Tennis Pro's film debut, Big in Japan, puts them in rarefied air, cinemawise. The tradition of rock stars playing thinly veiled versions of themselves in narrative films—non-documentary, non-biopic, non-concert—is as noble as rock 'n' roll itself, which is to say: not noble at all. But also like rock 'n' roll, it has generated some excellent art, some colossal garbage, and some excellent garbage. Herewith: a partial list of the form's highs, lows, and huh?s—and because film makes no qualitative distinction between rock, rap, C&W, and R&B, neither will I.
YEAH, YEAH, YEAH:
A Hard Day's Night/Help! (The Beatles): These films—one a total masterpiece and one an interesting failure—remain the twin gold standard for transforming a 100 percent beautiful, 75 percent funny rock band into the most durable four-headed persona of the 20th century.
Head (The Monkees): The only truly great psychedelic film, Head invents a strand of pop-cultural self-awareness (channeled through Ionesco and McLuhan) that inverts and perverts the Beatles persona just as much as the TV show it deconstructs aped it.
8 Mile (Eminem): In which the first Elvis of the 21st century left an indelible mark, reclaiming the old rock 'n' roll identity of hopeless white trash whose only hope is music.
Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Sleepy Sleepers): Lest we forget that America means many things to many people.
Flame (Slade): Surprisingly gritty kitchen sinker starring the band that married pub-rock toughness and glam-rock absurdity.
OH, HELL NO:
Glitter (Mariah Carey): And it was all going so well, Mariah...
Hearts of Fire (Bob Dylan): '80s Dylan is a tough sell for even the most devout among us, BUT watching him get passed over for younger rocker Rupert Everett (!!!) beggars belief.
Light of Day (Joan Jett): There's very little dignity available to even the staunchest rock musician, but not even the mighty Joan Jett can withstand being stuck in a bar band led by Michael J. Fox (!!!).
Tougher Than Leather (Run-DMC): I'll let Spike Lee (to whom the film was reportedly offered) handle this one—"Run, D, and Jam Master Jay spend the entire film running around and shooting people... The real failure of the project, in my eyes, is that the Black producers chose record producer Rick Rubin, a white man with no film experience, to cowrite and direct... Not just anyone can make a good film. Film is not to be played with."
Give My Regards to Broad Street (Paul McCartney): The 25 percent of the Beatles who wasn't natural on camera wrote and starred in this bizarre, narcissistic fantasia of MTV wish-thinking to enable big production numbers of his old hits—"Silly Love Songs" inclusive—and a couple of new (in 1984) ones that even his most ardent fans (myself included) never asked for.
200 Motels (Frank Zappa, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Flo & Eddie): The filmmakers allegedly consumed no drugs during the creation of this ingenious freak show. Please don't make the same mistake when you watch it.
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (KISS, alas): I hate KISS, but seeing Star Child, The Demon, Space Ace, and Cat Man run around Magic Mountain like idiots makes for sweet schadenfreude. Sample dialogue: "Good question, Cat Man. What do you compute, Space Ace?" "Insufficient data at the moment, Star Child."
Idlewild (Outkast): Better (and weirder) than expected. I expect the cult of this film to grow.
One-Trick Pony (Paul Simon, Lou Reed): Though ostensibly an ironic drama about the life of a road warrior, if you turn the sound down, this is a film about a very small man in a world of regular-sized people. See also: the inspired casting of Reed as a crass commercial record producer.
Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan): The best four-and-a-half-hour argument against total artistic freedom ever put on film. The concert sequences rule, though.
The Electric Horseman (Willie Nelson), Honeysuckle Rose (Willie Nelson), Songwriter (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson), A Star Is Born (Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson), Roadie (Meat Loaf), Hold On! (Herman's Hermits), Catch Us if You Can aka Having a Wild Weekend (The Dave Clark Five), Spice World (Spice Girls).