounts when not taking time out to rough up anyone who even threatened to get out of line. There had been incidents with the other bands on the bill; Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. But the tension escalated when the Stones hit the stage and after several altercations during their set, Meredith, reportedly reacted to the Angels pushing him back from the stage by brandishing a gun. One Angel grabbed him, knocked the gun out of his hand and stabbed him six times.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]The stabbing scene is obvious – but there is another great scene where Jefferson Airplane`s Paul Kantner thanks the Hell`s Angels for knocking out the band`s lead vocalist Marty Balin. Also the naughty things Tina Turner does with a microphone in her mouth during the Madison Square Garden footage is quite pornographic![/styled_box]
08. HARD CORE LOGO
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(Shaw Shadows 1996) Running Time 92 minutes. Our Canadian content inclusion. Directed by Bruce MacDonald and based on a novel by Michael Turner ( turned into a screenplay by Noel Baker), Hard Core Logo is shot through the lens of a documentary crew filming the reunion of legendary punk rock band Hard Core Logo. Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) has regrouped Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie), John Oxenberger (John Pyper-Ferguson) and Pipefitter (Ben Coulson) to go on a tour of Western Canada, supposedly to raise money for an anti-gun benefit in memory of Dick`s mentor Bucky Haight (Julian Richings) who had supposedly killed himself. To sign on for the tour, Billy Tallent had to pass on joining a major group Jenifur and naturally is pissed when he finds out that Haight is very much alive and that Dick had just used the story as a pretext to get the band together. To compound the band`s problems, Oxenberger misplaces his schizophrenia medication and slowly loses his sanity. Tallent gets another shot at the Jenifur band, Dick confronts him on stage, smashes Tallent`s prized Fender Stratocaster guitar (a present from Haight) and the band breaks up, setting up a shock ending where Dick chats with the documentary crew – and then shoots himself!
MacDonald had just come off shooting“ Dance Me Outside ‘which was another `road movie` but he felt there were major differences in the two screen plays. Dillon didn`t want the role because he felt it would ruin his position as lead singer with The Headstones if the movie bombed. Yet he was talked into accepting the gig when MacDonald allowed him to improvise his character and make the role more realistic. Academy Award winning director, Quentin Tarantino was so impressed with Hard Core Logo that he obtained US distribution rights for his Rolling Thunder Company. This movie has been lauded by critics as one of the top Canadian movies ever released.
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Nothing more shocking that that final scene when Joe Dick shoots himself.[/styled_box]
09. 8 Mile
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(UNIVERSAL PICTURES 2002) Running Time 110 minutes. Directed by Curtis Hanson, 8 Mile depicts a young factory worker, Jimmy Smith (Eminem) in conflict. Forced to live in a dilapidated trailer with his drugged out mother Stephanie (brilliantly played by Kim Basinger), his sister and her live-in boyfriend (who is a former high school friend of Smith’s), Smith’s escape is in music, but as a frustrated rapper, he suffers from a major lack of confidence when it comes to the weekly rap battles. When Jimmy comes into physical conflict with the dominant Leaders Of The Free World gang. Encouraged by new girlfriend, Alex, the late Brittany Murphy, Smith decides to fight his fears and take on The Leaders Of The Free World in “The Final Conflict” rap battle culminating with a face off against group leader Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie).
Who knew Eminem (Marshal Mathers) could act! His performance, which is loosely biographical, earned rave reviews and an Academy Award win for ‘Lose Yourself’ for best original song. Shot on a budget of $41 million, 8 Mile pulled in over $293 million at the box office and earned a further $75 million on DVD sales and rentals during the first week of release March 18th 2003. Noted critic Roger Ebert hailed 8 Mile as a “hip-hop masterpiece” but wondered why a sequel was never shot?
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]The Rap battle between Jimmy and Papa Doc is classic![/styled_box]
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(Warner Films 1970) Running Time 118 minutes. The Woodstock Music & Arts Fair concert promoters were on the verge of dropping a fortune at Max Yasgur`s Bethel New York farm August 15-18th 1969. Crowds, guestimated at over 400,000 bodies, were out of control, very little admission charges had been collected and few artists were getting paid. Yet through all this misery, director Michael Wadleigh kept his cameras rolling. Due to their lack of payment, several acts including The Band, Blood Sweat And Tears, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Greatful Dead withheld permission to be included in the resulting movie, this proved to be their loss. Wadleigh`s Woodstock documentary, shot on a budget of just $600,000 would go on to rake in over $50 million dollars at the box office and over $16 million in rentals and video sales on its way to winning an Academy Award in 1970 for best documentary. No wonder many of these bands changed their mind when an additional two hours of footage were added to the Ultimate Woodstock DVD collection released in 2009.
Wadleigh`s Woodstock movie documentary recorded music history from the promoter`s initial plans to execute a small concert to fund an intended recording studio in upper state New York, to the switch to Max Yasgur`s farm when permission for the original site was pulled. The flood of people blocking the New York Interstate highway, the stage set up and of course the recording of some amazing performances. Featured artists include Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Crosby Stills Nash & Young (making their performance debut), Joe Cocker, Ten Years After plus many more – some fighting terrible weather conditions and ridiculous delays to deliver their performances. Yet what made Woodstock such an important movie statement was its focus on people, their survival against atrocious conditions, lack of food, water, sanitation and other basic necessities yet how they pulled together as a communal group. Wadleigh`s cameras caught all of this positive vibe. As a result, all of the promoter`s $1.4 million debts got paid and they ended up actually making money!
[styled_box title=”Stand Out Scene:” color=”black”]Performance wise, Jimi Hendrix`s interpretation of `The Star Spangled Banner` is a stand out for me but also, interviews with the guy faced with cleaning out the portal potties and footage of spectators blissfully skinny dipping in the nearby lake reflected the freedom those people felt at the event.[/styled_box]
Honorable Mentions: Saturday Night Fever (Paramount 1977) – John Travolta’s dance routine to The Bee Gee’s `You Should Be Dancing’ sparked a (brief) global disco revolution. Purple Rain (Warner Bros Pictures 1984) – Prince as The Kid, battling with Morris Day to retain his performance rights at the famous Minneapolis club First Avenue (which Prince actually owned). The Harder They Come (New World Pictures 1972) Jimmy Cliff’s tragic role as budding artist who is ripped off in a publishing deal and is forced to turn to crime with tragic results, a movie that established credibility for the reggae movement internationally.