A Short List of the Best Rock 'n' Roll Movies

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American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center director Murray Horwitz — and listeners — vote on the best Rock 'n' Roll flicks.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, with you today from the studios of member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio.

Rock and Roll movies exist in all sorts of genres. There are movies about rock, movies that play a lot of rock and movies that just rock. They range from biopics of our favorite artist and their spectacular hotel room meltdowns to the musicals of Elvis and the Beatles, and, of course, those movies that captured the moments that made rock and roll part of history.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Woodstock")

Mr. ARLO GUTHRIE (Actor, composer, writer): I don't know, like, how many of you can dig how many people there are, man. Like I was rapping to the fuzz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GUTHRIE: All right. Can you dig it? Man, there's supposed to be a million and half people here by tonight. Can you dig that? New York State throughway's closed, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock in the documentary of the same name that won the Academy Award for documentary feature in 1970. But, of course, choosing a rock and roll movie is like choosing the music on your road trip -filled with controversy.

We need your nominees. What are the greatest rock and roll movies and what makes a movie that, well, rocks? Our number as always: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You could also join the argument on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

With us is the man who knows the ins and outs of this genre as well as he knows the ins and outs of Hendrix's two-hour set at Woodstock. Murray Horwitz, director and COO of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center. He's back in Washington in Studio 3A.

Hey, Murray, good to talk to you, and not see you.

Mr. MURRAY HORWITZ (Director, COO, American Film Institute Silver Theater): Good to talk to you, Neal. But you're in my home state. So welcome to civilization.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, as you know, Murray, a day outside of Washington is a good day. But this is a tough genre, because there are plenty of movies with great rock and roll soundtracks. You think of "American Graffiti" or something like that.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: But they might not actually be rock and roll movies. How do you define it?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, I don't know if you - first of all, you say it's a tough area to talk about. It's actually a great deal of fun. People love talking about rock and roll. They love talking about movies. So multiply it times two and you see what fun we'll have in the next few minutes.

I've broken them down into three, sort of, areas. I think two distinctions are important to make. You touched on them in your introduction. Documentaries -you have to distinguish, I think, first of all between documentaries and musicals. That is, you know, it's almost - in many cases conventional movie musicals just with rock and roll music, as opposed to Broadway-style music.

And then the second distinction is between musicals and narrative films that deal with rock and roll. So, for example, "Stop Making Sense" is a documentary. In fact, we're paying tribute at our theater to...

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. HORWITZ: ...Jonathan Demme, who's a great documentary and narrative filmmaker. But "Stop Making Sense" is a documentary, whereas "Rock, Rock, Rock" is a musical. Or you mentioned "Jailhouse Rock" - that's a musical.

CONAN: Mm-hmm

Mr. HORWITZ: And "Jailhouse Rock," in its way, is different from "Blackboard Jungle," which deals with rock and roll - or "Sid and Nancy," let's say, which deals with rock and roll, but it's a narrative feature film. So those are my three rough areas: documentary, musicals, and films about rock.

CONAN: You mentioned "Blackboard Jungle," which, of course, set off all kinds of controversy when it opened in theaters around the country in 1955 and kids got out of their seats and danced. It was also one of Sidney Poitier's earliest appearances on film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blackboard Jungle")

Unidentified Man #1: What you got there, teach?

Unidentified Man #2: That's music.

Unidentified Man #3: What's that music you just had on there, teach?

Unidentified Man #2: For the next class.

Unidentified Man #5: What the matter with this class?

Unidentified Man #6: (Unintelligible) a disc jockey.

Unidentified Man #7: I want to hear records.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, just keep your hands off the records.

Unidentified man #8: Beg your pardon?

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, teach, swing it. Play something.

Unidentified Man #9: No, Joshua. He's got a test for us. Right, Josh?

CONAN: Rock Around the Clock was, of course, the big, savage hit in that. Sounds pretty tame today, doesn't it?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, actually, what's playing in the background is - remember, he brings his Bix Beiderbecke records. So that's the only appearance of Bix Beiderbecke in a rock and roll movie.

But, yeah, Bill Haley and the Comets Rock Around the Clock was the big tune from that movie. They also were featured in a movie called "Rock Around the Clock," which is sort of one of my favorite of those early rock and roll movies with Alan Freed and, you know, The Platters and like that. That was a 1956 film.

CONAN: And I can see your point about calling those kinds of films musicals. It's not a whole lot different from "The Big Broadcast of 1936" in a lot of ways.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: But nevertheless, you just don't think of the application of that term to rock-and-roll movies.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, it's partly because, as I think one of your callers said earlier, you know, rock-and-roll is a kind of culture. It's a state of mind, and it's supposed to be, even when it's not, counter-culture. It's supposed to be revolutionary.

So the same thing is true of rock-and-roll movies. You don't think of a rock-and-roll musical as a musical because it's not, you know, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, you know, it's not an MGM musical. It's not that kind of musical, but when you think about it, "Jailhouse Rock" is a musical.

I would argue that something that deals with rock-and-roll onstage like "American Hot Wax" is a musical, and "Purple Rain" is one of my - with the Prince score, is one of my favorite movie musicals.

CONAN: And then there's the documentaries. Just going back to what we were talking about earlier in the program and definitions, there is a documentary that sort of captures the moment when Bob Dylan went electric, went from being a folk performer to a rock performer. Here's a clip from "Don't Look Back."

(Soundbite of film, "Don't Look Back")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): I don't think I'm a folk singer. You'll probably call me a folk singer, but you know, the other people know better, because the people that, you know, that buy my records and listen to me don't necessarily read Time magazine.

Mr. HORWITZ: What a movie, and you know, really pride of place to me has to go to the great D.A. Pennebaker and his - later on, his wife and collaborator, Chris Hegedus, because they've done some extra - in fact, just the year after they did "Don't Look Back," that amazing Bob Dylan film, he did "Monterey Pop," which is a kind of - you talked about, you know, Hendrix's set, and there's Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. I mean that was, in its way, a landmark film.

And later they did - just a few years ago, because we premiered it - a film having to do with the older Stax-Volt artists toward the end of their careers, like Wilson Pickett and that sort of thing. They're amazing rock-and-roll documentarians.

CONAN: Court Northrup(ph) from Moscow, Idaho e-mails us: Hey, it's got to be "A Hard Day's Night," this of course the great first Beatles movie.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, it's - you know, The Beatles, too, I mean when you - that's a musical, there's no question about it in my mind, and there's a funny thing -I'm hesitating because I don't know why. To me, they're not like so heavy rock-and-roll. You don't think rock-rock-rock when you think of those Beatles movies. They're terrific movies. There's also "Help," which I have a lot of affection for, and somebody on my staff at the AFI Silver Theater mentioned that Tom Hanks film, "That Thing You Do," which is about a Beatles-type group.

So these are - yeah, they're rock films, there's no question about it, but it's a little lighter, isn't it?

CONAN: Yes, it is, and there's also, don't forget, "Yellow Submarine."

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, and has anybody ever actually seen "A Magical Mystery Tour?" I haven't. I'm sure somebody has.

CONAN: I don't think so. I'm not sure. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Kevin. Kevin's with us from Warsaw, Illinois.

KEVIN (Caller): Warsaw, Indiana.

CONAN: Warsaw, Indiana, excuse me. I can't read my screen here.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's right next door.

KEVIN: I would say Prince, "Purple Rain," and also "Graffiti Bridge." One, "Purple Rain," it brought everybody together underneath a genre, and with "Graffiti Bridge" he was reaching out to a spiritual land as well. And I can take the comment - take the comment off of the air.

Mr. HORWITZ: But don't go yet. Just tell me more about "Graffiti Bridge," because I've got to admit you've blindsided me with that one. Is this also Prince, or - he's gone.

CONAN: Kevin?

KEVIN: "Graffiti Bridge," there was a battle that was going on between two brothers and - like in a sense all of us are brothers and sisters on this planet, and there was always some sort of controversial - what was separating them. But he...

CONAN: Who was in it?

KEVIN: The Time, Morris Day and...

Mr. HORWITZ: So it's also a Prince film?

KEVIN: Yes, it is.

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh, okay, that's what I needed to know, because I couldn't agree with you more about "Purple Rain." I think that - and again, like in any great musical, it takes a gifted composer with a great score, and I think Prince is one of the most gifted of the living composers.

KEVIN: Most definitely.

CONAN: Let's listen to a bit of it.

(Soundbite of film, "Purple Rain")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actress): (As character) First Avenue's really famous. A lot of bands make it after playing there. It must be real exciting.

PRINCE (Musician): (As The Kid) Is that what turns you on?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) What do you mean?

PRINCE: (As The Kid) Makin' it.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) It'd be nice for a change. It's all I dream about.

Mr. HORWITZ: We all have dreams.

CONAN: We all have dreams, and in a way, couldn't you break this down into yet another category of star vehicles, I mean all of the Elvis movies, for example, all of those Beatles movies and indeed "Purple Rain"?

Mr. HORWITZ: Sure. But again, I mean, I think that's a terrifically legitimate part of movie musicals. I mean, if you are Barbara Streisand, how do you appear in front of, you know, 20 million people - well, you can be on TV, or you can make "Hello Dolly," you know. And if you're - the same thing was true of Frank Sinatra when he was - and Bing Crosby, and some of the - you mentioned "The Big Broadcast." I mean that was because Bing Crosby was a huge star and they wanted to get him out there. So yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Ward on the line. Ward is with us from Cincinnati, down-state.

WARD (Caller): How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: All right. Cincinnati, that is where you're from, isn't it, Murray?

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, from Dayton, just cheek by jowl with Cincinnati.

WARD: It's right on down the road or up the road. Hey, real quick, Neal, I wanted to agree with you. Little Richard gets into the Hall of Fame on flamboyance alone.

CONAN: Absolutely.

WARD: But my favorite rock-and-roll movie is "Airheads," with Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler.

Mr. HORWITZ: It's interesting, and they don't actually do their own playing in the movie, right? I mean...

WARD: They're credited with the music, but I don't know that that's fact. It does sound like Brendan Fraser singing.

Mr. HORWITZ: It may be. There are a lot of contemporary films dealing with -and by the way, some contemporary documentaries. I'm switching gears here a little bit, but one of the documentaries that a lot of people love is just from - well, it's about 10 years ago now, but Radiohead did a documentary called "Meeting People is Easy," and when we talk about - us superannuated types, when we talk about rock-and-roll movies, we talk about things like "Blackboard Jungle" and even, you know, Prince's film "Purple Rain," which it's important to remember is almost 30 years ago now.

But the contemporary bands are still making movies.

CONAN: Still making me feel old, Murray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ward.

WARD: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz about the greatest rock-and-roll movies of all time. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we talked earlier - you called "A Hard Day's Night" a musical. In a way, it's sort of a faux documentary, and of course there is the great mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap."

(Soundbite of film, "This is Spinal Tap")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER GUEST (Actor): (As Nigel Tufnel) You see, most blokes, you know, would be playing at 10. You're on 10 here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. You're on 10 on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Mr. ROB REINER (Actor): (As Marty DiBergi) I don't know.

Mr. GUEST: (As Tufnel) Nowhere, exactly. What we do is if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Mr. REINER: (As DiBergi) Put it up to 11.

Mr. GUEST: (As Tufnel) Eleven, exactly.

CONAN: Put it up to 11.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. My favorite line of this is none more black, which fans of that movie will recognize as the color of their album. This gets a kind of special mention. Actually, Neal, there are a couple of movies that I put in a by-themselves category, because strictly speaking - "This is Spinal Tap" is a rock-and-roll movie, there's no doubt about it, but it's got it's tongue and probably a bunch of other, you know, arms and legs and elbows in its cheek.

And the other one is "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which it could be well-argued is the most successful and long-lived rock-and-roll movie of all time, but it's...

CONAN: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. It's a rock-and-roll score, and it's a musical, and it's -you know, every midnight it's playing somewhere.

CONAN: Let's listen to a clip from "The Rocky Horror Show."

(Soundbite of film, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")

CAST: (As character) (Singing) It's just a jump to the left. And just a step to the right. Put your hands on your hips. And bring your knees in tight. Oh, there's a pelvic thrust. It really drives you insane. Let's do the time warp again.

CONAN: Of course "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is its actual title. Murray, I'm one of the three people in the universe who ever saw "The Rocky Horror Show" on Broadway.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right you are, at the Belasco Theater, if I don't miss my guess.

CONAN: And they tore out the seats and put in tables.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. They wanted to make it a cabaret show. And it's an audience - because it's a kind of an audience participation thing and one of the reasons we've hesitated to show "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at our theater is that the front-of-house staff says you're going to destroy the theater. We don't want to clean up after those people.

CONAN: You just don't want to pay overtime for the midnight showing. I know you.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's true, it's true.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Brian in Cincinnati. "La Bamba" has to be up there, an inspiring movie that tackled many issues faced by Ritchie Valens, simultaneously entertaining you and educating you.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, I am very grateful to Brian for mentioning this because you touched on biopics, and some of the best movies, I think, some of the most enjoyable and some of the most lauded are biopics. "La Bamba" is terrific, but if you just think of in the last 20 or 30 years, some of the - I mean, there's Taylor Hackford's movie about Ray Charles, "Ray."

And by the way, I remember a comment in about 1969 from the great critic Pauline Kael, who said, you know, Hollywood is - at that time she was taking Hollywood to task for not doing enough with really innovative, hip -innovative, hip artists, and she said Hollywood has done less with Ray Charles in the '60s than they did with Fats Waller in the '30s. and it was really true.

I mean there's not much Fats - Ray Charles, rather, on film, but he gave his life and his name to one of the great rock biopics of all time. But there's "Great Balls of Fire," about Jerry Lee Lewis, Oliver Stone's "The Doors." There have been really a number of terrific rock biopics.

CONAN: That same accident that claimed the life of Ritchie Valens, of course, "The Buddy Holly Story."

Mr. HORWITZ: Right, "The Buddy Holly Story" with Gary Busey. It's a terrific movie.

CONAN: Can't somebody make a movie about the Big Bopper?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. What, J.P. Richardson, J.R. Richardson?

CONAN: I think so, yes, J.P., I think. Here's an e-mail from Tom Faulkner in Detroit. The obscure "Zachariah" was a lousy movie but a great rock-and-roll movie, billed as the first rock Western - maybe the last - self-indulgently written by the Fireside Theater. It's the kind of film that makes you suspect they had more fun making it than you did watching it. A young Don Johnson and a clichéd plot overwhelmed by performances by The James Gang, Country Joe and the Fish, Doug Kershaw and many others. Well worth it, if only for jazz drummer Alvin Jones's devastating solo.

So Murray, if you had to pick one as the greatest rock-and-roll movie of all time, it would be?

Mr. HORWITZ: Oh gosh, well, let me not pick the greatest. Although I have a real soft spot in my heart for a documentary called "Let the Good Times Roll" about sort of the oldies band. I love Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz." But the one I'll mention that nobody I think is going to mention is a dreadful movie from 1965 called "Ski Party."

This is the winter version of the beach blanket movies, and you have to get past Annette Funicello. You've got to get past Frankie Avalon and Lesley Gore to listen to James Brown and watch him do the camel walk in his film debut in 1965. "Ski Party," I'm telling you, it's worth it.

CONAN: We're going to give the last vote to Peter in San Francisco. My vote for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" redefined the musical by incorporating what rock-and-roll is supposed to be, exciting with its hands on the pulse of the zeitgeist of the times.

Mr. HORWITZ: He's right. James Cameron Mitchell - John Cameron Mitchell.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, thanks very much as always for being with us.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thanks so much, Neal; it's always a pleasure.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater in the Washington, D.C., area. Ira Flatow is here tomorrow. We'll talk to you Monday from Washington. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Cleveland.

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