Released in 1995, more than two decades after the IOW festival it chronicles, Message to Love is cited as an exemplary rock film in John Scanlan’s new book Rock ’n’ roll Plays Itself: A Screen History. As his title acknowledges, Scanlan is influenced by Thom Anderson’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which created a collage of visual fragments of Los Angeles, glimpsed in other films, to detail the city’s identity. Scanlan similarly uses rock music’s relationship with the screen as a way of finding films that illuminate the internal development of rock ’n’ roll as an art form. This is a wise approach, given how few films deploy cinematic history as a way to embody rock’s restless and uncompromising spirit.
Movies heralding rock ’n’ roll’s arrival treated the upstart music as a pallid version of the real thing or as a passing, adolescent craze. In Rock Around the Clock (1956), a promoter and friend see young couples spinning each other around, men throwing women into the air and dragging them through their legs. One asks: “What is that outfit playing up there?” The promoter admits: “I don’t know. It isn’t boogie, it isn’t jive, and it isn’t swing. It’s kinda all of them.” He approaches a girl hanging over a man’s shoulder, her head upside down, to ask her the question. She shouts, “It’s rock and roll, brother and we’re rockin’ tonight.” Rock Around the Clock gave instructions on what to do when the music kicks off, prompting audiences to leave their seats and “jive” in the aisles. The new musical phenomenon spread with such speed that it was seen by some commentators as “medieval lunacy,” a type of St. Vitus’s dance, “its victims breaking into dancing and being unable to stop.” The opening night of Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), a movie about the authorities trying to ban rock ’n’ roll because of the “public disorder” it caused, featured such a furor of dancing and fighting for seats that it was “surprising the roof didn’t come off” the theater, according to The New York Times.
Blackboard Jungle (1955) was the first film to associate rock ’n’ roll with juvenile delinquency, creating a much-visited genre. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley’s sexual presence was so disturbing for American TV audiences that he had to be filmed from the waist up when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. After his performance was watched by 60 million viewers (or 82 percent of the viewing audience), righteous protectors of public morality warned of the singer’s disruptive influence on the young. A more supportive commentator described the effect of Elvis’s TV performances on his generation as “the birth of revolutionary consciousness.” At school, “everybody […] would go nuts reliving it […] Black kids, white kids, Puerto Ricans, everybody was uncontrollable, it was total anarchy.” Elvis’s musical impact was matched by how he looked on screen. For mainstream white America, Elvis seemed to have arrived on “the midnight train from nowhere.”
The latent relationship between Black music and white performer was overt in his appearance. Stanley Booth, in his 2019 book Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers, notes how Elvis “bought his clothes at Lansky’s on Beale Street, where the black pimps traded.” Early Elvis was as weird-looking as it was possible to get on US TV in the 1950s, yet almost immediately his raw sexual vitality was diminished by his movie performances. Scanlan points out how “[e]ach time Presley appeared in the guise of a cowboy, racing car driver, playboy or other character, in the dozens of movies he would make, it actually diminished his potency as a rock ’n’ roll figure.” Most of Presley’s movies continued the hollowed-out MGM musical tradition of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly: they were star vehicles with music shoehorned in to please the fans. Loving You (1957), a kind of biopic, and Jailhouse Rock (1957), which featured a duplicitous manager out to exploit his star, were the rare exceptions, thanks to Elvis playing a version of himself as a singer on the rise.
The quintessential 1950s rock ’n’ roll film, Scanlan suggests, is The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Directed by Frank Tashlin in gaudy Technicolor, the movie tells the story of a gangster’s hapless attempts to turn his talentless girlfriend (a pneumatic Jayne Mansfield, threatening to burst out of her dress) into a nightclub chanteuse. The soundtrack uses Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard, “whose repertoire of wild shrieks and falsetto whoops” are a perfect match for the film’s visual excess. But the hellish persona of Jerry Lee Lewis — the most feared performer of his generation, who was once called “the garbage of the earth” — wasn’t fully captured on screen until Great Balls of Fire! (1989), 30 years after the events it chronicles. That movie contains the iconic scene of Jerry Lee (played by Dennis Quaid) performing in a “jacket trimmed in the fake fur of some jungle cat” at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater. Lewis, according to his biographer, “reached inside the piano, took a small Coke bottle of clear liquid, and poured gasoline across the top of the instrument.” The biopic shows Quaid pounding away at the keys as the flames rise, before ambling off the stage.
The new age of rock films was ushered in by another figure who cultivated a demonic profile. Kenneth Anger, the experimental L.A. auteur who flirted with Aleister Crowley’s “black magick” rituals, was the first filmmaker to unfasten rock music from the visual depiction of its performers. Anger’s 1963 short film Scorpio Rising samples classic late-1950s and early-1960s tracks by Ray Charles (“Hit the Road Jack”), Elvis (“Devil in Disguise”), Bobby Vinton (“Blue Velvet”), Martha and the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”) and the Crystals (“He’s a Rebel”), pairing the “innocent” music with homoerotic imagery of bikers and rebel icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando, rife with lurid colors and occult symbolism. The phantasmagoric effect of Scorpio Rising anticipates the decadent mood of late-1960s bands like the Velvet Underground and the Doors, opening up a more sexually ambiguous subtext to the theme of rock ’n’ roll delinquency. A cult film after the US Nazi Party tried to get it banned, Scorpio Rising influenced a generation of directors, such as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, as well as musicians like Mick Jagger (glimpsed in Anger’s 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother, for which he supplied a soundtrack) and Jimmy Page (who became involved with the 1972 film Lucifer Rising after meeting Anger at an auction of Crowley’s memorabilia).
But as Rock ’n’ Roll Plays Itself claims, the definitive rock film of this period is D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), a documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. It opens with the singer-songwriter, with a deadpan expression, holding up signs culled from the lyrics to his “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” making no attempt to sing along to the lyrics. His insolent, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the audience and the medium shows rock ’n’ roll as it had never before been presented. Wearing shades and a mass of frizzed-out hair, Dylan resembles a jittery, strung-out Beat poet, far ahead of his own audience, who jeered at his newly electrified sound. A key figure in the direct cinema movement, Pennebaker creates a verité look that conveys the sense of entering a chaotic private world. Don’t Look Back is full of dark car interiors, cramped backstages, and hotel bedrooms so jammed with people that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on (“You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”). Albert Grossman, Dylan’s big bruiser of a manager, is shown to behave like a “sort of bandit from the swamps,” constantly threatening and demanding more money, while Dylan and his entourage encounter archaic caricatures like the High Sheriff’s Lady in Newcastle, who declares: “If you come back again, I’d love to have you and your friend at the Mansion House.” Dylan stares back at her in uncomprehending silence.
Don’t Look Back cemented Dylan’s position as a pivotal figure of the 1960s and created a new template for capturing rock onscreen. Rock music was highly topical, an agent of accelerating social change, so it made an ideal subject for pioneering documentarians like Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers. The Maysleses’ portrait of the Fab Four’s arrival in the States, What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), was the first fly-on-the-wall rock ’n’ roll film, showing the music as a live happening that was deeply expressive of contemporary social reality. That same year, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night also broke away from stale treatments of rock, exhibiting a freedom and exhilaration in both its content and its form (with jump cuts and discontinuous images). In one scene, the Beatles lark about in the park, happy to play at being themselves, free from all the grabbing hands, a sequence that “points to the future of not just the Beatles but rock itself.” Another early classic influenced by direct cinema, Charlie Is My Darling (1966) intercuts verité footage of the Rolling Stones on a short trip to Ireland with performances at Albert Hall. Jagger comes across as insecure while Richards seems disinterested. Ironically, the band member with the most natural screen presence is Charlie Watts, who clearly knows who he is, claiming to be “happiest at home” where he can “pick up a book and play a record.” Shown briefly in 1966, Charlie Is My Darling vanished from sight, only to reappear more than four decades later.
Moving beyond mere documentation, the creative marriage of rock music and film began to accelerate in the 1960s when Andy Warhol developed the idea for a series of multimedia events he called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The Velvet Underground and Nico played live sets accompanied by dancers, a light show, and Warhol’s own films, creating a full-blown sensory assault. At a plush dinner for the New York Psychiatry Society, Warhol filmed the diners with handheld cameras, using baffled psychiatrists as “unwitting players in a forthcoming film.” When the Velvets took to the stage, Warhol projected his 1965 film Vinyl, interspersed with a film by Paul Morrissey that showed close-ups of Nico singing “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” “Looking ghostly in the flickering movie lights,” Scanlan writes, “Nico on stage picked up the song from Nico on screen and the band joined in behind her.”
This new pop-cultural mix, the deliberate cross-fertilization of art and fashion, music and cinema, is at the center of Blow-Up (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni’s zeitgeist film. Fashion photographer Thomas (played by David Hemmings) moves through different worlds, “from the instantly mythologized Swinging London to the overlooked, rather grittier world of doss houses.” One key scene prefigures rock’s accelerated rush towards decadence, when Thomas stumbles into a music club (based on the Ricky-Tick) where the audience is portrayed as jaded and apathetic, letting “wave after wave of the next new thing […] wash over them.” Onstage are the Yardbirds, a band that raced through its own manic sound trajectory, from Chicago electric blues to psychedelic pop to prototype heavy metal, with the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page competing with each other. When Beck’s amp cut outs, he hits it with his guitar, smashing the instrument to pieces. The passive audience is roused by this orgy of sonic violence, forcing Thomas to flee from the melee, clutching a guitar fragment.
As viewers in 1967 witnessed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour a few months after the Who’s appearance at Monterey Pop Festival, Pete Townshend staged the same act on television, ending a performance of “My Generation” by stabbing his guitar neck into the amplifiers while Keith Moon was blown backwards by stage explosives placed in his drum kit. Filmed earlier that June, Monterey Pop (1968) captures the duality of late-sixties rock, balancing the Who’s auto-destructive darkness with what Eric Burdon of the Animals called the “harmonic convergence of the hippie era.” Burdon, who performs a psychedelic version of “Paint It Black” in the movie, felt Monterey was a high point of the decade, the sole communal event of the era that was completely successful. Jimi Hendrix dedicated his ritual guitar sacrifice as “an act of love,” upstaging the Who, who smashed up everything as usual. The peace-and-love generation was acutely aware of the escalating death toll in Vietnam. In The New York Times, Renata Adler noted how “all that shiny hair, orangeade, beautiful hands, shades, watermelon, shoeless feet in tights, and flowers” on display in Monterey Pop couldn’t hide the “serious young faces” that, before the war in Vietnam, “we didn’t seem to have.”
The era’s dark undertow was captured on a 16 mm film put out by the Doors to accompany their powerful 1968 antiwar single “The Unknown Soldier.” Carrying a sitar and tablas, the band walk along Venice Beach to arrive under a pier where Jim Morrison is tied to a post. War images are interspersed with flash frames of executions and machine-gun fire, while Morrison appears as a condemned man waiting to be executed at the song’s end. There’s no miming out the song: he’s just a limp body held up by ropes as blood spills out of his mouth. After the single was banned due to its antiwar content, the Doors used the film in their shows, staging its grim ending. In Apocalypse Now (1979), which screenwriter John Milius imagined as a film about a “rock ’n’ roll war,” director Francis Ford Coppola chose the Doors’ kaleidoscopic sex-and-death epic “The End” as the soundtrack to its protagonist’s nightmarish visions. An early version of the screenplay has Colonel Kurtz preparing to meet a Viet Cong attack by blasting the Doors’ “Light My Fire” through huge loudspeakers.
Political violence is also at the heart of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil, about the Rolling Stones and the radical fervor of the late sixties. Godard juxtaposes footage of the band taking a long time to create the eponymous song with scenes of the Black Panthers as political revolutionaries, thus drawing parallels between creativity and political violence and between the work of art and the work of building political consciousness. Sympathy for the Devil retains its power as a rock film in the way it pioneers a new way of looking at the music. Godard wants us to think of rock not as a commodity for sale but as a product of a moment in time, arising from a collective cultural interaction. He had intended to end the film with the song unfinished (history yet to be made), but the producers recut the footage to give it a more commercial resolution. Godard was so furious at the London premiere that he “threw a punch at one of the producers in the cinema foyer.”
Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) is, of course, the peak achievement of the rock concert film, whose success inspired many insipid imitations. Constructed through painstaking editing, Woodstock’s 35,000 feet of film — 70 miles of footage — represent the greatest effort to capture the experience of rock musical performance. Wadleigh conceived of it as a mass countercultural pilgrimage, a 20th-century Canterbury Tales. But the film’s high quality arises from its complex use of split screen and varying screen sizes, which create, in Scanlan’s words, “a visual rhythm to enhance the music.” The production team featured an assistant director who “wasn’t Martin Scorsese yet, [but] was just some schmuck from Little Italy,” according to a colleague. “‘At one point Marty tried to take a nap in a pup tent under the stage’ but ended up bringing the whole thing down on top of himself: ‘He had claustrophobia and was screaming for someone to help him.’”
The first major filmmaker to understand how rock ’n’ roll held the key to the zeitgeist, Scorsese exhibited this new understanding in the opening scene of Mean Streets (1973). The Ronettes sing “Be My Baby” as Harvey Keitel falls asleep, suggesting his entire backstory in miniature, in 8 mm footage shot to resemble a home movie. Scorsese seizes on the use of rock pioneered by Scorpio Rising, applying it to visual content separate from the song or performer. Director Mike Nichols had already made rock central to his 1967 film The Graduate, the first Hollywood movie to use the music as a strong dramatic component. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” plays in its entirety over the title sequence to imply the thoughts of the protagonist, an aural depiction of the main character’s aimless drifting. Scorsese goes even further, showing how rock music can conjure up images that take viewers “to another place.”
Wim Wenders was also a pioneer of the prerecorded soundtrack. The starting point for Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976) was rock music; lodged in the director’s subconscious as a source of images, the music was his “most important influence, more than any pictures or stories.” In his 1989 book Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema, Wenders recalls the shock of recognition he experienced watching Easy Rider (1969) as a 25-year-old, with the rock soundtrack allowing him to identify with the characters. “I stood outside and realized that I really look like the characters in the film, that I like the music of Jimi Hendrix, that I don’t get served in a lot of bars, that I have been locked up in jail for nothing. There’ll come a time when people will shoot here too,” Wenders writes, referring to the movie’s downbeat ending.
The moment in the 1970s when rock groups grew away from their roots is encapsulated by Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (1972). The band had already provided music for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) and other European art-house films, but Live at Pompeii showed them playing not to an audience but to Roman ruins. “The music and the silence and the empty amphitheater would mean as much” to viewers, director Adrian Maben claimed, as a performance in front of fans — a summation of the pompous arrogance of progressive rock. By the mid-seventies, throwbacks to rock’s raucous early days could be witnessed in The London Rock and Roll Show (1973), a film of a Wembley stadium concert featuring Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. Malcolm McClaren, who was in attendance, said that the experience was the start of the process that led to the formation of the Sex Pistols two years later.
The idea that rock had lost touch with its golden days is embodied in Stardust (1974), which features David Essex as Jim MacLaine, a pop star isolated from his audience and distanced from his origins, which had been explored in a previous movie, That’ll Be the Day (1973). Rock films started to mine a rich vein of nostalgia, using cinema’s ability to recreate a compelling sense of time and place, drawing on period music and its audiovisual power. George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), a series of vignettes of one summer night, displays a vision of the United States in 1962, the director’s dream of a past he wished he had lived. The essence of rock ’n’ roll, the film suggests, lies in its “moment in time” quality, which the teenagers in 1962 have no sense of outlasting. Few of the characters understand that things can never really stay the same, despite the experience of an endless summer night. One character, Curt, searches the streets looking for the ghostly presence of a woman who, waiting at a set of lights, had mouthed the words: “I love you.” Was she real or had he dreamed it? It’s a symbol of the evanescence of rock music and cinema’s paradoxical ability to embody such an elusive sense of time. American Graffiti exemplifies what Fredric Jameson has described as a “postmodern aesthetics of nostalgia”: the past is now approached through the stylistic connotations of period pop culture. Given how adept rock films were at projecting a kind of “mesmerizing lost reality,” this trend became increasingly widespread in the 1970s and ’80s with movies such as Grease (1978), Back to The Future (1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Hairspray (1988).
Rock ’n’ Roll Plays Itself excels in its understanding of how the music is characterized by its unique relationship to time, its seizing of the moment as an existential act. Yet it can also be the most potent time capsule, preserving the essence of an era, while also holding out the possibility of being reworked. It can contain the seeds of a different version of itself in a future time, as in David Chase’s 2012 film Not Fade Away, which ends with a car driving around Los Angeles in 1969, playing a track from the yet-to-form Sex Pistols, a kind of radio broadcast from the future. The film moves backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, mocking the easy nostalgia of rock films that seek to idealize the past.
Rock ’n’ roll had started to dramatize its demise early on. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s 1970 film Performance features a washed-up Jagger-like singer called Turner, played by Mick Jagger himself. “Turner is terminally jaded […] he has exhausted the possibilities of his art, grown tired of its rewards and bored with its diversions,” wrote the music journalist Mick Brown. Trapped in a decadent, downward spiral, Turner/Jagger no longer bothers with the public but plays head games with gangsters and hangers-on. More than a decade after Performance, however, Jagger was still playing Jagger in Hal Ashby’s concert film Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982). Whereas the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1969) had portrayed the haunting, rising darkness of Altamont and Robert Frank’s legendary Cocksucker Blues (1972) had captured the tedium, drug use, and casual sex of touring, Ashby’s Stones film is very superficial: a seemingly ageless band performs, while Jagger relentlessly scurries, cavorts, and vamps around the stage imitating youthful exuberance. (Trying to party with the Stones, Ashby had collapsed and had to direct from his trailer, lying on a gurney with an IV drip in his arm.) Jagger has been described as a double exposure of Dorian Gray and his infamous portrait; at once defiantly youthful and creepily gaunt, his lean body resists the truth of temporality his aging face betrays. Speaking to the press at the release of Let’s Spend the Night Together, Jagger himself mused on how he had chosen to live a “‘very adolescent’ kind of life”: “Sometimes you wonder how it’d have been if you’d been involved in something that would have expanded your brain a little more.” As a rock star entering your thirties, “you start to understand how idiotic you’ve been. Then you start to think, ‘Well, I can still play the part — but I’ll be an actor; this isn’t really me.’”
That was 40 years ago. The longer the Stones went on as the aging rock band, the more the potential lifespan expanded for everyone else who came after. The best film about a group of middle-aged, squabbling rockers unable to call it a day is This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a spoof documentary but also a truthful revelation of the prolonged adolescence of the rock life. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004) shares Spinal Tap’s clarity of insight. After more than 20 years, the heavy-metal band’s members find themselves very rich and very successful, but deeply unhappy. The relationship between the band’s two main figures, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, is toxic. When Hetfield returns to the studio after long therapy sessions, he introduces himself as newly sober and now more interested in the well-being of his family than in the success of the group. He wants to give most of his time to “mending a marriage that was shattered by alcohol [and] the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle,” he says. Ulrich, unable to listen to Hetfield spout this therapeutic psychobabble, simply explodes, screaming: “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. FUCKKKK!” One band profile claimed that this was the “most intimate, most honest, most emotionally authentic exchange” the two men had ever experienced.
The biographical movie Nico, 1988 (2017) offers a more dignified meditation on the aging rock star, telling the story of Nico’s final year when, far from the gothic beauty of her Velvet Underground days, she found refuge in the gray decay of postindustrial Manchester. When a new manager puts together a band, the singer tours Europe, playing to half-empty halls, wanting to recapture on tape a sound that “was out there somewhere,” something that had stayed with her since her German childhood after the war. In one scene, she tells an interviewer, as recounted by Scanlan: “It was the sound of ‘Germany being bombed.’ […] The sound of ‘war ending, of the city burning. It was a sound that really wasn’t a sound, it was many things at the same time. It was … the sound of defeat.’”
The last 14 years have witnessed a spate of commercial rock biopics — Nowhere Boy (2009), Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Rocket Man (2019), Elvis (2022) — that return to the traditional, tired formula, also implemented in such genre pastiches as the highly successful A Star Is Born (2018), a remake following the rise and fall of fictional performers. Their main appeal rests in cinema’s ability to evoke a lost past, summon up the spirits and shades of people and places that existed 50 years ago. This sense of a ghost world has only grown, with documentaries devoted to exploring locations haunted by the specters of rock ’n’ roll’s past; Stones in Exile (2010) revisits the French villa whose bohemian ambience produced the record Exile on Main St. (1972), while From the Sky Down (2011) returns an aging U2 to the Berlin studio where they made their album Achtung Baby (1991) 20 years before.
But the latest blockbuster biopic, Moonage Daydream (2022), a portrait of David Bowie, attempts something more ambitious. It pushes rock’s ability to consume its past and deny the linearity of time much further, ransacking and cannibalizing depictions of Bowie from a range of sources, including footage from Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1979), with its illuminated flash-lit close-ups of the audience, shown in stages of ecstasy, sobbing and writhing; to Alan Yentob’s 1975 documentary Cracked Actor, with a drugged and detached Bowie spaced-out in Los Angeles; to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which Bowie perfectly embodies the role of a space alien, maladjusted and weird, yet still ageless and self-inventing like a rock star. Adding its own swirling abstract graphics and interstellar imagery, Moonage Daydream uses these films as a kind of palimpsest, evidence of Bowie’s ghostly presence and protean reinventions, capturing the afterlife of a star who was deeply alive and yet not fully human in his alterity. By using only Bowie’s voice, by turns humble, strung out, or sententious, the film comes to resemble its subject: surprising, operatic, teetering on the brink of the absurd. Imbued with the sorrow of Bowie’s death, it proclaims his immortality. The singer’s constant openness to change, his willingness to embrace countless experiences, makes him seem somehow more than mortal. But he was also “silly like us.” It’s the most complete film portrait of any rock performer, permeated with Bowie’s own deep awareness, from his glittering breakthrough as Ziggy Stardust onwards, of the crucial importance of the visual dimension.
John Scanlan’s Rock ’n’ Roll Plays Itself understands how rock music, as a cultural form, survives not just because of the mythical lives of its stars and its own artistic recycling but also because it’s embedded in the life of the screen. The medium of film, appreciated by a global audience, has vastly extended the reach and longevity of the music it often showcases, and the digital world’s ever-increasing use of visual media will only further this “ghostly” proliferation. The phantasmagoric, trippy Moonage Daydream may well be best experienced in IMAX, but it will be viewed on a myriad of screens, just as Bowie foresaw and relished, suffering an “expansion, / Like gold to airy thinness beat.”
Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. Song Noir, his book on Tom Waits and the spirit of Los Angeles, was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.