Author: Dale Nickey
Ever since the first song broadcast on MTV made the bold pronouncement, “Video Killed The Radio Star”, music videos have been on a relentless march to devalue the currency of music. In our mass media culture, talent is now totally subordinate to flash appeal.
That does not mean the visual medium has not served music well. Here are some compelling films that not only offer great music, but a point of view and insight into the art form. Here is my Top Five list.
Paris Blues – A lost classic. Paris Blues is a noir gem starring Paul Newman as Ram Bowen, the egocentric trombonist/band leader of a fictitious Paris jazz combo. Sidney Poitier co-stars as his straight arrow arranger/sax player. A young, feisty Jo Anne Woodward and an impossibly beautiful Dianne Carroll play ordinary American girls who come to Paris for a lark vacation. There they meet Paul and Sidney by chance and fall deeply and immediately in love. However, music and the streets of Paris are rough competition for the ladies. Ignore and forgive some of the arch and stilted dialogue common to this era of film making. Paris Blues is a wonderfully dark and edgy date movie that looks into the soul of those who create music not by choice, but out of need. A must see for anyone who has fallen in love, played music, or walked the rain soaked streets of Paris at midnight. If you’ve done all three, this is essential viewing. Good luck finding it….
The Last Waltz: Forget about The Godfather or Goodfellas. This is Martin Scorsese’s real masterpiece. Yes, it’s a concert movie documenting The Band’s final performance. However, attractively staged interview segments with the individual band members give the film a definite narrative arc and plotline. It’s about the trail of popular music from bar band mayhem to Brill Building calculation and finally, Dylanesque invention. The Last Waltz unlocks some secrets to the enduring appeal of Rock and Roll without deflating the necessary mythology.
The Buena Vista Social Club: Film maker Wim Wenders. and Eclectic Slide Guitar maestro Ry Cooder join forces on this touching and heroic film about the improbable reunion of presumed dead and washed up musicians from Cuba’s 1930’s musical heyday. Cuba in the 30’s boasted a vibrant scene of swinging big bands and heavyweight jazz cats every bit the equal of those in the states during the prewar era. The cultural scorched earth campaign of Castro laid waste to this rich indigenous music. However, producer Ry Cooder roots out these forgotten musicians and assembles them for a knockout album and tour of the US. Ibraham Ferrer’s performance at the end of the film extols the virtues of age and experience and in turn inspires those past a certain age to never give up. Prepare to be moved.
Don’t Look Back: Bob Dylan in a candid, grimy, documentary that does no favors to the subject himself. In stark contrast to the artist’s “old beyond his years” image, Dylan comes off as snarky, impetuous, bratty, and ultimately real. We see Dylan hounded relentlessly by camp followers, peers and friends alike. We witness his verbal emasculation of a pushy college nerd who happens to be future music mogul, Terry Ellis. He blows off paramour Joan Baez with cringe inducing ease. He squares off with drunks, journalists and fans with equal parts distain and detachment. Did I mention all his performance segments are brilliant?
Amadeus: The granddaddy of all music movies. Yes, I know, Tom Hulce plays Mozart as a snotty, Victorian punk. That’s the whole point. Genius does not always come in a tidy, easy to digest package and musicians have always been rock stars. Delicious counterpoint comes courtesy of F. Murray Abraham’s monumental performance as Mozart’s nemesis/obsessed fan, court composer Salieri. This film more than any; nails the tug of war between ego and insecurity that resides in all musicians. The scene where Salieri and Mozart telepathically realize the orchestrations of Mozart’s Requiem Mass is a knockout scene of enlightenment, envy, avarice and admiration. If you watch this movie and don’t get it, take up oil painting.
Honorable Mentions worth viewing:
Almost Famous – Good old fashioned pulp romance with a dash of Sex, Drugs and loads of Rock and Roll.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch – For those who like their music movies saucy and androgynous, this blows “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” away. Better tunes, better libretto; and the starring trannie is infinately hotter than Tim Curry. However, no Susan Sarandon sadly…..
Ray – Jamie Foxx channels Ray Charles to spooky perfection and nabbed the Oscar to boot.
This Is Spinal Tap – The movie that elevated parody to fine art. If you have ever played in a rock band, you’ll injure yourself with laughter.