Rock on Film–TCM chronicles 70 years of rock music on the big screen

Review by C.J. Bunce

TCM’s film reference library of books has looked at the best sci-fi and horror movies, dynamic actresses, Christmas movies, summer hits, noir and war movies, and famous stunts, and its books have argued for 100 movies as the best of them all.  Diehard rock ‘n’ roll aficionados are the targets of the next dive into a select segment of genredom at the movies.  Today TCM and Running Press are releasing TCM’s Rock on Film (available here at Amazon).  Written by former Rolling Stone magazine editor Fred Goodman, by design it aims to blend crowd pleasers and buried treasure, and is not intended to be definitive–so don’t get your hackles up when you find your favorites didn’t make the cut.  Featured aren’t just typical “movies”–this is the TCM library’s biggest foray into documentaries.  So along with Purple Rain, American Graffiti, This is Spinal Tap, The Buddy Holly Story, That Thing You Do!, Inside Llewyn Davis, 8 Mile, Straight Outta Compton, Quadrophenia, and Tommy, look for discussions of A Hard Day’s Night, Dont Look Back (blame the lack of apostrophe on the film creator), Woodstock, The TAMI Show, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and Echo in the Canyon.  And interviews with Cameron Crowe, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, Taylor Hackford, and John Waters shed some light on how filmmakers were influenced by rock and rock movies.

Goodman devotes the first 33 pages to describe 70 years of rock ‘n’ roll at the movies, surely a Herculean effort.  Much overlooked history can be found here even for the Generation X crowd, as he dives into cultural changes and the rise and impact of rock music in America and the UK.  It’s a worthy overview on the subject, complete with hundreds of references to the key benchmarks of rock history, like the Day the Music Died, the arrival of The Beatles, Altamont, Woodstock, and rock nests like Laurel Canyon and Seattle.

But what exactly is the subject of the book?

Is it about the rock ‘n’ roll business?  Rock history?  The path to become a rock star?  Living a life influenced by rock music?  Music as rebellion?  Creating your own band?  Being a studio producer?  Responding to music?  Running a music shop?  Predecessors to the music video?  Fact or fiction?  Or fantasy spectacles?  Actually it’s all of these, from the beginning through 2019’s Get On Up with Chadwick Boseman, which means the contents represent many sides of rock, from Elvis and The Beatles to Motown and blues and punk rock to Eminem.

A fair share of the films in Goodman’s introduction don’t make it as one of his 50 centerpiece films or as an additional 50 “also-ran” sidebar recommendations tagged as “double feature” suggestions.  I can’t help but wish films like major director Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd would have made the cut instead of some of the more fringe, underground film inclusions.

Many of the entries fall under music biopics, a list that could fan out to include films like The Jazz Singer, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Stars and Stripes Forever, The Glenn Miller Story, and Amadeus–all steps in the history of musicians making their own path as the subject of film–and even within the category of rock Goodman is dismissive of acclaimed biopics like Oliver Stone’s The Doors and Oscar-winner Bohemian Rhapsody.  TCM’s Rock on Film also incorporates music as the subject of film, which could include The Music Man, Grease (which gets a brief reference), and the 1980s music-on-film landmark, Footloose–Goodman’s picks under the rock category instead include Almost Famous, The Girl Can’t Help It, The Blues Brothers, and High Fidelity (and it excludes School of Rock, a studio hit starring Tenacious D lead Jack Black).  And of course no batch of rock movies would be complete without rebellion as a theme, which could be captured on a separate movie list to include influences like Rebel Without a Cause.  Beach movies get quick mention, so no Elvis Clambake (to be fair, you’d need a book alone to cover all the Elvis movies, and Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas get their own chapters) or another great rock culture movie, the surf documentary Endless Summer.  He includes Hairspray, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Rocky Horror Picture Show (but no dive into Heavy Metal).

Controversies like choosing Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born over Judy Garland’s may make sense in the rock context (or does it–isn’t the latest remake about a country singer?), but the reach here is clearly to embrace the most readers from a wide generational span.  Country really is the only niche Goodman says he intended to exclude for certain reasons.  So the biggest omission may be director Walter Hill’s 1986 movie Crossroads, written by blues singer John Fusco, recounting one of the best myths in the history of blues–and music in general–that Robert Johnson “sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.”  The film features one of the 1980s’ best rock guitarists, Steve Vai.  You can’t get to rock without the blues, and you don’t have blues without Johnson.  In truth, because of the nature of any genre focus, every reader will probably see his/her own list of suggestions, replacements, arguments, and analogues–it’s in part what makes the TCM film library worth reading cover to cover, and not just as a reference guide.  My other quibble is with the order of the movies, which after several attempts to discern Goodman’s method, stumps me–it’s not chronological by subject or release date, and if it follows any other order I couldn’t make it out.  So unlike in previous TCM volumes, each chapter should probably be viewed as a standalone essay.

I’d wager no film aficionado, no matter how devoted, will have seen all 100 highlighted films, and Goodman’s hundreds of other references will give any rock fan months of ideas to track down unseen films to view for the first time.

For rock music fans this will be a deep dive filled with deep cuts or unheard-of nuggets to explore bridging the merger of rock & roll and cinema.  Illustrated with more than 150 full-color and black-and-white images, movie posters, behind the scenes clips, and more, in an attractive jacketed hardcover edition, TCM’s Rock on Film will be a fun read and exploration of 70 years of pop culture history for anyone and everyone.  Order it today here at Amazon.

Leave a Reply