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"Neil Young: Heart of Gold"
© Paramount Classics
Top 10 Rock Movies
We celebrate 10 films that best encapsulate the spirit of rock 'n' roll

By Dave McCoy
MSN Movies

Let's face it: most rock movies stink. Rock and roll and cinema usually mix like oil and water, coming across as either pretentious, self-absorbed messes (anyone seen Bob Dylan's "Renaldo and Clara?") or, in the case of concert films, bores that amuse only the most die-hard fans. There is something about putting a camera in front of a band that saps all of the energy, the freshness and immediacy out of a performance.


Every once and a while a rock doc comes along that reminds us that the two great mediums can merge to form something spellbinding. Jonathan Demme's "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is such an effort. The documentary, which captures Neil Young's deeply personal 2005 performance at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, has already cemented itself as one of the best films of 2006, but it's bigger than that. For music fans, rarely does a concert film feel this intimate and feel so much like a story. Over two nights, Young debuted his latest album, "Prairie Wind," a personal look backward by an artist who has just had a brush with death (Young suffered a brain aneurysm shortly before recording). He also scours his back catalogue, presenting classic narratives ("The Old Laughing Lady," "Old Man," "I Am a Child") that expand on reoccurring "Prairie Wind" themes such as friendship, family, loss and death.

For Young fans, never has this often quirky artist seemed so at ease. Surrounded on stage by friends and family, and captured by Demme's adoring, unobtrusive lens, Young is the most nakedly autobiographical he's ever been, on record or film. "Heart of Gold" is not just a concert film but a deeply poignant, funny and painfully honest journey through the past; it presents a life through music and creates a photo album of memories.

And it got us thinking about great rock and roll movies. What makes them great is that they're  not just great films about rock and roll; they're simply great films, period:

10 "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001)
Forget "Tommy" or "Quadrophenia" or "The Wall," John Cameron Mitchell's screen version of his off-Broadway hit is the real thing when it comes to rock musicals. Full of energy and perfectly balancing camp and poignancy, this cross-dressing musical never feels bloated and is most alive when the glammed-out Hedwig (Mitchell) rocks onstage.

9. "Decline of the Western Civilization Parts 1 & 2" (1981, 1988)
The first two films of Penelope Spheeris' "Decline" trilogy paint passionate portraits of L.A.'s two pivotal underground musical genres of the 1980s, punk and heavy metal. Both are often hilarious, sometimes poignant and always totally insane.

8. "Almost Famous" (2000)
Cameron Crowe's romantic, semi-autobiographical paean to '70s rock follows the fictional band Stillwater (partly based on Led Zeppelin) and the wide-eyed 15-year-old Rolling Stone journalist who follows them on tour. The film captures the road better than any other fictional film: the groupies, the drugs, the arguments, the exhaustion and the music that makes it all worth it.

7. "Stop Making Sense" (1984)
Director Jonathan Demme captured the Talking Heads at their creative peak, and the results are euphoric. Like "The Last Waltz," Demme keeps his camera pointed at the stage, one that keeps evolving as the show builds, and at the band, and their physical presence is enough. The best compliment I can give "Stop Making Sense": I hated the Talking Heads for years, but I loved this film. (Yes, I finally came to my senses; the Talking Heads rule)

6. "Woodstock"
"Woodstock" is rock's greatest time capsule, one that is essential because of the crowd as much as the music. Most rock films ignore the audience, but "Woodstock" thrives on them. As result, an interview with a Port-a-San toilet cleaner or a local resident are as vibrantly alive as Jimi Hendrix or Sly and the Family Stone performing. Try and turn off "Woodstock"; you just can't do it.

5. "Gimme Shelter (© Criterion Collection)Gimme Shelter" (1970)
Released the same year, "Gimme Shelter" is the flip side to "Woodstock," the harsh comedown to the peace-and-love generation's long trip. The Maysles Brothers first went to Altamont Speedway to cover a free concert put on by the Rolling Stones. After they captured the chaos, bad drugs and poor planning that resulted in a man's murder, they sat down the band and showed them the footage. The results are horrifying.

4."The Last Waltz" (1978)
Martin Scorsese captures The Band's farewell concert in San Francisco, and in the process makes the finest concert film ever. Scorsese employed the greatest cinematographers in the world -- Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs -- as cameramen, so the film is gorgeous beyond words. Highlights include guest stars Neil Young, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell.

3. "Don't Look Back (© New Video Group)Don't Look Back" (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker's candid look at Bob Dylan (and all of his personas) while on tour in England in 1965 still feels experimental and fresh with each subsequent viewing. Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall approach allows Dylan and his entourage to be as natural as possible, while the concert material captures the singer/songwriter during his final all-acoustic performances.

2."This Is Spinal Tap" (1984)
Remember when director/actor Rob Reiner was funny? This painfully hilarious, often vicious rockumentary parody is so authentic that, when the film was first released, many viewers thought Spinal Tap was a real band. They weren't (yet), though many such aging British rock acts probably saw a lot of themselves in Tap's fall from celebrity. Watch Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same," then this, and it'll all make sense.

1.A Hard Day's Night (© Miramax)"A Hard Day's Night" (1964)
What can you say? The most imaginative rock film ever will also keep a smile plastered to your face, whether you're a Beatles fan or not. Director Richard Lester follows the Beatles over a crazy, zany 36-hour period and cements their personalities for eternity. No film made to take advantage of a band's popularity has the right to be this innovative or clever; "A Hard Day's Night" is still a shocker.

Also Rockin': "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" (2002), "Purple Rain" (1984), "Madonna: Truth or Dare" (1991), "Monterey Pop" (1969), "Rock 'n Roll High School" (1979), "Sid and Nancy" (1986), "Meeting People is Easy" (1999), "Dig!" (2004), "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" (2004), "Tupac: Resurrection" (2003)

What is your favorite rock and roll movie? Write us at

Dave McCoy is Lead Editor for MSN Movies.

Jan 21, 2012 7:36PM
How about "Tenacious D-The pick of destiny"

You didn't mention the movie 'Detroit Rock City' about four teen guys who are in a band who have tickets to see Kiss except one of the boys mother destroys the ticket n so they desperately try n find a way to still make it to the show. Very hilarious! Very few movies make me feel like if I had stitches they'd be coming apart at the seams from laughing. This one did1

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