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Members' Research Report Archive

Rock 'n' Film

David E. James, University of Southern California
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2011–2012

During my CASVA residency, one of the candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency referred to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair as “the great American orgy.” Correct or not, his insight was a timely reminder of the ongoing controversies that have dogged rock ’n’ roll and its associated rituals since it emerged in the mid-1950s as a synthesis of black and white vernacular musical traditions. Cinema has played a major role in these debates. Filmic depictions of musical performances and musicians’ offstage lives, of concert tours, audiences, and fan cultures, have always contained implications about their meanings. Often these theorizations of rock ’n’ roll have focused on questions of putative delinquency, both musical and social, with the latter including youth hooliganism and sexual promiscuity, and, especially in the 1950s, the politics of race mixing. One of the earliest rock ’n’ roll films, The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956), satirized and exploited such fears in an early scene in which Little Richard deliriously celebrated Jayne Mansfield as a “rock ’n’ roll baby” with whom he was ready to “rock’ n’ roll till the early, early night.”

“Rock ’n’ Film,” a book I am preparing, is an interdisciplinary history of cinema’s representation of the anxieties and desires popular music evoked from the beginnings of rock ’n’ roll to the mid-1970s. Just as the new music broke the hegemony of the Great American Songbook, so the first rock ’n’ roll films interrupted and then restructured the classic film musical, obliging both the studio industry and various independent, artisanal forms of filmmaking to create new ways of representing the spectacle of musical performance and of narrating its social existence. In particular, rock ’n’ roll films reconstructed two conventions of the classical musical emphasized in recent scholarship: the narrative dual focus on male and female leads that displaced Hollywood’s typical focus on a single male protagonist (as elaborated by film theorist Rick Altman), and the dramatization of humanistic “folk” relations in the depicted musical productions, which conceals the actual alienated commodity relations created by the film itself as a form of capitalist entertainment (as discussed by another theorist, Jane Feuer).

In my colloquium I compared the restructuring of these two motifs, among others, in three rock ’n’ roll films released within six months of each other in 1964: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney), A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester), and The T.A.M.I. Show (Steve  Binder). Each of these managed rock ’n’ roll’s delinquency differently, but all celebrated a faux cultural commonality. A Hard Day’s Night also relocated the dual focus from a romantic relationship between two characters in the narrative to an erotic one between the musicians and their audience.

The subsequent emergence of dissident countercultures in the United States gave new forms of rock ’n’ roll, heavily influenced by folk music, a central aesthetic and ritual importance. Previous imputations of rock’s musical and social menace and its associations with African American culture were reclaimed and positively transvalued as the agency of a revolutionary social reconstruction. Hollywood was not immediately able to exploit this brief utopian moment, and two cinematic developments inaugurated new modes of film production outside the studio system as well as novel forms of rock ’n’ roll film. Among these were experimental, underground cinema, whose expanded visual vocabularies were often associated with psychedelic drugs, and cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking, which privileged extended shots of synchronously recorded sound and image using 16-millimeter handheld cameras rather than Hollywood’s studio cameras and heavily edited visual language.

These developments matured in Monterey Pop (D. A. Pennebaker, 1968) and especially in Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), both of which proposed that in the music festivals they documented, the alienated social relations between producers and consumers of commodity culture had been transcended by a utopian cultural commonality shared by musicians and audience alike. In the event, Warner Bros. Studios secured distribution rights to Woodstock, and the film earned $50 million in the first decade of its release, while the soundtrack album sold two million copies. Saving the studio from bankruptcy, the documentary paid for—and, in turn, made a huge profit from—the free music festival.

Woodstock’s combination of underground film’s expanded forms of visuality with a documentary realism derived from cinéma vérité was particularly evident in its spectacular representation of the musical performances, where several extended split-screen compositions depicted the interactions among the band members and between the bands and the audience. One of the best examples is Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” which eventually builds, if not to an orgiastic conclusion, certainly to one that suggests an ecstatic aural and visual relationship between a Latino male musician and a white female audience member.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)