Revisiting Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like

200 Motels
Directed by Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer–1971–98 minutes

Rock star movies from the Sixties and early Seventies that used fictional frameworks have a bit of a checkered history you might say. This notion came back to me while I’ve been going thru sheets of handwritten reviews that I didn’t use in my new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” because they didn’t exactly fit the documentary definition. The Beatles peaked out this sub-category way back in 1964 with the tack-sharp “Hard Day’s Night” and slid pleasantly downhill from there with “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” Other famous pop groups of the era also had their “juke box movies” (of which HDN is famously the “Citizen Kane” of) but by the late 60s the heavy psychedelic age was upon us and self-conscious curiosities like “Head” and “Rainbow Bridge” were unleashed on the world. The farthest-out of these (not necessarily a compliment) may be 1971’s “200 Motels” co-directed and written by Frank Zappa with British documentarian Tony Palmer, who is also credited with the “shooting script” (a little more on that later). The zany cast include Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Theodore Bikel and various side characters.

By the time of his death in 1993, Frank Zappa had long solidified his status as an envelope-pushing rock music icon, but seldom has there been one with such wide-ranging sensibilities. He was one of the most accomplished guitarist-composers in the genre’s history and certainly one of it’s more iconoclastic: a man equally at home writing and arranging instrumentals inspired by the greats of 20th century serious music while also penning lyrics whose humor often veered off the road of social criticism into the ditch of childish bad taste.


The one and only… Fringo??

In “200 Motels,” shot on an extensive soundstage at Pinewood Studios in England, you get both of these Franks—but only sort of. That’s because he only appears in the performance sequences and in his stead has Ringo (made up to look like Zappa) wandering through the sets in the role of the story’s narrator. That story, such as it is, involves the trials and tribulations of a rock group that has been on the road too long (meh) and are being subtly manipulated by a tyrannical bandleader (guess who). This is the incarnation of the Mothers featuring wiseguy vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (AKA Flo & Eddie), late of the Turtles. The band also included Anysley Dunbar, Jimmy Carl Black, Ian Underwood and George Duke. With that kind of line-up, one can be forgiven for wanting more performance segments they we get here. Instead, the guys spend too much of the film’s running time holed up in a Middle American bad dream of a stage-set city called Centerville, filled with establishments like the Rancid Boutique, Fake Nightclub and Redneck Eats Café.


Spot the Moonie. I’d say “Spot the Loony” but that would be too easy.

Here, they caustically contend with the various absurdities of modern society and are confronted at regular intervals by a nutso government agent played by Bikel. It basically amounts to a feature-length series of naughty non-sequiturs, over-baked satire, distracting “special” effects and unpleasant sight gags, occasionally enlivened by a musical performance or a topless GTO girl. Oh yes, and some Stravinsky-influenced symphonic interludes by the in-studio orchestra conducted by Zappa (about the only time he’s on camera).

Frank was famous for the facetious attitudes he expressed towards not just straight society but also to the prevailing hippie ethos of his own general demographic. But “200 Motel’s” Dadaist indulgences are just as overripe as the flower-power excesses he chafed against. Kaylan and Volman, in the absence of Zappa himself, shoulder a lot of the blame here. Their raunchy lyrics and high-pitched vocal mannerisms do yield a few funny moments, but few save for the diehards would see any lasting value in such routines as “Penis Dimension,” “Half a Dozen Provocative Squats” and “Dental Hygiene Dilemma.” And those are more like routines. The real rock numbers are few and far between, the best being “Magic Fingers” with finally some lead guitar from Frank and a twisted monologue at the end by Kaylan that pointed to the material they would do on the “Just Another Band from LA” album, released the next year. So jump right in Zappa completists, or those interested in seeing Keith Moon dressed as a nun while being trained as a groupie or even those curious to see what came next in Ringo Starr’s filmography after “The Magic Christian.” All others are warned.


Founding member Jimmy Carl Black may not officially have been in the Mothers lineup by 1971, but he does appear in the film, performing “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” and calling bullshit with one of 200 Motels few straightforward lines: “Where’s the beer and when do we get paid?”

It is curious looking back why a band even as incorrigible as the Mothers of Invention, having secured funding for a motion picture of their very own, would squander it on something as utterly impersonal as “200 Motels.” There isn’t a single moment in its 98 long minutes that’s smacks of any real human connection. If that’s kinda the point then it’s not well taken. Even adventurous viewers will be exhausted by the finale, a decent take-off on the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” broadcast, if they get that far. In later years, Zappa seemed defensive and claimed that the film was carefully planned and also suggesting that Tony Palmer—who had made films of bands like Cream as well as of the modern composers that Frank loved—had to be let go towards the end of production. In the 2009 DVD edition, Palmer broke his silence and said that he saved Zappa from himself, making some sense of the loose sheets of production notes that he was given and also for securing the services of London’s Royal Philharmonic players on a few weeks’ notice. Whatever the truth, “200 Motels” is destined to remain an oddity and a good example that while the counterculture era was an adventurous time, the unchecked permissiveness that was its flipside was a slippery slope all too ready for sliding.

Further looks into Woodstock-era films that combine fictional storylines with rock performances (yes, “Rainbow Bridge” I’m looking at you!) coming soon. In the meantime if you would like to view a 30-page excerpt of my “Rock Docs” book click on the link here: http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Documentary Spotlight: “Karl Marx City”

What was it like to grow up in the most surveillanced society in history? And just what are the possible after-effects when that heavy-handed system of secret police and informers all comes apart in a matter of weeks? Petra Epperlein grew up in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and was a very young woman at the time of its rather sudden collapse in 1989. In the fascinating new film that bears the title of her hometown, Epperlein (who co-directed the film along with her husband-partner Michael Tucker) explains that there was nothing that extraordinary about her childhood where she, along with her family and millions of other East German citizens, played the “go along to get along” game as well as possible. But when her seemingly well-adjusted father commits suicide a decade after re-unification, the questions that arise would eventually lead to this documentary. What the couple came up with is a work that combines elements of a personal film essay with an engrossing retrospective deep dive into the history of the GDR’s infamous secret police (known as the Stasi) with some relevant cautionary signposts for our society along the way.

“Karl Marx City” does start out a bit slowly, with Epperlein’s cautious buildup of the narrative of her family’s fairly normal life within the context of a repressive Eastern Bloc nation. Or was it all as unremarkable as it seemed. When it’s discovered that her father was receiving anonymous and vaguely threatening letters prior to taking his own life, it becomes imperative to probe deeper and eventually led Epperlein back to city where she grew up, which is notable for having a bust of Karl Marx’s head that is so colossal that they didn’t even bother trying to knock it down when most symbols of the old regime (most notably the Berlin Wall) met a similar fate in late 1989 and early 1990.

Petra Epperlein has produced several films with her husband, the most well known probably being “Gunner Palace” from 2004, about young American soldiers stationed at one of Saddam Hussein’s palatial compounds during the Iraq War. Here, Petra goes before the camera in many scenes, more often than not holding her boom mic, interviewing her former neighbors or experts in the field of Iron Curtain dirty dealings. And what a business it was. East Germany was a country with a population of about 17 million but with 92,000 secret police officers aided by some 200,000 informers.

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Karl Mark City, with 12,000 snitches all to itself, is presented as a microcosm of the country, with constant snooping and a population permanently divided by mistrust—the real Orwellian 1984. In a land where it’s said if three people are sitting at a table, one is an informer, Epperlein has to at least speculate that maybe her dad was one of those informers.
In the dual pursuit of personal closure and historical reporting, the directors spend a good chunk of the film’s middle third inside the mammoth vaults of the Stasi’s former headquarters, where former GDR citizens can view the files of themselves and family. Here among the 111 kilometers of aisles are some 41 million index cards (!!) of gathered personal information. This is where “KMC” really gains some heft, as we begin to feel the mind-boggling end result of the state’s pathological pursuit of “conspiratorial objectives” (in the memorable phrase of an ex-Stasi agent). Epperlein and Tucker also make great use of old surveillance camera footage, blending it in with their own stark B&W imagery, and making for a beguiling re-creation of a place where “the enemy is everyone.”

In the case of Epperlein’s father, some of those old dictates seems to have carried over. And although there is some closure and a measure of redemption here for Epperlein and her family, there is no skirting the issue of the long psychic hangover after the fall of the GDR. The former socialist state has had significant problems with de-population as people (esp. younger women) have fled to the former West Germany and elsewhere: it’s asserted that Karl Marx City (which quickly reverted to its historical name of Chemnitz) had the lowest birth rate in the world soon after re-unification, while whole neighborhoods were left deserted, waiting for demolition. The use of “conspirative objectives” to gain political advantage is a problem not confined to former police states, as the recent U.S. election has shown us. At the recent screening of “Karl Marx City” at the Salem (MA) Film Fest where I saw this, Epperlein stressed the needed “responsibility to be vigilant of a democratic state.” These are words that should be well-heeded from someone who grew up in a place that was “stuck between an abandoned past and an unredeemed future.”

“Rock Docs” Sampler #4: When Winners Are Losers

It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, being a fair-minded kind of guy with wide-ranging tastes in music and film. On the one hand, they are good qualities to possess when writing a book like Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey because I was easily able to give a fair shake to a broad spectrum of rock subjects and directorial styles, allowing me to reflect consensus opinion while blending in my own outlook on things.

But let’s face it: writing bad reviews is so much fun! Maybe it’s because I spent so many years reading Creem magazine with their famously smart-aleck record reviewers. How about this zinger from a write-up of Foreigner’s “Head Games” album: “I’ve listened to this album ten times and I still don’t care whether singer Lou Gramm gets laid or not.” Or consider this scholarly assessment of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Works, Volume 1”: “It ‘works,’ but only as a Frisbee.”

But out of about 170 reviews in my book, I could only muster up four pannings and a footnote for this thumbs-down sampler (mixed reviews don’t count here). Unchecked narcissism, unearned cultural annexation and the over-praising of marginal figures are a few of my rockumentary pet peeves. They all get an airing out below:

For a 30-page excerpt of “Rock Docs” and purchase info, please click on the link below.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

At its best, pop music–like most other art forms, you would think—-reaches an optimal state when it becomes an inclusive and evolving community of practitioners spinning out a self-sustaining supply of good ideas that are built on and modified over an indefinite period of time. And then there’s Madonna. The former Miss Ciccione, who found fame in the early Eighties, was certainly not the first self-obsessed pop star to come down the pike. Born in 1958, she emerged from the 70s as a perfect embodiment of the so-called Me Decade, drawing all attention on herself and becoming the Material Girl without a whiff of irony. Along with her legions of fans, this self-consciously naughty “Queen of Pop” had her share of detractors—nowadays we would say “haters.” But if one of this latter group wanted to advance the premise that Madonna’s rise had something to do with the downfall of mainstream music, he or she would only need to point at this 1991 vanity project. Truth or Dare shows us a type of stardom that has little reason to exist beyond its own perpetuation.

The movie basically consists of two distinct and alternating elements. The concert sequences, usually featuring complete song performances shot in living color, are often quite striking and can reasonably appeal to more casual observers. These show Madge during the 1990 aptly-named Blonde Ambition tour, pretty near or at her career peak. The balance of Truth or Dare is comprised of black-and-white footage, mostly from dressing rooms and hotel suites, that self-reveal Madonna as a manifest destiny ego-tripper, playing indulgent den mother to her troupe of dancers, allowing other famous people to fawn over her, ratting out her brother as a drug abuser and patiently explaining to viewers her lingering vulnerabilities despite the fame and fortune. For those who are not rabid fans, these segments may prove to be an endurance test.

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From U2: Rattle and Hum (1988)

The core appeal of U2 is not hard to figure out. They reflected the renewed musical excitement of the late 1970s without the abrasive clatter, had a sweeping sense of spiritual redemption and global concern (even if hazily defined) and made full use of grandiose gestures—all these elements found wide acceptance with kids coming of age in the 1980s. But they have to be one of the strangest examples of a “populist” band ever. True, they seized the moment at Live Aid when Bono climbed down from the stage to embrace fans, somehow capturing the essence of the mega famine-relief event. But a couple of years on, it seems like that kind of closeness is not part of the U2 business plan. When asked by director Phil Joanov at the start what this film is to be about, they can barely give him an answer except that it’s some sort of “musical journey.” Unfortunately, this means a trip that smacks of ego-tourism, traipsing across America, performing with a church choir in Harlem, pressing into Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, cornering B.B. King for a duet, staring soulfully at the Mississippi River while a song called “Heartland” plays on the soundtrack—all the while looking like they’ve become bigger than that which spawned them.

Most of this will hardly detract from the enjoyment factor with true-blue fans though viewers with a more discerning eye may find themselves exasperated. Even when the music was soaring something came along to dampen the mood: Was it really necessary that Bono should deface the Vaillancourt Fountain while doing a surprise outdoor concert in San Francisco—especially when he spray paints it with the humdrum phrase “Rock & Roll Stops the Traffic”? Despite their level of fame, Rattle and Hum only did so-so at the box office while setting into motion a cottage industry of Bono jokes that persists to this day (“Breakfast with Bono is the most self-important meal of the day” etc.).

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Under Africa Skies (2012)

Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album Graceland, partly recorded in apartheid-era South Africa, may be considered a landmark in the annals of cross-cultural pop music, but its making has always been dogged by controversy. This fact hangs over Joe Berlinger’s film about Simon’s return to the radically-changed country for a twenty-fifth anniversary event. Paul admits to not caring much “what the internal debate was” when he went there in ’86 without getting the blessing of the black liberation movement in the form of the African National Congress, despite being advised to do so by friend Harry Belafonte. This apparent disregard of the cultural boycott still sticks in the craw of people like Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo, who calls Simon’s original visit “counter-productive” to the cause.

But while Simon’s album and the subsequent tour may have enlightened Westerners to a vibrant but terribly repressed population, Under Africa Skies’ repeated moments of black musicians saying what an honor it was to play with Paul hints of white entitlement and that gets tiresome, if not borderline offensive, long before the film’s 100-minute running time has elapsed.

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The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

Early on in this film, when Daniel Johnston is introduced at a 2001 gig as “the best singer-songwriter alive today” those for whom this praiseful documentary was made will nod their heads while neutral observers may well start scratching theirs. His braying voice and incongruous philosophizing is guaranteed not to be to everyone’s fancy, but still director Jeff Feuerzeig lets stand numerous favorable comparisons that have Johnston right up there with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and even the greatest classical composers. Not long after he shouldered his way into an MTV special, he was befriended and/or championed by members of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers among others. The Devil and Daniel Johnston may prove an uncomfortable experience for those not already converted as Johnston’s schizophrenia has led to violent and extremely reckless behaviors that have endangered himself as well as friends and families. Director Jeff Feuerzeig doesn’t tackle those kinds of issues, leaving his film to look like a vanity tribute to a hipster mascot.

So there you have it. The post probably would have been a little longer if it weren’t for the fact that were a few films (like the execrable Air Guitar Nation and the unfortunate Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Wild Man Fischer) that were so bad I couldn’t get through them so I just left them out of the book. Maybe I’ll just have to embrace the hate and do a whole post on the “best of the bad”, if I can only bear to watch

“Abandoned America” In Extremis: A Place Where More Than the Buildings Have Been Vacated

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences
Photos and Test by Matthew Christopher, Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
(Jon Glez Publishing)

All photographs in this post are copyright to Matthew Christopher

Regular visitors to this site will know something of my fascination with lost or abandoned places, the main side topic here when I’m not traversing the highways and byways of rock music history and documentary film. The public’s interest level with such deserted locations has grown to the point where the phrase “ruin porn” is now a thing. Photographer Matthew Christopher, in the introduction of this remarkable and sobering book, says he is well aware that his work may be seen as a modern version of the old Picturesque school of aesthetics. But the book’s subtitle lets on right from the cover that there is a lot more afoot here.

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Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). Some may react with an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new shrug but these ruins nevertheless say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.

Back from the late 19th century through to the Second World War era, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

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Speaking of that America in his foreword, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler (author of “The Geography of Nowhere”) says “we have come to regard its institutions as permanent achievements.” Reflecting on Christopher’s pictures of a shuttered 1927 movie palace, Kunstler observes that it “presents a display of middle-class opulence that is nearly unimaginable now. Reflect on what that suggests about the psychology of yesterday’s working people: they believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives, and the builders agreed to furnish it.” Nowadays, not so much.

After Kunstler’s incisive foreword, Christopher in his introduction speaks of the theoretical connection between these defunct places and human mortality. In fact, he does so for several paragraphs, perhaps as a bit of a defensive counterpoint to the fetishization of this subject matter in some quarters. (In fact, he has given several of these locations assumed names to discourage both scrappers and weekend urban explorers). By the end, though, he is squarely on topic: mourning our “shared heritage,” he sees these buildings, both mighty and graceful, as a reflection of a national character that has been diminished. In its stead, Christopher sees the endless repetition of strip malls and big-box stores with their cheap imported goods proffered to people who are often in reduced circumstances, holding down meager service-sector jobs themselves.

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The Northeast Manual Training School, with its distinctive castle design, was built in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century as an innovative publicly-funded free school in an area with a burgeoning industrial sector. It later went through various name changes (ending up as the Thomas A. Edison High School) and declined along with the industry and the neighborhood. By the time “Abandoned America” was published it had been unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a discount chain store.

This is not mere nostalgia for a robust heavy-industry economy never to return, it’s more for the loss of the wherewithal to even try and have a constructive dialogue about how to adapt to a changing global economy. It’s there in every achingly vivid photograph of a silenced turbine hall, molding lobby in a working-class resort or half-demolished church. An ideal has been abandoned along with the edifice: this is “a book of heartbreaks” as one person put it in “Abandoned America’s” Amazon comments section.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day, the political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. Now, with Republicans having spent decades literally demonizing Democratic leaders while coastal liberals (many feeling safe with their high-tech jobs) speak glibly of “fly-over states,” we’ve come to a pretty pass indeed.

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Some may think of James Howard Kunstler as a gloom-and-doomer when he talks of America as a once-advanced civilization facing a lasting turnaround “toward a loss of complexity, a reduction in the scale of activity, a loss of artistry, and probably the end of many comforts.” It’s that wish for a return to that greatness, without facing up to any of the complexities needed to get there, that looks like an unsolvable problem in this age of anti-intellectualism and safe spaces. After an election season filled with a succession of soul-crushing inanities, the U.S. elected in Donald Trump the exactly wrong person needed, even if his famous slogan played to those sentiments. Spurred on by a frustration with political gridlock and, let’s face it, conservative media outlets that only know how to act on its most pernicious impulses, struggling Middle America elected someone whose one and only skill is exploiting their prejudices and frustrations—-in fact, a man whose narcissism and unpredictability borders on outright insanity. After not hearing a single utterance of true empathy from Trump, even directed at his own voters, it’s safe to say that not only does he not care about any true “social compact”, but he probably has never given it a single thought in his entire perversion of a life. Man, oh fucking man, have we lost our way in the wilderness of of our own self-regard, leaving us with a national psyche as rusted and hollowed out as the places pictured in Matthew Christopher’s elegiac testament.

“Rock Docs” Sampler #3: Salute to the Seventies

Oh, to have grown up in the Seventies. That’s not a hypothetical, because I did. To me, the later baby boomers got a bit of the best of both worlds, musically speaking. At the start of the decade, we had just graduated from the kids table and many of the best Sixties performers still going strong, while the glorious excesses of newer rock gods like Led Zeppelin were on the vanguard. If the music scene seemed to be a bit on the wane by the middle Seventies, that was OK. By the time we were off to college or moved away to the big city a couple of years later, the punk and indie-rock movement was just taking hold. In my new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I examine this ever-shifting and regenerating rock history through how it was captured in concert and documentary films. For a 30-page excerpt and info on how to purchase, please click on the link below. Also available on Amazon and from other online book retailers.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Jimmy Page’s fantasy sequence, the most conceptually fine-tuned of the four, arguably holds up the best. It comes during the twenty-eight-minute, nuclear-option version of “Dazed and Confused,” the fame-making psycho blues from the band’s first album. The concert incarnation of “Dazed” featured several sections not heard on the studio original, most notably the unearthly interlude when Page took a violin bow to his guitar, fed it through an echoplex, and played to the crowd like a modern-day Merlin. Then the scene switches to his property near Scotland’s Loch Ness where he had recently (and un-coincidentally) bought the former home of occult figurehead Aleister Crowley. The atmospherics are just right (full moon and a light snowfall) as Page climbs an escarpment in a near re-creation of the “Stairway to Heaven”-suggestive gatefold illustration in Led Zeppelin IV. At the top he meets the same Tarot-deck hermit but it’s actually himself in advanced old age. In a special effects shot that always got a cheer from theater audiences, the hermit’s face then morphs back in time, eventually revealing Page in his Yardbird days, as a schoolboy and as a young tot—suggesting, as Page said in a 2007 magazine interview, that enlightenment “can be achieved at any time in a man’s life.” To top it off, the hermit’s staff turns into a multi-hued light saber.

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From Soul to Soul (1973)

Ten years after becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in the post-colonial era, Ghana celebrated in part by staging a huge cross-cultural concert event. Featuring local performers and an array of mostly black soul, pop and jazz musicians from the U.S., this was an age before a word like “multiculturalism” was part of everybody’s vocabulary and there is a real sense of discovery here on both sides, though the solidarity is touched with befuddlement at times. The biggest star to the 100,000 fans is clearly Wilson Pickett, whose bravura performance inspires a giant mosh pit.

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From The Kids are Alright (1979)

Despite the Who’s tendency to tomfoolery in interviews, in the end all you need is in the music. Jeff Stein made his best directorial move in cajoling a reluctant band to go back on stage at Shepperton Studios and give him one definitive take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the record (there was an invited audience of about 500). Townshend’s eight-minute manifesto of self-determination in an unreliable world is one of rock’s great galvanizing classics and the fired-up band pulls out all the stops. The years of hard living were catching up to Moon (as they would with John Entwistle in 2002) and he showed up for rehearsals overweight and out of practice. But coming out of the song’s electronic keyboard interlude (with its 2001-inspired laser light display) Keith nails the thunderous drum cadenza and Roger lets rip rock’s most histrionic “Yeah!!” while Pete leaps clear across the stage, landing in a knee slide straight at the camera. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll does matter despite the Who’s self-conscious protestations.

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From The Filth and the Fury (2000)

Julien Temple started filming the Sex Pistols from their earliest gigs in 1976. He starts The Filth and the Fury with a bracing montage of British social upheaval, discontent and rioting in the mid-70s that left the country ripe for the Pistols’ confrontational and chaotic revolt. It is the ex-Rotten John Lydon who gets off a lot of the best lines in the contemporary interviews, during which group members are shown individually and in silhouette, as if in witness protection, still somewhat menacing. Lydon recalls his life and times as a “damn ugly fuck-up” who emerged “brain-wiped” after being in a coma for a year with a bad case of boyhood meningitis, then realizing at age fourteen he had only a short time left to escape a third-rate fate. By the end, Lydon tears up at the memory of the ill-fated Sid Vicious, admitting to his inability to pull his childhood friend off the dismal path to junkiedom—it affords Sid a humanity rarely allowed to him by both detractors and idolizers.

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From Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Never mind the Jawas: an open-ended life quest, in the end, is concept enough for Rust Never Sleeps. Never as overtly confessional as some of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, Young connects with his fan base using a more loose-ends type of questing poetry. It’s the type that is easy to project oneself into even when the language gets elaborate and impressionistic. Is the Dylanesque “Thrasher” a beguiling manifesto of creative and personal independence or a thinly-disguised dissing of his former and future colleagues named Crosby, Stills and Nash? Of course, it could be both and more, and the imagery (“Where the eagle glides ascending, there’s an ancient river bending/Down the timeless gorge of changes, where sleeplessness awaits”) of escape and discovery are universal. Rust Never Sleeps, both the film and his then-current album of the same name can be seen as an end-of-decade mission statement.

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop”: Where Musical Dreams Go to Die

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Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.

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“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.

During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”

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I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.

Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.

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“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.

My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt:
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #2, The Bests of the Fests

Rock festivals, especially those in the golden era of the late 60s and early 70s, are the source for some of the best filmed footage in pop music history. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious. The parade of musical talent for 1967’s Monterey Pop, 1969’s Woodstock and 1970’s Isle of Wight festivals is awe-inspiring, especially in retrospect: high-water marks of a genius era. But they are also great sociological snapshots of their time period and often the audience members are just as entertaining as the performers!

Below are five excerpts from my new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey about this important rockumentary sub-genre, with accompanying vdeo clips. For a 30-page excerpt and purchase information about this book, please click on the link below or on the book cover image in the right-hand column. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Monterey Pop (released 1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)

There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the quartet of near-mythic Monterey Moments: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.

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From Woodstock (released 1970, directed by Michael Wadleigh)

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

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From Message to Love: The isle of Wight Festival (released 1997, directed by Murray Lerner)

With six hundred thousand rock fans ferrying over from mainland England in August 1970, the third annual Isle of Wight Festival was one of the biggest concert events in history. Unfortunately, the five-day festival turned out to be a financial failure, and the commissioned footage from director Murray Lerner’s crew did not emerge as a feature film until a quarter of a century later. Nevertheless, Message to Love is a documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. It contains a wealth of great musical moments; especially notable are clips of both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison shortly before their deaths as well as footage of the Who at the very apex of their career. It is also a clear-eyed view of an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but instead descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.

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From Wattstax (released 1973, directed by Mel Stuart)

Every music festival film has at least one classic show-stealer and in Wattstax that moment arrives when Rufus Thomas, the perennial Memphis favorite duly advertised as “The Prince of Dance” on the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard, takes the stage. Appearing for all the world to see in a hot pink suit with short pants and white go-go boots, he works up the crowd to such a degree with “The Breakdown” that when he then instructs them to “Do the Funky Chicken,” thousands of dancers storm the football field to oblige him.

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From Glastonbury (released 2006, directed by Julien Temple)

The Glastonbury Festival in rural England holds a rather unique place in the annals of rock as being the one outdoor event started in the Woodstock era that has continued—despite a few missed years—straight into the present day, adapting and growing exponentially but still retaining much of its counterculture spirit. Rockumentary master Julien Temple has funneled this considerable history into a vibrant, if occasionally jumbled, film record of just under two and a half hours. He benefits from the availability of vintage early footage (some of it from 1971’s Glastonbury Fayre) and adds in his accounting of the modern festival (Temple shot there from 2002-05) with much attention to the event’s evolving sociology and an extensive sampling of live performances clips. What is just as memorable as this multi-generational musical cornucopia is the thirty-ring post-hippie circus that accompanies it: a freewheeling pagan arts fair and anti-establishment concave that equals or even overshadows what’s on the main stage.

A Hard Day’s Fight: In Troubled Times, the Clash’s “Rude Boy” Can’t Fail

Though it will never be regarded in the same zeitgeist-defining terms as the 1964 Richard Lester film, the 1980 Clash vehicle “Rude Boy” can be re-considered nowadays as a “Hard Day’s Night” of punk. Both films focus on era-defining bands in a format where documentary elements cohabitate with a lightly-fictionalized script. But whereas the Beatles quipped their way through a trend-setting capital city that was finding its post-war footing, the London Town that the Clash inhabit 15 years later looks a lot different. Grim high-rise council estates, economic misery and openly racist National Front rallies in downtrodden districts seem to be the order of the day. Of course, this is the backdrop from which sprang the punk-rock uprising in England a few years before. By the time of the events of this movie—-1978 and early ’79—-things only look worse and Margaret Thatcher, with the support of multitudes of aggrieved white voters, is poised to be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Clash—-who keenly identify with multiculturalism—-lash out against all this with their razor-sharp riffs and impassioned lyrics. But the film’s shiftless protagonist (played by Ray Gange) plays like a blank slate on which we are not sure what will be written. He’s like a low-information voter in perilous times, making the film retroactively relevant in this age of Brexit and a Trump presidency.

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And it is Ray who’s the more-or-less sole focus of “Rude Boy’s” first fifteen minutes or so. We first see him in an iconic UK image of the day: staring down disaffectedly on a grey cityscape from the upper floors of a council tower block. Down the stairs he goes past the KKK graffiti and on out to the unemployment office. Out on the streets of his racially-mixed Brixton neighborhood, the leader at a National Front rally is spewing a xenophobic tirade that would make the Donald look like a Rainbow Coalition spokesman. (Well, maybe not but you get the picture). Although he’s on the dole, Ray works (at least part time) at a dirty bookstore but spends the after-hours in gritty punk venues, eventually shuffling into his screenplay destiny to become a Clash roadie. He’s standing at the back of the club as Joe Strummer and the boys tear through their amped-up version of the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and starts to meet them soon after. Gange’s character gets it to a certain extent. Hung up between the long arm of authority and the general malaise, he is attracted to the Clash’s aspirational indignation—-especially so after getting a night in jail for walking down the street and then having the nerve to get “lippy” with an officer who stops him for no reason. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this case of punk profiling takes places at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street—-the seat of British of British government power.

Still, Ray makes it clear early and often that he has little use for “left-wing wankers,” making his scene with Strummer at the bar one of the more useful in the film. Ray reveals himself as one of those wishful-thinking “undiscovered millionaires” so beloved of Conservative Party and GOP strategists, while Joe’s rising tide would lift all boats. Strummer’s vision of what lies at the end of a blinkered pursuit of materialism is typically blunt and earnest, a touching up-close moment with the punk populist who died in 2002.

Politics aside, the main draw of “Rude Boy” would be the generous serving of concert clips from the Clash’s early prime. Though the tough issues are never absent for that long, there is still an unbridled joy in watching them bounce onto the stage at the huge Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park and get 50,000+ kids bouncing up and down in unison to “London’s Burning.” Jacked-up versions of “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “What’s My Name” and “I Fought the Law” perfectly capture that era’s twin themes of sedition and disaffection. The stage performances work well with Mingay’s documentary street-protest footage: if you ever needed a real-life visual for “White Riot’s” admiring opening line (“Black people gotta a lot of problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick”) you’ll get it here.

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Clash fans will be quick on the draw with the second half of that couplet: “White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick.” Which brings us back to Ray Gange. When one of his crew takes leave after the RAR rally, road manager Johnny Green pops into the sex shop to offer Ray a job on the band’s upcoming north-of-England tour. Internal and external forms of repression circulate: there are unnerving scenes (scripted or not?) of thuggish security men throwing fans out the side door, in the day when being a gate-crasher or stage-rusher could be very bad for your health. At one point, Ray intervenes on behalf of the kids and the bouncers give him a right pounding as well.

In a more genteel but no less disquieting moment, there is an intercut Thatcher speech. Any quaint notion of broad-based social justice is out the window here, replaced by the Iron Lady’s claim that (Caucasian) people “above all” want to be protected from the strangely omnipresent threat of “violence, theft and intimidation.” Joe Strummer captured this grim turning point in a way that echoes bitterly right down to the 2016 U.S. elections. In “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the group’s jaunty reggae number sliced through with ear-splitting punk dynamics, Strummer sings of being one of the few palefaces at an all-star revue of Jamaican performers. He seeks solidarity but comes away dismayed at the perceived indifference to the looming political threat. In the live version seen here, Joe delivers the song’s famous climatic line while the camera hones in on Gange, crouched in the wings. “All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,” Strummer cries out, his voice brimming with rage, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway!” Ray’s expression stays neutral.

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Ray Gange in a recent photo. He received a Fine Arts degree in 1997 and has found some success as a painter and sculptor.

Well, they do say all politics are local and it’s in some of “Rude Boy’s” quieter moments that we see a bit of a breakthrough. Gange the inner-city kid appears seems genuinely moved while talking to lead guitarist Mick Jones after he completes studio vocal for “Stay Free,” his neighborhood narrative of meeting up with a childhood mate who’s just been released from Brixton jail after serving a 3-year burglary sentence. Other scenes are just gratefully played for fun: Ray holds the heavy bag while drummer (and martial arts enthusiast) Topper Headon works out, eventually turning his attention to the roadie whom he playfully pummels. In other scenes, Ray does a bit of the ol’ soft shoe while Strummer plays the rehearsal-space piano and Jones, Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are seen in their full rock-rebel glory in several scenes outside a courthouse while they were up before a judge after the air-gun shooting of some birds–who turned out to be expensive racing pigeons—-while their de facto manager at the time, Caroline Coon, also makes a cameo. The Clash are seen quite correctly as a band on the upswing with all that entails. “Things have tightened up,” Johnny Green tells the semi-competent Ray before he’s eased out a job and shambles off into Thatcher’s grave new world, while the band finish up with their mission-statement cover “I Fought the Law,” charging into the 80s as the conscience of rock.

Why in hell the Clash came to disavow this well-meaning and often vital film is puzzling at best. OK, so “Rude Boy” (unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”) will never be thought of as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The documentary and fiction elements sometimes seem uncertainly cobbled together and the under-developed subplot about a group of black kids caught up in a drug sting would have been better off as a separate project. Johnny Green, in his entertaining and fair-minded 1999 memoir “A Riot of Our Own” says the band made it quite clear they wouldn’t attend the premier at the Berlin International Film Festival and that the same would go for people working for them. Green, who comes across as nobody’s fool, writes “I took delight in telling Mingay on the phone, within Mick Jones’ hearing, ‘See you at the airport.'” He and his road crew partner Barry Baker (who’s also in the film) sat in the balcony and afterwards came down the front aisle, to great applause, to be acknowledged. The film won an Honorable Mention and was playing in London the following month over the band’s objections.

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A recommended read for Clash fans.

As the giddy-up ska beat of Clash’s ebullient “Rudie Can’t Fail” plays over the end credits it’s not hard to re-live the enthusiasm of the Berlin festival crowd. It’s not like a lot of them were thinking “Well, someday this will be a valuable record of that era.” I like to think it was just them getting caught up in the film’s implied idea that when the outside world, with its endless perversions of power and money, brings all its pressure to bear and “You need someone for a savior” at least you can follow Rudie’s example, being “rude and reckless” while “drinking brew for breakfast” and in general caring fuck-all for what anyone else thinks because you’ll go it your own way. May it ever be thus.

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #1: The Early Days

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.

If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs, please click on the image of the book cover in the right-hand column,it links to my BookLocker author page which contains a longer excerpt. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick

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It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.

From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)

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Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.

From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

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It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.

From The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.

From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)

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Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!

From: Cream: Farewell Concert (1968)

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

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The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html