When in the mid-1950s rock’n’roll as both commercial force and incarnation of teenage style invaded the charts and cinema screens, the new category was a bit too much for most common and well-aged (British and American) entertainment shows and representations on screen.
In the early days, neither TV nor the film industry would grasp the uniqueness of the music; or as
author Scanlan puts it “the entertainment establishment didn’t really understand rock’n’roll. They still thought that the hit parade, and the popularity of its various singing stars, was about the song. … The performers? They were just interchangeable. The problem was that rock’n’roll really upended that idea. … [T]his music, perhaps to a much greater extent than the music of previous generations, was bound up in the personality, appearance and public image of the performer themselves.”

Beginning with American TV shows (and clueless hosts), Scanlan, a cultural historian and music expert, builds up the story of rock’n’roll as a coinciding narration of music and film. Considered that originally such movies were made to promote the musician’s sales, something much bigger should develop from that idea. A happy coincidence that has been subject of a number of books already.
He starts out with the phenomenon of the Elvis movie and British and American films of the 1950s that feature rock’n’roll as main protagonist and musicians playing themselves in an altogether silly frame story. There, shrieking female audiences and fake getaways of the stars were a common theme, employing extras and using carefully choreographed scenes. That, in 1964, when the Maysles brothers shot their
What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA!, even if there in a mere documentary, was forever changed. The chaos, noise and huge crowds of fans were existent now, scenes in A Hard Day’s Night, shot one year later, were too.

From there Scanlan moves on to direct cinema and its huge influence on the music documentary and rock’n’roll as main feature and driving force in the contemporary arts world.
The mid-1960s rock movies or semi-documentaries hit new grounds entirely. Another development “… that set the work of these directors apart from previous rock movies was that they produced films that had no place for actors.” The new style neither had the focus on lighting, dialogue or interviews or narration; the camera just kept shooting.  The fact that the main ‘directors’ of American direct cinema, after working for Drew Associates briefly before and producing TV film, was not accidental. “Rock was not only what was topical and helping to accelerate social and cultural change; it was itself …. a kind of live-action ’happening’ to match anything that was exciting the art world at the time under that description.”
Furthermore, and more or less simultaneously in the intellectual centers of the US and in London, previously separate art forms such as film, music, photography, performing arts, and poetry with the help of film in the mid 1960s would suddenly amalgamate to a fresh creation, a new artistic expression. As rock music and new film aesthetics met very successfully and easily. This explains the projects of Godard, Antonioni and Scorsese that would become Sympathy for the Devil, Blow-Up, and Who’s there Knocking at My Door and Woodstock, respectively.

The first four of the altogether eight chapters deal with the humble beginnings of the rock’n’roll movie and focus on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the various manifestations of Bob Dylan. Typically, with the new sort of direct cinema/rock film, there would be no introduction to the subject or location, but just the shot material and audiences had to make sense of it by themselves.
From there
Scanlan with expertise and routine traces the major characteristics in the development of the rock’n’roll movie, from documentary to biopics, to concert coverage, epic projects like Woodstock, to various rock star fictions and the trend to remember a recent musical past in the films of the 1970s and 1980s. Nostalgia and films go together perfectly well (as prove Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, Hairspray, an American Graffiti, among others).
The last
chapters deal with punk in film, several spoof rock documentaries, the image (and the parody) of the music journalist in film, the rock detective movie, portraits of places where rock history took place, and the influence of MTV and YouTube on spreading and consuming musical content. “What such films confirm, is that rock music as a cultural form endures not just through its artistic reinventions, and the often mythical lives of its stars and the times and places that made them – and bring them to our screens – but in virtue of the ways the music, as culture, finds a place for itself in what was always the supplementary medium of the screen…”

Rock’n’Roll Plays Itself is a huge collection of information on the many connections and feedback loops that music, musicians and movie culture established and refined over the decades, thereby appreciating the massive input (originally) rock’n’roll provided. The various products shift from documentary, to rockumentary, rock concert film to feature films that present rock musicians or their music, as for example music as an extra character in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or meaningful Simon and Garfunkel lyrics in The Graduate. And it is owed to the relaxed, clear, straightforward newspaper collage style (supported by lots of movie stills), that we can enjoy Scanlan’s book with no effort and possibly read it in one or two sessions before we start watching old rock’n’roll films again.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2022

John Scanlan. Rock’n’Roll Plays Itself: A Screen History. Reaktion Books, 2022, 256 p.