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The 20 Greatest Rock Films Ever Made 

(Five years ago, in the March 21, 2007, issue of Creative Loafing, we ran "Music For The Movies: The 20 Greatest Rock Films Ever Made." The piece and its sidebars - The Also-Rans and The 10 Worst - proved to be so popular, that we've elected to reprint the package circa its fifth anniversary. As an added bonus, we've also included a separate story featuring the individual picks of Editor-in-Chief Mark Kemp and Music Editor Jeff Hahne, neither of whom were here to participate the first time around. There are tons of viewing suggestions below and in the sidebar stories, so don't be shy about plowing through the whole shebang!)

To see the first sidebar, The Best Also-Rans (featuring 30 critical faves that failed to make the main list, including Help! and Purple Rain), go here. To see the other sidebar, The 10 Worst Rock Films Ever Made, go here. To see the picks of Mark Kemp and Jeff Hahne, go here.


A Hard Day's Night
  • A Hard Day's Night

CRITICS' PANEL

Matt Brunson, Kandia Crazy Horse, Lynn Farris, John Grooms, Lew Herman, Fred Mills, John Schacht, Sam Shapiro, Samir Shukla, Ann Wicker

Introduction by Matt Brunson

When Bill Haley sang that it was "One-two-three o'clock, four o'clock rock," he was in effect declaring that it was time for a new musical revolution in movies.

The employment of Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" during the opening credits of 1955's Blackboard Jungle is regarded as the first use of rock music in cinema. It's been over a half-century since that specific merging of movies and music, and we at Creative Loafing figured it was time to pay tribute to a rich history of rock 'n' roll flicks by offering "The 20 Greatest Rock Films Ever Made."

To that end, we assembled a panel of 10 CL contributors (including four previous music editors) who are all well-versed in music and/or movies and asked them to come up with their individual "20 Best" and "10 Worst" lists. The ballots were then compiled to produce our definitive lists. And the spectrum of eligible titles was wide enough to not only include rock but also R&B, pop, disco, punk and other assignations.

As with any list worth its salt, this one's sure to produce plenty of angry outcries and spittle-spraying protests regarding both surprise inclusions and exclusions. For example, I was stunned to see that Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back, considered a landmark rock documentary, only appeared on one critic's list - and in the lowly No. 17 position, at that (apparently, the times they are a-changin'). And even with a unified front on many choices - the balloting on the top three titles was especially tight, with the champion beating the second place choice by just one vote and the third-place finisher by a mere two votes - there were still plenty of disagreements among the jurists. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a favorite with several writers, was dismissed by John Schacht with the notation, "should be listed under 'Fantasy,'" while The Last Waltz, earning near-unanimous praise, was tagged the most overrated rock movie by John Grooms, who added that "the overall tone is what you got when '60s revolutionaries became self-important." Several other pictures earned scattered votes on both "best" and "worst" lists (among them Pink Floyd: The Wall, Beat Street, Tommy and The Doors), while one love-it-or-leave-it title made such an impression that it has the distinction of ending up on both the 20 Best and 10 Worst lists.

Before we get to the top 20, let's pay tribute to the five runners-up that just missed making the final list by a couple of points. These honorable mentions consist of The Commitments (1991), director Alan Parker's raucous look at a fictional R&B band in Dublin; The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), Penelope Spheeris' study of the Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late 1970s; the concert film Year of the Horse: Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live (1997), directed by Jim Jarmusch; End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003), an informative and entertaining documentary about the seminal (and dysfunctional) punk band; and Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (2003), a look at the unheralded recording engineer and producer who had a hand in classic albums by Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, John Coltrane and many others.

THE 20 BEST


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1. A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964; Richard Lester)

John, Paul, George and Ringo contend with fans and the press while preparing for a live television appearance.

Grooms: Director Richard Lester's inspired idea was to create a facsimile of what The Beatles' lives were really like at the time, including the hangers-on, roadies and dangerous mobs of adoring fans. Luckily, it turned out the boys could act, and the result was the first rock film that actually held together from beginning to end.

Wicker: Like The Beatles as a band, their first movie broke new ground for films about musicians and about showcasing the music within the film. With the thinnest of storylines, Lester allowed the four young men to be themselves, more or less, but doing that forever fixed these personas in the minds of the public: Paul was the cute diplomat, John was clever and cheeky, Ringo was goofy in a good way, and George was more serious but with a sly sense of humor.

Brunson: It's amusing to note that, at the time, United Artists rushed the movie into production and into theaters because they expected The Beatles to be nothing more than a passing fad. Instead, they ended up with an enduring classic that critic Andrew Sarris famously described as "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals."

Shapiro: Before there was MTV, there was Richard Lester ...


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2. THE LAST WALTZ (1978; Martin Scorsese)

With the help of their musician friends, the members of The Band gather for one final concert.

Shukla: Visionary director Martin Scorsese rewrote the book on filming live concerts with The Last Waltz, which was the final performance of the rockers simply known as The Band. The lighting, the camerawork, the A-list musicians and The Band's flawless performance make this a work of art.

Crazy Horse: The Band's (and poor Richard Manuel's) swan song, The Last Waltz is also the glorious beginning to - and endless well of - prime roots music, featuring angels and devils from Mavis Staples to Van Morrison.

Brunson: Camaraderie and respect among musicians - I love the moment when a noticeably appreciative Neil Young thanks Robbie Robertson for allowing him to take part in their celebration, to which an incredulous (and grinning) Robertson replies, "Shit, are you kidding?"


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3. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984; Rob Reiner)

In this "rockumentary," filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) interviews the members of a hard rock band that's seen better days.

Schacht: The crown jewel in the Christopher Guest/Michael McKean faux-documentary franchise (which also includes Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.), this parody of the "loudest rock band on earth" manages to take the piss out of rock 'n' roll in general, and over-the-hill metal acts in particular. Classic satire like mini-Stonehenge, exploding drummers and amps that "go up to 11" are practically part of the lexicon today. It's pretty simple: If you don't think this movie's hilarious, you're probably not much fun to begin with.

Mills: Dozens of rock films spontaneously combust each year. But this "mockumentary" - the spiritual granddaddy of VH1's Behind the Music, no less - still blazes the brightest.


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4. WOODSTOCK (1970; Michael Wadleigh)

The 1969 concert, held in Bethel, N.Y., and featuring "three days of peace and music," is the focus of this lengthy documentary crammed with performances by, among others, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, The Who, and Country Joe and the Fish.

Wicker: Seeing Woodstock when I was in high school firmly fixed the notion in my mind that despite the mud and the brown acid, I wanted to have been there. I wanted to see and hear Janis and Jimi, to experience the soaring harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash in their very first show, to chant "No rain!" with the best of them. There's nothing like seeing the 1960s through psychedelic, rose-colored, round, mirrored glasses.

Farris: This film completely captures one of the greatest moments in the history of music. You are there, in that field in Bethel, with 500,000 of your brothers, sisters and fella music lovers. An unforgettable moment in music and an unforgettable movie that remarkably captures the beautiful insanity of it all. Dig it.


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5. GIMME SHELTER (1970; David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin)

The Rolling Stones' 1969 concert in Altamount, California, is marred by the murder of a concertgoer by one of the Hell's Angels charged with providing security for the event.

Schacht: This began as a documentary of The Rolling Stones' 1969 tour of the States, but wound up chronicling the nail in the coffin of the peace-and-love decade. You can practically see '60s idealism die as Mick Jagger and company watch playback of the Hell's Angels murdering a black man in front of the stage at the Altamont Speedway. That frightening scenario overshadows the Stones near their decadent peak (for that, see Cocksucker Blues).

Farris: This film captures the highest and lowest moments of one of the greatest rock 'n' roll acts of all time. You can't help but feel for Mick (Jagger) and Charlie (Watts) when you see their nervousness and unsettledness once they begin to comprehend the disaster they helped to create. In the end, we also learn the answer to one of music's most important questions. Could there ever really be another Woodstock? Not a chance ...

Grooms: The look on Jagger's face when he sees the fan with a gun being stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel is one of the most unnerving scenes in any film.


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6. HAIR (1979; Milos Forman)

With only a couple of days to kill before he enlists in the Army, a Midwestern farm boy (John Savage) falls in with a group of Central Park hippies.

Brunson: A far more accomplished stage-to-screen translation than Jesus Christ Superstar, this superb musical is too vibrant to be dismissed as merely a "time capsule" piece. Milos Forman's direction is exhilarating (ditto Twyla Tharp's choreography), the Ragni-Rado-MacDermot score remains glorious, and Treat Williams' performance as lead hippie Berger is by turns playful, sensual and - in that knockout final number ("The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In") - heart wrenching.

Shapiro: At the time of its release, Forman's film was considered too close to the era it nostalgically celebrated - which explains, perhaps, its so-so reception at the box office. Well, what a difference another 28 years can make. This is the rare musical that delivers character complexity, and its Vietnam-haunted finale is devastating.


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7. ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979; Allan Arkush)

A Ramones fan (P.J. Soles) is thrilled when her favorite band helps take down her school's dictatorial (and rock-hating) principal (Mary Woronov).

Herman: Don't know how many times I've seen this. Though The Ramones are (mostly) dead and gone, thanks to this film, they'll never grow old. Killer soundtrack, too; not just The Ramones, but Eno, Velvet Underground, Devo and The MC5.

Shukla: Sure it's a hormonally charged and cheesy comedy, but the cult classic gave a boost to the inimitable Ramones and will forever hold a place in the halls of punk rock history.

Brunson: I don't know what delights me more: Soles' lovable performance or the great line, "Do your parents know you're Ramones?"


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8. JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957; Richard Thorpe)

A former convict (Elvis Presley) becomes an unlikely recording star, but will success go to his head?

Shapiro: From 1956 to 1969, Elvis starred in an astounding 31 movies. While none of the other pictures were very astounding, Jailhouse Rock was terrific, unquestionably Elvis' finest Hollywood moment. Pre-Army, shit-kicking, young Presley plays troubled - and trouble-making - rock star Vince Everett, who learns his guitar prowess while serving time for manslaughter. The "Jailhouse Rock" dance number in the Big House is the showstopper, but the entire film is great fun.

Grooms: Elvis transcended the clichéd plot with great musical performances of "Treat Me Nice," "Baby I Don't Care," "Young and Beautiful" and, of course, the iconic title song, which revealed his surprising choreographic skills. This is one of the few Elvis films that even hinted at the power of his live performances.


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9. WATTSTAX (1973; Mel Stuart)

The Los Angeles Coliseum is the setting for this motion picture focusing on a landmark soul concert held in 1972.

Grooms: A powerful, moving documentary that managed to capture and communicate the black experience in 1972 Los Angeles, seven years after the Watts riots. It's part concert film - with Isaac Hayes, Albert King, The Staples, Rufus and Carla Thomas and others - and part collage of conversations with L.A. residents (including a biting, hilarious Richard Pryor).

Shukla: Organized by Stax Records, this fine documentary is a snapshot of black music and the state of black America in the early 1970s. The focal point was the concert, with the appearances of Richard Pryor and Jesse Jackson accentuating the highlights.

Mills: More bounce to the ounce and more towering Afros per capita than would ever be allowable in Bush's Amerika.


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10. MONTEREY POP (1968; D.A. Pennebaker)

The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival captures lightning in a bottle with legendary performances by (to name just a few) Janis Joplin, Jim Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, and The Mamas and the Papas.

Farris: Until Woodstock, this concert was easily one of the most historical and memorable events in music. The sight of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar ablaze is forever etched in our minds ... and it happened at this show ... and this was the movie that took you there.

Mills: Director D.A. Pennebaker arguably set the visual and aesthetic tone for all rock docs that followed (including Woodstock). And the Who, Hendrix, Big Brother and Otis Redding performances are riveting.


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11. YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968; George Dunning)

In this animated adventure, The Beatles save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies.

Herman: Must've been high the first time around, as this was psychedelia at its best: incredible colors, songs, dialogue, plot, animation, Blue Meanies. Seen again straight, it was just as much fun. Reality didn't cloud my judgment; it enhanced it.

Grooms: So enthralling that, after leaving the theater, it took me a while to realize we weren't in a cartoon anymore. Hallucinogens may have had something to do with that, but still ...

Brunson: Just how staggering is this film's imagery? Understand that the first two times I saw it - both as a wee lad - were on a crummy black-and-white TV set, and even then, the mind-blowing visuals made me realize that I was in the presence of something quite unique.

Mills: Through the eyes of a child - it turned my son on to The Beatles, still his favorite band.


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12. LET IT BE (1970; Michael Lindsay-Hogg)

On the verge of breaking up, the Fab Four come together to create another classic album.

Wicker: Let It Be, according to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, was first conceived as a TV show. The final film is an intriguing look at the creative process and the creative differences of one of the world's greatest bands. My favorite part is The Beatles' now legendary rooftop concert (and their last concert appearance), reduced here to about half of the 42 minutes originally recorded. It shows they could put aside their differences and still rock. And annoy the police.

Herman: Simply explained The Beatles' breakup, though the concluding rooftop performance made it bearable. And that rooftop scene became a rock reference point, a role model for the shape of things to come.


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13. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973; George Lucas)

In 1962, two friends (Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard) separately cruise the streets of their small town as they try to decide whether to head for college or stay put.

Brunson: In compiling our choices, we tried to stay away from pictures that weren't in some way set within a specific musical milieu or didn't feature a character jockeying to become a singer/musician/groupie/whatever. But in this beloved classic, small-town America is itself the ultimate rock milieu, with omniscient Wolfman Jack as a benign deity and a killer soundtrack serving as the gospel music for a generation.

Grooms: I saw this film seven times in the first 10 days of its theatrical release. Still, my mania was nothing compared to George Lucas' obsession with getting the mood, clothes, music, cars, language and customs exactly right for his portrait of early rock's teen culture. The "automotive ballet" shot of cars cruising the main drag to the tune of "Runaway" still gives me chills.

Wicker: Since I grew up in a small town where cruising was an entirely acceptable form of teenage entertainment, I totally identified with the characters in this film. But it's truly the use of the music as a motif holding the story together that kicks this film up at least three notches, to paraphrase Emeril.


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14. STOP MAKING SENSE (1984; Jonathan Demme)

The critical darlings Talking Heads jam their way through a 16-song set that includes "Psycho Killer," "Burnin' Down the House" and "Once In a Lifetime."

Brunson: A rock orgy of volcanic power, this changed our perception of what we could reasonably expect from a concert movie. Jonathan Demme and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner) shoot in an inventive style that goes far beyond front-row-center. And at the nucleus is head Headsman David Byrne, a human dynamo who meshes the inexhaustible performing stamina of Bruce Springsteen with the rubber-limbed capabilities of a Warner Bros. cartoon character.

Shukla: Demme directed this concert film of Talking Heads with minimal flash, letting the music do the, um, talking. The band is phenomenal and singer David Byrne's visual absurdities enhance the eclectic combo that was Talking Heads.


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15. ALMOST FAMOUS (2000; Cameron Crowe)

A high school boy (Patrick Fugit) is given the opportunity to follow an up-and-coming band on the road and write about their exploits for Rolling Stone magazine.

Mills: Almost my life - or so I fantasized, as I watched an aspiring young rock critic grill rock stars and nail nubile groupies while learning life lessons.

Farris: Just a great movie for all of us who have ever longed to say those cool four words: I'm with the band. Exceptional casting here, too, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as gonzo journalist Lester Bangs. That was genius!


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16. THE HARDER THEY COME (1973; Perry Henzell)

Newly arrived in Jamaica, a young man (Jimmy Cliff) hopes to make it as a reggae star but first finds himself turning to a life of crime.

Crazy Horse: Jimmy Cliff's starring turn and immortal themes for this imaginary Western-by-the-sea (picturing those white cliffs of Dover?) made this an instant classic. And generations of stoners keep it dear.

Herman: Simply the best overall soundtrack of pop ever assembled on film - "Pressure Drop," "Draw Your Brakes," "Rivers of Babylon" and "Shanty Town," to name a few. As the song goes, "Dem a loot, Dem a shoot, Dem a wail in shanty town."


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17. 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002; Michael Winterbottom)

Idea man Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) spearheads a musical revolution in Manchester.

Schacht: "Genius. Poet. Twat." Thus read the tagline to Michael Winterbottom's often hilarious docudrama about the late-1970s/early-1980s "Mad-chester" music scene and three of its key players: Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder and impresario Tony Wilson (played brilliantly by Steve Coogan). For a while there, Wilson's label (Factory Records), the Hacienda venue and Manchester were the center of the music world, and Winterbottom does a bang-up job recreating that vibrant scene.

Shapiro: This tells the story of producer/entrepreneur Tony Wilson, who had the genius (and prescient timing) to mainline the exploding talents of various musical bands of late-'70s/early-'80s Manchester (New Order, Happy Mondays, etc.) into his Factory Records label. Directed in mock-documentary style by the madly prolific British director Michael Winterbottom, who masterfully captures the "moment" of the meteoric Manchester scene.


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18. PERFORMANCE (1970; Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg)

Solely occupying his time with sex and drugs, a faded rock star (Mick Jagger) finds his unlikely muse in a violent hoodlum (James Fox) who's elected to hide out from irate mobsters in the musician's home.

Crazy Horse: Before Elvis, his Performance star Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or Marilyn Manson, the late Scottish director/artist Donald Cammell was the counterculture's original bad-ass and occultist, and Performance is the brilliant rendering of his dark fantasies. Many staples of rock 'n' roll fantasy - cohabiting with two chicks, devotion to Aleister Crowley, glam aesthetics, drug discovery - were Cammell's reality. This not only features proto-hip-hop in the score (The Last Poets), but it's responsible for about 30 years of Cool Britannia cinema - especially the likes of Layer Cake and Guy Ritchie's entire career.

Shapiro: Performance finally came out on DVD a couple of months ago, so let me regain my composure while I check it off my "must have" list. Space limitations prevent me from summarizing its bizarre plot, so suffice it to say that it can rather tidily be pigeonholed into the "crime film/rock star/shape-shifting/mushroom-munching/black-magic-and-groupie-sex" genre we all know and love.


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19. WE JAM ECONO: THE STORY OF THE MINUTEMEN (2005; Tim Irwin)

Childhood chums hang together to eventually position themselves as one of the most promising punk outfits of the '80s.

Schacht: Of all the bands to emerge from the early 1980s' second-wave punk explosion, San Pedro's The Minutemen were the most intriguing. This documentary collects archival footage and current interviews with surviving band members Mike Watt and George Hurley, among others involved in that fertile scene. A portrait emerges of an extraordinarily talented punk band that expanded the genre's definition by incorporating funk, jazz, surf and Mexican influences until The Minutemen's bright future was cut short by the death of guitarist D. Boon.

Mills: Powered by emotional spiels from bassist Mike Watt as well as astounding live footage, it's also the story of the Amerindie underground's coming of age in the 1980s.


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20. STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (2002; Paul Justman)

Basically Berry Gordy's "house band" during the heyday of the Detroit sound, a group of unknown musicians collectively known as The Funk Brothers back up such luminaries as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and Marvin Gaye as they produce hit after hit between 1959 and 1972.

Brunson: Rich anecdotes spun by the surviving musicians are mixed with archival photos, a few dramatic recreations, and footage from a reunion concert in which The Funk Brothers play Motown classics fronted by the likes of Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins and Joan Osborne (soaring through a lovely version of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted").

Crazy Horse: A beautiful elegy to Motown's true heart and soul - the mostly deceased musicians who made magic in Studio A. One viewing of this rock doc, and you'll never dispute that The Funk Brothers are the greatest band in history.

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