I have this week been reading Stephen Glynn’s The British Pop Music Film: The Beatles and Beyond, which offers an interesting overview of an important group of British films and provides a wealth of detail about the production and reception of these films, along with Glynn’s thoughts on their ideological implications. Whilst the pop music film developed a degree of artistic maturity in the 1960s, it had its roots in the latter part of the 1950s when films like The Tommy Steele Story (1957) and the Cliff Richard vehicle Expresso Bongo (1959) sought to explore what a British pop music film might look like. A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the Beatles’ first feature film, was a key moment of transition. Directed by Richard Lester, who had moved from shooting television commercials into feature films with It’s Trad, Dad! (1962, starring Acker Bilk, Gene Vincent and Chubby Checker, amongst others), A Hard Day’s Night divorced music from image, so that the songs were not always performed diegetically, but rather used as part of the soundtrack to create a particular mood (most famously in the ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ sequence). As pop music changed, so did the films that starred its most famous practitioners: both Privilege (1967), starring Paul Jones of Manfred Mann, and Performance (1970), starring Mick Jagger, adopt a more decadent tone notably at odds with the positive feel of many of the earlier films and which now help shape popular perceptions of the end of the 1960s.
Not all of the pop music films were successful. Nor, for that matter, were they always very good: Catch Us If You Can (1965), for example, stars the Dave Clark Five, and is perhaps now more noteworthy for the fact that it was John Boorman’s first feature film than for the quality of the soundtrack or the acting (although Clark, who had worked as a stuntman before his music career took off, would later retrain as an actor). What reading Glynn’s book makes clear, however, is the sheer number of pop stars who were considered enough a box-office draw to be placed in front of a camera: Billy Fury, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits (twice!), Lulu and the Luvvers, the Nashville Teens, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Small Faces, the Yardbirds – all featured in films, whilst other band such as Traffic and Manfred Mann wrote songs for inclusion on film soundtracks (Manfred Mann also wrote music for television commercials). It was clearly hoped that their fans would part with their money to see pop stars at the cinema, and that, in turn, the films would drive sales of singles, LPs and tickets for live shows. Although pop music in the 1960s was a vibrant cultural presence, and emotionally important to many of those who listened to it and made it, films featuring pop stars help us remember that it was also a business. Gold discs were handed out for sales, and sales were important because they meant money.
As it only deals with feature films, The British Pop Music Film does not find space to discuss Rhythm ‘n’ Greens (1964), a 30-minute short in which the Shadows explore British history from the Stone Age to the twentieth century. This is a shame, as this gloriously strange film is well-worth a watch, if only for the sight of Hank Marvin et al performing one of their songs on instruments improvised from the bones of a Celtic-period human sacrifice victim. The film is available to watch on YouTube, and part one can be seen here. Enjoy!