Jim DeRogatis picks the worst rock movies ever
You think The Last Waltz is great? The Chicago music critic begs to differ
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As co-hosts of the self-described “world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show,” Sound Opinions—heard locally every Sunday on Radio Milwaukee—Chicago music writers Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot have done for music criticism what Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert once did for film criticism, which is take it out of the hands of geeky obsessives and straight into the ears of regular music fans. The parallels with Siskel and Ebert don’t end there—Kot writes for Siskel’s Chicago Tribune and once worked with him as a copy editor, and DeRogatis says Ebert was his reason for taking a job with the Chicago Sun-Times. When DeRogatis and Kot visit Pabst Theater on Feb. 19, they will once again pay homage to their heroes by presenting their choices for the best rock movies of all time. But since DeRogatis has never shied away from talking trash, The A.V. Club decided instead to ask him about the worst rock movies of all time, and he gladly proceeded to trash away.
The Last Waltz
Jim DeRogatis: Granted, my opinion on The Last Waltz might be tainted in part by when I was an impressionable kid of 17 and I had the truly life-altering experience of getting the chance to spend the day with Lester Bangs, my critical hero. I remember him ranting and raving about how he hated that movie, which he had just seen again; this was the spring of 1982. I had never seen it at that point, so when I caught up with it later, it was the movie that Lester hated. But I instantly saw why. Scorsese—and a lot of rock photographers have this problem—sees it as his job to put the rock star on the mountaintop. These are no mere mortals; these are geniuses. And the entire film is shot that way. Except for the documentary parts backstage, which show everybody basically being an asshole—except Levon Helm, who is cool—there’s this blind worship of these people. I’m from the punk era. I believe what’s great about rock ’n’ roll is community and the tearing down of boundaries. And the basic thrust of The Last Waltz is that these are superheroes so much better than you. Plus, it’s boring. It’s fun looking for the scenes where you can see the cocaine on Neil Young’s nose, but these guys are insufferable, and Robbie Robertson is the king of that. It’s just a bad, boring, too-long movie. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: I like The Last Waltz, but Robbie Robertson really does overshadow everybody else in The Band, particularly Richard Manuel, who was soul of the group in a lot of ways.
JD: In the very name they choose for the group, The Band, there was supposed to be a democratic, “none of us are better than the others” kind of vibe, and it’s not that at all in the movie. Scorsese is hanging out and living with Robertson, doing all sorts of wonderfully decadent ’70s kinds of things, and Marty is paying loving homage to his hero. Which is interesting, because Scorsese in his great films goes beneath the surface and gives us the gritty soul of his characters. But when he makes rock movies, he’s Joe Fanboy. He’s fucking Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live interviewing Paul McCartney.
Rattle & Hum
JD: The bombast, and the pretension, and the absolute silliness of both the performances and the scenes with the band—like Larry Mullen crying at Elvis’ grave—I mean, come on! [Laughs.] It’s just so goddamn silly and bloated and pretentious and over-the-top. These were a couple of putzes from Dublin who heard the Sex Pistols and thought, “We can do that.” But Rattle & Hum plays 100 percent into the flag-waving, cannon-shooting, Martin Luther King-hailing, very worst aspects of U2. You know, this show is going to change the world; at the end of the day, this show had 100,000 people who paid $60 each, and I don’t see how that’s feeding Africa.
AVC: What if U2 really were asshole, full-of-themselves rock stars at the time? Should that be held against Ratlle & Hum? Isn’t the movie just an honest depiction of the band?
JD: Oh yeah, that’s true. I’m not saying it’s dishonest. It absolutely shows what they are. They are big, superstar rock stars full of pretension. But for the same reason I have no desire to sit through Saw VII—because torture porn makes my stomach hurt—so does Rattle & Hum. [Laughs.] U2 are assholes, the movie shows them as assholes, but that doesn’t make it any fun to watch.
JD: I hate Woodstock. There is the birth of one of the most destructive myths shoved down the throats of Generations X and Y ever, that this thing that happened in 1969 is the best thing that ever happened in pop music and nothing you’ll ever experience in your lives, pathetic young ones, is ever going to be as good. And yet you watch that movie and it’s a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies rolling in the mud, listening to fucking Richie Havens strumming an acoustic guitar. A lot of the best stuff that happened at Woodstock ain’t in the movie. I’d love to see The Incredible String Band; I love freaky, acid-fried pagans doing their thing. But they’re not in the movie. Instead we get Richie Havens. And the Hendrix performance is mediocre, The Who is not The Who at their best, and there’s a lot of boring stuff. There’s all this trippy stuff, like, “Let’s split the screen into 64 little squares.” But everything happening in those squares is pretty boring and stupid.
AVC: Would Woodstock be twice as good if it were half as long?
JD: Maybe. I don’t know. Nothing happened at Woodstock. You gotta remember, 85 percent of people that went to Woodstock never got anywhere near Woodstock. I’d rather see a documentary about all the people who got stuck on the New York freeway and couldn’t get to Max’s farm. [Laughs.] This notion that a bunch of hippies rolling in the mud while some mediocre music plays is the beginning of the age of Aquarius, who the fuck are you kidding?
Heavy Metal Parking Lot
JD: I think there’s a condescension to the heavy-metal audience. It’s like, “We are going to show these people as boneheads.” And not all metal fans are boneheads. There’s a kind of meanness; I’m smarter than the people I’m capturing with my camera. And I don’t like that. I think it’s alienating. I’ve gone a number of times to Metal Fest at Eagles Ballroom, where it’s 500 death-metal bands over the course of a weekend. And if I was ever going to have a flat in front of a concert, I’d want to do it there. Metal fans might have silly haircuts and might like some bad music, but they’re also salt of the earth, blue-collar people. There’s a real community there. And I think Heavy Metal Parking Lot instead says, “Look at these dummies.” And I really dislike that. If you go to any crowd, there’s going to be assholes. You gather 1,000 people and there’s always going to be 100 jerks.
The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba
JD: You listen to Buddy Holly’s music and Ritchie Valens’ music, there’s a raw aggression, and pure, unbridled horniness, as there is in much of the great rock ’n’ roll. But the sanitized, white-bread version in these biopics has none of the danger. Ritchie Valens was a pretty swarthy, scary, Mexican mechanic-looking dude. Part of the genius of Valens and Buddy Holly is that, in the great punk tradition of John Lydon or Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu or Joey Ramone, these were ugly guys! Buddy is the classic über-geek. Nobody in indie rock that Pitchfork loves circa 2010 is half as geeky as Buddy Holly, and nobody was nearly as swarthy, more punk-rock, or grungier than Ritchie Valens. But on the screen they’re these lovable sweethearts. They’re not doing drugs, they’re not fucking around, they’re not getting drunk, they’re not cursing at people, they’re not tearing it up.
JD: Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens are great, but The Doors were cheesebos to begin with. Oliver Stone’s Doors movie is just so laughably bad.
AVC: If you hate The Doors to begin with, is there any chance you would’ve loved a movie about The Doors, even if it were good?
JD: I’ve seen movies about bands or genres that I don’t like that actually have a kernel of truth or warmth to them. Like that movie Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg. It’s supposed to be about Judas Priest and the cover-band singer that gets asked to replace Rob Halford. And it’s pretty cheesy and the music sucks and it’s full of clichés, and yet there’s a certain thing they tap into really well: The guy who’s working at Jiffy Lube one day and the next morning he gets to live out his rock dream. And I think that’s universal and really neat. It doesn’t have to be a band I love to have something worthy in it. I think if it captures that rock ’n’ roll spirit, and tells us something about why people love this music and why people devote their lives to it, then it’s a good movie
AVC: But doesn’t a band as ridiculous and silly as The Doors deserve a movie as silly and ridiculous as The Doors?
JD: That’s the Kyle MacLachlan argument, like people do for Showgirls. But I love rock ’n’ roll, and anything that tries to mystify and create this separation between audience and artist, it’s just silly. The great Doors movie would have tore back the curtain and have Morrison admit that he was a buffoon, but he was making lots of money doing it so he’s going to create this character.
AVC: I don’t think he ever would’ve admitted that.
JD: It’s possible that he was exactly what he was playing, which is just sad. But certainly [Ray] Manzarek knew it and was just taking advantage of it. I mean, the scenes with the Shaman, what are you doing?