[Lina Lecaro writers our amazing Nightranger column every week. Check out her explorations of LA nightlife here.]
With The Runaways bringing rock n' roll to movie theaters this week (see a report from the premiere here), we've been thinking about our favorite band n' beat packed films lately. Documentaries, docudramas, mockumentaries or purely fictional fantasies, a good rock movie has a visceral mojo that's uniquely inspiring even when it's celebrating clichés (Gimme Shelter, Almost Famous, Velvet Goldmine).
Films that tackle California and, more specifically, Los Angeles' musical mystique, as The Runaways does, are even trickier. This is after all, where rock n' roll dreams are born, and often crushed.
Here's some more rockin' cinema (with LA ties) that succeeds in kicking ass. Some do it harder and with more force/focus than others, but all feature enticing glimpses into our city's soundscape. In no particular order, our Top 10 (half of which happen to be directed and/or star females!) are below. What is yours?
1. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Russ Meyers and Roger Ebert's swingin' camp masterpiece is one of those gems you watch again and again (while smoking “grass” the whole time like the characters–all the better). Sexy '60's/'70's wardrobe, cheesy fun dialog and groovy music by The Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Kelly Affair (renamed The Carrie Nations by the inimitable party king Z-Man). The all-girl band comes to LA seeking fame and fortune, but -shocker!- the group ends up getting corrupted in all kinds of lewd and tripped out ways.
2. DIG! Ondi Timoner's exploration of the rivalry and friendship between The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor is fascinating both on a musical level and a personal one. Struggles with artistic integrity, loyalty, insanity, sex, drugs… this one's got it all. Though both bands orginate from Northern Cali, much of the movie was filmed while Newcombe and BJM's revolving door of shaggy bandmates lived in LA, and the highlight scene is arguably his self-sabotaging freakout at a record label showcase inside The Viper Room.
3. WHAT WE DO IS SECRET
Shane West was kind of hard to take as Darby Crash (especially when he toured with the real band later). But there's still something kinda endearing about this chronicle of the formative years and 5-year planned demise of The Germs. Maybe it was seeing The Masque and Oki Dog at their prime, or the bands of the era recreated by bands of today: The Mae Shi performing as The Screamers and The Bronx performing as Black Flag. Darby died the same day John Lennon did, so maybe it was just cool to see him get the spotlight at last.
4. THE DOORS Val Kilmer played the lizard king pretty smarmy, but he did capture the swagger and brooding dark side of Jim Morrison nonetheless. Oliver Stone's biopic is predictably melodramatic at times (Ray Manzarek hated it) but Crispin Glover's Andy Warhol might have been worth the price of admission alone.
Penelope Spheeris' punky debut features performances by T.S.O.L., DI, and The Vandals, plus Wade Watson (future bass player for the US Bombs) and Flea (in his film debut) in acting roles. Awkward but shockingly real feeling and a must-see for fans of hardcore music.
6. DECLINE OF THE WESTERN CIVILIZATION- 1, 2 & 3
Spheeris' first Decline is the definitive LA punk rock doc, no doubt, while Decline 3 -yes, there was a third 3rd installment- revisited punk's later generation rather affectively. But the unflinching, often hilarious look at the “The Metal Years” might be her most memorable. A real life Spinal Tap for the late 80's ('86-'88), Decline II was so wonderfully cheesy and true, it may have single-handedly killed the Sunset Strip metal scene.
7. MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP
Whether you grew up listening to him or just discovered him via this bio-pic, you'll be touched by the life of Rodney Bingenheimer. Countless bands -most of whom Rodney broke on his KROQ radio show- are seen in the film, but it's the early years at his English Disco that conjure flashback-magic. (New young fans are sure to be picking this one up after seeing the club as birthing ground in The Runaways).
The Plimsoles, Josie Cotton and the ultimate '80's new wave love ode, “Melt With You” (by Modern English) make this little film about star-crossed lovers -one from the Valley, the other from big, bad Hollywood- a classic. It's also the movie that made Nick Cage a star.
9. BETTY BLOWTORCH & HER AMAZING TRUE LIFE ADVENTURES
Okay, we might be a little close to this one. We were friends with the band and well, we're in the movie. But objectively speaking, this is one of the most powerful rock docs you'll ever see. From the all-girl band's exuberant music and shameless moxie (which could have easily seen them reach Runaways-level success) to the in-band drama and tragic ending, this one grabs you by the balls -and heart strings- and doesn't let go.
10. SUGAR TOWN Allison Anders and Kurt Voss' biting look at the music and movie industry was hip and very “insider” thanks, most likely, to input from the real rockers seen in the flick: Duran Duran's John Tayor, Michael Des Barres and John Doe. Even when the characters are acting pathetic, a reverence for their rock n' roll personnas remains, and no surprise, Anders is a huge music fan. After teaching a class on rock n' roll films at UC Santa Barbara, she later created LA's “Dont Knock The Rock” music film festival.