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Favorites: Rock and Roll Films

This list goes to 11

Favorites takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Joyce Picker’s favorite rock and roll films.

Two of my favorite things in life are movies and classic rock. Both of these things have contributed greatly to the person I am today. The music and films I love are not just passing fancies. The lyrics and musicality of my favorite all-time band, The Who, made me realize that my feelings can be explained, and I wasn’t alone in how I perceive life. When I discovered this band was around the same time in my life where I would start watching films I loved over and over again. Three of those movies in heavy VCR rotation happened to be films featuring The Who. They appear on this list, as do a few other movies from this time period when I was beginning my infatuation of cinema and music.

I went back and forth on how to present this list to you. I do not have the films in numerical order of most loved to least loved because they are all of my loves and it would depend on what mood I was in. Therefore, I decided to go alphabetically. There is variety in this list. Some are documentaries, some are mockumentaries, some have a narrative that is fictional, and some are based on real musicians. What they all have in common is the spirit of rock and roll: passion, attitude, rebellion, compelling songs, and love for their subjects. My list goes to 11, in honor of one of the films on it, This is Spinal Tap.

Almost Famous

Stillwater and and their groupies pose for a picture in front of the tourbus.
Almost Famous cast shot in front of an often used location, Stillwater’s tour bus

Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s nostalgia piece about being an underage rock journalist in the early ’70s. The character, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), is loosely based on Crowe’s own experience. William is hired, sight unseen at 15 years of age, to cover the emerging band Stillwater for Rolling Stone magazine. He goes on tour with them and falls for one of their ever-devoted groupies, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). He makes friends with them, altering his journalistic integrity no matter how hard he perseveres to get the truth from guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).

While this film does have a very entertaining narrative, the heart of the whole piece is the genuine love of the music. From the perspective of being a major fan of the bands of this era, I think that Fairuza Balk’s character, Sapphire, expresses the feeling the best when complaining about the people who are only there once a band’s established. She explains, “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan, you know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band so much that it hurts.” That sentiment is there throughout the film. The fact that some of the best songs from that era are sprinkled throughout Almost Famous enhances the whole experience. To name just a few, those include tracks by The Who, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin. There are five songs by Led Zeppelin, I mean, come on! How great is that?

Gimme Shelter

The Rolling Stones play at Altamont while the Hells Angels disrupt the show.
The Rolling Stones at Altamont

The Rolling Stones wanted to end their 1969 tour with their own version of Woodstock. A concert at the Altamont Speedway in northern California was set up in December. Unfortunately, the event was a disaster that was overtaken by violence and death, culminating in the end of the peace and love era. The fiasco at Altamont and events leading up to it were documented by the Maylses brothers and Charlotte Zwerin in the film Gimme Shelter. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are seen watching the footage of the film in the editing suite. The filmmakers get their reactions to what happened. The Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels as security for the concert. That turned out to be one of the worst decisions when the biker gang started beating up concertgoers, knocking out Marty Balin from the Jefferson Airplane, and actually knifing an attendee to death while the Stones were onstage.

So why is this ultra-violent bummer on my list of favorite rock films of all time? It captures the Rolling Stones performing and recording some of the best music of their (and really, just about anyone’s) career. The most hypnotic scene features Mick Jagger dancing around the stage, shot in slow-motion, while a live version of Love in Vain plays over the soundtrack. Later in that song, there’s a shot of Keith Richards sprawled out between two speakers in the recording studio grooving to the live recording. The Altamont concert is a huge portion of Gimme Shelter, though. While it was full of chaos and bad vibes, the storytelling of the tragic day is ultimately captivating. Seeing Jagger and Keith Richards trying the control the mayhem while performing their set is incredible to watch, especially when Mick goes from trying to stop the violence to dancing like a shaman to Sympathy For the Devil. What the documentarians wound up capturing was the end of the innocence that love and rock and roll could save the world and our souls.

A Hard Day’s Night

The Beatles run a lot during the film, "A Hard Days Night".
The Beatles run towards safety from voracious fans

A Hard Day’s Night did capture the innocence of the beginning of the British invasion. Featuring a time when John, Paul, George, and Ringo were at the height of Beatlemania, this is an ultimately fun romp through the excitement. Playing up the sweet and humorous side of our lovable Beatles, Richard Lester captures their personalities enough that we as an audience could distinguish between the moptops. The film is funny, especially when the Beatles are answering various questions from reporters at a press party. Their answers are droll, but their delivery is spot-on hilarious and charming. As it turns out, The Beatles were pretty good at slapstick, too. And did I mention the music? Oh, sorry. I Should of Known Better is featured with two separate performances. Other highlights include the Fab Four singing in a television studio such classics as If I Fell, And I Love Her, and She Loves You. There are some that say that scenes like them running, falling and jumping about to Can’t Buy Me Love was the advent of the music video. So, who am I to argue that?

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

John Cameron Mitchell is the writer, director, and star of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch".
John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock and roll musical about a punk singer who survives a botched sex change operation and is left with one inch of unwanted flesh where it was supposed to happen. You know, that old chestnut. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) narrates her story through growing up in East Berlin, marrying an American GI who ultimately couldn’t handle the surgery failure, falling in love and mentoring a young singer who steals her songs and becomes famous, and following that singer’s band on tour by playing a chain of family restaurants adjacent to his stadium gigs. The film is based on a play created and starring Mitchell. It is a tragi-comedy that has songs that really rock out and make you feel for Hedwig. The tracks Origin of Love and Angry Inch are the ones that do the best in explaining the narrative. Wig in a Box is not just a great pick-yourself-up song, but actually inspires a fun sing along. Wicked Little Town is such a fantastic song lyrically and musically, that there is no way I could leave this film off of my list. The cast includes Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask, Miriam Shor, and the always incomparably funny, Andrea Martin.

The Kids Are Alright

The Who did a special performance of "Won't Get Fooled Again" for this movie.
John Entwistle. Keith Moon, Pete Townshend, and Roger Daltrey

The Kids Are Alright is definitely a film that I can watch over and over again. This documentary has tons of performance footage and interviews that spans the first 15 years of The Who. The beautiful thing about this is that everything was compiled and directed by a fan, Jeff Stein. The approach to the film is non-linear in its editing. This is not in chronological order at all, but the flow of it is perfect. The movie starts with a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Before the band dives into My Generation, they are briefly interviewed by Tommy Smothers. This serves as an introduction to the individual members for the film audience. At the end of that song, Pete Townshend smashes his guitar, Roger Daltrey bangs the cymbals with his microphone, John Entwistle holds on to his bass for dear life, and Keith Moon kicks over his drums, causing a huge explosion because the bass drum was overfilled with explosives. What a perfect way to start the film. Immediately, you can’t help but be interested in what this band is capable of.

There are performance clips from various television shows and concerts over the years. An interview of the whole band, with primarily Pete speaking and Keith goofing around, by British host Russell Harty is sprinkled throughout the film. One of my favorite clips was The Who singing their mini rock opera A Quick One While He’s Away taken from a television special called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus that was never aired until decades later because, rumor had it, The Stones thought The Who’s performance was too great, overshadowing their own.

The Kids Are Alright features concert footage from the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock to name but a few, but Stein wanted to include coverage of The Who performing two of their most famous songs, Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again. He set up a mini concert to get them playing those songs live. Little did anyone know at the time, but that turned out to be the last time Keith Moon would ever play live because he passed away shortly after. The Kids Are Alright is a love letter about The Who made for the fans.


The cast of "Quadrophenia" posed for this poster shot.
The cast poster for Quadrophenia

Well, what do you know? Another film based on music by The Who appears on my list just after another one that came out the same year, 1979. Quadrophenia is based on The Who’s rock 1973 rock opera and is about a mod named Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) who has four different key shades to his personality. The mods were about dressing a certain way, listening to certain bands, dancing a certain way, riding around on a scooter, taking uppers, and hating rockers. Rockers were those who were more into rockabilly and leather. The centerpiece for the film is the holiday weekend when the mods and rockers gather in Brighton to riot. But first, a little dancing must happen. In the club, everyone notices the extremely well dressed and well coiffed mod that is obviously the Ace Face. He is the one who everyone wants to copy and know and is portrayed by a young Sting. After being arrested at the riot and left by his friends and the girl he loves, Jimmy comes back to town with a major attitude problem that leads to him losing everything. The music from the album perfectly fits in with Jimmy’s moods throughout the picture. One of the most profound songs, I’m One, plays at a moment when Jimmy wants to be more noticed and respected, but is down on himself. Jimmy heads back to Brighton stoned out of his head. He was literally out of his brain on the 5:15 as the song says. Love Reign O’er Me is played when he’s reminiscing about his brief dalliance with the object of his infatuation, Steph. I’ve Had Enough plays while Jimmy rides a scooter around a cliff side looking down at the sea, pondering his life. The music fits perfectly. The songs on the original album and this film are so relatable to anyone who doesn’t know their place in their world or how to fit into it. We’ve all had moments like that when we were younger. That’s why Jimmy is someone you can empathize with through this film and the music of The Who.

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash

The Rutles were ingesting a lot of tea during the making of "Sgt. Rutter's Only Darts Club Band"
Sgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club Band

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash is a parody of the story of The Beatles. It was brilliantly written by Eric Idle, who plays both the narrator of the film and Paul McCartney-esque character, Dirk McQuickly. The music and lyrics that are spoofs of songs of The Beatles were written by Neil Innes, who portrays John Lennon doppelganger, Ron Nasty. The George Harrison and Ringo Starr characters are played by Rikki Fataar and John Halsey. Produced by Lorne Michaels in 1978, the movie has featured cameos by Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. The real Mick Jagger and Paul Simon were interviewed and played along as if The Rutles were the real thing. Eric Idle is the primary interviewer, except for this one sly scene in which the actual George Harrison is in disguise holding a microphone up to a character portrayed by Michael Palin.

The story of The Rutles is a hilarious beat-by-beat retelling of The Beatles story. Instead of Help!, their second film was Ouch!. Bob Dylan introduced to the band to a substance that would greatly influence their music- tea. Another Rutles movie was entitled The Tragically History Tour. The Yoko-type character is named Chastity and is represented as “a simple German girl whose father invented World War II.” There are too many jokes to list here. You just have to watch the story of the Pre-Fab Four- “A musical legend that would last a lunchtime.”

Sid & Nancy

Sid and Nancy try to appear sober in the light of the diner.
Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb.

Sid & Nancy is a dark love story about Sid Vicious from The Sex Pistols simultaneously falling for groupie, Nancy Spungen, and heroin. Directed by Alex Cox in 1986, this was the first major internationally known role for Gary Oldman. His performance of Sid was a true breakthrough. He made you really feel for the guy who actually did many atrocious things, least of all murder and suicide, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie is in-your-face loud and obnoxious, and a great portion of that is due to the performance of Chloe Webb as Nancy. She is such a loud mouth that at times she could lead to laughter. Sid and Nancy are subjects that didn’t care about anything really except each other and drugs. Yet somehow despite their ultimately tragic path, there are moments in this film which are almost touching. The laugh that Sid has after Nancy puts a lock and chain around his neck that she has no key for is particularly sweet in its own way. There’s an iconic moment when they are making out when garbage falls from the sky gently.

Why did Sid kill Nancy? She wanted to die with him because they were living desperately from fix to fix especially when they ran out of money and drugs. He reluctantly fulfilled her wish in a heartbreaking scene. While the film doesn’t show his suicide when he was out on bail, it has a bizarre, yet somehow gratifying, optimism at the end. There are shown together in a sort of dream sequence after their deaths, finally happy. The reason this film made my list is Gary Oldman. His acting achievement as Sid made me want to watch him do everything. Oldman has been one of my favorite actors ever since this film.

This is Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap gives their audience their best metal poses.
Derek Smalls, Nigel Tufnel, and David St. Hubbins

This is Spinal Tap is the funniest rock and roll movie of all time. It is shot in a mockumentary style by Rob Reiner as Marty DiBergi. Starring as the band Spinal Tap are comedic geniuses Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), and Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls). The film is an improvisation masterpiece. The story follows the band from their early history as The Originals, until they found out another band was called The Originals to the tour they were doing in 1984 as a heavy metal band trying to promote their latest album, Smell the Glove.

There are a lot of uproarious mishaps along the way; Derek Smalls being stuck in a prop, the band trying to find the stage in a maze of hallways to a waiting crowd in Cleveland, them being billed second to a puppet show, to name a few. One of the final straws for Spinal Tap was when they wanted to bring back an old song, Stonehenge, while a giant prop of the monument is lowered onto the stage. While drawing up the measurements for the prop builders, they mistakenly wrote is as inches instead of feet. When the teeny Stonehenge was lowered to the stage, the looks on their faces is priceless and unforgettable. This may be one of the funniest movie scenes of all time, The one everyone remembers is when Nigel is showing off his guitar and amp collection to Marty and comes upon something he’s really excited about. He explains to the documentarian that the amplifiers were specially made to be louder and are therefore numbered to 11. When DiBergi inquires why they didn’t just make 10 louder, Tufnel thinks that over for a few seconds and elaborates, “These go to 11.” The soundtrack written and performed by Guest, McKean, and Shearer are brilliant. Some of my favorites are Big BottomSex Farm, (Listen to the) Flower People, and Gimme Some Money.


The Pinball Wizard is about to be dethroned by Tommy.
John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Elton John (Pinball Wizard) Roger Daltrey (Tommy), Pete Townshend

Tommy is based on the 1969 rock opera by The Who. Adapted for film by Ken Russell in 1975, fans of The Who are divided on whether it’s loved or hated. I obviously am on the love side. I appreciate the surrealism and campiness of the film and don’t mind that subtle plotlines are changed. Tommy stars The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, in the title role. The character witnesses a tragedy when he was a young boy and the shock of what happened causes him to become deaf, dumb, and blind. I will use the now politically incorrect word dumb instead of mute because that’s the way it was written into the songs.

Tommy grows up staring helplessly at the mirror (well, he does look like Roger Daltrey). His mother (Ann-Margret) and his stepfather (Oliver Reed) keep trying various ways to cure him. This includes taking him to a prostitute/pusher called The Acid Queen hypnotically played by Tina Turner, a church that worships Marilyn Monroe as a false idol with Eric Clapton as the Preacher, and a fancy doctor played by Jack Nicholson, who has a decent singing voice. Tommy becomes a pinball wizard by feeling the vibrations, much to the chagrin of the previous title holder portrayed by Elton John. A miracle does happen and Tommy is cured. He becomes a false messiah that starts a holiday camp. When money becomes involved, his followers rebel against him, causing more tragedy for Tommy. That is quite a story, but I assure you that while Ken Russell’s directing leads to a lot of psychedelic and absurd outcomes, it never stops entertaining me and making my inner wow go off. The final scene of Daltrey singing See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You is so overwhelmingly moving, spiritual, and beautifully shot. While this film isn’t for all tastes, I’ve always loved it.

Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) feign being shy for the paparazzi
Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor

Velvet Goldmine is presented as a fable set in the era of glam rock. The character of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) obviously is meant to represent David Bowie while Ewan McGregor’s as Curt Wild is Iggy Pop-esque. Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is a journalist that is hired to cover the fake death of one of Slade’s alter egos, Maxwell Demon, years after the event. He winds up getting nostalgic for those times when he was a part of the glitter scene as a fan as he interviews those involved. The soundtrack feels authentic; it includes covers and originals from the early ’70s. The chemistry between Slade and Wild is electric. Toni Collette plays the divine party girl/wife of Brian, Mandy. She’s a queen of the scene herself, but there’s palpable tension when she perceives the magnetism between her husband and Curt Wild. Velvet Goldmine has the ambience of a fresh age in music when rock stars and fans were enticed to be free of constraints and act out in colorful costumes and makeup.

There is of course a long list of films that almost made it into my top eleven, but my honorable mentions would go on and on. What are some of your favorite rock and roll films?

Written by Joyce Picker

Joyce Picker is a film, television, and classic rock fanatic. She has worked as a film critic, a late night talk show columnist, a comedy writer, and an occasional contributor to The Blue Rose Magazine. She also worked in five different independent video stores and takes pride that most of her film knowledge is self taught. Her two favorite TV shows of all time, "Twin Peaks" and "SCTV", profoundly changed her life in very positive ways.

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