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A List of Rock's Essential Viewing: Social Commentary | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
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A List of Rock’s Essential Viewing: Social Commentary

There are a number of great movies that can’t be strictly categorized as “music films” but rather as films in which rock, and other musical genres, play an integral part in the larger message they are attempting to convey and/or as films that portray a wider social scene/era in which the accompanying music brings it to life:

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American Graffiti

George Lucas, 1973

Before Lucas became the Star Wars supreme honcho, he made this (possibly biographical) film about how the emergence of rock influenced American culture of the ’50s, and vice versa. Late-night cruising’ drag races, drive-ins, and radio constantly blasting from the cars…

The Graduate

Mike Nichols, 1967

The Graduate is certainly not a rock movie per se, but Nichols is able to make the music of Simon & Garfunkel such an integral part of the film, that in many ways, the scenes that include them became some sort of modern video clip precursors.

Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper, 1969

Hopper’s debut as a director rolls quite a few things into one – a psych-rock road movie with social commentary. At 50, the film remains one of the best of its kind, thanks in large part to the fantastic turns Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson had in the movie and the fact that the soundtrack is still one of the best-known rock scores around.

The Strawberry Statement

Stuart Hagmann, 1970

Following in Hopper’s footsteps, Hagmann makes a review of the effects of the political turmoil brought by 1968 – particularly student anti-war protests and the music that was the soundtrack to the era – not just to the film itself.

Forrest Gump

Robert Zemeckis, 1994

For some reason after getting praise and Oscars, Gump got a lot of flak for some reason, but the film, its message(s), and particularly its all-encompassing soundtrack have withheld the test of time. Tom Hanks proves himself to be a discerning music fan, not only here, but with his writing and directing of That Thing You Do!(1996) – a personal ode to early Beatles and power pop.

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader, 1978

Any film that features a score by the legendary producer Jack Nitzsche, with the lead mean blues sung by Captain Beefheart with Ry Cooder on slide guitar deserves to be here, but Schrader and lead actors Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel also managed to come up with some biting social commentary on the state of the Detroit motor industry and its downfall.

Blow-Up & Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1996 & 1970

Rock and the music of the time represent the perfect background for the stories from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Social commentary, the crime element, music, and Antonioni’s (always) convoluted storylines represent a great combination. The Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitars) club scene from Blow-Up is a classic in itself.

Valley Girl & Singles

Martha Coolige, 1984 // Cameron Crowe, 1992

These two could, in their own way, represent a story of the LA New Wave of the ’80s and Seattle Grunge of the ’90s – the former as a well-done teen comedy and the latter as a more layered ‘twenty-something’ story.

The Touchables & The President’s Analyst

Robert Freeman, 1968 // Theodore J. Flicker, 1967

This list has to end somewhere, and why not with some B-Movie buried treasures in which the music of the time is a perfect background.The Touchables (Robert Freeman, 1968) has all the late ’60s had – a kidnapped rock star (by four pretty girls, no less), R. Buckminister Fuller dome, a ridiculous plot, and music by a ‘little’ British band called Nirvana (good stuff, by the way). James Coburn was no stranger to B-movies, and The President’s Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967) – an apparent spoof of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – follows a stressed out Coburn (as the named analyst) as he flees to San Francisco, where he ends up, among other things, full of acid playing on stage with a rock band. 1967, right?

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