Songs of Innocence and Experience: Rock Movies at Anthology Film Archives

Still from Blackboard Jungle, 1955, directed by Richard Brooks. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives, New York.

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“I wanna tell you about ooh poo pah doo,” the New Orleans singer Jessie Hill shouts a cappella near the start of his 1960 single by the same name, and almost before you can ask if what you’ve just heard are actual words, a backbeat groove of saxophone, drums, and piano locks in and everything starts rockin’. Now there are ooh poos rolling around Allen Toussaint’s piano, and pah doos shaking off a jangling tambourine—the phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and mean nothing is suddenly everywhere and could mean anything. That’s too exciting of an idea for Hill to spoil; he’s not going to offer a definition. Instead, while ooh pah pah doos whirl around him, he delivers something more like a promise: “And I won’t stop trying till I create a disturbance in your mind.”

The feeling that a song is leaping out of the speakers, laying hands on your shoulders, and disturbing you in your mind, is perhaps as central, if not more, to the experience of listening to rock ’n’ roll as twangy electric guitars and booming bass and drums. But privileging disturbance over definitions comes with a set of questions—Who is doing this, and why?—that the songwriters themselves are often uninterested in or simply incapable of answering. Instead, filmmakers have taken up these questions, tracking not just what rock ’n’ roll means, but how and why it disturbs.

The thirty-three films playing this month as part of the “Rock ’N’ Film” series at Anthology Film Archives (through August 30) offer reflections on rock music, focusing variously on the people who make it, profit from it, and listen to it. There are the knife-wielding, brawling teenagers who bop around the prisonlike bars of their Bronx schoolyard to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle (1955), and there are the joint-wielding, blissed-out, naked teenagers who throw up a peace sign to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher” in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970). There’s the film noir, hips-gyrating Elvis singing “Trouble” in a Bourbon street cabaret in Michael Curtiz’s King Creole (1958), and there’s the prancing Technicolor Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas” in George Sidney’s 1964 film of the same name. There are jukebox musicals featuring performances by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Eddie Cochran, and later concert documentaries, like D.A. Pennabaker’s 1973 film about David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust. The series is co-organized by film scholar David E. James, whose book Rock ’N’ Film: Cinema’s Dance With Popular Music (2016) follows rock’s influence on the movies from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s.

The two decades of rock music and cinema that Rock ’N’ Film traces constitute a kind of golden age of the interaction between the two art forms. Perhaps even more important are the ways in which these movies expressed the vast cultural and political upheavals of the period. James takes us from the era of Brown v. Board of Education, through the Civil Rights Movement, and to the utopian and radical aims of the late ’60s, before closing on an ominous note as the Vietnam War drags on and Nixon’s domestic policies set in.

Race lies at the heart of this account. It’s illuminating to see how the films in the series picture rock at once connecting and separating black and white people. Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle, set in an officially integrated but socially segregated Bronx high school, is a good example of this dynamic. The first movie to feature a rock ’n’ roll song on its soundtrack, it’s partly about a white teacher (Glenn Ford) trying to earn the trust of a black student (Sidney Poitier). In other films, things aren’t quite so literal. There’s the strange pas de deux, for example, between Chuck Berry and British Invasion band Gerry and the Pacemakers on Steve Binder’s concert film T.A.M.I. Show (1964), where the white group cuts into the middle of Berry’s performance of “Maybelline” and finishes the song before launching into their own “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” This passing of the sonic torch could be read generously as a way of underlining the monumental influence of Berry’s earlier music on the bands currently topping the charts. It can just as easily be seen as a mediocre white group crudely cashing in on the musical innovations of a black genius in front of the almost entirely white American audience.

King Creole is unique among Elvis movies in that it posits a connection between his singing and black musical traditions. But it does so in an unsubstantial, regressive, and otherwise tone-deaf way. Set in New Orleans, the fictional film opens on a call-and-response duet between the King and the jazz singer Kitty White (who went uncredited), and he’s later backed by a band of black musicians during his nightclub rendition of Leiber and Stoller’s “Trouble” (itself either a tribute to or rip-off of Muddy Water’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” depending on how you look at it). Yet no black character ever speaks or appears on-screen outside the context of musical performance; nor does Elvis’s character, Danny Fisher, ever mention where he thinks the songs he sings might have come from.

Reviewing the rock movies Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant in the New York Review of Books in January 1970, Ellen Willis reflected on the experience of watching Dennis Hopper’s film a second time after moving from New York City to Colorado Springs to work as a political organizer:

From that vantage, I saw why the movie affected me the way it did: beyond the melodrama of groovy kids vs. rednecks is an emotion that more and more of us, young and old alike, are experiencing, the overpowering sense of loss, the anguish of What went wrong? We blew it—how?

Fifty years later, watching these movies can inspire simultaneous waves of nostalgia and revulsion, thankfulness for the progress that has been made and shock and dismay that we are still, as Willis put it, “trapped in a maze.” More than anything, there’s a similarly “overpowering sense of loss,” a profound disappointment that all this artistic and political energy never found a way to convert itself into something more substantial.

Nowhere is the disparity between what is and what could have been more starkly felt than in Gordon Parks Jr.’s Blaxploitation film Super Fly (1972). A little over halfway through the movie, a series of still street-style color photographs—the director’s father was the photographer Gordon Parks, who had made the crime film Shaft the previous year—track the dispersion of a kilo of cocaine. It begins with the pickup by the drug kingpin Priest, who moves through a series of fashionable apartments as his employees cut and bag the product, out to the streets where they are sold through handshakes exchanging wads of bills, and finally back again to the bedrooms, balconies, and couches where mostly young, attractive, and middle-class lovers administer each other their highs surrounded by shag carpets. Sitting on my own couch alone watching the sequence, I thought for sure, though I couldn’t prove it, that for a few seconds I’d seen Priest’s lieutenants stacking mounds of cocaine on top of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which features a photo of an American flag waving in the wind on its cover.

All this happens while Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” plays in full over the cycle of images, which the singer himself later described as nothing more than a “cocaine infomercial.” Mayfield’s lyrics seem to critique the spread of drugs in black American communities as well as the movie’s own hand in glorifying it. But I couldn’t help wondering if Parks’s depiction of Sly’s American flag record covered in cocaine wasn’t his own wink at Curtis’s lyrics and its own ambiguous stance on the movement of drugs, rock music, money, and sex through the American city.

But was that cover even there? Such is the mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world of rock ’n’ roll movies, and it can leave you thinking: What if? What if we hadn’t blown it? What if instead of “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly,” filmmakers had made movies out of Mayfield songs like “Miss Black America” or “Keep on Pushin’”? Almost in spite of the setbacks of the ’60s and ’70s, his music continuously imagined an American society moving toward peace, racial equality, solidarity among oppressed peoples, upward mobility, romantic love, and economic justice.

In three breathtaking verses of “I Plan to Stay a Believer,” he denounces end-of-the-world hysteria by claiming “the Judgment Day is already play for the black,” then bemoans the plight of Native Americans, and then advocates for a flat tax for all black Americans to help alleviate inner-city poverty, while repeating the title’s refrain: “I plan to stay a believer.” What would a movie with that song on its soundtrack have looked like?