Project X Looks For The Good Ol’ Days

Oct 29th, 2007 // Comment

americangraf.jpgAs part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he watches 10 films from the cusp of the 1970s that offer a variety of takes on the era’s nostalgia for the rock and roll of the ’50s and ’60s:

A couple months ago in this space, I watched ten movies made between 1959 and 1964 that got perfect scores in 1994′s Marshall Crenshaw-edited book Hollywood Rock, which awarded up to five stars each for “Music,” “Attitude,” and “Fun.” This time around, I skipped ahead–and back–a few years:

Hollywood Rock‘s 15-Star Movies, 1970-73 (in alphabetical order):
1. American Graffiti (dir. George Lucas, 1973)
2. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (dir. Russ Meyer, 1970)
3. Eat the Document (dir. Bob Dylan & Howard Alk, 1972)
4. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (dir. Denis Sanders, 1970)
5. Festival (dir. Murry Lerner, 1970)
6. The Harder They Come (dir. Perry Henzel, 1972)
7. Let It Be (dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970)
8. Let the Good Times Roll (dir. Sid Levin & Robert Abel, 1973)
9. Stamping Ground (a.k.a. Love and Music) (dir. Jason Pohland, 1971)
10. That’ll Be the Day (dir. Claude Whatham, 1973)

Ask most rock fans under 40 about the early ’70s and we’ll tell you it was a golden age, a continuation of the hallowed late ’60s, the period of heavy metal and funk defining themselves, the mature peak of much of the British invasion, and the flowering of sophisticated soul. Then you read much of what was being written about rock at the time and you’ll find a lot of hand-wringing about rock’s peak being long past. Well, sure–hindsight’s 20/20. But it’s worth remembering that the early ’70s were also the time of one of rock’s major nostalgia cycles–its second, after the doo-wop revival of the early ’60s, and this one was on a much larger scale. This was the heyday of (groan) Sha Na Na, an era where post-Woodstock festivals competed for business dollars with rock and roll revival shows. Naturally, this list contains one of each.

Stamping Ground is a documentary of a 1970 rock festival in Rotterdam. It features a handful of the period’s obvious big names (Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd), up-and-coming duo T. Rex ‘twixt folk and glam, the boring late Byrds, and period-pieces-only like the Flock, It’s a Beautiful Day (whose sole redeeming factor is that their set was interrupted by a lightning storm that provides some nice, if accidental, visual effects), and Family, whose singer’s strangulated “a-a-a-a-ah”s are some of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever heard come out of a human throat. We see lots of topless women and open dope smoking on the grounds, skinny-dippers of both sexes, and a cool-looking plastic pyramid contraptions in which people stand and crawl around on the water. Too bad the latter is accompanied by Jefferson Airplane doing a crappy “Saturday Afternoon.”

The Airplane’s Paul Kantner and Grace Slick are also interviewed by a local journalist, and their rich-hippie bullshit has aged at least as badly as any of Stamping Ground‘s music–which is to say, very badly indeed. When asked if the music from the U.S. has “more guts” than that from other places, Kantner, with no hint of irony, answers, “That’s almost true of any art. If a country is persecuted and bummed out, you should get really electric artistic endeavors…How much great art comes from Switzerland? All the stuff comes from where there’s turmoil.” Congratulations on seeing The Third Man, Paul.

You can see that interview here, at the beginning of this longer clip. Some kind soul has put the entirety of Stamping Ground up on YouTube, broken into 11 parts, though they’ve disabled embedding. It’s convenient, though, for anyone wanting highlights only. Here are a few: a raucous Dr. John; Santana blowing out “Jingo”; and Pink Floyd at their most head-tripping. I’ve always liked Pink Floyd more than a lot of other critics, though not as much as lava-lamp-owning Middle Americans. Their second number reminds me of…”Hotel California.” Classic rock: it all sounds alike.

On the other side of the big-show coin is Let the Good Times Roll, which in an admittedly meager amount of searching I could find nowhere on YouTube. Hardly surprising: the movie seems to be nowhere in sight. (My DVD-R, purchased from The Video Beat, was taped off A&E.) Filmed at a New York rock and roll revival show, and intercutting ’50s footage in a way that somehow sidesteps cutesiness in order to deliver the impact these artists had when they emerged, it’s almost unremittingly joyful; nearly everyone–Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Five Satins, Fats Domino–puts out like their careers depend on it. (Performance for performance, I prefer it to The T.A.M.I. Show.) And the behind-the-scenes footage is equally good, from Little Richard demanding that his piano be moved closer to the edge of the stage to Berry guiding a cameraman through a dead tour bus to Bo Diddley shopping for chicken to cook on his traveling barbecue backstage–a practice from the old days, when a black man usually couldn’t eat at a decent restaurant on tour.

Ah, the fabulous ’50s–or, in this list’s cultural terms, the period between Elvis and the Beatles. Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, a documentary of his Vegas show, may have taken place in the cultural present of 1972, but it’s as rooted in the ’50s as Let the Good Times Roll, whatever current string of hits Elvis was enjoying. During rehearsals, he’s a little self-parodic–the freedom of the 1968 comeback special is hardening into routine. But he’s also putting in work, and even in haphazard rehearsal, his band smokes. At one point during “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” he relaxes into the groove, calling out for a piano solo and visibly basking in the sound his group is making. At the end of the show itself he decides to mingle with the crowd:

Key line of patter: “You didn’t think I’d make it, did you? I didn’t either.”

American Graffiti and That’ll Be the Day are reverse-image versions of the same basic rock and roll coming-of-age film: American vs. British; upbeat vs. downcast; clear-skied vs. rainswept. Chances are you’ve seen the former a zillion times; if not, the trailer does kind of say it all:

That’ll Be the Day isn’t a better film, but it is lesser-known, angst-filled, and its main character, played by David Essex (yes, the “Rock On” guy), becomes so obsessed with rock and roll that he becomes even more of a selfish jerk than he starts out as. In other words, it’s the most realistic movie ever made. This 10-minute clip, featuring Ringo Starr as Essex’s even-bigger-prick best friend (and a bit of Keith Moon’s role as the drummer in a resort band), gives the film’s basic flavor:

That’ll Be the Day is in many ways a model ’70s movie in that its basic subject is the loss of innocence. Festival, Murry Lerner’s documentary of the 1963-66 Newport Folk Festivals, deals with much the same loss, only by accident. It’s a very well made film, with dozens of performances and interviews; the most affecting of the latter are the intercut clips of Michael Bloomfield and Son House discussing their very different relationships with the blues. Still, given how stiff much of the music sounds to my ears, it’s hardly surprising that the second Dylan goes electric he throws everything in the air:

I actually saw Dylan’s Eat the Document in a theater, a rarity. It was made for ABC-TV during Dylan’s 1966 European tour; by the time it began circulating (at least according to Hollywood Rock) in 1972, it must have fed as much into nascent ’60s nostalgia as anything, at least in sodden “what have we lost?” terms. If you value coherence and flow, never mind narrative, the segments Martin Scorsese recycled for No Direction Home will be all you need. If you crave more–such as Dylan, obviously amphetamined up, bantering blitheringly in the back of a limo with a deadpan John Lennon–that’s what YouTube is for:

Let It Be: more just-past-the-’60s nostalgia. Yadda-yadda Beatles breaking up, yadda-yadda passive-aggressive McCartney vs. deadpan-pissed off Harrison, yadda-yadda rooftop concert. Of course, when Rolling Stone named the latter event one of its “20 greatest concerts of the last 20 years” in 1987, they were genuflecting hard to the canon–I’m sure there were dozens of better gigs that didn’t fit Jann Wenner’s vision of generational solidarity. But damned if the Beatles’ offhanded mastery isn’t a sight to behold. Here’s a hefty 10-minute clip of them performing “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “One After 909″:

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls can be seen as a ’60s flashback too: no way was the Chocolate Watchband any kind of “relevant” in 1970, unless you were Lenny Kaye with a gleam in his ear (correctly, as it turned out), and Russ Meyer’s exploitation conventions were embedded in the pre-Beatles era, whatever his taste for tits and gore. As a musical, this really doesn’t have much going for it; the Carrie Nations’ songs aren’t anything special, but they’re hardly the point, are they? Nevertheless, this movie deserves its cult, and the trailer encapsulates as much of it as it’s possible to without giving too much away:

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I’ve saved the best for last–not to mention the movie that, despite its obvious debts to Jailhouse Rock, feels like the most “modern” film on this list. The Harder They Come is probably my favorite-ever “rock movie,” for reasons my old manager at Norman’s Sound and Vision, Joe, put into words for another coworker: “[Jimmy Cliff] smokes a ton of weed, he shoots a cop, he fucks the preacher’s daughter–it’s great!” If it doesn’t have the best soundtrack of all time, it’s in the Top 5 at least. But let’s let Jimmy Cliff have the last word:

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