Celluloid Heroes

Rock and roll movies.

NOT concert films or documentaries but rather narrative films about rock and roll. Some of them are about fictitious rock artists, while others feature real-life rock stars playing themselves or versions of themselves. Some of the films are biopics of rock stars. But they are all rock and roll movies. What makes them great is that they’re not just great films about rock and roll; they’re simply great films, period.


“Purple Rain”

Before Purple Rain, Prince was just another androgynous funky sex freak from Minneapolis. After Purple Rain, he was an intergalactic star on par with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. Don’t see this for the storyline — filler about the Kid’s (Prince) attempt to make it big. Watch it for the incredible musical performances, as well as the indelible image of Vanity skinny-dipping in a freezing pond.


“A Hard Day’s Night”

Until The Beatles, rock movies either featured Elvis playing a singing redneck or chart acts playing the big dance in some barn. The Fab Four’s first feature outing let them craft their own wacky personalities in surreal sketches littered with some soon-to-be classic songs. Richard Lester’s off-the-wall direction and whimsical flair predated MTV, The Monkees, Monty Python and Flight of the Conchords.

It’s probably the best movie in this whole category.  Roger Ebert: “After more than three decades, it has not aged and is not dated; it stands outside its time, its genre and even rock. It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”

By the way, “Help” is pretty damn good as well.


“Rock and Roll High School”

 Directed by Joe Dante (“Gremlins” “Piranha”) and produced by the great Roger Corman, this film defines what has always worried parents about rock and roll. The Ramones are able to conquer the fascists leaders of the local high school with some of their special brand of punk rock.  And the movie is just plain goofy fun to watch.

“Eddie and The Cruisers”

This 1983 film hit a big chord (sorry) with me when I first caught it on cable. I even bought the soundtrack, and some of the tunes-performed by John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band are pretty good. With early performances by Ellen Barkin and Tom Berenger, and an over-the-top black-T-shirt clad Michal Pare’ as Eddie, this somewhat innocent film about an east coast rock band is a gem as far as honesty is concerned. Doesn’t age quite as well as others on the list, but still should be seen once.


“The Idolmaker”

 Ray Sharkey in a role he could have been nominated for, his Vincent ‘Vinnie’ Vaccarri is based on real life career of Robert P. Marcucci who discovered and managed Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Peter Gallagher is especially good as the not-so-bright but cute Caesare (upstaged only by his eyebrows) and Toyah Feldshuh as publicist then Vincent’s kinda girlfriend Brenda Roberts is equally as strong. There’s a good cast here, a very tight attention to historic details (if not specifics) and the ending scene is especially poignant. This 1980 movie I’ll watch less because it’s a guilty indulgence but more because I think it is a good movie.


“Pirate Radio”

 Easily one of the best (yet overlooked and under appreciated) films of 2009, It takes place in 1966 when rock ‘n’ roll was the Devil’s music and the squares at the BBC were only playing about thirty minutes of rock a day. Despite support from U.K. Parliament officials who felt that such music was immoral and needed to be banned, citizens were outraged. This led to pirate radio ships that operated in the North Sea outside of U.K. jurisdiction and piped bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones into eager households 24/7. Now, enter the fictional vessel “Pirate Radio” that’s run by program director Bill Nighy, with popular DJs Rhys Ifans and Philip Seymour Hoffman in tow. It’s an incredible atmosphere full of rebellion and cramped quarters, and the ship brilliantly unveils a warm picture of the era.

Yes, admittedly there are small mistakes in the film, as it takes place in ’66 and some of the music played throughout the running time wasn’t recorded until later, but folks shouldn’t let that bum them out. All the tracks slyly fuel the narrative, and besides, when a film is full of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and Cream, no one should complain.


“Sid and Nancy”

 The love between junkie Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his groupie/girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), was so sadistic yet so pure (in a punk-rock sense, at least) that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were said to have based their own ill-fated courtship entirely on this movie. (Not coincidentally, Love plays a minor role in it, as a Spungen friend.)

 Oldman gives a career-making performance in this twisted twist on “Romeo and Juliet,” which is based fairly tightly on real life: Vicious and Spungen trade all their friends, loved ones (and band mates) for smack; Vicious stabs Spungen to death after she begs him to end her misery; Vicious kills himself with a heroin overdose.

 Interspersing the tragic action with surreal dream sequences and gobs of pounding punk, the movie flawlessly captures the nihilism at the heart of punk rock’s original wave.



“The Doors”

Oliver Stone’s trippy, if a little muddled biopic of late rocker-poet Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer, who also does most of his own singing), lead singer of the band, is more concerned with Morrison’s self-destructive quest for “the palace of wisdom” than analyzing his musical contributions. One of the most dynamic and controversial musical personalities of the 1960s, Morrison died at 27 after years of drug and alcohol abuse. While the film covers a lot of traditional musical biopic ground (starting the band, hitting it big, the inevitable downward spiral), ‘The Doors’ effectively captures the self-destructive nature of this rock god and the turbulent times that spawned him.



This 1975 rock opera features a who’s who of 1970s rock and film stars, including The Who, Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret (who was nominated for Best Actress), Oliver Reed, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton. Written and directed by Ken Russell, this cult over-the-top classic follows troubled Tommy (Roger Daltrey) who seems like a hopeless case until he beats The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) and becomes a celebrity. His fame is so powerful that Tommy founds his own religious cult but he raises the ire of his fans when he protests their commercialization of himself. The Who later returned to rock opera territory with Quadrophenia.  Which may even be better.  I just prefer the quirky star power of “Tommy”.


“The Buddy Holly Story”

A then-skinny (and possibly not bat s*#t crazy) Gary Busey scored an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of the late rock pioneer Buddy Holly (he even does HIS own singing) in this thoughtful, well made biopic. The film follows Buddy’s teen years in Lubbock, Texas where his love for “the devil’s music” earned him the condemnation of the self-righteous sect but made him a star in the burgeoning realm of rock n’ roll. Buddy – along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson – died in a plane crash at age 22 (“the day the music died”).


“Jailhouse Rock”

This 1957 flick is certainly Elvis’s coolest flick and it captures the rebellious and sexually charged persona that made him the most dangerous young man of his time. Hot-headed laborer Vince Everett (Elvis) is convicted of manslaughter after getting into a tragic bar brawl. Vince’s cellmate, a washed-up country singer, sees his musical potential and encourages him to pursue it. After being released from prison and enduring a rough start in the music biz, Vince eventually finds fame and fortune. But success goes to Vince’s head and his temper and arrogance lead to his comeuppance. Along with King Creole and Viva Las Vegas, Jailhouse Rock is one of Elvis’ few viewable movies. It also features a classic dance sequence for the title song choreographed by The King himself.


“Almost Famous”

Writer-director Cameron Crowe‘s quasi-autobiographical film follows teen journalist William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit) time with the (fictitious) rock band Stillwater (including guitarist Billy Crudup and singer Jason Lee) while covering them for Rolling Stone magazine. Along the way, he encounters mentor-rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and beautiful “band-aide” Penny Lane (Oscar nominee Kate Hudson). Miller’s transformation from sheltered adolescent to professional journalist and young man makes for a funny and poignant coming-of-age tale. Almost Famous is an affectionate, honest and fun movie made about rock and roll and those who love and live for it.


Have any Rock And Roll movies to add to the list?


5 responses

  1. Rachel

    Rock Star!! The first one I thought of was Almost Famous….

    October 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm

  2. Scott

    Are you kidding me!!!!! Sid and Nancy? Does he have photos of alot of people with goats? How about Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”??????

    October 6, 2011 at 9:35 pm

  3. Kel

    This Is Spinal Tap

    October 6, 2011 at 9:36 pm

  4. Gotta agree with “The Wall”. Also agree that “Quadraphenia” is better than “Tommy”, but that’s just splitting hairs. “American Pop”, the Ralph Bakshi cartoon was better than I remembered upon second viewing. And you know I will always love “That Thing You Do”, not for the group The Wonders, but for all the others: the Frankie Avalon knockoff, Diane Dane, the Dusty Springfield ripoff, the Supremes group ripoff. Plus, it’s a really great fictionalized version of what happened to a lot of groups back in the day. No more hits? Out on the street with you. Everyone THOUGHT they were the next Beatles. Most were the next Edison Lighthouse.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:47 am

  5. Pamela

    Am I the only one who remembers FM? And for animation, my vote goes to Rock and Rule, I liked it better than Heavy Metal because it didn’t make my head hurt as much.

    October 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

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