Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rockumentary as the New Hollywood Musical

Barry K. Grant’s article “The Classic Hollywood Musical and the Problem of Rock ‘n’ Roll” examines the rise of the rock film as a substitute to the classic Hollywood musical. Though the films Monterey Pop (1967), Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), and The Last Waltz (1970) couldn’t be further from the classic Hollywood musical mode, some similarities can be found. If the rock film posed a “problem” to the classic musical genre, it is through (as Grant describes) “dealing with issues of sexuality.” Where the musical attempted to contain sexual desire, rock cinema chooses to unleash it. Yet sexuality is just one aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll expression, as is drug use, political awareness, and fashion styles. When examining the four films mentioned, one can see the adoption of the musical form as well as its reinvention. The new rock film can be seen as a natural progression of the classic Hollywood musical, while adopting newer cinematic (documentary, cinema verite, and realism) and musical (rock, soul, folk, jazz, and psychedelia) styles.

Monterey Pop was one of the earliest films to showcase the various rock genres that were explored in the 60s and present them all on one stage with diverse artists. From west coast harmonies, rhythm & blues, and psychedelic guitar solos to Indian sitar ragas, Monterey Pop offered a collage of musical styles that define a generation’s youth culture. Like prior musicals, the new rock film showcased musical entertainment for all tastes, providing a sampler for the masses. Yet unlike the classic musical, the narrative story takes a backseat to the performances. Still, if a narrative is to be found, it is through the lyrical content that the story is told. The story becomes a much more existential description of youth psychology, pertaining to the song selection. For example, both “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie and “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and The Papas provide a sense of location to the film; “My Generation” by The Who signals the transition from mod to hippie culture; “High Flyin’ Bird” by Jefferson Airplane and “Wild Thing” by Jimi Hendrix depict a countercultural drug sentiment, while “Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)” by Hugh Masekela and “Raga Bhimpalasi” by Ravi Shankar offer meditations to global seekers of spirituality. Each performance acts a narrative description of 1960’s youth ideology, while suggesting communal harmonization. Monterey Pop doesn’t destroy the Hollywood musical genre; it simply reboots it.

Both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter provide a continuation of Monterey Pop’s themes, yet suggests a stronger emphasis on narrative construction. Woodstock utilizes similar lyrical-narrative storytelling but adds an even closer examination of youth ideology. Through interviews, many of the young audience members voice their parents’ reactions to the countercultural movement. Stories of communal life, drug usage, and sexual freedoms are explored in ways that the Hollywood musical was incapable of expressing. Yet similar to the musical, the film contains show-stopping numbers that leave the audience in awe of the various musical talents. The beginning of the film spends nearly a half an hour depicting the process of creating a concert of such magnitude and explores the various concerns of audience safety (the brown acid scare, food/ drink needs, and restroom facilities). These worries are juxtaposed with images of the famous musical artists who themselves have become the victims of counterculture living. One need only witness a drugged-out Tim Hardin, who wanders aimlessly with his guitar, to see that once prolific songwriters were succumbing to the pitfalls of the rock-star lifestyle. If a story is to be found in Woodstock, it is a cautionary tale concerning hippie youth culture. When John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) sings “Younger Generation,” he describes the hypocrisy of adulthood and the betrayal of one’s youthful ideology. Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” offers a grim celebration of future issues and worries concerning addiction. The latent fears associated with Woodstock become crystal clear when followed up with Gimme Shelter, an even darker journey through the 1960’s youth culture.

Gimme Shelter depicts the tragic Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, using the technique of a “film within a film.” Grant writes, “One of the essential satisfactions provided by the musical then, is that it seems to celebrate the exuberant expression of sexuality (metaphorically in the production numbers) while at the same time maintaining social stability (in the narrative).” Gimme Shelter, however, eliminates this narrative safety by using sexuality as a metaphor of social instability. Tina Turner’s overtly sexual performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” acts as a dark precursor to the violence that would ensue. Similar to the documentary and thriller genre, Gimme Shelter presents the concert like a murder investigation using a non-linear chronology to reveal its crime. These narrative tools are mixed with the classic musical, creating an amalgamation of genre styles. If drugs were a worry for Woodstock, then Gimme Shelter offers the realization of these fears into reality. As we witness an audience member’s drug-induced meltdown on stage (right next to the band), we are reminded of the connectivity of the performer and spectator relationship. If the 60s gave birth to a communal relationship between artist and fan, then the 70s made sure to separate it.

The Last Waltz utilizes aspects of the classic Hollywood musical more than the previous films of the rockumentary genre. Director Martin Scorsese used advanced camera equipment and technicians, shot on 35 mm film, and created distance between artist and audience. Where prior rock films strove to provide a cinematic experience of the “real” rock concert, The Last Waltz chooses stylization over authenticity. Scorsese uses beautiful pans, warm colors, an all-star cast of performers, and staged recreations of musical guests who were not in the original concert. Scorsese’s The Last Waltz can be seen as a post neo-musical, compared to his earlier homage New York, New York (1977). Though presented in a rockumentary fashion with interviews of The Band, the film uses documentary storytelling as a means for narrative construction. If drugs are responsible for the many rock casualties of the 60s, The Last Waltz recapitulates this issue with guitarist Robbie Robertson’s recollections of various rock fatalities. Through certain elements of the Hollywood musical style, The Last Waltz attempts to offer a summation of the previous decade’s trappings.

Though rock and roll posed some problems to the classic musical mold, it also posed a problem within itself. For example, Grant states that rock “…was a new musical form that naturally appealed to a sexually awakening population of adolescents growing up in a generally repressive decade.” With rock culture’s drug and sexual hedonism came its complications. The four films examined can be seen as continuous narrative that transcribes the 1960’s ideology and its shortcomings, while updating the musical genre form. Just as the French Nouvelle Vague attempted to mix different genres (ie: Film Noir, Italian Neo-Realism, German Expressionism, etc) to create a fresh cinematic expression, so did the new wave of rock musicals. Where the classic Hollywood musical had reached a zenith point of expression, the rock film can be seen as a natural progression of changing styles, ideology, and sounds.

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