Rock of Ages
D.A. Pennebaker's concerted efforts.
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
APRIL 6, 1998: Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop, the two landmark rockumentaries by D.A. Pennebaker, belong to a time of revolution in the national consciousness--a time when pop sensibilities mounted a D-Day of a sneak attack on high culture. They capture the moment when rock music stopped being viewed as a teenybopper joke and started being treated as a social force, for better or worse. After 30 years, the two films are currently playing in select cities on a double bill, and when they arrive here this Friday, for a week's run at the Watkins Belcourt, you can see the direct origins of much of what you either love or hate about rock 'n' roll in the movies.
In 1965, when Pennebaker followed Bob Dylan to London to shoot Don't Look Back, the wall dividing pop culture from art was getting hammered on all fronts by the young cineastes of the French New Wave, who spun B-movie conventions into delirious flights of fancy; by Andy Warhol, who turned consumer-culture detritus into the stuff of portraiture by virtue of a frame; by Tom Wolfe's journalism, Pauline Kael's criticism, and Kenneth Anger's howling-mad juxtapositions of boytoy bikers, the Crystals, and Jesus. Even so, rock 'n' roll was pretty much regarded as kid stuff--hardly serious documentary material.
Pennebaker and his collaborators--an all-star team that included his production partner, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles--were among the first to realize what a rich documentary subject rock 'n' roll made. Prior to the mid-1960s, rock 'n' roll movies were the Hollywood musical's bastard stepchild. They were set up basically the same way--with musical numbers contained within a loosely scripted framework--because nobody knew the extent or character of rock's appeal. Nobody made documentaries about rock stars: Who cared what pop singers had to say about anything? People didn't go to Frank Sinatra movies to hear Ol' Blue Eyes pontificate.
Bob Dylan changed all that--and by hanging on his every word in cinema-verité style, so did Don't Look Back. It was Dylan who inspired hipper-than-thou academics and tweedy critics to treat rock lyrics as poetry, and who forced cultural arbiters to parse his gnomic, often inscrutable songs for clues to the mind-set of young America. (You can picture some pipe-smoking pundit sitting by a turntable: " 'I met a white man who walked a black dog'--heavy.") By the time of the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, however, rock music was directly linked with sweeping changes in youth culture, in politics, in fashion. In Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop, Pennebaker treated rock 'n' roll as what it really was: breaking news.
That you-are-there immediacy makes Don't Look Back particularly fascinating. An unforgettable all-access pass behind the scenes of Dylan's '65 British tour, Don't Look Back hangs with Dylan and his entourage (including Joan Baez, Alan Price, and the droll Bob Neuwirth) as they move through a blur of indistinguishable hotel rooms and concert halls, pursued by highbrow journalists who want to talk to the oracle. Yes, the concert footage of the young Dylan in his punky prime is electrifying: When he sings "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in full close-up, spitting William Zanzinger's rich-boy crimes into the camera as judge, jury, and executioner rolled into one, he elevates private resentment to the level of prophecy. He's heart-stoppingly cool--the zenith of beat glamour.
The most fun comes from the privileged glimpses of Dylan's sadistic wit. Sick of being analyzed, Dylan plays fearsome head games with a hapless Time reporter and a middle-aged interviewer. Lightweight folk-rocker Donovan drops by Dylan's room to play a wispy ballad for the gang. Dylan smiles coolly, asks for the guitar, then dashes off a little something called "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." See ya in hell, folkie. The other priceless offstage moment belongs to Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, who provides a casual lesson in how to weasel extra money out of the BBC. It's nice to know the Sex Pistols didn't invent great rock 'n' roll swindles.
When Pennebaker and his fellow filmmakers went to Monterey Pop, they covered it as if it were the Democratic Convention, focusing on the audience as much as the main attractions. Monterey Pop hasn't dated as well as Don't Look Back, perhaps because the style Pennebaker and company pioneered has been imitated and, frankly, improved over the years. The herky-jerky camera gets across the excitement of the event, but there's too much jiggling around when you just want to see the performance--especially when Otis Redding hits the orgiastic climax of "I've Been Loving You Too Long."
Nevertheless, when you see Pete Townshend kill off "My Generation" with an epic bout of guitar-smashing, or you see Janis Joplin writhing orgasmically in the thrall of "Ball and Chain"--not to mention Jimi Hendrix raping his amp and torching his ax in the spectacular fit of aggression that is "Wild Thing"--you're watching rock 'n' roll iconography develop in the camera. It's startling to see this many oft-cited performances captured in the same movie.
Seen back to back, Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop serve as ground zero for the past 30 years of rock 'n' roll documentaries, in ways that aren't always good. D.A. Pennebaker's films are the obvious ancestors of classics like Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (and his upcoming Storefront Hitchcock). At the same time, though, whenever you see pretentious pop stars wanking off about current affairs in shaky close-up--remember the insufferable Rattle & Hum?--it was Pennebaker and company who helped confer legitimacy on their ilk. Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop gave mixed blessings to rock 'n' roll, to be sure. But after 30 years, we're still blessed to have them.
There's something to be said for a movie that delivers the goods. Wild Things--the latest steamy Florida noir to hit our screens in the post-Body Heat era--has been pitched as an opportunity to watch fresh young starlets flaunt their nubile bodies around a couple of aging Tiger Beat hunks; and mister, if you go to the theater expecting to be titillated, you'll get what you paid for. Wild Things features bikinis, bludgeonings, wet T-shirts, car chases, lesbian sex, harpoonings, threesomes, gunplay, a soundtrack of today's hottest hits, and three displays of frontal nudity. (For the record, they're Theresa Russell, Denise Richards, and, uh...Kevin Bacon.)
Is there more to Wild Things than the trash? Sure, but not much more: Frankly, it's the trash that holds the film together. The plot is so convoluted that it practically nullifies itself. Matt Dillon stars as a high-school guidance counselor in the ritzy resort town of Blue Bay. His easy rapport with students takes a bad turn when he's accused of rape by both an heiress's daughter (Richards) and a delinquent swamp rat (Neve Campbell). Dillon's shady lawyer (Bill Murray) wins an acquittal, but two suspicious cops (Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega) won't let the case rest, especially after Dillon wins a healthy settlement against Richards and her slutty mom, Russell.
Thus begins a series of double-crosses that a lesser director would render incomprehensible. Luckily, Wild Things is helmed by John McNaughton, who's famed for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (though he should be just as celebrated for Mad Dog and Glory and Normal Life). McNaughton's strength is his willingness to let the camera linger on faces long after the dialogue and music have faded from the soundtrack, implying that there's more to the story than mere words can convey. Among Richards' pout, Campbell's spiteful glares, and Murray's sleepy, hangdog expressions, McNaughton has wonderful faces to work with. The best scene in the movie has Bacon and Dillon cheerfully sizing each other up on a sailboat, trying to determine which of them has the stones to kill the other.
Of course, provocative close-ups can only carry a movie so far. There's really not more to the story than mere words can convey--although McNaughton does get some mileage out of the idea that his protagonists are driven by a desperate lust for the money that fills the air around them like so much humidity. Still, this is a well-constructed piece of pulp, and McNaughton keeps us guessing, even through the closing credits, over exactly which two principals will end up in the clear and in the money. (Trust me, you'll never guess.) In the meantime, the director dazzles the viewer with sex, scenery, and recurring shots of the Florida wildlife--which understands more about what's going on than the thrill-seeking audience.
Nothing is new about the rerelease of Grease except for a digital soundtrack. But that's only fair, since it's the soundtrack that keeps the film green in memory. I was 13 years old when the Grease cassette was in every tape player, and the dedication hour on the local Top 40 station was booked solid with "Hopelessly Devoted to You." It was the soundtrack not to some movie about the '50s, but to our own barely adolescent summer--repeating the all-pervasive success of Saturday Night Fever one year earlier.
Rereleases are primarily aimed at the generation that loved the movie first, and sure enough, my packed screening had its share of thirtysomething moms with kids. What surprised me were the gaggles of teenage girls in the front rows, lip-synching to every song. John Travolta was an irresistible hottie 20 years ago, and it seems that the post-Barbarino Travolta still gives the vapors to the Tiger Beat set. Maybe they'll go see Primary Colors next.
What did this cross-generational audience get for its inflation-adjusted trip to the 1950s via 1978? Grease still packs a wallop, from the opening disco theme, through the energetic and well-staged "Summer Nights," right up to "Hopelessly Devoted," Olivia Newton-John's long-nightie ballad. It's a tribute to the musical magnetism of the principals, Travolta and Newton-John, that the movie goes comatose for the hour or so of running time that neither has a song. The long dance-contest sequence serves only to prove that the art of editing dance had disappeared by the late '70s. But things perk back up when goody-goody Sandy decides to rat her hair and sing "You're the One That I Want." I defy anyone in their 30s not to sing along.
During its first life, I had only the vaguest sense that Grease was a nostalgia act. So one of the pleasures of the rerelease is recognizing the icons of the past who pop up regularly, from Frankie Valli to Frankie Avalon to Eddie Deezen, who played the annoying dweeb kid in a slew of B movies. (Here he plays Eugene, the annoying dweeb.) Those moms with small kids might remember that the nostalgia here doesn't come without quite a bit of crude sexual innuendo and some profanity.
I was prevented from regressing completely to my seventh-grade self, however, by an act of retroactive product dis-placement so audacious I almost didn't believe my eyes. When Danny confronts Sandy by the malt shop's jukebox after cutting her at the pep rally, a menu board with a Coca-Cola sign is clearly visible behind his head. Except that it's not--the red Coke logo in the middle of the board is obscured by a gray electronic box. Given that the T-Birds drink Pepsi a couple of times in the movie, I assume that Pepsi cut a deal with Paramount to cut out the competition. Not that Grease is such high art that the switch amounts to mutilation...but it certainly shows how times have changed.
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