- Magical Musical Tour: Rock and Pop in Film Soundtracks by K. J. Donnelly
While recent scholarship has given due individual focus to film soundtracks, rock ‘n’ roll, and popular music, a volume examining their intersection is certainly a welcome addition to the canon. K. J. (Kevin) Donnelly, a Reader in Film at the Uni -versity of Southampton, discusses several areas in this vein; overall, the book is a cleanly written survey of topics that (in this reviewer’s experience) are all generally familiar, yet Donnelly regularly includes a sub-discussion or reference that entices the reader to pursue further study.
The book’s introduction provides an overview of some larger concepts within the discourse of film soundtracks, including the basic notion that music and film images should not be thought of as two distinct areas, but rather a merged entity. Hollywood-produced musicals reached an apex in the late 1940s through the early 1950s, accompanied by a decline in the sales of show songs, in direct contrast to the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll records. The success in the 1960s of Cliff Richard’s films in England and beach movies in the United States eventually gave way to an “art mode of production” (p. 5) that transitioned rock music away from its status as a niche genre toward recognition as an official branch of pop music. By the 1970s, rock music was considered different from “show business,” and the evolving counterculture served as impetus for rock documentaries, with rock musicals and operas solidifying that artistic status. Pairing films with pop songs became de rigueur for marketing in the 1980s, tapping into younger viewers with high school movies and expanding techniques learned from MTV; the 1990s saw more films concerned with rock’s (relatively recent) past, and the early twenty-first century enjoyed a renaissance of dance movies.
Donnelly spends some time addressing subtler issues (such as the advent of the music video) that rejuvenated music (and video), while noting how rock and pop are epitomized by the strain between creativity and commerce. While studio technologies behind the production of classical musicals resulted in idealized products grounded in recognizable sequences and using well-known actors, creators of pop and rock musicals were challenged with negotiating the dual modes of realtime performance (where on-screen images show the simultaneous production of sounds being heard) with lip synching. Citing the work of Rick Altman (p. 11), Donnelly discusses the concept of “audio dissolve” and how the emergence of music into the foreground—a development that influenced movements and images, much the opposite of traditional filmmaking—combined with audiovisual aesthetics to create a convergence of pop and rock with traditional film scoring. This [End Page 735] development tends toward a lack of subtlety, with emphasis on drumbeats and a domination of sound over image as it becomes more autonomous from pictures on the screen.
Donnelly devotes each chapter to an artist or trend within pop film soundtracks, beginning logically with The Beatles. For movies that followed, A Hard Day’s Night provided several models, including focus on live performance, a parade of personalities for the artists, use of a strong title sequence, and a climactic conclusion (in this case, the concert broadcast). Help! offered the distinct additions of color film and exotic locations; however, the movie was still constructed around framing the songs. Donnelly touches on two of the film’s most memorable sequences: the skiing “music video” for “Ticket to Ride,” and the outdoor recording session (with military protection) on Salisbury Plain. Both films share the tension between creation of a dramatic narrative, in which the band members evolve from simple pop stars to songwriters composing for their own art, to simple showcasing of the band and its music.
Exploring psychedelia and the silver screen, Donnelly surveys American efforts (such as Roger Corman’s The Trip, Psych Out starring Jack Nicholson, and of course Easy Rider) as well as...