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The Best of Rock 'n' Roll on Film

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For social gatherings at home built around screening movies (and yes, folks -- movies can still be a communal experience), outstanding rock documentaries and concert films are virtually guaranteed crowd pleasers, particularly if your home theater set-up includes a quality sound system.

And no surprise, there are a host of fabulous rock titles on DVD and (now) Blu-ray that only improve with repeat viewings. Here are my top ten...

With A Hard Day's Night (1964), director Richard Lester not only unveils the inner workings of a rock n' roll band experiencing a sudden, virtually unprecedented acclaim, he also breathes new life into musical film itself. The disarming charisma and spontaneous energy of The Beatles made no traditional plot necessary. It was sufficient to portray a day in the life of the world's most talked about rock band. "The boys", as they're constantly referred to, spend their time narrowly avoiding masses of hysterical fans, jumping into cars and trains which in turn take them to the next hotel room, or sound stage, or performance hall. They each face this hectic life with humor and relative calm. And then they perform! Lester's documentary-style shooting makes all the proceedings feel breathtakingly real -- at first we assume everyone is improvising, though this was not the case. (Only John had the confidence to do it). Regardless, all four Beatles were natural performers, especially John and Ringo. The Fab Four are also matched here with fine British character actors like Norman Rossington (as their manager), and Wilfrid Brambell (as Paul's incorrigible grandfather), who provide additional comic support and flavoring. Night remains the perfect introduction to Beatlemania for your kids -- in all, a breathtaking, joyful musical ride.

It was 1967, the summer of love, a charged moment when rock music was evolving in daring new directions, fueled by psychedelic drugs, the sexual revolution, and a new generation finding its voice. It was also the summer of "Sergeant Pepper's", and the Monterey Pop Festival, which documentarian D.A. Pennebaker covered like a blanket, filming everything and everyone. Thus was created the first feature length rock concert film, Monterey Pop, showcasing immortals Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and The Who, among others. The incredible music they made lives on, but Pennebaker's magic camera makes it seem so close and so real that the distance of forty-plus years quickly recedes. The Criterion Collection's remastered three disc set contains the original eighty-five minute feature, and for those wanting more (and who wouldn't?) a second disc focusing on Hendrix and Redding's stunning work, and finally, a third DVD full of priceless out-take performances. This set is a must for true lovers of classic rock.

Of course, the monster of all rock concerts, and concert films, is Woodstock: 3 Days Of Peace And Music (1970), Michael Wadleigh's astonishing visual document of the legendary three-day music festival that drew nearly 500,000 people to Max Yasger's farm in 1969. A slew of cameras, (one of them manned by a young Martin Scorsese) roam from stage to mud-caked street, encountering band members, crew, fans, cops, and local "squares" alike, while the greatest acts of the time -- Hendrix and The Who (again), along with Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone and others, perform at their respective peaks. Musician and "person-in-the-street" interviews are interwoven with concert performances, all of it presented in the then-ground-breaking format of multiple on-screen images. Most everyone appears justifiably awestruck at the influx of humanity that fueled this largest of all "happenings." "Woodstock" is a nearly four-hour kaleidoscope of unremitting fascination, another must for rabid rock fans. (And hey -- what's in them brownies?)

Filming what would become the classic Gimme Shelter (1970), master documentarians Albert and David Maysles were on hand to record the infamous free Stones concert at Altamont, which along with the Manson murders, brought the decade of flower power and free love to a dark, ominous close. We see not only the fateful concert itself, but all the advance planning leading up to the event. Given all the camera captures here, Shelter remains a uniquely powerful, often disturbing film document. Scenes of the advance work for the Altamont concert impart a queasy feeling of dread. Then, coverage of the concert itself juxtaposes fabulous renditions of Stones tunes with the emerging reality of a volatile situation just off-stage. There, drugged-out Hell's Angels bikers start beating audience members, causing one fatality. Jagger's numbed expression as he later views the video playback of the incident is unforgettable. This fascinating, frightening film records a tumultuous moment in our popular culture, and a turning point in the history of rock.

One person who seemed wholly unaffected by the close of the sixties was the king of '50's rock-n'-roll, still very much kicking in Denis Sanders' rousing Elvis: That's The Way It Is(1970). Here we find Presley at a crossroads, with the waning of his movie career allowing him to get back to live performing. Presley looks terrific as he rehearses for his much ballyhooed Las Vegas opening, and beyond the force of his charisma and talent in full blossom, we get a glimpse of Presley's comical, playful side, which humanizes this larger-than-life entertainer. Way culminates in a predictably triumphant opening night performance, with such luminaries as Cary Grant and Sammy Davis, Jr. in attendance. The ensuing years would not be kind to Elvis, which lends poignancy to this last moment when he appeared at his very best.

Several years later, in The Last Waltz (1978), wunderkind director Martin Scorsese would capture The Band's farewell tour after sixteen years on the road. To mark the milestone, the group assembled a rock hall-of-fame to join them, including Bob Dylan (whom the group backed for years), Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John and Neil Young. The rest is music history. Robbie Robertson, the film's producer and guiding light behind The Band, is the epitome of cool, off-stage and on. Highlights include Joni Mitchell's "Coyote", Waters' earthy, soulful "Mannish Boy", Dr. John's dreamy "Such A Night", and Clapton's jaw-dropping guitar work on "Further On Up The Road". Scorsese hired top directors of photography to film this event from every angle, and the result is an intimate, exhilarating ride into the heart of rock music.

Filmed over a three-day stint at Hollywood's Pantages Theater, director Jonathan Demme's first musical outing, Stop Making Sense (1984) celebrates the inspired pop energy of David Byrne's Talking Heads, as they're joined onstage by a succession of phenomenal players, including keyboardist Bernie Worrell. This infectious film captures the group at the pinnacle of their fame, but still it's much more than a filmed performance. Working from an idea hatched by Byrne, Sense opens with his solo rendition of "Psycho Killer" (accompanying himself on a boom-box), and then builds, song by song, to a roof-raising climax with "Burning Down the House." Demme's film is an uplifting, concept-driven dance party that avoids all the clichés.

Roy Orbison: Black and White Night (1988), a star-studded concert filmed at the historic Coconut Grove in downtown Los Angeles, features the falsetto-voiced pop star at the peak of his powers. Joining Orbison onstage are Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and many others, singing gently rocking ballads like "Pretty Woman" and "Crying" in a rollicking hour of delightful, swinging collaboration. Originally aired on Showtime, Night evokes a 1940s nightclub environment complete with art deco set design, gorgeous black-and-white photography, and Orbison's trademark shades. But aside from director Mitchell's nostalgic, ever-inviting aesthetics, it is the musical performances that remain so compelling. Orbison sounds like he hasn't lost a beat (or missed a note) since his Sun Records days, and his duets with Elvis Costello, K.D. Lang, Tom Waits, and producer T Bone Burnett feel warm and rich, rather than like a stale imitation of previous successes. Who else can croon "Only the Lonely" so hauntingly? A Black and White Night is a triumph for Orbison, and a vibrant, living testament to his unique gift.

Rock devotees should also catch director Scorsese's No Direction Home (2005), an ambitious, insightful profile of Bob Dylan, first covering the enigmatic balladeer's rise, then his risky, courageous transformation from folk artist to rock'n'roller in the mid-sixties. Simultaneously, Dylan was under pressure from colleagues, fans and the press to assume a more active political role in those divisive days, but he steadfastly refused, for his own simple but unshakable reasons: he wanted simply to make music, and have the music speak for itself. The film suggests that even if Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident hadn't sidelined him indefinitely, he still would have taken a lengthy hiatus from live performing, as his mid-sixties English tour was met with audience hostility every time the singer picked up an electric guitar, further straying from his folk roots. Including modern day interviews with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Allen Ginsberg, Scorsese crafts a penetrating sixties time capsule, and a revealing meditation on the price of artistic integrity and iconic super-stardom.

Finally, in Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (2006), the legendary rocker debuts a suite of new songs at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. This exquisite concert film captures Young performing these and a few older chestnuts with his pals, including wife Peg and Emmylou Harris, among others. Evocative backdrops, moody set lighting, and Jonathan Demme's fluid camerawork add to the experience. This lovely, deeply affecting music doc gets the red-carpet treatment from the director, who briefly introduces each of the players on their way to the show before literally zooming in on Young's remarkable performance. Singing folk-country songs about mortality, empty nests, and aged parents, Young's choppy rhythms and images of swaying Canadian cornfields harken back to his early '70s work on "Harvest" and "Comes a Time." It's obvious he's enjoying himself, and his between-song banter is tart, concise, and utterly charming. If you don't come away from Heart of Gold humming, you better have your ears checked.

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