When Gary Essert launched the nonprofit American Cinematheque in 1984, he said he wanted to provide a year-round cultural center for exhibiting film and video works. That lofty goal probably started visions of tributes to Hollywood greats dancing in the heads of film purists around town.
Many of those purists, no doubt, may be surprised to find the Cinematheque devoting 18 days to a festival of rock 'n' roll movies, including some low-budget '50s rock-ploitation efforts (like "Go, Johnny, Go") that were so corny they even made rock fans wince the first time around.
Essert, however, feels rock 'n' roll movies are a legitimate part of film history.
"Rock is the poetry of our time," he said in an interview this week. "I think these films are in the same caliber as any other. Horror film (festivals) have been done to death. We thought that rock films are really a genre that has been overlooked.
"Almost all of these films have something very significant about them--historically or artistically. 'Go, Johnny Go,' for instance, contains the only screen appearance of Ritchie Valens," Essert said. ("Johnny" also features appearances by such other early rock stars as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Jackie Wilson.)
Titled "Rock on Film," the 44-film rock retrospective opens at noon Thursday at the Wiltern Theatre with a 12-hour Elvis Presley movie marathon. The event is sponsored by the American Cinematheque in association with concert producer Bill Graham.
Said Essert: "The purpose is to present a public program of films that normally you can't see in movie theaters. This is the first time (this elaborate a rock film festival) has been done anywhere in the world. We wanted something different to demonstrate the scope of the American Cinematheque."
Festival highlights will include the Los Angeles premiere of "Jimi at Monterey" and "Shake," D. A. Pennebaker concert films about Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, respectively. The lineup will also feature some rarely shown films, such as "C-S Blues," a controversial documentary about the Rolling Stones' 1972 U.S. tour, and "Eat the Document," a documentary about a 1966 Bob Dylan tour.
The festival will close Jan. 17 with the "sneak preview" of director John Waters' "Hairspray," a send-up of the '60s starring Debbie Harry and Divine, among others. Some of the other artists saluted in theme nights: the Beatles, the Doors, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads and the Grateful Dead.
Essert and Charles Lippincott, festival programming director, said the main problem in putting the festival together was tracking the prints down and finding ones that weren't damaged or faded. Essert said they purposely tried to avoid including films, such as the midnight cult movie "Rocky Horror Picture Show," that are frequently shown in theaters.
All the films were donated--some by individuals, others through major film companies and organizations such as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the UCLA Film and Television Archives. Still, the festival cost $150,000 for staffing, equipment (a 15,000-watt Dolby stereo sound system was installed), advertising and theater rental.
Essert said the festival is likely to break even, and he doesn't expect to see a profit. Tickets will cost $7-$10 for each theme night and $100 for a complete package, including the Jan. 16 "gala benefit" that features a compilation film surveying great moments of rock.
Essert, 49, was the artistic director of the now-defunct Filmex, the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, from its inception in 1971 until 1983, when he was ousted after questions were raised in the press by persons associated with Filmex about his ability to administer the organization. In early 1984, Essert joined with several prominent film industry people to create the American Cinematheque, a Hollywood-based version of the celebrated Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.
Although the American Cinematheque was originally scheduled to open last January at the site of the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Hollywood, that deal fell through, Essert said.
Essert hopes that construction will start early next year on a new $10-million Cinematheque facility on the site of the original Arthur Murray Dance Studio, adjacent to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. The project, for which Essert said only $2 million has been "identified on a contingent basis," is to include two film theaters, a video theater, a multimedia performance lab, cafe, bookstore and an exhibition gallery. Until it is finished, the Cinematheque will continue to host programs at various locations around the city.
Here is a complete schedule for the "Rock on Film" festival:
Elvis Presley Movie Marathon: "This is Elvis," "Love Me Tender," "Loving You," "Jailhouse Rock" (Thursday, noon to midnight).
Rock 'n' Roots: "Blackboard Jungle" excerpt, "Rock Around the Clock," "Mister Rock and Roll," "Go, Johnny, Go" (Saturday, 2 p.m.).