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Rock & Roll on Film

The author investigates the way in which, historically speaking, rock & roll ’functions’ in film. He is particularly interested in the films that very obviously connect the youngster’s rebellion and rock & roll during the American ’cultural revolution’ and students’ movement in ’68, and their need to be free from political and customary repression. Institutionalized Hollywood became interested in cases of ’youngsters’ delinquency’ in the late ’40s, but typically dealt with it as a passing phase in a person’s life, something that can be explained and, after that, put under the control of authoritarian forces. The turning point came with the film The Blackboard Jungle (directed by Richard Brooks, 1955), which gave the audience and Hollywood establishment and alternative perception of a new, rapidly growing phenomenon called a ’teenager’, where teenage culture was not something older generations could easily understand or control, but could not ignore it either. From that moment in the mid-fifties, rock & roll started growing into standard musical signal of young people, their problems and groups, and the starting pattern was given by use of Bill Haley’s song Rock Around the Clock in The Blackboard Jungle, showing that rock music can be exploited with the aim of intensifying film dynamics and drama. Through this film, rock & roll became film synonym for youngsters’ rebellion and ever widening ’generation gap’ and thus became a catalyst of later use of rock in film.
Film industry has used this in a wave of entertaining Hollywood and British ’rock-musicals’ — in a series of Elvis Presley and the Beatles films. This trend was fortified with a number of ’entertaining’, ’dance’, ’subculture’ rock musicals, as well as those about the ’music business itself’, half-musicals and/or ’documentary’ films (Hair, Forman/Ragni and Rado, 1979; American Graffitti, Lucas, 1973; Tommy, Russell/The Who, 1975; Nashville, Altman/Keith Carradine et al., 1975; Car Wash, Schultz, 1976; Saturday Night Fever, Badham/The Bee Gees, 1977; Grease, Kleiser, 1978; Quadrophenia, Roddam/The Who, 1979; Breaking Glass, Gibson/Hazel O’Connor et al., 1980; Flashdance, Lyne, 1983; Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman/Madonna, 1985; Sid & Nancy, Cox/The Pogues, 1986; Crossroads, Hill/J. B. Lenoir and Ry Cooder, 1986; The Commitments, Parker, 1991). In all of these films, rock is not just an accompaniment; it has an autonomous, and even a central role in narration.
The change in this role of rock in film was brought by a cult road film of the hippy era Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) in which the accompanying music is psychedelic rock aimed at connecting the audience to a certain moment and so intensifying and focusing its ideology of life for a moment. After that film, there was a number of road films in which rock music is used an appropriate background (for example, Convoy, Peckinpah/Chip Davies, C. W. McCall et al., 1978; Mad Max 2, Miller/Brian May, 1981, and pastiches of this genre like 200 Motels, Palmer/Frank Zappa, 1971). The emblematic role of rock plays a special part in Antonioni’s Zabriskie point.
Thanks to the Academy Awards won by Woodstock (Wadley, 1970) in the ’70s there was the rise in concert film that coincided with the appearance of type of filmmakers who were able to put on film not only music itself, but also an entire concert, and conveys spontaneity and intimacy of live performance in front of new audiences. For example, D. A. Pennebaker assisted in redefining rock documentaries with Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1969), and in 1970 he committed himself to so called glam rock and lent immortality to David Bowie and his alter ego at the final concert of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tour, and Maysles brothers made a film about the Rolling Stones (Gimme Shelter, 1970). Til the end of the 1970s there was a great number of concert films that covered practically all current music genres from reggae (Bob Marley and the Wailers Live, 1991) to punk (Sex Pistols in DOA, Morton, 1988), and promoted the biggest names of rock & roll.
At the same time, rock is becoming increasingly commercialized; there is a strong trend of ordering/exploitation of rock bestsellers as musical scores for numerous detective, spy or adventure films (for example, Shaft, Parks/Isaac Hayes, 1971; Superfly, Parks/Curtis Mayfield, 1972; Batman, Burton/Prince, 1989). Recording companies did not wait long to realize the massive commercial potential of putting one of the songs by one of their artists into a new film, as a ’primary advertising device’, which spread particularly in the 1990s. This period is characterized by the fact that music video became one of the dominant means of spreading pop/rock music, but unlike the traditional film music, musical video subordinates the ’syntax’ of film to the ’syntax of music’. The author finishes his overview of historical types of usage of rock in film by analyzing a paradigmatic film Badsville (Parcelin/Super Bees, The Street Walkin’ Cheetahs, Pygmy Love Circus, 2001), that, we could say, has all the good characteristics of a contemporary rock & roll film, and none of the bad ones.

Dejan D.

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