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COMMENTARY : 'Rock on Film' Series Offers Great Moments, Despite Small Flaws

December 30, 1987|KRISTINE McKENNA

Live music may be your best entertainment value, but the logistics surrounding the experience can be daunting indeed. Having paid a hefty admission price to a packed, smoky room, you're free to enjoy overpriced drinks, insanely late hours, surly bouncers and occasional run-ins with random weirdos.

Moreover, it's completely unpredictable whether the band for whom you've endured all this will be in form that night. You begin to understand why the entire world is in the process of retreating to its own private VCR media womb.

You also begin to feel more kindly toward filmed rock music. Agreed, it's a less exhilarating way of taking in a show--it's not a hands-on music experience, and you probably won't bond with your peers. But at least the sound and the sight lines will be adequate, and you won't have to worry about somebody throwing up on your shoes.

If the film in question shows you a great musical moment you've been hearing about for years, well, that can be pretty exciting. If the film is rarely screened, it approaches the status of major event.

Among the major events included in the "Rock on Film" series at the Wiltern is the controversial and rarely seen "C-S Blues" (see accompanying story for screening times), a 1972 documentary of the Rolling Stones by the respected artist Robert Frank (subject of a major retrospective at the County Museum of Art earlier this year).

Also of note to Stones fans is "Charlie Is My Darling," a charming 1965 documentary on the Stones in their "Out of Our Heads," randy-English-lads period. Cute little rogues they were too, before the road began to take its toll and they started wearing makeup.

Any self-respecting Bob Dylan fanatic will make a point of seeing "Eat the Document," the D. A. Pennebaker-produced 1966 documentary of the high-strung genius from Hibbing, Minn.

Though hard-core Dylan-heads tend to go ecstatic at the mention of the rarely screened "Document," Pennebaker's study of Dylan of 1967, "Don't Look Back," is a far superior work. You needn't be a rock fan to become engrossed in this powerful essay on the making of a 20th-Century legend.

One of the most intriguing surprises in the series is a feature-length documentary of the Velvet Underground with Nico. Whereas new documentaries of the Doors, the Beatles and Elvis seem to surface every few months (there are entire programs devoted to those artists at the Wiltern), film of the group that laid the cornerstone of punk is rarely seen.

Also of interest is "If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a . . .," a 1977 documentary of the first American tour by artists on the pioneering punk label, Stiff Records. Included here is early footage of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, among others.

On the bill with the Stiff film is director Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap," which may well be the funniest movie ever made about rock 'n' roll. Released in 1984 and frequently screened on the revival-house circuit, this satirical look at the rise and fall of a heavy metal band may not be a rarity but still ranks as one of the series' highlights.

Those who like their rock films with a sarcastic edge will love "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," Julien Temple's savagely funny expose of the mercenary ideology behind the Sex Pistols. As with many things connected with the Sex Pistols, "Swindle" has been tied up in court for the past few years and only makes it to the screen once in a blue moon.

Temple fans should also catch "Absolute Beginners," his sorely underrated musical fantasy of last year. Including performances by Sade, Slim Gaillard and David Bowie, this homage to London's underground hipster scene of the '50s is a beautiful piece of eye candy shot through with flashes of brilliance.

Speaking of Bowie, the Thin White Duke has a surprisingly low profile at the Wiltern, as do Jerry Lee Lewis, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and a host of other classic rockers. Rather than have two entire evenings of the Beatles (both of which include films that are widely seen), the organizers could have done some detective work and come up with film or video clips of the countless artists who are rarely seen on the screen.

You could also take issue with this series on another front. The festival organizers have drawn its perimeter closely. "Rock on Film" is heavy with white male mainstream rock 'n' roll (with a dose of underground), while a host of related musical genres are given decidedly short shrift. Disco, hard core, California folk-rock, reggae, Motown, African pop, R&B, jump and industrial rock get little more than a cursory nod.

Like true showmen, the festival organizers save the best for last and wrap up the series with a weekend of film premieres. "Jimi at Monterey" and "Shake" are feature-length documentaries of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding by Pennebaker that will be shown Jan. 9.

The following night is given over to "Hairspray," a sendup of the "American Bandstand" frenzy of pre-Beatles America featuring Debbie Harry, Ric Ocasek, Ruth Brown and Pia Zadora.

The film was directed by that impresario of bad taste, John Waters, and it's hard to imagine a more fitting master of ceremonies for "Rock on Film's" concluding ceremonies. Irreverent, outrageous, hip and original, Waters' films--like all great rock 'n' roll--celebrate the transcendent quality of the lowest common denominator.

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