8 September 2014
Tell a friend: Abuse
DA Pennebaker's 1967 documentary is significant because it may be the first serious attempt to show what was actually happening in rock'n'roll as it struggled to find maturity. The film follows Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England – just a year before the famous one, in which he affronted his traditional folk audience by plugging in his guitar – which proved to be a watershed period in his life, resulting in his being heckled at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester with the sanctimonious one-liner "Judas!".
By then, though, Dylan didn't much care, and, if nothing else, the film proves it. Pennebaker has said since that the title came from African-American baseball player Satchel Paige, who once said, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." This would appear to be Dylan's philosophy of the time: out was the fresh-faced folkie look, replaced by leather and shades and a spidery, speed-freakdemeanour. Gone too were the camaraderies of the old folk scene; what shocked audiences when the film was first released was Dylan's bite-the-hand-that-feeds attitude, not simply to his audiences but also the press, whom he treated with arrogance and contempt.
Seen now, the film is a perfect time capsule, practically the big bang of modern rock. Through Pennebaker's film we see for the first time the machinations of an artist who knows he has to destroy his past to create a future – something the Beatles did in a more passive-aggressive way by refusing to tour – but we also see the start of the bemused media's attempt to co-opt and contain a youth movement that is growing and evolving by the minute. The proto-music video clip that shows Dylan dismissively holding up the lyrics to Subterranean Homesick Blues behind the Savoy hotel has become its MTV legacy, but in reality Don't Look Back is about much more than that – it is about the making of a modern rock star, a role Dylan obligingly played to perfection.
The spoiling of a raw but provincial and naive talent – fleeced by cheating managers and ruined by the toxic side-effects of fame – has been the backbone of the rock'n'roll movie ever since, but Jailhouse Rock, onlyElvis Presley's third movie as an actor, after the soporific Love Me Tender and Loving You, still gives a jolt. Starring Presley as Vince Everett, a short-fused construction worker jailed for manslaughter after defending himself in a bar brawl, the film is a particular favourite of Quentin Tarantino, who penned the ultimate tribute to it in his script for True Romance. "In Jailhouse Rock," says Clarence Worley, "[Elvis] was everything rockabilly's about. I mean, he is rockabilly. Mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie he couldn't give a fuck about nothing except rockin' and rollin', living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse."
That the film was made by 61-year-old Richard Thorpe, a mostly unremarkable director for hire since the silent era, is especially fascinating, since the film not only nails the dangerous allure of rock'n'roll – Vince frequently loses his temper in self-destructive situations – it completely captures the generation gap that it caused. On the one hand there is Hank Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), Vince's prison mentor who sings clapped-out country and western, and on the other there is the sophisticated social circle of the film's love interest, Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler). One incredible scene finds Peggy taking Vince to a middle-class party, where the talk is of jazz and a lady who lunches describes atonality as a passing phase. "What do you think, Mr Everett?" Presley's dead-eyed retort is the film in a nutshell: "Lady, I don't know what the hell you talkin' about.
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