Hot Freaks: Fictional Rock Stars on Film

By Michael Azerrad

Project: New Cinephilia invited music journalist and book author Michael Azerrad (Our Band Could Be Your Life; Come As You Are) to create an audio/video installation that spoke, in some fashion, to the way that rockers are depicted in the movies. As co-producer of Kurt Cobain About a Son, a documentary based on his marathon conversations with the Nirvana frontman, we figured he would have something provocative to say about such representations, and we weren’t disappointed. “Hot Freaks: Fictional Rock Stars on Film” is an annotated guide to a very prevalent, but under-noticed conceit in the movies. It will be on display at Festivalhouse@Teviot from June 16-23, 2011, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“From Elvis to Michael Jackson, from Kiss to Marilyn Manson, the lines between pop artist and sideshow freak have always been blurry,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden in his review of Brothers of the Head (2005).  Some of that blurring has been intentional on the artists’ part, but a lot has been the work of mainstream media and in particular feature-film depictions of rock stars.  The cinema has rarely, if ever, been able to deal with rock stars on a realistic, human level, instead cartooning them as marginalized, debauched, a threatening other — freaks.

The concept has long been part and parcel of the popular imagination: Mike Watt, bassist for the workingman’s art band the Minutemen, once described to me his childhood perception of rock stars: “They were ethereal. They were a different class of people or something, like Martians.” Punk was supposed to be the great leveler of that idea but it has never entirely dissipated.  I once asked Courtney Love why she and her husband were such tabloid fodder and she referred me to Jackie Collins’ Rock Star, an early ’90s  fantasia of mansions, cars, sex, drugs, parties. “That,” she said, “is what your average housewife thinks our lives are like.”

Spotlighting fictional films was key for this project because they reflect, or attempt to accommodate, the popular conception of rock stars.  It’s likely that most rock films are so unrealistic because the producers don’t believe that the public will believe — or, more importantly, be entertained by — the actual truth of a rock star’s existence. The following clips trace the history of this meme across the decades, mostly in US film, starting with the pre-Beatles-era depiction in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and up to the present-day teen flick Camp Rock (2008). Over time, the perception has moderated, but this essential notion remains: rock stars are not like the rest of us.  And we don’t want them to be.

BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963)

Director: George Sidney

Starring: Ann-Margret, Dick van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, Jesse Pearson, Bobby Rydell, Maureen Stapleton

Columbia Pictures

In less than a minute, this scene packs in a lot of information. As part of a publicity stunt, Presleyesque teen idol Conrad Birdie stays at the home of an average family in suburban Ohio, where his overwhelming sexual magnetism disrupts the town’s social fabric.

“What kind of a dump is this?” Birdie hollers at his host.  He violates linguistic decorum, speaking ungrammatically, spouting youth slang. His freaky monogrammed tiger-print robe and silk scarf signify both absurd wealth and garish taste, in pointed contrast with the two other men, with their conservative haircuts and suits.

He’s commenced drinking, and it’s not a genteel Stinger or a Rob Roy at cocktail hour, but a can of beer.  Birdie retrieves a can opener from his motorcycle, which is parked in the den; this iconic rebel vehicle, with its red taillights blinking, makes the room look like a lurid crime scene. When he opens the can, it ejaculates beer all over the place; he is completely oblivious to his rudeness.

But perhaps most dangerous of all in early ’60s America, Birdie is an unabashedly oversexed libertine: “Tomorrow’s Saturday, and that’s my real tense night,” he says with a leer, then roars like a randy lion, libidinously shaking his hips just out of frame.

Just as Bye Bye Birdie pitted the fading Broadway musical vs. rock & roll, it also embodied the vain struggle of ’50s conservatism to fend off ’60s progressivism.  In a ham-fisted effort to stack the deck, it does what so many movies would do: marginalize the rock star as a cartoonish, unsocialized miscreant.

PRIVILEGE (1967)

Director: Peter Watkins Starring: Paul Jones, Jean Shrimpton

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062155/companycredits

Somewhere between A Face in the Crowd and Tommy, this obscure 1967 film is one of the greatest fictional rock films, if only because it is one of the very few to acknowledge — rather than perpetuate — the dehumanizing effects of pop fame.  It’s also visionary political satire that stunningly recalls Mussolini’s infamous words, “We play the lyre on all its strings: from violence to religion, from art to politics.”

Steven Shorter (played by real-life ’60s rocker Paul Jones) is a mega pop star whose act involves being beaten up onstage by policemen and thrown into a cage.  But, as ever, the rock star symbolizes a threat to the status quo that must be neutralized. And so the Establishment co-opts Shorter, using his celebrity as a release “from the nervous tension caused by the state of the world outside.” They build him up into a figure of messianic proportions in order to further a creepy Christian nationalist agenda.

This is the climactic scene — Shorter can no longer bear the soul-sucking effects of his own celebrity, and lashes out an awards ceremony before the entire UK music industry.  Rarely, if ever, has a movie so brutally limned the humiliation of pop stardom.

PERFORMANCE (1970)

Directors: Donald Cammell, Nicholas Roeg

Starring: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg

Warner Bros. Pictures

The proper rock star is debauched, androgynous and profoundly transgressive, a notion that was especially fashionable in swinging ’60s London.  For the notorious Performance, Mick Jagger was more than willing to play up to this archetype.  The funny thing is, although he answered to all those attributes, he wasn’t playing himself so much — recall he was the ambitious former London School of Economics student who eventually oversaw much of the band’s business.  Instead, he was channeling his star-crossed bandmate, the evanescent Brian Jones.

Turner is a reclusive washed-up rock star.  His home is a womb-like playground of sex, drugs, and bizarre mind-games.  It’s also a stage where even one person can be an audience.  Here, Turner toys with an interloper, the gangster Chas (James Fox) the best way he knows how: by performing.  Over the course of the film, Turner and the brutish Chas gradually merge personalities, underscoring the trope of rock star as outlaw (and vice versa).

“The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way,” Turner says in the film, “is one that achieves madness.”  There’s plenty of madness here in Jagger’s idiosyncratic flouncing and pretentious babble, enough to inspire Chas to top him, so to speak, at the film’s climax.

A STAR IS BORN (1976)

Director: Frank Pierson

Starring: Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Busey

First Pictures

Kris Kristofferson plays grizzled rock legend John Norman Howard, a booze-addled hybrid of Jim Morrison and Gordon Lightfoot, who is well on his way to becoming what his manager calls “a cosmic joke.”  This being a mid ’70s film about a rock star, Howard’s sunny afternoons in the pool are spent surrounded by his manager, his Jewish accountant, his bodyguard and a gaggle of hangers-on.  Falling into the water on his crutches, Howard obeys a cardinal rule of filmic rock stardom: be self-destructive and yet (for a while, anyway) indestructible.  Here, he even gets away with taking pot-shots at a pesky helicopter.  But like every true rock star in the Hollywood lexicon, he ultimately pays the price for his excesses.

ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)

Starring: Billy Crudup, Frances McDorman, Kate Hudson

Director: Cameron Crowe

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181875/companycredits

The stereotypical rock star is out of touch with the common people.  He lives in a separate universe: often on tour, he is from nowhere, his life a blur of buses, backstages and bacchanals.  When he was starting out, he dreamed of the spoils of stardom.  Then, once he attains them, he longs for “reality.”

That’s one of the classic tropes featured in Almost Famous.  In this scene, up-and-coming rocker Russell Hammond temporary flees his band’s tour to hang out at a high school kid’s party in the pointedly anonymous town of Topeka, Kansas, so he can experience something “real.”  He does this, of course, with the obligatory bottle of Jack Daniels in hand.  It’s dubious how much Hammond actually wants to identify with the common folk: moments later, he will stand atop a roof, tripping, proclaim “I am a golden god!” and jump into a pool with all his clothes on.  And that embodies one of the vexing questions about Almost Famous: How much is the film spoofing this trope and how much is it embracing it?

ROCK STAR (2001)

Director: Stephen Herek

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Aniston, Dominic West

Warner Bros. Pictures

This morning-after scene is a turning point in Rock Star.  The debauchery of being a rock star is destroying the traditional heterosexual monogamous relationship which has thus far sustained the film’s protagonist Chris “Izzy” Cole.

To add insult to injury, Wahlberg’s character discovers that a band staffer whom he thought was a woman is actually a partial transsexual — and even worse, is wearing his trousers. Undoubtedly, scenes like this did happen in rock’s decadent heyday, but probably not as often and as massively as the popular imagination would have it. The real point of the scene is to (heavy-handedly) underscore that rock & roll’s dionysian excess corrupts absolutely, and that Cole must renounce his excesses and return to his hometown and his girl in order to obtain redemption.

BROTHERS OF THE HEAD (2006)

Directors: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe

Starring: Harry Treadaway, Luke Treadaway

IFC Films

The film’s tagline — “For some people… rock & roll was always a freak show” — really does say it all.  Brothers of the Head provides an utterly artless metaphor for the rock star as exploited freak: its protagonists, the rhythm guitarist and the lead singer of a mid ’70s proto-punk band, are Siamese twins. Their widowed father essentially sells the troubled Howe brothers (played by real-life twins Harry and Luke Treadaway) to an unscrupulous impresario; a thuggish manager literally beats them into becoming rock musicians.

Conjoined twins are also an excellent metaphor for being in a band — seemingly joined at the hip at all times, the musicians virtually never get a break from each other’s company and must work out a symbiotic balance of egos if they want to continue to make music together.  The two states — mutual enslavement and marginalization — are the basis of the film, and one can’t help but draw comparisons to famously feuding rock brothers like the Gallagher brothers in Oasis or the Davies brothers in the Kinks.  The film implicates the viewer in this freakshow concept too, with a recurring shot of the two brothers bathing naked, then looking resentfully at the camera.

Naturally, a woman pulls the brothers apart — emotionally, anyway.  And, as ever, the debauched and self-destructive rock stars meet a tragic end.

CAMP ROCK (2008)

Director: Matthew Diamond

Starring: Demi Lovato, Joe Jonas

The Disney Channel

By 2008, the rock star had been tamed and co-opted enough to figure in an inane Disney teen trifle.  In Camp Rock, real-life teen idol Joe Jonas plays Shane Gray, who threatens no social convention other than good manners.  Fame has made him petulant; he has become, in the words of one of his bandmates, “a bad boy to the press, and the label has a problem with that, which means we have a problem with that.” (The film presents this as a mark of savvy rather than a craven capitulation.)

And so Jonas gets sent to a rock summer camp — a kind of G-rated version of a rehab center — so he can find his humility again.  Best of all, notes a bandmate, it will be “good p.r.”

This scene displays his arrogance: Gray brags that “even the kitchen help” knows who he is.  “You’re kind of being a jerk,” declares co-star Demi Lovato.  But, as the Jonas character helpfully explains later in the film, “Being a jerk is part of the rock star image.”  And yet he ends this scene with his tail between his legs.

Forty-five years before, Conrad Birdie violated all kinds of societal norms; in Camp Rock, the rock star’s signature sin is impetuously dipping his finger in the icing of a cupcake, and he can be chastened by a purehearted teenaged girl in the space of a minute and a half.

Michael Azerrad is the author of Come As You Are: the Story of Nirvana (Doubleday, 2993) and Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Little, Brown, 2001).  A former contributing editor for Rolling Stone, he has also written major pieces for the New YorkerSpin, and the New York Times, among many other publications, as well as writing for MTV News.  The founding editor-in-chief of eMusic, he is also the co-producer of the award-winning 2006 documentary Kurt Cobain About a Son.

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