John Kenneth Muir is the author of The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia, which is a fantastic book for any movie fan. I recently interviewed John to discuss his new book, music, movies, and a lot more. I hope you enjoy my interview with John. He was a pleasure to chat with and full of wonderful knowledge.
The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia
TONY: How did your love of Rock N' Roll movies start in the first place?
JOHN: That's a great question. I guess it started with my love of horror films. And there are some horror films covered in the book. When I started learning about horror films as a young man, I realized how really unpopular with critics they were and how anti-establishment they were. They had all this subtext and anarchy in them. And then I realized, because there's so much Rock N' Roll in horror movies, that Rock N' Roll movies are the same thing. They're not appreciated by critics, they often go against the grain of establishment, and they're ferociously anti-establishment at points. For god's sake, one of my favorite movies, Rock N' Roll High School, has kids blowing up a high school. Could you imagine that getting by today? I've always been somebody who's just loved that anti-authority. I'm more of a movie guy than a music guy, and as nutty as this sounds, I learned to love Rock N' Roll from hearing it in movies. How strange is that?
TONY: What kind of research did you do to prepare for this book?
JOHN: One of the things that I'm really fortunate about, which wasn't true as late as 7 or 8 years ago, is that we live in the age of DVD. Something new is being released on DVD every day. Even more basic than that, 4 or 5 years ago there was no Netflix. I'm ashamed to admit it, because it used to be when I did a book like this, I would have to go to tape collectors and hunt video stores and order expensive videos to try and find everything. Now, so many of these titles are available on DVD. I mean, I don't even have to get on my feet and walk out the door to go rent them. I just put them in the que and they show up. Of course, I'm partially joking, because that's part of it. The other part of it is that some films haven't been released. I looked for those. I also did some primary research, as far as talking to some of the directors of various films that I liked a lot, like Eddie and the Cruisers and Purple Rain from the 80's, so that was part of my research. I love to go back to libraries and go back to newspaper reviews of these films from 20 years ago and just get lost in reading what other critics thought of them. And that's a part of it. I like to joke and say, "You can see a good portion of these films just by putting them in your Netflix que." Which I think is great, because then more people will see them. That said, you do have to go back and try to talk to people and go to the libraries and get out the old microfilm machine.
TONY: How come movies and Rock N' Roll are so closely connected with each other?
JOHN: I think because Hollywood always sees the primary audience for movies being teenagers. And the first sort of teenage generation of what we consider teenagers was the Rock N' Roll generation. It was that generation that grew up in the late 50's with Elvis before The Beatles and all that stuff in the 60's. I mean, we're talking about the era of Don't Knock The Rock and Blackboard Jungle, when Rock N' Roll was taking off. And that was the first time in this country that economically there was a class of consumers called teenagers who were wanting to buy Rock N' Roll. And these same people who were wanting to buy Rock N' Roll albums were also wanting to go see the movies. I think it just became a very convenient but also fascinating blend of movies and music together. If you think about it, film is such a collaborative art form. You have the actors, the directors, the lighting technicians, the screenwriters, and everything else. But the important part of it is the music. You take out the soundtrack for a film, for instance like American Graffiti, and you're left with a film that feels very incomplete. Music is just critical to making movies seem complete and artistic and whole. It was not only a convenient blend to bring in those teenagers, but it was just a really good fit. I mean, Rock N' Roll cuts really great with images.
TONY: We've seen a number of musicals lately in Hollywood with films such as Hairspray and Dreamgirls. Do you think the musical is making a comeback?
JOHN: I don't know. It's very hard to say, because the musical as a form is very different than what we like in our films and TV right now. We're at a phase right now where we like realism. You see a lot of hand-held cameras on television, and everything seems really gritty and realistic. And the musical, which goes back generations, is based on this much more artificial and theatrical form, where people will suddenly break into song and it's not really explained. It's funny, because I remember reading somewhere that someone said, "Well, we'll accept Wookies, but the minute someone breaks into song, we say it's unrealistic." I think the musical has a big hill to climb, but I think there have been a number of great musicals. A perfect example of what you're saying is one of my all of time favorite musicals, which is Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. I mean, they were just tremendous in that film. And the rock soundtrack, which incorporated all of these different rock songs into melodies and stuff like that, was just absolutely amazing. I think the trick to doing a good rock musical today is to find some way to explain why they're breaking into song. In Chicago, which wasn't really rock oriented, but it was a modern musical and it was a character's head that she was singing the songs in her head. Then the audience could accept it as, "Oh, it's in her head that she's doing these songs." We'll accept that! But I think a lot of musicals have to find that new way today to get audiences in, because we're so used to gritty and naturalistic films and TV shows, like Battlestar Galactica and 24. We're sort of rocked back when we're faced with a theatrical and artificial musical. But I think there are a lot good musicals coming out. I think it's trying to make a comeback.
TONY: Why do actors want to be musicians and vice versa?
JOHN: You ain't kidding. That's right. Before this interview, we were talking a little bit about Elvis. He's the ultimate example of that. I think there's a lot of crossover between rock stars and actors in movies, because it's about performing. Both are really about performing. Rock stars have a whole persona beyond
their music in some sense. If you go back to what David Bowe was doing in the early 1970's with the whole Ziggy Stardust kind of thing, he's creating a persona separate from himself and separate from the music. And I think a lot of rock stars have done that. Whether all that stuff is true or not is another story. There were always rumors back in the 70's like, "Is David Bowe gay? Did he sleep with Mick Jagger?" It doesn't matter if he did or didn't, because people are talking about it. He's sort of living his life as a performance. There's a great Mick Jagger rock film called Performance. It was blending this idea in life of what is real and what isn't real. It's like, "Where does one personality end and the other begin?" I think rock stars are always performing. If they know a camera's on, they're performing, even if they aren't singing a song.
TONY: Why do you think Elvis is still remembered after all these years?
JOHN: Elvis Presley is truly the king of Rock N' Roll and really the king of Rock N' Roll films. I mean, I list Elvis films as their own genre in the book, because there's so many of them. He did so many different things and you can love him in all these different things. He's got concert films, which are great. I was just in shock to see this great black and white film-noir, King Creole, which is my absolute favorite Elvis film. And he just gives this great performance in that, where he's kind of edgy. Some of his later films took the edge off and had pleasant music and stuff like that. But early on, you got this charismatic and sexy rebel at the center of the film. He could just carry it. It's almost the same in some way as James Bond, where every girl wants to be with Elvis and every guy wants to be Elvis. He's attractive, he's talented, and he's charismatic. I think he's a really good actor. As flimsy as some films were, like It Happened at the World's Fair, watching him walk a little girl around the world's fair for twenty or thirty minutes in that movie is absolutely mesmerizing, because anything Elvis does is mesmerizing. And I think today we long for that kind of charm in our actors. He has that quality of innocence about him, I think, that a lot of people very much grove on today. We miss that sense of innocence in our rock stars. Then, of course, there's the nostalgia. Unfortunately, he passed away so many years ago, and there's that feeling that he could have left us with an even greater body of work. I think there's nostalgia and that longing for that innocent and charm. Plus, I think he was a really underrated actor. I read reviews that said he was a terrible actor. I totally disagree. I think he was a great actor.
TONY: Elvis turned down so many great films, because his manager wanted him to keep a certain image. Out of all the films Elvis turned down, which one do you think would have brought out the best in Elvis?
JOHN: When we were talking before this interview, you mentioned Midnight Cowboy, which Elvis had to turn down. And that would have been amazing! I mean, that was a water cooler moment in American culture, anyway. Now, imagine if Elvis Presley was in it. It would have been the biggest movie ever! It would have just been amazing. I look at the list of other films he's turned down. I'm trying to think of what they were.
TONY: I think he had to turn down A Streetcar Named Desire.
JOHN: That was it! A Streetcar Named Desire. And, of course, Brando is amazing in that, but Elvis would have been an interesting character to have in that. It's a shame that he was locked into these vanilla roles instead of getting to show his dramatic chops. What I was shocked about, when I did the book, because it had been a long time since I'd seen a whole bunch of Elvis films, was how some of the films really were more edgy than I remember. Again, I'm going to mention King Creole, which is one. There was sort of a forbidden love affair in Wild in The Country, which was about him and his therapist. My wife is a therapist, so she absolutely loved it! She thought that was great. There was that. There was Kid Galahad, which was touching. There are a lot of films in there, like Fun in Acapulco for example, where he does really do some dramatic stuff. It's just a matter of finding them.
TONY: Do you think we'll ever have another Elvis?
JOHN: That's a tough question. I don't think so. I think that the system that exists today precludes the creation of another Elvis in a sense. The music industry is much more corporate today. We have things like American Idol and stuff. If an Elvis got on there, he might not even win, which is just crazy. And I think music has been downgraded a lot in our pop stars of today. What's everybody talking about today? They're talking about what Britney Spears looked like. Well, isn't she a music star? What did everyone think of "Gimme More?" No one's talking about the music. Elvis had the music first and then he had what he brought with the music, like his charm and his charisma and things like that. I just don't know that we could create a new Elvis today, even if we wanted to. I hate to say stuff like that, because I don't want to sound like an old guy. And I'd love for there to be another Elvis, because he was great. I think it's harder to get one today. What do you think? I'm curious.
TONY: After seeing what happened to Vanessa Hudgens from High School Musical, it seems so hard for someone to be innocent and not exposed for the public to see. There's websites like TMZ.com, and everyone is out there. It seems so hard for someone to have a clean slate. Even though Elvis had his demons, he was able to put them under the radar. Now, it seems like we know too much about people.
JOHN: I think that's a great answer. That is really smart. I think you're absolutely right. With the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet, we do know a lot more about people today. That's very true. It's really hard to focus on the music.
TONY: Why do you think Madonna's films never worked?
JOHN: That's a good question, because if anybody could have had the impact of Elvis, I think Madonna probably had a good shot. She came out in the 80's, which was before 24-hour news cycle and the Internet. She did shocking things, and her music was pretty good. You would think she would be a natural in films. The thing about Madonna's films is that she never really found her own identity. She came on the Sharon Stone bandwagon after she did Basic Instinct . And she did a film with Willem Dafoe, and it was a really bad movie where she was sort of playing the same
femme fatale character as Sharon Stone. And a lot of reviews compared her to Sharon Stone. She was doing someone else's thing rather than figuring out what her own thing was. The films that Madonna seems to do pretty well in, like Desperately Seeking Susan, she was kind of doing her own thing. She was quirky and it was fashion statement. You got the sense that this was kind of who she was. I think the later films lost that in a sense. I don't know why anyone would want to see her in Swept Away. I'm not sure what the appeal of that is. I don't think she's ever found what her niche in film is. She had a really nice role in A League of Their Own, and it was totally separate from her Madonna persona. She did Evita, and she was really good in Evita. She was doing a musical, and that was in 1996, which was considered the beginning of the new musical. Maybe we could credit her for starting this revival of musicals. I really think that she just hasn't found her niche yet.
TONY: I remember hearing her song Live To Tell in 1986's At Close Range. It's a shame that she didn't star alongside Sean Penn in that film.
JOHN: You get the sense that Madonna really could do serious drama like that, but she hasn't often. It just hasn't been the right combination of actors, director, and story. She seems to have a hard time picking projects that good.
TONY: Why do you think reality shows are so popular these days and stars are so willing to show another side of them? It's not always pretty! Are they just desperate for the attention?
JOHN: There's that old adage that no publicity is bad publicity. And I think actually that's true. People that were once in the limelight want to be back in the limelight. It's very easy to rationalize an appearance in a reality show or even a whole reality show based on you. You think, "This will introduce a whole new audience to me. And once they watch the show, they'll listen to my music." And I can understand that motivation. They're like, "Reality shows are popular now, so I'm going to be the focus of one. It's showing I'm popular and this will bring a whole new generation to my work." And sometimes that really works, but you gotta take the lumps. I mean, Ozzy Osbourne, people loved his show, but it also showed a different side of him. He probably sold a lot of albums while the show was on. Again, no bad publicity.
TONY: What current musicians would make good actors?
JOHN: 50 Cent has a great physical presence, and that's half the battle in a film. I thought that Eminem was great in 8 mile. He should be doing more films. He has screen presence as well. It's funny, because it doesn't translate for some people. Again, I don't want to get down on Britney Spears, but she doesn't seem to have much of a screen presence. I grew up in the 70's, and I'm a big fan of Meat Loaf, and I loved his performance in Fight Club. And he was great in that. He was playing someone who you'd never think Meat Loaf would be playing, which is this guy with bitch tits. He was just great in it. I can't think of any right off the bat. I think 50 Cent could be a very powerful actor, and I definitely think Eminem is. Who else wants to make that jump, ya think?
TONY: I'm scared to think about it!
JOHN: (laughs) Justin Timberlake was just in a movie recently, but I haven't seen it.
TONY: I thought he was pretty good in Alpha Dog.
JOHN: I think he could probably make that leap if he wanted to. That's the thing that all actors need. You want people to be interested in watching you. And I think people are interested in Britney Spears, but I don't think she's got too much going on there. What was that movie she was in? Crossroads?
TONY: Unfortunately! She just seems so awkward on camera. You know that she's acting.
JOHN: I absolutely agree with that. You're so right. She's one that you think would be perfect for the big screen.
TONY: We've seen a number of biopics in the past couple of years with films like Ray and Walk The Line. What famous musician would you like to see portrayed on the big screen?
JOHN: That's another great question. One of my favorites is The Doors, because I'm a huge Jim Morrison fan. I think Val Kilmer is amazing in the movie, and I love Oliver Stone. The ones you mentioned were great. We've had Jerry Lee Lewis, so I can't pick him.
TONY: What about Axl Rose? He seems like a complex human being.
JOHN: That would be a biopic that my wife would be first in line to see. She went to high school in the 80s, and she's a total Guns N' Roses fanatic. That would be really interesting. I was a little disappointed in the U2 documentary. I thought it was beautifully photographed and interesting, but I felt that they never really went behind-the-scenes enough. I would love to see a real U2 biopic. I think that would be fascinating.
TONY: I'd love to see a REALLY, REALLY good Elvis movie. Most of the films made about him have been pretty corny and predictable.
JOHN: You're absolutely right. I would love to see the definitive Elvis story. Again, that's so hard, because who do you get to play one of the most charismatic people of all time? We've had Kurt Russell, who did a pretty good job. Who can fill the shoes of Elvis?
TONY: Plus, we know so much about him. What's left to discover?
JOHN: That's right. That's a very good point. Going back to Madonna, because of everything she's been through, I think she would be a fascinating biopic subject as well.
TONY: For sure.
JOHN: I think it's this thing where we have to wait until people die, though.
TONY: Sad but true!
JOHN: If they were alive, they would sue the hell out of you!
TONY: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
JOHN: I just finished the second volume of an annual called TV Year, which basically looks at all the programs in prime-time for a given year. The first volume from 2005-2006 is out, and I just finished 2006-2007. I'm working on an update of my encyclopedia of superheroes on film and television. That book came out in 2003, and there have been a ton of superheroes movies since then and great shows like Heroes. I want to update that book. I'll be finishing that up in February. I'm also editing the second season of my no-budget Internet series, which is called The House Between. You can find it at www.thehousebetween.com/ We shot the second season of that back in May, and I'm starting to edit those episodes right now. I'm hoping that those will make a splash.
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