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Act Naturally: Rock ‘n’ Roll on Film

A Hard Days Night

Reporter: Are you a mod, or a rocker?
Ringo Starr: I’m a mocker.
— A Hard Day’s Night

There were pop phenomena before the Beatles — Frank Sinatra, the crooner who made bobby-soxers swoon, and Elvis Presley, whose gyrating hips helped turn him into a supernova, were but two. Tellingly, both men became movie stars. But the Beatles were different. Not only were they a genuine, worldwide, youthquake sensation, but from their first movie, Richard Lester’s 1964 comedy A Hard Day’s Night, they became the architects of their own mythology.

The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, had stuffed them into cute, matching suits in an attempt to increase the Liverpudlian quartet’s wholesome appeal — sartorial proof that, really, they weren’t so different from all the acts that had come before them. But the Beatles were different; the improvised ad-libs in A Hard Day’s Night revealed a group as united in their rapier wit as they were in musical talent. The movie parodied and celebrated the peculiar situation the boys found themselves in, the Beatlemania that rendered them larger than life and that they depended on to get those young butts into the theater.

A Hard Day’s Night was a box-office success that guaranteed there would be more movies very much like it. The Beatles themselves made three more: Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, and the animated Yellow Submarine. As the youth culture of the 1960s took hold, other rock performers became interested in expanding their talents to film. Some, like Sinatra and Presley before them, were merely interested in becoming actors. For others, the ideas planted by A Hard Day’s Night took root, and movies became another medium to further forge their pop identities.

A Hard Day’s Night remains one of the finest examples of these knowing winks at pop stardom, but in the 38 years since its release, a handful of other rock movies live up to the lofty mark it set:

Head (1968)

The Monkees were designed as the Pre-Fab Four, network television’s manufactured answer to the Beatles as the stars of their own sitcom. The show, produced by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, was a half-hour of inspired absurdity, and the band — Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork — was better than a manufactured group had any right to be. But by ’68, they were tired of their status as musical pariahs among the hipster set and set about changing perceptions with their first feature film. A surrealistic trip co-written by the boys with Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, Head made up for what it lacked in plot with a devastating take on the bizarre road they had taken to success, or as Dolenz sarcastically sings at one point: “You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree / So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free / Hey hey, we are the Monkees, we’ve said it all before / The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more.”

Mick Jagger in Performance.

Mick Jagger in Performance.

Performance (1970)

With their brushes with the law, open drug abuse, and songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Paint It Black,” and “Under My Thumb,” the Rolling Stones in the 1960s were the standard-bearers for rock degeneracy. Their front man and ringleader, Mick Jagger, made his feature-film acting debut in this psychological crime drama that also marked the directing debut of Nicolas Roeg, designed to capitalize on the Stones’ unsavory reputation. The singer plays Turner, a decadent, fading, bisexual rock star who allows a hit man on the run to hide out in his household. Turner seduces the felon into his sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll lifestyle, while swooning himself over the man’s violent allure, precipitating a dangerous game of shifting identities.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Like Jagger before him, David Bowie availed himself of the talents of Nicolas Roeg when it came time for his first starring role. Earlier in the decade, Bowie had toured as Ziggy Stardust with his band the Spiders from Mars, inventing himself as a Martian superstar who rises to the heights of fame only to end up destroyed. By the time he shot Roeg’s sci-fi drama, he’d put the character to bed, but evidently the idea still held some allure for him. As Thomas James Newton, Bowie revisits the concept as an interplanetary visitor who becomes trapped in the consumerist hell of humanity, an alien who becomes an earthbound success story only to end up destroyed.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Monty Python’s Eric Idle and the Bonzo Dog Band’s Neil Innes combined their talents to create this irresistible mockumentary that mercilessly lampoons the Beatles in its tale of a band who comes to dominate pop music after their tight trousers earn them a lifetime recording contract. Idle’s sharply etched script coupled with Innes’ priceless tunes (“Goose Step Mama,” “Ouch!,” “Piggy in the Middle”) added up to a hilarious, good-natured satire. How did the Beatles feel about it? Well, if George Harrison’s accepting a part in this made-for-TV venture is any indication, they loved the idea.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Spouting lyrics like “I don’t want to be a pinhead no more / I just want a girl that I could go for,” and “24, 24 hours to go / I wanna be sedated,” punk-rock pioneers the Ramones weren’t exactly the cuddly mop-tops the Beatles were 14 years before. But their songs were two-minute sonic masterpieces and these rakish bad boys were cute, Dead End Kids for a new generation. For Roger Corman’s exploitation factory, they were an inspired choice to play the band that adds a musical assist to a group of rebellious teens who blow up their high school in a bid to rid themselves of evil Principal Togar.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980)

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” chortled Sex Pistols’ front man Johnny Rotten during the group’s last-ever performance, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Here is the movie that attempts to answer his question, a blend of fiction, documentary, concert footage, and even animation, as Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren revels in the ballyhoo surrounding the U.K.’s seminal punk band. Swindle director Julien Temple would later make a straightforward documentary, The Filth and the Fury, documenting the Pistols’ rise and fall, but the anarchic Swindle’s version of events is much more entertaining.

Purple Rain (1984)

Few modern performers have displayed as adept a talent in the realm of self-mythologizing as the artist named Prince. Certainly, no one else has ever attempted to get away with renaming himself as a symbol, as the Purple One did for much of the ’90s. Back in the 1980s, the ambitious Minneapolis native who hoped to become a rock superstar turned to the cinema to burnish his legend — playing an ambitious Minneapolis native who hoped to become a rock superstar. Though he would go on to make other movies, this is the one that truly captured the artist as a young man.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Madonna has been desperately seeking a vehicle to transform her into a movie star ever since, but she’s never found a part that’s come close to matching Susan’s sheer élan. Cast at the insistence of director Susan Seidelman over the likes of Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, the singer’s frank sexuality, trendsetting style, and blunt manner fit the titular character of a downtown New York con artist/club kid like a rhinestone glove. It was so perfect a melding of actor and role, it’s no wonder that she’s never been able to equal it, much less top it.

Hard Core Logo (1996)

Most often compared to This Is Spinal Tap for its mockumentary portrayal of a Vancouver punk bank’s ill-fated reunion tour, Canadian Bruce McDonald’s tragicomedy surpasses Tap with sharper characterizations, real reverence for the music, elements of dark romance, and a genuine feel for life lived on the road. Though actors make up the bulk of this faux band, singer Hugh Dillon (of the Toronto-based Headstones), as Logo’s front man Joe Dick, lends the movie a touch of verisimilitude with his passionate vocals and truculent, sardonic wit.

Velvet Goldmine.

Velvet Goldmine.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes’ glittering homage to glam rock begins much like A Hard Day’s Night with fans rushing down London streets in pursuit of their idols. But while Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor stand in, respectively, for a David Bowie-like singer and an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed hybrid and Roxy Music tunes decorate the soundtrack, the movie isn’t merely about the music or an era. With Christian Bale’s teenage fan, Arthur, at the center of things, the living witness to all of the excitement, this is one movie as much about the people who love the music as those who make it.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Michael Winterbottom’s lively black comedy pays tribute to the glorious “Madchester” music scene of Factory Records, the Hacienda dance club, and bands like Joy Division, Happy Mondays, and New Order. With English comedian Steve Coogan playing Factory’s real-life founder, Tony Wilson, the movie continuously and deliriously breaks through the fourth wall to celebrate and mythologize the birth of rave culture and the moment, as the ersatz Wilson notes, “when even the white man started to dance.”