Lights! Camera! Action-rock! Over the past 70 years, cinema has also strived to document, reflect, inspire and embolden youth culture, as NME if it charged you seven pounds for a bucket of diluted Pepsi. In honor of our big-screen sibling with armrests, here are the most important pop culture movies on our watch.
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
One year later Rock around the clock presented a fictionalized story of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll on the big screen, Elvis’ first full-length rock movie shocked the world – a perp anti-hero! A sweet curse! Hypnotic hips! — and kicked off the age of the rebellious teenager for good.
“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)
Rare is the moment when a seismic cultural phenomenon is captured by cinema in real time. A hard day’s Nightdespite obvious staging, was Beatlemania expanded to the size of a bus, and the ultimate statement, impossible to ignore, that rock ‘n’ roll was taking over.
When the Woodstock Festival was in 1969, you just had to be there, man. But when the film of the event broadcast to the world all the mayhem of free love, naked mud hippies and brown acid rock mayhem, the legend of the 60s counterculture as free for all hedonist of peace, permissiveness and musical communion was set in stone.
If 1966 Explode was the Palm D’Or totem of the 60s mod scene, Quadrophenia – based on the 1963 rock opera The Who – was its most visceral portrayal. With Phil Daniels joining Sting’s army of mods en route to Brighton to battle it out on the streets, Quadrophenia not only captured the spirit of the 1964 mod subculture, but also late 70s punk.
“It’s Spinal Tap” (1984)
Sometimes satire succeeds where savagery fails. Punk, for all its blows to the established rock order, ultimately did little for the dinosaurs’ fortunes, but outright mockery of their egos, ambitions, and mindsets (“Qu ‘is it wrong to be sexy?’) served in It’s Spinal Tap put paid to anyone who wants to imitate Led Zeppelin for a decade. In its wake, hair rockers were forced to play their inherent camp, serious rock to ditch cosplay fantasy and sexism and the field was wide open for grunge to sneak in and steal the day.
“The Lost Boys” (1987)
A nice slice of protodusk vampire hokum sure, but thanks to a soundtrack rich in twilight 80s pop (Echo & The Bunnymen, INXS, Gerard McMann’s haunting “Cry Little Sister”) the lost boys also helped popularize the goth-chic biker aesthetic in mainstream America and turned many Tiffany fans to the dark side.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
A contest of twists at Jack Rabbit Slim’s and American culture were ready to wipe the contemporary slate clean and fall back in love with its various golden ages of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and funk. In addition to crystallizing a cult of trendy and retro chic cultural aesthetes, pulp Fiction rejuvenated surf and garage rock and is ultimately the reason Lana Del Rey broke out.
With a soundtrack featuring Pulp, Underworld, Blur, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Primal Scream, many of whom could easily have inspired the film’s characters and plot, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel was about as much of the dark undercurrent and dark descent of Britpop’s hedonistic explosion as it did for the realities of hard drugs and hard knocks in Edinburgh’s smack squats. The quintessential film of the 90s.
‘Human Trafficking’ (1999)
Rave culture is inherently difficult to capture convincingly in film, not least because it largely involves drunken guys babbling into the ears of bored women in loud clubs. But Justin Kerrigan’s human trafficking did better by dissecting the mindset and motivations of the “chemical generation” over the course of a wild weekend. Key to the film was that it refused to judge, condemn, or terminate its drug-addicted protagonists, making it by far the most realistic and relevant depiction of the ecstasy boom.
“Almost Famous” (2000)
Sixteen years later It’s Spinal Tapthe less cheesy side of the 70s rock experience was ready for rehabilitation. almost known acted as a sepia-tinted window into a golden age of embroidered denim and multi-platinum excess, and helped spawn a broad-minded millennial respect for all angles of rock history. Cue throw.
“The 24 Hour Party People” (2002)
Amid the excitement of the alternative rock explosion of the early 2000s, it felt fitting to return to the equivalent of late 80s Manchester as Michael Winterbottom’s acclaimed biopic about the Factory boss Records’ Tony Wilson delivered an astute insight into the evolution of indie dance from Joy Division and New Order to Mondays. Few scenes deserve — or were focused enough to deserve — such a cohesive movie, and Winterbottom twisted every ounce of drama and comedy out of the Madchester melon.
At Julien Temple Glastonbury documentary is much more considered than the British version of Woodstock than many might have hoped for – an approach tried with some success in 1996 Glastonbury: the movie, which followed the 1993 festival day by day. But by tracing the full history of the world’s biggest festival, it reveals that Glastonbury is not, like Woodstock, just about politics and a puzzling weekend experience; it’s a decades-old community and pan-generational mindset. An ideological family of 200,000 strong, coming together every year to get caught in psychedelic cider and fall into a long drop.
Not just the heartbreaking story of a major talent lost in rock ‘n’ roll mythology, Amy also marked the point, in the mid-2010s, of a generational shift in young people‘s attitude away from live-fast-die-young, towards #BeMoreKind.
“Get Out” (2017)
As the BLM movement gathers pace in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Jordan Peele’s hard-hitting horror and social satire get out galvanized the conversation around the rise of white supremacy and the exploitation and social subjugation of African Americans. Nail biter, to boot.
‘Summer of the Soul’ (2021)
Blade Woodstock — aka the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, featuring Stevie Wonder, BB King, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone and Sly & The Family Stone among others — finally got its due in last year’s Sundance sensation: “The best music documentary I’ve ever seen,” according to Mark Kermode, and he’s seen a few.