Rock Movies: Does the Song Remain The Same?

The rock movie once held a certain communal mystique. Even the biggest budget of rock ‘n’ roll film still represented something of a niche market. In days of yore before the home video age, this made the experience of seeing them largely about embracing late-night showings, and cramped, darkened rep theatres. Rock fans all mucked in together to see our vinyl-world heroes take on the world of celluloid. A rock film forced you into close quarters with other fans.

But, what about now in this on-demand content at our fingertips era of ours, when watching a rock concert film is less about midnight screenings, cramped seats, and smuggled-in reefer, and more about home entertainment centers, Netflix subscriptions, and often solitary viewing?

Resident Delete Bin pop cultural commentator Geoff Moore takes us to the heady era of rock cinema’s heyday, and sizes it up, 21st Century style …

***

On recent lovely and sunny Sunday afternoon it was time to don the vulture suit, visit the horrendous, unenclosed big-box mallplex and brave the four-way stops, the speed bumps, the poorly demarcated traffic lanes and the chaotic gamut of distracted drivers to feed on the carrion of a suburban HMV store close out sale.

HMV Group unloaded HMV Canada late this past June. Obviously the inevitable restructuring of Canada’s largest CD and DVD retailer is proceeding at a faster tempo than a Ramones song and it’s a safe bet that a number of HMV outlets will suffer the same fate as the independent music sellers and other venerable Canadian chains it helped elbow out of the marketplace.

The industry’s bugbear is home taping.

Sorry: illegal downloads.

No wait. It’s online sales, or perhaps cloud technology; in this economic period of transition even heavy metal becomes something of an ethereal commodity.

Inside the store I experience a 50-plus moment of rock dementia while holding a DVD of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. I know I saw this film at a midnight showing during the ’70s.  I know I must’ve been high or hammered or both as I cannot recall a single frame. Perhaps I passed out?

The weekend witching hour rock movies played all over Montreal in those days, out in the west end at Cinema V, facing a convenient, poorly lit park across Sherbooke Street, at the Seville Theatre, a grand old vaudeville barn a block from the Forum on rue Ste-Catherine, at Le Flick on Crescent Street amidst the thrum of Anglo bar district and, best of all, gratis in the barroom of the Hotel Iroquois overlooking Place Jacques Cartier in Old Montreal.

Television as a medium up that point had never served rock music particularly well. The main problem of course was the typical television speaker which was little better than a transistor radio’s. And then there was the weird juxtaposition of rockers on your parents’ major network variety shows; Bowie appearing on a Bing Crosby Christmas special was so bizarre, too surreal to wrap your head around.

The late shows dedicated to rock, like The Midnight Special or Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, while hipper than American Bandstand, seemed to feature Three Dog Night and Helen Reddy week after week after week. MuchMusic, the air-headed Canadian counterpart to the stupendously vapid MTV, would thankfully not come into existence until 1984 – around about this time of year, in fact.

The repertory cinemas offered a big screen, big sound and big magic, and seats no stickier than your average porno theatre. The medium of film promised more cameras, multiple angles, deft editing and the celluloid itself was visually richer than television videotape. Directly in front, reel-to-reel, were the heavyweights who had already broken up or who rarely toured in slow-motion montages.  The dead were alive and scorching on stage, and so were the documentary records of countercultural events integral to our ethos.

Peppered throughout the rock, the art and the pretensions were were some head-scratchers. For instance, the inane fantasy sequences in The Song Remains the Same or the ceaseless revolutionary rhetoric spouted in French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (I came across the DVD at Wal-Mart of all places and paid $8 for it; thank God for the >> button).

Riskier viewing were comedies or dramas wherein musicians tried to stretch their artistic boundaries. But it was worth a couple of bucks to see Lennon in How I Won the War, Jagger in Performance, a frail, pale Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Jagger again in the utterly wretched Ned Kelly (I stumbled upon this DVD for $5 which was $5 too much, the movie remains incredibly painful viewing).

Huge strides in home video, in both the technology and the sheer array of titles available, have pretty much sent the repertory theatres the way of the porn palaces. It’s certainly more convenient watching the old midnight shows in your own living room at any time of the day with a pause button close at hand. And I’m not sure my wife would be up for shotgunning beers on a park bench 20 minutes before show time as she won’t even sit through Ladies and Gentlemen the Rolling Stones at home on a Saturday night.

The Floyd DVD goes to the cash register. I will pay $9 to see Live at Pompeii again for the first time. And I know one weekend evening very soon my stepson will come up from the basement on a zombie slaughtering break, look at the flat screen, glance at me with a ‘WTF r u wtchng?’ look and then ask me to turn it down.

***

Geoff Moore is a music fan, pop culture writer, and novelist living and working in Calgary, Alberta. He has duct-taped all of his remote controls together so as to gain maximum control over his big screen TV.

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