News » Features

Tinsel Tunes

The resurgence of obscure music movies


Let's face it: With local video stores dwindling and Blockbuster getting shadier by the day, Netflix and its online followers have become, in a matter of months, a viable cultural institution. And for many film fans, nowhere has the online rental explosion been more valuable than in the increased availability now afforded to old, obscure, and recently reissued films-and in my particular case, to the often-overlooked genre of crossover music movies. I'm not referring to documentary tour films (sorry, Don't Look Back and Another State of Mind), nor any number of Dean Martin westerns, but instead to dramatic or experimental feature films made either by or about musicians. There have been many over the years, most of which are nasty, affected concoctions that get far more attention than they deserve (sorry, Purple Rain). But on the flipside, here are a few that slipped by the mainstream, and that are all recently in print and available online.

The Monkees: Head

Head is the holy grail of egotistical music movies. Or maybe it is the Ulysses of teenybopper cinema. Either way, when the Monkee's stream-of-consciousness epic came out in 1968, most of their fans hated it-and why shouldn't they? After the fourth time that Monkees creator Bob Rafelson and his co-writer Jack Nicholson alternate shots of screaming Monkees fans with film clips of dying Vietnamese civilians, the message should have been clear: "You may have made us rich, America, but we don't much care for you."

The film is rife with drug references, gratuitous (and over-miked) make-out sessions, and it takes the flimsy, fun psychedelia of the band's show in directions that are very un-Nick at Nite. All that said, Head is also massively entertaining, and its bizarre celebrity cameos-Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, to name a few-weave a historical snapshot of a simpler time, when "It'll blow some squares' minds" was a legitimate reason to green-light a picture.

The Who: Quadrophenia

This gritty, smart drama often gets forgotten as "the other Who rock-opera-turned-movie," in favor of the band's 1975 screen version of Tommy, which is unfortunate since Quadrophenia is easily the superior film. It is better written, avoiding Tommy's gimmicky psycho-pranks, and instead focuses on the real-life battles between English "mods" and "rockers," gangs that the Who's members grew up amongst. It is also better acted, thanks to a total lack of band members in acting roles. But if that's not enough, Quadrophenia also features Sting in his first and arguably best cinematic role: as a surly, violent mod kingpin by the name of Ace Face.

As for the music, choosing between Tommy and Quadrophenia is simply a matter of fan taste. There is no doubt, however, that the latter's standout tunes-"5:15," "The Real Me" and "Love, Reign O'er Me"-are louder and more visceral than any concerning a certain deaf, dumb and blind kid. And they'd better be, considering the heaviness of Quadrophenia's story, which is rife with pill-popping, street-fighting, sex in alleys and loads of back-talking to parents and bosses. In other words, don't expect to see a touring stage version visiting Boise, as Tommy did recently, but definitely charge up your mod scooter and move the deluxe 2001 DVD reissue of Quadrophenia in the queue.

Sun Ra: The Magic Sun and Space is the Place

The avant-garde jazz musician known as Sun Ra was a walking bundle of obscurity, apocrypha and thrift store clothing. Donning elaborate robes and headdresses and claiming to be an alien from Saturn, he released so many albums-estimates range from 120 to 800-over a five-decade career that entire books have been dedicated just to finding the names of the records. It's no surprise, then, that Ra's forays into cinema were equally mysterious. What may be surprising is how beautiful and important the films about this often-inaccessible artist are.

The first effort came in the mid 1960s, when composer and filmmaker Phil Niblock utilized a unique negative filming process to capture Ra and his "Solar Arkestra" in studio for 17 minutes. The ensuing release, titled The Magic Sun, is an experimental classic that looks like a sex education film made by aliens, for aliens. Niblock films only the mouths and hands of the musicians, and his barrage of over-zoomed, overexposed images have a naturalistic familiarity that perfectly complements the band's animalistic racket. The Magic Sun may not be a film most jazz fans will feel a need to own, but it is precisely the kind of whimsical experiment that make DVD technology such a revelation.

Ra's second film, a 1974 blaxploitation feature titled Space is the Place, is more accessible than the Magic Sun but no less unknown. As the first and only attempt to encompass Ra's outlandish cosmology, it leaps in time and space between concert footage, a story set in downtown Oakland, California, and B-movie grade shots of the Arkestra traveling through space on a music-powered ship. The plot is loosely wrapped around the story of a battle between Sun Ra and the FBI, NASA, and a mysterious man named The Overseer. Sun Ra hopes to help Earth's black citizens find their "alter-destiny" by relocating to Saturn; his enemies only hope to steal Ra's technology, exploit black culture or enslave it to drugs and prostitution. The deluxe 2004 DVD reissue, while spendy, includes fascinating interviews with the filmmakers, as well as otherworldly home movies of Ra's immense band playing at the foot of the pyramids in Egypt. All together, it is both an important African-American cultural document and the perfect introduction to a chronically misunderstood artist.

Other Queue-Worthy Releases:

Neil Young's recent small-town drama Greendale; the short Captain Beefheart feature Some Yo-Yo Stuff, featuring a cameo by David Lynch; Frank Zappa's Baby Snakes and 200 Motels (once it gets reissued); David Bowie's sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth; the Talking Heads' True Stories; and, for viewers totally committed to musical indulgence, an obscure Black Flag/Redd Kross cooperative feature titled Desperate Teenage Lovedolls.