What happened to the band film?

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Once upon a time, the movies were one of the media in which people could find their favorite music groups. The BeatlesA hard day’s night, The Monksthe 1968 film Head, KISS‘ made-for-TV cult classic KISS meets Park Ghost, and more. Band films allowed fans to see another side of their heroes, ones that played into their personalities, often humorously, or into the band’s mythos. Then the band’s film genre declined, with 2006 Tenacious D in the choice of the poem and the 2022 Foo Fighters film Studio 666 only two in recent memory that immediately come to mind. What happen?

To appreciate the impact of the band film on society, you only need to look at the first “real” rock and roll film, 1956’s. Rock around the clock. The film, like most band-based ones, had the thinnest of plot lines. Two men end up in a small, backwoods town called Strawberry Springs. Here they encounter a ‘new kind of music with a different beat’, played by part-time musicians who farm during the week: Bill Haley and his Comedieswho recorded the song (which hit the top of the charts due to his appearance in the film Blackboard jungle in 1955). One of the men, Steve (John Johnson), agrees to manage the band, eventually giving them a place in a famous DJ Alan is freein his club. That performance begins the group’s meteoric rise to fame, culminating in a big show in Hollywood. The film was a huge success but did not end the controversy upon its release. The New York Times in 1956 the headline ‘Rock & Roll was called “Communication Disease.” In the South, the film had the potential to unite teenage audiences at a time when races rarely, if ever, mixed socially. In London, theater managers had to stop the film to tell the teenagers in the audience to sit down. Other English and American towns and cities did not bother, banning the film entirely.


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The Beatles in 'A Hard Day's Night'
Photo via United Artists

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band that used the medium of the film to full advantage was the band that held the records of the 1960s: The Beatles. The five films released while the band were together were different, but each perfectly represented where the band was artistically at the time. First, A hard day’s night, about the band’s fictional “day in the life” at the height of Beatlemania. The film played to the band’s strengths, humor and talent, while also having fun and expanding on the idea. Paul McCartney as “the beautiful one”, Ringo Starr like “the funny one”, and so on. Their 1965 movie Help! it was still funny, but much more courageous, with music and film influencing their marijuana use. The Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Sea Boat they leaned more towards an artistic look, both much more experimental and psychedelic, a perfect parallel to what they were releasing at the time. Let it be they captured the band at the end, a documentary that was supposed to show them working together on an album returning them to their roots, but instead captured the broken relationships that ultimately saw the Beatles.

The band film, as the Beatles would prove, was effective when used well. The band’s film also had the power, however, to bring a band down. While the movie 1968 Head has been seen much more positively over the years, at the time it was disastrous. The Monks A TV show sold the band (who weren’t even famous as a band, at first) as Beatle-esque A hard day’s night– a group of fun-loving guys caught up in weekly hi-jinks. This was not the group that showed up Head. The movie was nothing like the TV show. The group was in a meta-life series of multifaceted vignettes, always coming to understand that everything in their lives is written. Including their suicide attempt at the end. Sorry, that’s not the end – they’re at the end in a deep aquarium. Their fans had nothing to connect with the group they knew, assuming the fans were even old enough to see the movie. The film’s soundtrack only reached #45 on the charts, the first of their albums not to hit the Top 5, and the single Porcelain song didn’t crack the Top 40. The Monkees disbanded soon after, killed by the film they helped create.

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Animated marching hammers from the 1982 film 'Pink Floyd - The Wall'
Photo via United International Pictures

In the 1970s and early 1980s the band’s film concept was expanded. KISS meets the Park Ghost it was great marketing for the band, turning the members into superheroes as a crossover promotion with their Marvel comic book. Alan Parkerand mind trip 1982 Pink Floyd – The Wallbased on 1979 record from Pink Floyd (and screenplay written by Floyd himself Roger Waters), an artistic extension of the band’s work, a visual representation of the existentialist classic. Two of the most famous concert films were released during this time: Martin Scorseseand The Last Waltzthe captured film The Bandfarewell concert in 1976; and Jonathan Demmein 1984 Talking heads‘ concert film Stop making sense. Then the band movie that skewered the band movie, 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.

When MTV launched on August 1, 1981, it effectively began the slow decline of the band’s filmography. Fans didn’t have to go to the cinema to see their favorite bands, they just had to turn on their television. The artist became a musician and actor, and the music video soon became a more polished, refined medium, with works such as John Landis‘a hailstone Michael Jackson Thriller video blurring the lines between film and MTV. The new reality meant that music was more of a business than an artistic vision, with artists carefully preparing for mainstream success, a la New Kids on the Block. It quickly became taboo to do anything that could affect an artist’s bottom line, so the band’s film became just as physical as the music. As time went on, the music itself was becoming too fragmented to appeal to a wider audience. There was no Beatles that everyone liked. Now there was rap, hip-hop, emo rap, pop, rock, heavy metal, thrash metal, adult contemporary, and more. All of this has led to where we find ourselves today, where music taste is dominated by algorithms, and artists push for live-streaming concerts (Taylor Swifthaving her Eras Tour streamed by fans via TikTok is a good example).

The truth is, Studio 666 it seems to be the last of its kind, a band movie featuring a band, the Foo Fighters, who have nothing to do with having fun themselves. It was once a genre so controversial that parents were warned about what could happen to their teenagers if they watched. A genre that captures artists at their most creative, and sometimes their worst. It is now an outlier, a relic from another time. But there is always hope for an encore.

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