A ski lodge, 1965. Well-scrubbed teenagers lounge around the fireplace, lazily sipping hot chocolate. In walk four black men, nattily dressed in identical hooded floor-length dusters with enormous white lapels. One of them sports a mountainous, perfectly coifed pompadour. Heads turn: they might as well be aliens.
One of the ski bunnies gasps. "I know you! You’re James Brown and the Flames!" (Incognito, they must have dropped the "Famous.") He responds, "Don’t tell my mother – she thinks I’m still in the army." Unfazed by the bizarre non-sequitur, she urges him to sing one for the kids.
Brown strips off the duster to reveal a red and white sweater that gives bold new meaning to the term "garish," then dives into a titanic version of "I Feel Good," the Flames highstepping behind him in matching ski wear.
There’s nothing in the new AMC documentary Hollywood Rocks the Movies: The Early Years (1955-1970) that tops these ninety seconds of surreal bliss, but then again, what could? There are plenty of highlights: Gene Vincent leading the Blue Caps in a lewdly slavering "Be-Bop-a-Lula" from Frank Tashlin’s immortal The Girl Can’t Help It. Chuck Berry, twitching like a spastic marionette as he mimes his way through "You Can’t Catch Me." Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson distractedly leering at the bouncing chest of a frenzied go-go dancer during "Little Honda." Frankie Lyman declaring "I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent," while the nasty twinkle in his eyes says exactly the opposite.
Hollywood Rocks the Movies is an encyclopedic celebration of rock’n’roll cinema. It mentions virtually every appearance of rock music or musicians from 1955 through 1970 in an American film, and adds a few television appearances and promotional clips. It’s most useful as a means of seeing great performances from moronic films you’d never want to suffer through, mining great material from the likes of Girls on the Beach, Ski Party and Mr. Rock and Roll. If you’ve never seen the great rock and roll films – The Girl Can’t Help It, Monterey Pop, A Hard Day’s Night, The T.A.M.I. Show (now only available in a bowdlerized version as That’s Rock and Roll!), Don’t Look Back – it might also serve to send you to the video store.
The film plays like a companion video to Marshall Crenshaw’s indispensable guidebook Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock’n’Roll in the Movies (Crenshaw is interviewed in the film) and shares its major fault: in its attempt to be inclusive, it sacrifices any critical judgment on the material. Performances seem chosen less for their historical or aesthetic interest than the cost of acquiring broadcast rights. The film is thus largely comprised of coming attractions rather than clips, and there are astounding lapses in taste. The Supremes’ scintillating turn in The T.A.M.I. Show is ignored, for instance, in favor of an embarrassing snippet of a Motown surf knockoff called "Surfer Boy," surely the worst song they ever recorded. There are only a few seconds of Elvis Presley’s ’68 comeback special – as great a performance as any ever captured on film – but song after numbing song from his string of unwatchable movies. Any movie about rock and roll that devotes more screen time to Nancy Sinatra – she gets two complete songs and a lengthy interview – than Chuck Berry has its priorities seriously askew.
There are also some questionable choices of material from the films covered in depth. With all the riches available from Hard Day’s Night, why show "And I Love Her," a drippy ballad that gives no sense of that movie’s winning vivacity? The T.A.M.I. Show features James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson at their peaks, but instead we get Leslie Gore, who is decidedly out of her depth. (At least this excerpt captures the flabbergasted stare Robinson gives Gore from backstage, a look that betrays not contempt so much as wonder at just what she thinks she’s doing on a stage.) Worst served of all is Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back. It’s a film studded with brilliant vignettes: "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as Godardian music video, Dylan taunting a clueless Time reporter, and best of all, the sublimely mocking rendition of "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue," sung to an awestruck, and blissfully unaware, Donovan. Here, we’re given a short, uninspired stage performance (barely glanced on in the actual film) and footage of a reporter calling in a story. One would never know how delightful these three films really are.
With its myriad lapses, irrelevant interviews and sheer bloat, I suppose you’d have to be an absolute sucker for rock and roll to wade through the two and a half hours of Hollywood Rocks the Movies for its stray moments of brilliance.
I am that sucker.