Friday, August 6, 2010

Rock Music in the Narrative Film

Since the mid 50s, rock music has been making its way onto the soundtracks of many films, especially those associated with the youth market. As audiences have seen in such films as Rock Around the Clock (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), cinematic promotion of this new musical genre helped to recreate the identity of the classic Hollywood musical. Yet the incorporation of rock informing or supporting narrative was actually a rather new technique that was first used in Kenneth Anger’s underground film Scorpio Rising (1964). Despite its groundbreaking use of rock music mixed with abstract images, the film was hardly seen outside the art-house crowd; The Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night (1964), however, had a far greater impact on the new rock-narrative cinema.

Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night mixes aspects of the French new wave (jump-cuts) with rock music to present a comedic look at the mass hysteria surrounding The Beatles. Its documentary approach is used in satirical episodic moments, creating one of the first mockumentary experiments in cinema. For example, in his article “Scorpio Descending: In Search of Rock Cinema,” Howard Hampton writes, “The movie epitomized an irreverent new style that collapsed the distance between pop and avant-garde, but also profoundly anomalous.” The film also works as commentary on media presentations of teen sensations. The Beatles are continuously interviewed about their ideology; when asked if he is a “mod or a rocker,” Ringo Starr responds that he is a “mocker” (which furthers the point that this film can be considered a mockumentary.) The character of Paul McCartney’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), who goes so far as to forge signatures on promo photos of the band, satirizes the greed associated with teen sensations. Despite its documentary approach, the film makes no attempt to present chronological or narrative accuracy. The film shifts time and space, where in one instant the band-mates are inside the train, the next instant they’re outside the train, and then finally they’re back on the train while carrying a member through the corridor. All sense of linear time is replaced by abstract montage images, where the music glides upon the narrative and expresses the joie de vive of Beatle-mania. For instance, in Jon Savage’s article “Snapshots of the Sixties,” he writes, “In fact, it becomes clear that the media distort time: expanding it, fragmenting it, until the distinction between mediated and actual ceases to exist.” The Beatles and Hard Day’s Night’s self-conscious approach to media examination can be seen as an influence on both the creation and execution of the TV show and band The Monkees.

Created and produced by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, with musical direction from Don Kirshner, The Monkees (1966-1968) TV show appropriately aped (pun intended) The Beatles’ popularity while mimicking their musical style. The TV show’s theme pronounces the band’s ideology within the lyrics, “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees! People say we monkey around, but we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.” This lyrical statement is in actuality true, for the band did sing, yet did not play the instruments on their album (a claim they do not make). The show adapts Hard Day’s Night’s abstract and episodic attitude, but adds a laugh track that presents a self-awareness of its television roots. Laura Goostree furthers this point in her article “The Monkees and the Deconstruction of Television Realism” when she writes, “The deconstruction of normative television realism in The Monkees leads to the construction of peculiar television reality that I call ‘Monkees-reality,’ which is both television and criticism of television.” The Monkees continued their critique of television with their film Head (1968), which presents images of the band walking on and off studio sets. The film deliberately exposes The Monkees as an imaginary band that started as a prefabricated TV construction. Yet, in reality, The Monkees were beginning to claim artistic integrity by actually writing and playing most of the music in the film. In some ways, The Monkees’ career can be seen as foreshadowing the current MTV ideology that mixes commercialization, reality television, pop-sensationalism and then edits it into an abstract form. If these rock abstractions are to take their root from a specific film, then Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising can be seen as the blueprint.

Scorpio Rising uses music to project narrative meaning through shots of motorcycle leather boys getting ready for a party. Anger uses homoerotic, fetishistic, Nazi, religious, motorcycle, and comic strip imagery to convey pop-culture’s need to follow iconic leaders. As images of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Adolph Hitler, and Jesus Christ flash before the screen, the audience’s ability to separate the hero from the villain is blurred. Viewers must meditate and question their choices for leaders, iconic or political. The use of pop/ rock music heightens the sense of reality, placing the film in a specific space and time. The lyrics deconstruct the images into musical metaphors that can be read in many ways. For example, Hampton writes, “This was the first film to truly integrate rock into its narrative, transforming Kenneth Anger’s iconographic abstractions into a new form of heightened, pop-operatic naturalism.” The upcoming years of American cinema would experiment more fully with this rock to narrative integration.

Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, rock music became closely linked to student/ hippie counterculture movies such as The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Strawberry Statement (1970), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), Zabriskie Point (1970) and Getting Straight (1970). Yet Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets radically altered the culture that rock music represented. He does not focus on hippie dropouts, politically active students, or 60’s misfits; instead, Scorsese presents a new kind of rebel, that of the Hollywood gangster. Scorsese’s film is not totally unlike Anger’s film in its use of music as a narrative language and religious imagery as interior meaning. However, Mean Streets has a cohesive plotline that is less abstract in its presentation. Scorsese’s film updates the rebel figure in the form of Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) who is the misfit in the gang. He acts impulsively, gambles, owes money, and sabotages relations with everyone in the group. Yet Johnny Boy’s stylish demeanor (“I’m sick about my hat!”) and hipster leather jacket connect to past iconic figures, like Johnny from The Wild One (1953). If Anger uses the iconic leather jacket to insinuate rebel mythology in Scorpio Rising, then Johnny Boy reinforces a similar iconic cool with his street wear. The music in Mean Streets works a similar angle of reinforcing connections between character and meaning. For example, Hampton explains, “It’s an infinitely seductive vision of a world where human and musical passions are one, the soundtrack elaborating and intensifying the movie’s meaning.” When Mean Streets opens with “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, the story’s passion is pounded through the speakers, like a gunshot that shatters the fourth wall. This is the cinematic moment that would influence future rock incorporation into the narrative film.

As the traditional Hollywood musical began to fade, the rock film satiated audience’s thirst for musical exposure. As the lyrical content began to work as a narrative device, performance numbers shifted from dance sequences to iconographic depictions; after all, the kids would rather see Marlon Brando on a motorcycle than Gene Kelly perform a dance. Yet with films like Hard Day’s Night and TV shows like The Monkees, teens had a chance to see their musical heroes legitimize their perspective. Equally as important, films like Scorpio Rising and Mean Streets helped to establish popular music as a narrative tool in cinema. Unlike the classic Hollywood musical, it looks like rock music is here to stay, as it is firmly planted into the narrative structure of film.

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