Something I have spent quite a bit of time doing lately is playing music with my two bands, Analog Revolution and Kitty Glitter. I suppose you could say I’m still enamored with the dreamscape image of rock ‘n’ roll which was sold to me as a little kid through MTV, magazines, and the movies. Epic tales of a musician’s lifestyle shaped my youth as others might’ve connected with coming of age novels or triumphant films about an underdog athletes. Now in my thirties, I realize that many of my favorite such narratives are those generated on the silver screen, and so, I thought I’d share with you the top five films responsible for shaping my rock ‘n’ roll imagination.
5. Walk the Line and The Runaways (TIE)
I initially decided not to consider any documentary or concert films, because there are just too many amazing works out there in the genre, and narrowing down the category would have eventually proved impossible. I did, however, allow myself to pull from docudramas (fictionalized recreations of actual people and events), and these two stood out as special contributions.
Not only are they both well written, beautifully shot, and glorious with depictions of the stereotypical “rise to fame-excess-down in flames-resurrection” narrative, but they also both include a cast who was dedicated beyond those of most bio-pics. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line and Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in The Runaways all learned to actually sing and play the songs of their real life counterparts in addition to their usual character study routines. So while, yes, Val Kilmer displayed an amazingly accurate Morrison Drunk Stumble in The Doors and Jonathan Rhys Meyers pulled off a pretty decent sneer in Elvis, there is just something to be said for learning how to play Johnny Cash’s freight train guitar sound or Joan Jett’s defiant, yet sexy, vocal growl.
The special nature of this is exemplified on the commentary for The Runaways on which Jett admonishes herself for not getting a chance to teach Stewart the proper chord placement for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Stewart replies by saying she ended up learning the song from one of the other music coaches on set, to which Jett replies, “Yeah, but that’s not the way I play it.”
As someone who also learned Jett's anthem the “wrong” way when I first started playing it, this moment is priceless.
4. Velvet Goldmine
I have to admit, it’s actually been years since I’ve seen this film, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold a special place in my heart. It’s depictions of unbelievable excess and glamorous nihilism are unrivaled, and as a result, the 70s never looked so horrible and wonderful all at the same time. It doesn’t even matter that at times the film’s narrative is a bit “say what?” The amazing cast, including Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Christian Bale, and Eddie Izzard, makes our trip through the rabbit hole so stylish and fun.
3. This is Spinal Tap
Okay, so I know it’s a cliché, but really, isn’t that the point? No list of rock ‘n’ roll movies is complete without “The Tap.” In fact, if someone fails to include this on their list of rock flicks, their opinion probably isn’t worth the weight of a cucumber wrapped in tin foil.
Honestly, this film is probably my number one pick in many ways. After all, it not only parodies nearly every great cliché in rock history, it created some of its very own (“These go to eleven.”), and it’s likely the only pick which can boast hoards of real life musicians telling tales of their very own “spinal tap moments?” However, I bumped it to number three, because my top two have been much more significant in terms of creating my mythical image of rock ‘n’ roll. This is Spinal Tap has simply been great at mocking it.
2. Almost Famous
I’ve always been a sucker for a good coming of age narrative, especially one that sticks with you for a few days. Now, make that a rock ‘n’ roll coming of age narrative, and it doesn’t get much better.
This film may have thought it was teaching me that I couldn’t “be friends with the rock stars,” but it failed miserably. I think I wanted to hang with them even more after watching William Miller’s ridiculous escapades. And frankly, even if I don’t get to be their friend, singing “Tiny Dancer” with them on their tour bus and going home with the groupie (sorry, “band aide”) with a heart of gold is still a pretty decent consolation prize.
1. Prey for Rock ‘n’ Roll
I have watched this film dozens of times, and it never gets old. It has a perfect balance of tense drama, snarky humor, and idealistic dreaming crushed by life’s lessons. Of course, I love the fact that this particular film is told through the eyes of women, as opposed to the endless films about male rockers, but I think what I love the most about this one is its more honest portrayal of being a musician.
“All I ever wanted to be was a rock and roll star.”
There are never any illusions about what Jackie wants. She didn’t stumble into a band by accident, and she isn’t trying to sell us some “doing it for the music” crap. No, she formed a band, because she wanted to live the dream rock ‘n’ roll promised. But by the time we join her story, it is clear she is unlikely to ever reach that brass ring, and instead, she leaves us with a much more important lesson.
True success can be measured by loving the journey, even when it doesn’t go where you wanted. You may never play the big local venue, land a record deal, open for your favorite band, have a national tour, or even play a gig for more than fifty people. The real treasure in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, though, is learning to love every moment of it as if it were your last, because it just might be.
“Instead I’m a musician, just some chick in a band. And you know what? It’s fucking cool.”