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Rock 'n' Roll 'Em.

By Matthew T. Everett

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  After a promising, passionate affair in the 1950s and early '60s, rock 'n' roll and the visual media parted ways, to be reunited in the early '80s at a wedding chapel named MTV, and now seem to be spending middle age in the same domesticated, compromised way as the rest of us. But it hasn't always been so: the Elvis comeback special, the Ed Sullivan Show, and The Decline of Western Civilization have put some of the rawest and best rock 'n' roll right in our neighborhood theaters and living rooms—actual instances of image complementing music rather than simply selling it.

One of the most daring, if not entirely successful, attempts was Purple Rain, Prince's 1984 film debut. Ostensibly not autobiographical, it tells of a young black musician in Minneapolis who plays sexy, progressive, dance rock (like "Let's Go Crazy" and "When Doves Cry"—surprisingly similar to the music of Prince) and has troubles with a closed-minded community, his domineering father, and, busty Apollonia. More than a little over the top, it's still appealing in that flashy Miami Vice way, and the performance scenes are The Artist at his best.

While Prince remains watchable because of his authenticity, Rob Reiner takes a cynical, satiric shot at the excesses of arena rock in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. Reiner stars as Marty Di Bergi, chronicler of the 1984 tour of the band Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer). It bites at the band members, the managers, the industry execs, the groupies and fans; no one associated with the bunch who wrote "Big Bottom Girls" is spared from Reiner's venom. The movie only gets funnier as the band desperately tries to hold onto their audience (the hilariously anticlimactic unveiling of the 18-inch Stonehenge recreation is one of the final straws on the tour). And, of course, "This one goes to 11."

The undeniable cornerstone of the rock-video-as-movie genre, the single work that set the stage for MTV and the modern conflation of image and music, is A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles' first and best movie, from 1964. Directed at breakneck speed by Richard Lester, the movie is constantly on the run, as are the boys in the band (the opening chase scenes are perhaps some of the most enduring images of the Beatles) and the incisive, nonsensical dialogue. Some of the best early songs are on the soundtrack, including the title track, "Can't Buy Me Love," and "I Should Have Known Better." It's so much fun that the adolescent hysteria which accompanied it is easy to understand. Yeah, the commodification of the Beatles' image was a little, well, predatory, but its manipulation is so masterful that it's impossible not to love it. And, as A Hard Day's Night shows, they were such a nice bunch of lads...

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