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Five Movies About Music in the 70’s

I was a child during the 1970’s, so I saw and heard firsthand – often by AM car radio – to the music of the decade.  At home, my father listened to Bob Dylan and my mother listened to Elton John and Donna Summer.  (Yes, they got divorced pretty soon after they married…)

I’m a big fan of nearly all music of the decade, except for the acts that appeared on Hee Haw.

Can’t Stop the Music (1980) 

There’s a reason this movie won the first-ever Razzie for worst picture – it was a really, truly, utterly horrible movie.  The quote on the DVD case says “Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before!” and you can’t help but assume that the reviewer intended that as something other than a favorable pronouncement.  The sense of “WTF?!” starts right off the bat and continues through to the closing credits.

Jack (Steve Guttenberg) is a DJ and composer looking to break into the big leagues of the music industry.  His roommate, ex-supermodel Samantha (Valerie Perrine) has an ex-boyfriend who runs a record company.  Jack needs performers for his music, so he and Samantha – together with tax attorney Ron (Bruce Jenner) – put together the group that will become known as the Village People.  It’s even cornier than it sounds.

Still, I couldn’t help but enjoy this movie. On one level, it was simply just morbid curiosity as to how bad and schlocky each scene could get.  But on another level, there’s a purity of spirit and good-natured naiveté that I couldn’t help but like.  It reminded me of a “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” hook from an old Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie.  Jack’s declaration to the record company executive that Disco “is THE sound of the ’80s….” is full of infectious enthusiasm, even though Disco was on life support by the time the movie was released.

Even now I still can’t fully understand all the vitriol that was directed towards Disco.  If the Punk movement was one manifestation of the feelings of 1970’s youth, its motto might have been “The world is empty – f*ck it!”, then the complement would have been disco, with the youth proclaiming “The world is empty – let’s f*ck!”.  I’ve gotta say that the Disco mantra has a certain appeal…

Almost Famous (2000) 

Before we watched music videos on YouTube and MTV (actually… does anyone watch music videos on television anymore?), if you wanted to see your favorite band perform you went to see them in concert. The 1970’s were perhaps the peak of live big arena performance, at least in the Rock genre.  For some bands, making records was simply a way to support their live acts; everything was about the show, and connecting with the fans (and groupies) in person.

So bands grew large, and some grew larger than life.  Sometimes they even achieved “golden god” status.  In Almost Famous, the fictional band Stillwater gives a young writer an education in the ways of the Rock music; the hard-rockin’, hard-partying lifestyle, as well as the lesson that music is still a business. Our golden gods are still people, with egos and flaws, and they have the power to deeply affect the people close to them.

Velvet Goldmine (1998) 

Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is a journalist who’s tasked with writing an article about Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a glam-rocker who disappeared from the public eye ten years earlier. The main story arc tracks Slade’s rise, his search for his own voice and stage persona, and his search for sexual identity.  We also follow the ups and downs of rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) as he flows in and out of Slade’s world.

The scenes with Slade and Wild are interesting and well-done, but Stuart made the film human. His time on screen is minimal, but watching him struggling to find himself in Slade’s reflection are the most powerful takeaway images.  The film moves back and forth between past and present, and focuses on different characters and perspectives in each, and keeps its sensation of dreaminess high throughout.

The Runaways (2010) 

The 70’s may have given us punk, and rebellion and hard-rockin’ women, but the music business was still the realm of the sleazy music producers, and bands were sometimes fabricated for the sole purpose of selling records. Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) meets a young Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) outside a club, likes her idea of creating an all-female band, and recruits 15 year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) to sing the sexually charged lyrics that Fowley comes up with at the band’s first rehearsal.  Fowley sees the financial upside in exploiting the “real live jailbait” he’s found in Currie.

That’s not to diminish the talent and genuine rawness of the band – Fowley himself acknowledges it when he describes their sound to a colleague over the phone as “the sound of hormones raging!”  Even though they were brought together solely to make and sell a product (their own sexual power), they still rocked pretty hard.  Unfortunately, we don’t see nearly enough of Joan Jett.  We’re teased with a bit of her life before joining the band, and we want to know more about her story too, but for most of the rest of the film she’s simply another element of the Cherie Currie narrative. The rest of the band members exist almost exclusively at the back of the stage, literally and figuratively.  Even the “where are they now” text at the end of the movie speaks only of Cherie, Joan and Kim.

This movie would be more appropriately titled something like “The Rise and Fall of Cherie Currie.” I wish there had been more to learn more about the rest of the Runaways.

Control (2007) 

One of the challenges faced by a biopic is holding our interest when we know what’s going to happen to the lead character by the end of the movie. There needs to be enough substance (no pun intended) for us to want to keep watching, and to develop an emotional attachment to that character.  Joy Division came together in late-1970’s Manchester, England, with an attitude and outlook that reflected the world they lived in.  The black and white film fits perfectly – theirs isn’t a world of vibrant color.

Ian Curtis had a relatively short tenure as the lead singer of Joy Division, but his (and the band’s) influence can’t be overstated.  Though they didn’t even make it halfway through 1980 before disbanding, it’s probably safe to say that they’re one of the most important band of the 1980’s (with a continuing influence even today). Control is a great movie.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.