For two decades after the mid 1950s, biracial popular music played a fundamental role in progressive social movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Adapting the methodology of histories of the classic film musical to show how the rock ‘n’ roll film both displaced and recreated it, David E. James’s book “Rock ‘N’ Film” (published in 2016 by Oxford University Press) explores the music’s contradictory potentials, balancing rock’s capacity for utopian popular cultural empowerment with its usefulness within the capitalist media industries. This extensive film series, inspired by James’s extraordinary book, ranges from major and minor studio productions to independent documentaries and avant-garde projects.
The films include the first to feature rock ‘n’ roll on the soundtrack, as well as some of the earliest movies depicting rock ‘n’ roll performances, the 1950s jukebox musicals; the best of the films Elvis Presley made before being drafted, alongside the best of the formulaic comedies in which Hollywood abused his genius in the 1960s; early documentaries including THE T.A.M.I. SHOW, which presented James Brown and the Rolling Stones as the core of a black-white, U.S.-UK cultural commonality; A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which heralded the British Invasion; DONT LOOK BACK, WOODSTOCK, and other Direct Cinema documentaries about the music of the counterculture; and avant-garde films about the Rolling Stones by Peter Whitehead and Kenneth Anger.
After the turn of the decade – and especially following GIMME SHELTER, in which the Stones were made to appear to be complicit in the Hells Angels’ murder of a young black man – both the music and the films it spawned reverted to separate black and white traditions based respectively on soul and country. This split produced blaxploitation and WATTSTAX on the one hand, and bigoted representations of Southern culture in PAYDAY and other films on the other. Ending with the deaths of their stars, both films implied that rock ‘n’ roll had died, or even, as David Bowie proclaimed, that it had committed suicide. But in his documentary about Bowie, ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, D.A. Pennebaker triumphantly re-affirmed the community of musicians and fans in glam rock.
Borrowing its structure from the successive chapters of “Rock ‘N’ Film,” this series functions as a kind of illustrated edition of James’s definitive book, and demonstrates how intertwined the cinema and popular music have been since the inception of rock ‘n’ roll.