(In an essay exclusive to JPMS Online, Will Clemens lays out a select, annotated filmography of “movies that rock,” in other words, movies that include some engagement/discussion with “rock music.” As Clemens himself makes clear, this is not meant to be either all-encompassing nor definitive but rather, an opening set of remarks. –The Editors)
250 Movies That Rock, 1982–2014: An Annotated Filmography
Will Clemens, Clark State Community College
In their book Risky Business: Rock in Film, R. Serge Denisoff and William D. Romanowski credit David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed’s Rock on Film as a “particularly helpful” book on the subject of rock music and film (749). Interspersed with black-and-white reprints of rock movie photography and posters, the 296-page Rock on Film is comprised of a table of contents and foreword by Ehrenstein and Reed, an introduction by Michael Sragow, and ten chapters, an appendix, annotated filmography, and index by Ehrenstein and Reed. The filmography is of particular interest here because “250 Movies That Rock, 1982–2014” picks up where Ehrenstein and Reed left off, 1982, as the Rock on Film manuscript went into print.
Ehrenstein and Reed’s filmography is one of a kind, spanning 169 pages, covering 483 films, listed alphabetically by film title (from ABBA: The Movie to Zachariah). The medium of the book, versus print encyclopedia or journal, allowed for the inclusion of practically all motion pictures that have something important to say about the subject of rock music and film—1955–81. The oldest movie represented in Rock on Film is Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle, released March 19, 1955. Ehrenstein and Reed’s annotation provides a snapshot of the film’s plot, music, and significance:
[Glenn] Ford portrays school teacher “Dadier” who’s unprepared for the caged animals he meets up with at his new assignment at a blighted New York City school. The high school toughs taunt him (they call him “Daddy-O”), and rape and pillage left and right in this grim portrait of the failure of the American educational system. If it weren’t for this film, you might not be reading this book right now. The bold (for 1955) and successful use of Bill Haley’s recording of “Rock Around the Clock” on the soundtrack made Blackboard Jungle the official first-ever rock and roll movie. (119)
In his The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia, John Kenneth Muir acknowledges that Blackboard Jungle has “long carried the distinction of being the world’s first so-called rock ’n’ roll movie” (37). “However,” Muir adds, “this description is somewhat of a misnomer since there is no rock band, no rock music, and no mention at all, in fact, of that ‘devil’s music’ sweeping the land in the body proper of the movie.” “Rock Around the Clock” plays, as if a theme song, over the opening credits (with a chalkboard in the background) on into the opening scene as Richard Dadier arrives at North Manual School to interview for a position as an English teacher. The purpose of such nondiegetic music (i.e., inaudible to the characters in the film but audible to the movie viewing audience) is to increase the psychological drama for the audience. (Jazz songs from Bix Beiderbecke and Stan Kenton play diegetically in the film, i.e., audibly to the characters and audience.) “Rock Around the Clock” plays nondiegetically again over the closing scene, as Dadier finishes a day of work at the school. Accordingly, a precedent is set for Ehrenstein and Reed’s filmography to include not just Blackboard Jungle but any other feature that isn’t directly about rock yet that uses rock music in landmark ways on its soundtrack.