At The Movies, The '60s Beat Goes On

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in 'Taking Woodstock' i i

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking Woodstock, a nostalgic comedy about the 1969 music festival that helped shape a generation. Ken Regan/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Regan/Focus Features
Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in 'Taking Woodstock'

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking Woodstock, a nostalgic comedy about the 1969 music festival that helped shape a generation.

Ken Regan/Focus Features

For the last two summers, movie musicals have been big hits: Mamma Mia last year, Hairspray the year before. So you'd expect Hollywood to stock the multiplexes with more of the same, right?

Surprisingly, there are no musicals at all this summer. But there is a cluster of movies that will set audiences' toes to tapping — and like the hit revival of Hair that's been so popular on Broadway this year, all three films move to the rhythms of one particular era.

Most immediately, there's Taking Woodstock, in which the 1969 music festival that changed the way music got festive is being played for laughs and nostalgia; it's just one of the late-summer crush of pictures that have been consciously built around the music of the flower-power years.

That's a period generally remembered by those of us who lived through it — and also in movies produced by folks who lived through it — as a sacred time of peace, love and great music. (Or as a faintly embarrassing time of paisley bell-bottoms and ... great music.)

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 'Pirate Radio' i i

Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as "The Count" in Pirate Radio. Alex Bailey/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Bailey/Focus Features
Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 'Pirate Radio'

Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as "The Count" in Pirate Radio.

Alex Bailey/Focus Features

In the late '60s and early '70s, rock was going psychedelic, soul was going gritty, and young people —- at least according to the upcoming comedy Pirate Radio — wore their musical tastes as proudly as they did their long hair and their peace crosses. In the film, Simon Swofford is a disc jockey on a fictional pirate-radio station anchored just off the coast of England, where British authorities can't touch it.

There's a historical basis for this: There were quite a few real offshore radio stations in the 1960s, because the licensed BBC stations didn't play much music, and what they did play wasn't rock. For the youth culture, pirate radio was a big deal — as of course was music in general for the rest of the world.

B.B. King at Zaire '74 i i

Blues giant B.B. King was one of the African American musicians who met their peers from Africa at Zaire '74, a landmark concert documented in the film Soul Power. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
B.B. King at Zaire '74

Blues giant B.B. King was one of the African American musicians who met their peers from Africa at Zaire '74, a landmark concert documented in the film Soul Power.

Sony Pictures Classics

Want a reminder of how much? Have a look at Soul Power. Edited from footage shot 35 years ago, it celebrates a three-day concert tied to the famous George Foreman/Muhammad Ali bout known as "The Rumble In The Jungle."

The concert, called Zaire 74, brought the likes of blues great B.B. King and King of Soul James Brown to the same stage as South Africa's Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. It was a kind of cross-cultural Woodstock — a turning point for African and African-American artists, who compared notes on colonial and segregational oppression and on making music as a social statement.

Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page in 'It Might Get Loud' i i

Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page talk up their axes in It Might Get Loud. Eric Lee/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Eric Lee/Sony Pictures Classics
Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page in 'It Might Get Loud'

Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page talk up their axes in It Might Get Loud.

Eric Lee/Sony Pictures Classics

Every generation thinks its music is different from what went before, but four decades ago, the differences were both artistic and technical — a fact that's driven home in another summer documentary called It Might Get Loud, about the once-newfangled device called the electric guitar. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin is sort of the movie's elder statesman; he remembers the early days, when he was talking to a technician, trying to figure out how to make a noise on his guitar that would match the sounds in his head.

"He went away and came back with this phenomenal thing — the distortion pedal, which overloads the signal," Page remembers. "Overdrive the sound, and make it sound pretty rude."

Rude noises — the sounds of rebellion, a sound that helps make that time feel, in retrospect, like a sacred moment. Or, depending on who you grew up to be, something to be a little embarrassed about today. Or maybe a sacred moment to be a little embarrassed about. It was a time when a generation got briefly woodstuck, taking everything seriously, especially music.

Because music was going to change the world. And as these movies collectively remind you, for a while it kinda did.

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