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Best of British rock ‘n’ roll films

BY James Oliver

6th Aug 2017 Film & TV

Best of British rock ‘n’ roll films

As Morrissey Biopic England is Mine is released in cinemas, we take a look at some of the most notable British pop music movies, from Cliff, The Beatles and beyond. James Oliver turns things up to 11...

Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in segregated America, a hot-blooded eruption of passion and discontent. How odd that it should find such a welcome in Great Britain, a land (in)famous for phlegmatic stoicism.

But find a welcome here it did. Moreover, it has flourished, arguably finding its fullest expression on our damp little island, evolving new shapes and cross-pollinating with other forms to create some of the most thrilling music of the past 50-odd years.

Unsurprisingly, popular music has made its presence felt in movies too. What’s more, many of these movies are very good indeed, from the early youth movies made to cash in on what producers assumed was just another craze, to the later biopics of artists whose work ensured that it wasn’t.

Inspired by the new Morrissey movie England is Mine (which charts the bard’s early life, before he joined The Smiths), we’re taking a look at just a few of the very best—or at least notable—films about British pop music. Turn it up loud, now...


Expresso Bongo (1959)


British rock ‘n' roll begins with Cliff Richard: he might not have been the first to attempt this new American style but he was the first to look like he meant it, wiggling his hips like a Home Counties Elvis.

And just like Elvis, his management was keen to get their boy into movies. Expresso Bongo is (probably) his best. The Peter Pan of Pop isn’t a rocker here but a bongo player, turned into a teen idol by manipulative promoter Laurence Harvey. It establishes one of the defining features of British pop pictures: in contrast to the Gee! Whizz! American music movies, ours were a whole lot more cynical.


A Hard Day’s Night (1964)


With the exception of their manager Brian Epstein (always a true believer) pretty much everyone in the entire world thought that the freakish early success of The Beatles was just a passing fad, one to be milked for all it was worth before the teenage girls started screaming at someone else.

Hence A Hard Day’s Night, a cheaply made movie intended to capitalise on Beatlemania. As so often, though, The Beatles were lucky; their film was entrusted not to some industry hack but to a young director, Richard Lester, whose humour and inventiveness matched their own.

He was inspired by the French New Wave, happily shooting on the hoof and throwing in unconventional techniques. Most artistes (or, more likely, their management) would have started squealing at the first whiff of such avant-gardery; it says everything about The Beatles (and Epstein) that instead they embraced it readily.


Privilege (1967)

The sheer cultural dominance of pop music and its practitioners was something that caused much discussion amongst highbrow types in the 1960s, anxious to understand What It All Meant. That’s the starting point for Privilege.

Set in the then-near future of 1970, it’s a fictional documentary: its subject is one Stephen Shorter, a blank young man who is the biggest star in the world. He is shown to be little more than a puppet, a device to sell product and distract the masses—why protest against the government when there’s a new Shorter disc to enjoy?

It’s a prescient depiction of media power but also a study of the whole business of Sixties celebrity: Paul Jones (late of Manfred Man) took the thankless role of Shorter while none other than Jean Shrimpton—the first supermodel—played his girlfriend. It’s one of the very first films to take fame seriously, and one of the very few that suggests we should be a little more sceptical of our pop idols.


Permissive (1970)


Rock ‘n’ Roll was never just about the music—it stood for a whole licentious lifestyle, at least for the men-folk. The women, as Permissive shows us, got a rather rougher deal.

This is a film about groupies. Its main character is Suzy, a naïve young woman drawn into the ambit of popular beat combo Forever More (a real band, apparently) and discovers a new world of sex, drugs and betrayal.

Sure, it’s an exploitation film, one inspired by alarmist news stories. But it shows a side of the music biz that gets overlooked all too easily. These days, we’re uncomfortably aware of how badly many rock stars behaved back then; thanks to this film, we can’t say we weren’t warned.


Toomorrow (1970)

Ach, but we’re getting all too heavy. Pop music is supposed to be fun, is it not? So here is a film very nearly devoid of merit.

There’s a race of aliens—like, actual space aliens—but they’re dying out! However! There’s a pop group on Earth who have invented a brand new instrument called a "tonaliser" that can keep the aliens alive! Brilliant! So all the aliens need to do is invite the pop band—called Toomorrow and fronted by Olivia Newton John—to play a gig. So they do and, er, that’s about it.

Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a novelty record: you might need to be in a certain state of inebriation to enjoy it properly but if you’re in the right mood, it can seem really rather wonderful.

(Incredibly enough, Toomorrow wasn’t the first British sci-fi/ pop cross over—Gonks Go Beat got there first. What’s more, it features Charlie from Casualty too.)


Flame (1975)


Slade were the likely lads of British rock, cheerful Black Country boys whose outsized personalities (and winning way with a tune) made them the best loved British band since The Beatles. Naturally, they were invited to make a movie but the pop kids who went along expecting to see lovable Noddy Holder and the gang were in for a shock.

For a start, Slade aren’t playing themselves—they’re playing the members of a fictitious band called Flame trying to make it in the venal music business. And rather than an ebullient Hard Day’s Night-style runaround, this is a downbeat, even gritty affair in which the band are sometimes cast in a bad light.

It wasn’t what the fans wanted and their popularity took a hit. The years, though, have been kind; it’s one of the best British music movies, and it shows there was more to Slade than Christmas tunes and mirrored top hats.

An alternative look at Slade...


Quadrophenia (1979)


Most of the films on this list focus on the people who make the music. Here’s one about the folk who listen to it. Adapted from a rock opera by The Who, it harks back to an earlier age of rock ‘n’ roll, before Roger Daltry got his perm and started wearing tassels on his jacket. A more innocent time.

It’s set in 1965; young Jimmy works demeaning menial jobs by day to earn the money to live as one of the top London mods by night, making sure he has the right clobber, the right scooter and, of course, the right tunes.

You don’t need to be a Mod to empathise; whether you’re punk, raver or rockabilly revivalist, no film has better understood what music means to kids.


Rude Boy (1980)


So then, Punk. Many filmmakers have tried to capture the furious energy of that movement but, in truth, none have really succeeded (in feature films, that is; there are some useful documentaries).

The best effort is probably Rude Boy, whose main character is a (fictionalised) roadie for (the real) The Clash. Much is made of the political tumult of the time—the late Seventies, when the National Front was on the march—but it’s most notable for the quantity (and quality) of live footage of the band, shot between their first and second albums. It’s not quite essential, but it’s still the best document we have of one of the most essential British bands in their pomp.


Babylon (1980)

Rock ‘n’ Roll might have been the dominant popular music of the past half-century or so, but it’s by no means the only style to find favour. Babylon is about another sort of sound, Reggae. Set in a dead-end London, our hero is Blue—by day, a mechanic; by night, the leader of a sound system preparing for a serious sound clash.

This is the world of the second generation immigrant, dealing with racism, the law and petty rivalries. There’s none of the self-mythologising you get in that other great Reggae movie The Harder They Come: London Town won’t let you forget your place, as Blue is reminded at every turn.


24 Hour Party People (2002)


Once upon a time, the British film industry made movies about military heroes. Now it makes movies about rock stars. One sort of heritage supplanted by another.

24 Hour Party People is without question the very best of those. Its ostensible subject is Anthony H Wilson, a regional news presenter who doubled as a cultural kingpin: he founded Factory Records and was patron to Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays, amongst many others.

All this is recorded here in a less than reverential fashion: Steve Coogan’s portrayal does nothing to challenge the notion that Wilson could be a bit of a ninny while director Michael Winterbottom abandons strict objectivity for something more freeform, with addresses to camera and direct challenges to Wilson’s version of events. In other words, it captures the spirit of Factory records to perfection.


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