Reviews by Xristopher Bland
Perhaps it’s so face-meltingly hot where you are right now that a Popsicle whipped from a passing car would feel like a refreshing romp through a sprinkler. Perhaps it’s raining. Or perhaps the mosquitoes are so thick, it doesn’t matter what the weather is because you’d rather be trapped inside the cottage than outside screeching “Jeezfreakinhoseit!” while in a fog of Raid and blood loss. That’s the trouble with writing. I can cue up a list of ten fantastic rock movies and recommend them as perfect viewing in the air-conditioned coolness of some hot summer night. Yet given geography, the fickle temperament of weather and when you read this, they could just as easily be perfect rainy-day movies. However this day finds you—either hot, wet or seemingly screeching in tongues—here are ten great rock movies (in no particular order) to watch this summer:
If crazy is as crazy does than “crazy” is staggeringly brilliant in “Frank,” the dark yet moving 2014 comedy-drama inspired by the life of musician-comedian Christopher Mark Sievey and his comic persona Frank Sidebottom. Co-scripted by Jon Ronson (formerly of Sidebottom’s band), the film centers around an aspiring yet creatively challenged songwriter named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who lucks into the role of keyboardist with an experimental band named the Soronprfbs. (Actually, the name is unpronounceable and has no conclusive spelling.) Encountering nothing but hostility from the band save the brilliant but mentally troubled lead singer-songwriter Frank (Michael Fassbender, who wears a papier-mâché head throughout the film), Jon believes he’s nonetheless bound for stardom after his secret video posts of the band’s recording sessions get the band invited to appear at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. Yet as Jon’s misguided vision, the band’s escalating hostility and Frank’s disintegrating stability swirl together, the film moves toward a profoundly moving conclusion revealing that fame, fortune and musical genius are not always in the best interest of each other, even though they regularly get mixed around in the same bag of nuts.
Shot in County Wicklow, Dublin, and New Mexico, “Frank” premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where audience members were given masks similar to that worn by Frank in the film. The music in the film was recorded live by the cast during filming, and Fassbender does an incredible job somehow animating a static mask with emotion. In tandem with the film’s U.S. release, Fassbender also made an appearance as Frank with his band on the “Colbert Report.”
24 Hour Party People
The party runs some two decades in this 2002 semi-fictional British comedy-drama about Manchester’s music scene from 1976 to 1992 and the rise and fall of Factory Records (Joy Division and New Order, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column and Happy Mondays). Based on the life of label founder Tony Wilson (marvellously played by Steve Coogan), the film begins momentously when Wilson sees the Sex Pistols perform at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall for the first time. Inspired to organize a series of punk-rock shows at a Manchester club (where the brooding, erratic Ian Curtis leads Joy Division in concert for the first time), Wilson soon opens Factory Records and funnels money into the club Haçienda as a venue for his bands. As wildly upward as the rollercoaster of success seems to be riding, the tracks on the other side begin to come apart after New Order fails to deliver on an album after two years and Happy Mondays spend all their money for a fourth album on a drug-fuelled Barbados mystery tour, leaving Wilson with one last ditch effort to sell his label to London Records.
Often intercut with real concert footage (including the Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall), the film combines truth with rumors, an incredible soundtrack and the imaginings of screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, who regularly breaks the fourth wall. In one scene, Buzzcocks member Howard Devoto (played by Martin Hancock) is shown having sex with Wilson’s wife in a club washroom while the real Devoto, as an extra, turns to the camera and says, “I definitely don’t remember this happening.” Coogan’s character himself often turns and comments to the camera, but if the blurred lines come across as rock ‘n’ roll swindle (to coin from the 1979 Pistols film “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), the filmmakers openly let viewers know what it’s all about—a capture in essence of a brief and incredible time when raw and incredible bands spat, snarled and otherwise vomited onto the world stage and changed the face of music forever.
While the phrase “we’re getting the band back together” will likely forever be tagged to the 1980 John Landis classic “The Blues Brothers,” the phrase actually defines an entire subgenre of films, with the 1998 Britcom “Still Crazy” remaining one of the best. Nominated for Best Picture at the 1999 Golden Globe Awards, the film opens in spectacular disintegration as the talented but famebesotted band Strange Fruit implodes at the 1977 Wisbech Rock Festival. Winding the clock forward 20 years, the film cuts to happenstance and former Fruits keyboardist Tony Costello (Stephen Rea), who’s asked to try to reunite the band for a Wisbech reunion concert. In seeking the help of former Fruits runaround girl Karen Knowles (Juliet Aubrey), the pair optimistically set out to re-create greatness by gathering former members and following the signs. (Indeed, it’s a recurring theme in the film that contains its own messages about trust and guidance.) Yet as the Fruits once more begin to ripen as still-incredible musicians, old grievances begin steering them toward an end that promises to be as bad as the first time. Co-starring Billy Connolly as roadie Hughie Case (the spiritual curator of the band) and Bill Nighy as the endearing-yet-haunted lead singer Ray Simms, “Still Crazy” doesn’t parody the comeback story. It honors and celebrates the fundamental truism that we all know what makes us happy—what we came here for. Though such passion can sometimes seem crazy within the so-called real world, it’s that very “craziness” that makes life, love and rock worthwhile and makes age just a story we tell ourselves.
Musically reminiscent of Cameron Crowe’s 2000 drama “Almost Famous,” the soundtrack (released independently as a 14-track CD) was co-composed by Billy Connolly, Chris Difford (of the English band Squeeze) and songwriter Marti Frederiksen (Aerosmith, Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill), with “The Flame Still Burns” as the most heartfelt accompaniment to the romantic thread of the story and “All Over the World” as its rockin’ high point.
If the gospel according to rock was an actual book (and one day willing, there will be), there’d likely be a section called the Book of Lemmy, and it would simply say two things: “There’s Lemmy—the godfather of heavy metal—and there’s the rest of us, as evidenced by the 2010 documentary “Lemmy” by Greg Oliver and Wes Orshoski. Spanning some four decades, the film grittily chronicles Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister’s beginnings with the psychedelic space-rock band Hawkwind to blinding musical force as bassist and vocalist for Motörhead, considered a precursor to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late 1970s. Featuring rock-royalty interviews with admirers like Slash and Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, David Ellefson (Megadeth), Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Joan Jett (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Alice Cooper, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and so many more as to dial the holy-craptitude levels to 11, “Lemmy” is more than a profile of a man ingredient-listed on the DVD as “49% mother—ker, 51% son of a bitch” (or, the perfect résumé to land a role as a crazed general in visual artist Bjorn Tagemose’s forthcoming liverock cinematic experience Gutterdämmerung). The film is an intelligent, rich and intimate study of a man so assured of himself and his vision of how he wants his life to be that he won’t suffer less, and that’s always an inspirational message for anyone, metal fan or not.
Jamie Foxx gives an Oscar-winning performance as “Ray” (2005). Dramatizing the life and career of legendary rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles, the film spans 30 years, from Charles’ difficult beginnings in the segregated South through heroin addiction to his historic 1979 performance of “Georgia on my Mind” at the Georgia General Assembly. Independently produced by writer-director, Taylor Hackford (who spent 15 years securing financing for the project), the film affectingly captures the genius of Charles, who pioneered soul music in the 1950s, taught a generation to shake a tail feather and was one of the first African-American musicians to be granted artistic control by a mainstream record company.
Also winning Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards (making him the second man to win all five major lead-actors awards for the same performance), Foxx incredibly had his eyes glued shut for the role. The real Ray Charles (who went blind at age seven shortly after the drowning death of his brother) was consulted during the making of the film and was slated to attend the opening but passed away from liver disease a few months before the film opened.
Girl power doesn’t come as a cutesy, overly frosted confection in writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s gritty 2010 biopic “The Runaways.” It comes as a stick of dynamite, lit in 1976 when the teenage allgirl hard-rock band the Runaways release their signature song “Cherry Bomb” (ranked 52nd on VH1’s 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs). Based on the tell-all book “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway” by the band’s original lead vocalist Cherie Currie (mesmerizingly played by Dakota Fanning), the film focuses on the relationship between Currie and guitarist-singer Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) as the band comes together under the ruthless guidance and exploitation of record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Perfectly timed in sound and temperament against the simmering angst of the time, the band defiantly switches its engines to full throttle in the maledominated world of rock and, like an explosion, sears its name alongside the likes of the Clash, the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Yet as brilliant as explosions can be, they’re short-lived, and as casualties come in the form of Currie’s escalating drug-abuse problems and dissention in the band (including a young Lita Ford played by Scout Taylor-Compton), “Cherry Bomb” begins to appear like a self-fulfilling prophecy in which even its creators may not be exempt from the blast.
Though all-girl acts like the Spice Girls and Bananarama would arguably disserve female empowerment years after the Runaways through cutesy anthems like “Girl Power” and performances that seemed to say “I need a vitamin B12 shot,” “The Runaways” fills a persistent vacancy in rock, where all-girl bands remain anomalous and thereby many more sticks of dynamite remain to be lit.
Mention the 1994 Canadian-made drama “Whale Music” to anyone who’s seen it and chances are that person will ask something along the lines of, “What did you think of the Rheostatics’ music? You have heard of the Rheostatics, haven’t you?” Sadly, that question came to me some three years ago when a friend recommended the film—the engaging story of a haunted, reclusive, Brian Wilson-type character named Desmond Howl (Maury Chaykin) who finds redemption, musical renewal and love through the enigmatic Claire Lowe (Cynthia Preston). Never having heard of the Rheostatics before, I wondered how I possibly could have lived in Canada my whole life without ever having heard of arguably the best alternative band the country had ever produced, and it remains one of the great regrets in my life that I never saw them live. If “Whale Music” seems small consolation to any fellow Rheostatic-less people out there, it’s actually tremendous consolation in and of itself as an incredible soundtrack that, like the film, comes across amazingly again and again.
An adaptation of the 1989 novel by Canadian writer-musician Paul Quarrington, the film was released in 1994 as the Rheostatics’ soundtrack album “Music From the Motion Picture Whale Music” (not to be confused with the band’s incredible 1992 album “Whale Music”) The film features the band’s only Top-40 hit, “Claire,” which widely shot the band to fame and pretty much gave the Rheostatics everything they hadn’t been looking for as an alternative band wanting to stay that way.
Hard Core Logo
Where the word “mockumentary” typically conjures up comedies like the 1984 classic “This Is Spinal Tap” and 1978’s “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash,” director Bruce McDonald’s 1996 Canadian mockumentary “Hard Core Logo” is about as far from fluff as guns are from child-friendly toys. Adapted by Noel Baker from the novel of the same name by Michael Turner, the film “documents” the disintegration of the once-popular punk band Hard Core Logo and its members: lead singer Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon of the Headstones), fame-tempted guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie), schizophrenic bassist John Oxenberger (John Pyper-Ferguson) and drummer Pipefitter (Bernie Coulson). In its always-present undercurrent of violence, desperateness and anger, it’s not difficult to predict how it will end, especially after John loses his medication and Joe discovers Billy’s offer to join another band. Yet as a character study riveting in its layers and complexities, it’s easy to experience why “Hard Core Logo” is frequently ranked among the greatest films to ever come out of Canada. Followed by the sequel “Hard Core Logo 2” in 2010, the film includes appearances by notable punk musicians, including Art Bergman, Joey Shithead (D.O.A.) and Joey Ramone.
Spectacular soul meets the pyrotechnics of ego in director Alan Parker’s 1991 Irish comedy-drama “The Commitments.” Based on Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel (the first of the Barrytown Trilogy, all of which became successful film adaptations), the film centers around teenage music promoter and manager Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), so disgusted with the bands he hears that he begins gathering what he envisions will be a world-class soul band. Fronted by the contentious but incredible vocalist Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong, only 16 at the time of filming) and inspired by the trumpet of Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), Rabbitte sees his vision bearing out as the band begins to gel as the Commitments and finds its musical stride. Yet just as the band stands to meet greatness in the form of a promised club visit by soul legend Wilson Pickett, escalating ego clashes and relationship grievances between band members promises to end the show in calamity.
Voted as the best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey, the film derives its incredible soundtrack from the actors, drawn from working Irish bands. So they’re actually performing their own music, released as a double-CD soundtrack that is a must in any music collection.
Chadwick Boseman so convincingly and electrifyingly plays James Brown in the 2015 bio-drama “Get on Up,” it often comes off as one of the most amazing documentaries ever produced. Nominated for and earning so many awards as to be appropriate tribute to the Godfather of Soul, the film essentially unfolds in flashback from the opening scene in a darkened hallway where Brown walks to the sound of people chanting his name. Cutting to 1988 and Augusta, Georgia, where a shotguntoting Brown addresses a room of people over unauthorized use of a private bathroom in a strip mall he owns, the film interweaves Brown’s abusive childhood, partnership with musician Bobby Byrd in the Famous Flames and meteoric rise to funk stardom through King Records. Unflinchingly, the film also unveils Brown’s control issues, abusiveness, drug addiction and erratic behavior with such rawness, sympathy comes in short supply, even as the film details how he descended. Yet if music has little connection to the vessels through which the magic chooses to come, “Get on Up” shows the genius of Brown and the scope of how he impacted and changed the music business, and offers such high-precision, high-velocity funk performances by Boseman that it’s truly difficult to believe James Brown passed away in 2006.
Originally titled “Superbad” while in development, the film stalled in development in 2006 before Mick Jagger read a script by writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and signed on as producer with Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer (Oscar winner for “A Beautiful Mind”).