Vol. 1, Issue #5 March 31st - April 13th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Rock’n’Roll’s Other Medium
(Or, Approaching Midnite Movies as Really Long Music Videos)

Anyone can be a rock star, as one can witness on multiple MTV channels at any given moment, but to really be a rock star, you need a Film – note the capital “F.”

The concept goes back to jazz in the early days of “talkies,” Cab Calloway made shorts, feature films, and even cartoons - he and fellow “viper” Louis Armstrong both did soundtracks for Betty Boop cartoons back in the thirties. One of the earliest marriages of sound and film is a short featuring the legendary Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, which pre-dates “The Jazz Singer,” the “first” talkie – actually the first talkie by a white man - by at least half a decade.

Of course, before television, film was the only visual medium and it kept a generation of Americans enthralled to see idols like Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and even the great conductor Leopold Stokowski (if you count Disney’s “Fantasia,”) actually doing what they did best. Even though rock’n’roll happened simultaneously with television, due to tradition, film was still the medium fit for a king.

Elvis made films that, ironically, seem to change in value as the years go by. While his early black & white flicks, “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole” used to be seen as the high points of his cinematic career, high camp and a general acceptance of The King’s goofiness have turned “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and, my personal favorite, “Change of Habit” –which ends with the hapless Sister Mary Tyler Moore trying to decide between God and Elvis – into cult favorites. Elvis was very aware of the power of cinema – he watched the films of Brando and James Dean and saw that they didn’t smile that much, so he didn’t smile in a lot of his early works. Many people confused this concept with “acting.”

The Beatles all worked in film as solo artists – Lennon in “How I Won The War,” McCartney in “Give My Regards to Broadstreet,” Ringo in a ton of films from “The Magic Christian” to “Caveman,” and Harrison’s production company that produced films for Monty Python and Madonna. As a group the Fab Four made five films, from the sublime “A Hard Day’s Night” to the disastrous “Magical Mystery Tour” - which is still a classic, if only for the psychedelic “I Am The Walrus” section - and they were also the subject of various documentaries, like “All My Loving” and “First U.S. Visit,” not to mention their promotional films – now we would call them music videos – for songs like “Paperback Writer” and “Lady Madonna.” Poetically, the world got to see them break up on film with the release of “Let it Be.”

The Rolling Stones have the broadest cinematic range, there are the heavy documentaries like the ode to the Altamont disaster, “Gimme Shelter,” the propaganda filled “Sympathy for The Devil” – directed by Jean-Luc Goddard, no less – and “Cocksucker Blues” – which they attempted to suppress because is showed a little too much of their rock’n’roll lifestyle, along with musical events like the heavily staged “Rock and Roll Circus,” and the Hyde Park concert, which was supposed to be a celebration of the new line-up, but ended up being a wake for Brian Jones. Jones had been kicked out of the group a few months earlier and died just days before the planned “celebration.” It was hard being a Rolling Stone in the sixties.

Always the innovator, the late Frank Zappa still stands tall in film, with “200 Motels,” which was actually shot on video and transferred to film for budgetary reasons, “Uncle Meat,” which took Zappa over a decade to figure out the ending, “Baby Snakes,” which is a mixture of claymation and live concert footage, and quite a few specials for “Night Flight,” a highly underrated music show from the 1980s, and his line of home videos on his own “Honker” label. There are so many full shows with titles that the Zappa catalogue is one of the easiest to keep track of on bootleg editions.

“Woodstock” was the beginning of the modern concert film. Strangely, the only thing Woodstock Ventures didn’t have an interest in was the film rights to the event. In the financial Vietnam of the venture, the whole concert could have been paid for with just the film, which was a huge success – and a favorite of Charlston Heston in “Omega Man” - but instead they broke even years later by hawking t-shirts with the bird and guitar logo.

Now after the dust has cleared, and we finally have a hard medium for film – the DVD as oppose to the flimsy and more labor-intensive videotape – and there’s a flood of films that were either forgotten or are just starting to rise to the top of the heap. Every time I look on Amazon.com or go into the bookstores I am stunned: “Alice Cooper had a film?” “George Clinton had a film?” “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had a film?” And the tradition has continued, from Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” or the more recent films by Eminem and 50 Cent.

As I watch these recent releases, from both the major companies and the eBay underground, I am struck at how many of the images of rock’n’roll have been frozen in these cinematic offerings; Guy Peellaert’s surrealist portraits of The Stones in “Rock Dreams,” Alice Cooper’s long johns with leopard-spotted boots immortalized in Todd McFarlane Toy’s action figure of the artist, John Belushi’s aping of Joe Cocker during the classical period of “Saturday Night Live,” the sunglasses, semi-long hair, turtleneck look the Beatles had going in the “Rain” promo, the Bowie moves used in “Velvet Goldmine,” Elvis having a guitar thrown to him as soon as he starts singing in “Paradise…” and Keith Moon dressed as a nun in “200 Motels.”

Will these films be remembered alongside the great musicals, like “Cabin in the Sky?” Eventually. The Beatles were not seen as anything other than a bubblegum group until well into the 1980s, just as jazz wasn’t taken that serious until the 1950s. Elvis was never really appreciated until after the world saw how his death affected his millions of fans. I’m still not sure when The Stones became respectable – they’re still bleeping their major hits on television, just like Ed Sullivan made them change the song to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” back in the 1960s.

I first started realizing there was something to these films when an older friend of mine explained that no one had seen The Beatles for a few months when they released the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promo on “American Bandstand.” Everyone expected the band to take off their facial hair at the end of the video, but they didn’t. The next day every guy in the world started growing a beard.

How many people do you know who look like refugees from Korn?

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.