This light-hearted riff on 100 rock’n’roll movies is at its best when not demanding to be taken seriously
Rock musicians are at their most absurd and entertaining when demanding to be taken seriously, when they feel it’s no longer enough to be loved for their ability to pen a catchy melody but instead want to be appreciated for their talents on screen. It was from such origins that trash classics like Bob Dylan’s Hearts of Fire, Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly and Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street briefly made it on to cinema screens before being rapidly dispatched to video store bargain basement bins. These films are all examples of the rock’n’roll movie, and it is this genre that Garry Mulholland attempts to rehabilitate in his new book.
Mulholland suggests seven sub-categories of rock movie, including biopics (Ray, The Buddy Holly Story), films about the music business (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Dig!), rockumentaries (Woodstock, Gimme Shelter) and rock comedies (This is Spinal Tap, The School of Rock). He stresses that he is a music critic, not a film critic, and admits that many of the films he covers are “either mediocre or enjoyably trashy – or just plain awful”. Yet he thinks rock’n’roll movies deserve to be appraised not just on artistic grounds but on the basis of their cultural significance. His book is “an attempt to look at the relationship between the two modes of entertainment that dominate the western world’s mainstream popular culture”.
This is under-explored territory, including as it does everything from Elvis’s tragic film star vehicles to 70s smash hits like Grease, to bleak depictions of the price of rock stardom, such as Grant Gee’s Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy. A book that really delved into the subject would be welcome. But though Mulholland is an amiable guide through his selection of the hundred most important rock movies, the book has too many resemblances to a Channel 4 list show to succeed. He defines rock films as those “made after the birth of rock’n’roll as a mainstream genre in 1955, which base their central premise around pop music in the post-rock’n’roll era”. Yet this definition is undermined when he admits that there are many films that will not be included (The Wiz, Hearts of Fire) because they were too awful even for him. Given the somewhat relaxed selection process, wouldn’t it have been interesting to have looked at, say, the role of rock music in the films of Martin Scorsese? (After all, isn’t Goodfellas at least as much a rock’n’roll movie as The Last Waltz?)
But the book’s real problem is its format. Mulholland devotes an average of around 1,000 words to each film, which feels too much for Slade in Flame and far too little for Gimme Shelter. His writing style is breezy, chatty and fitfully humorous. The entry for Grease is in the form of the transcript of a conversation between Mulholland and his wife, during which he concedes that “my theory that Grease is a pop-feminist polemic is bollocks”. The review of DA Pennebaker’s classic Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back begins with a reference to the interview technique of a former Tottenham manager.
In the pre-internet age, books such as this were ideal purchases for the coffee tables of music and film fans, to be consulted when next visiting the video store. In the age of Google, most of the information contained in the book is instantly available. Popcorn reads like a printed collection of web entries and – like the films in its pages – it is at its most entertaining when not demanding to be taken seriously.