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Act Naturally: Rock ‘n’ Roll on Film



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.”



Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess




Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife




McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal




The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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