Each week, film geeks Ben Davey and Joanna Cohen will show how all of life’s questions can be answered by the dusty gems of the weekly rentals in your local video store.
Top five death by rock n’ roll films
1. The Rose (1979)
Synopsis: Before Bette felt compelled to resurrect the Bugle Boy she belted it out as a singer based on the incomparable Janis Joplin – a young woman whose fondness for the pleasure poisons made her short life one long Origin camp.
BD: The ‘Divine’ Miss M’s Meatloaf-esque sing-a-long of the same name, which became the scourge of karaoke joints worldwide, did this film’s popularity no harm. Even in 1979, co-star Harry Dean Stanton looked like he’d been on tour with the Stones for the past decade. Michael Cimino shares a writing credit on this film, released a year before he smote a major studio with the flop that is still the benchmark of all Hollywood flops, Heaven’s Gate.
The evil of the rock ‘n’ roll world is whipped along with every course cinematic cliché available. In fact, this film ran the risk of ending up like any other movie-of-the-week, ‘tragic star meets fate’ biopic. It didn’t. Midler’s frenetic decline is magnificent. Alan Bates’ turn as evil manager, Rudge Campbell, is riveting (and makes Colonel Tom Parker seem cuddly) and the concert scenes are amongst my favourite slices of performance footage.
2. Sid and Nancy (1986)
Synopsis: Sid Vicious, the hour of Greek tragedy in the Sex Pistols’ heyday, is played by Gary Oldman who stammer and headbutts his way through Alex Cox’s biopic of the punk icon’s junk-addled relationship with the impossibly shrill band-aid Nancy Spungen.
BD: Steven Frears must have been impressed enough by Oldman’s performance to cast him in the following year’s biopic of murdered playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears. As idiosyncratic as Vicious was; it was the scared boy that Oldman showed here that leads us to believe that punk’s most infamous son was more frustrated kid than hate-mongering sociopath.
JC: Like many of the great rock tales, the truth doesn’t really sully up the plot in this punk romance. Their story is tragic: young, obsessive love; crippling addiction; inability to exist in a cold, hard, grown-up world. If I were a nicer person I would be sad for these characters but I’m sorry, after one hundred and ten minutes of Chloe Webb’s (Nancy Spungen) brain-drilling screech I would have stabbed her myself.
3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Synopsis: Behind the syrup drenched ditties of the Carpenter kids lay Karen’s dark demons. Unique in that it was lack of consumption that led to her demise, Karen Carpenter’s rise and fall is played out with Barbie dolls in Todd Haynes’ directorial debut.
BD: The Carpenters enjoyed a brief renaissance with many ’90s indy heavyweights contributing to a tribute album but Todd Haynes pre-empted the resurgence with his 43-minute docu-drama with dolls. Unauthorised use of The Carpenters’ songs led to this film being banned however one should never underestimate the outlaw spirit of the internet.
JC: Some dismiss this film as a high-camp gimmick, others raise it high as one of the great cinematic comments on the link between enforced stereotypes of beauty and femininity and the incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia-nervosa. Probably one of the most highly-viewed films that theoretically does not exist.
4. Gimme Shelter (1970 – re-released 2000)
Synopsis: This Maysles Brothers’ doco chronicles the death of the summer of love as it follows the Rolling Stones through their ’69 tour culminating in violence and murder at Woodstock’s evil twin – Altamont. Them flower children weren’t what they used to be.
BD: Even the Stones played support to the real players in this film, who all went uncredited and whose optimism is now a historical cliché. Had the hippies heeded Hunter S Thompson’s warnings three years earlier, they might have avoided hiring the Hell’s Angels as concert muscle. Still, the physical and metaphorical death at Altamont – as captured on Gimme Shelter – is the kind of stuff which modern audiences have become accustomed.
JC: Gimme Shelter has become an essential snippet of the legend surrounding the decline of the American ’60s counter-culture. Not only did it capture the mayhem that riddled the Altamont music festival but the very act of releasing this film, raised criticism of financially ‘cashing in’ on what was a tragic event. Shot in a ‘direct cinema’ style, the truth has been played with for dramatic effect.
5. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Synopsis: The nasty world of LA show business drags the three young and sweet members of rock outfit, the Carrie Nations, into its debaucherous pit of hedonist delights. This Russ Meyer flick is a freak-out happening man. Dig the trip baby.
BD: Roger Ebert, the movie critic with either one or two thumbs at any given time penned this rough diamond for the king of quick-buck flick, Russ Meyer. Ebert says that The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten told him he was a big fan of Dolls, partly because of the film’s realism. ‘Nuff said. Philosophising hermaphroditic scenesters may not feature prominently in everyone’s day to day, but hey, it was Johnny Rotten’s observation.
JC: A film to be experienced. It is extreme in its over-acting, hysteria, indulgence, insane plot directions and has the coolest one-liners ever: Find a Rolls Royce today and try out the film’s famous pick-up line: “You’re a groovy [boy/girl]. I’d like to strap you on sometime” or find your enemy and make them “drink the black sperm of [your] VENGEANCE!” Hang cool teddy bear.