Like most adults in the spring of 1956, Elvis Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, thought rock ‘n’ roll was a flame that would die just as quickly as it had ignited. To have a real future in show biz, Col. Tom was convinced, you had to get into the movies.
Enter veteran Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis, whose career credits range from “Casablanca” to “Becket.” Here was a man who prided himself in discovering new stars and he thought he saw one in this young rock ‘n’ roller. “I felt the same thrill (that) I experienced when I first saw Errol Flynn on the screen,” he is quoted in Albert Goldman’s book on Presley. “Elvis, in a very different, modern way, had exactly the same power, virility and sexual drive. The camera caressed him.”
Wallis brought Elvis to Hollywood for a screen test, liked what he saw and offered the hip-swinging singer a three-picture, $450,000 deal.
There was laughter in the executive suites of Hollywood when they heard the news of Wallis’ deal . . . until Elvis’ first movie, “Love Me Tender,” came out.
The picture, made by Presley on loan to 20th Century-Fox by Wallis, earned back its estimated $900,000 production cost in one weekend. Elvis went on to make 33 movies, eventually commanding $1 million a picture. One of Elvis’ nine movies for Wallis was even directed by “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz.
Flash forward to 1991 and Hollywood’s most recent marriage of rock and film hits the theaters:
Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” opens to wildly uneven reviews and unimpressive box-office returns, but the story of the ‘60s band and its tormented, self-destructive lead singer Jim Morrison starts Hollywood once again thinking hard about the sometimes artful, often corny, but almost always colorful marriage of rock ‘n’ roll and the movies.
The interesting thing in light of “The Doors’ ” fast fade at the box-office--where the estimated $40 million production has earned back only $26.8 million in its first, crucial four weeks--is why this movie has relit the Hollywood-rock fire.
Hollywood executives see the immense media interest in “The Doors” (Morrison magazine covers ranged from Rolling Stone to Esquire) as well as the power of the captivating concert scenes and they imagine the box-office possibilities if someone took another rock star with an equally compelling story and made a better--or at least more accessible--movie.
“I think Hollywood is always looking for the next big rock picture because these films always have the potential for pulling in a strong youth audience, but the Doors movie has intensified it,” says producer-writer-director Andrew Solt, who has made film documentaries on Elvis Presley and John Lennon.
There are marketing reasons why Hollywood has made at least 383 rock ‘n’ roll-related films.
Rock stars sell millions of records, so there’s a pre-sold audience for the right film. There’s also a good chance radio stations will play the artist’s old recordings, which means free advertising. And for some filmmakers, sound track sales can also mean even bigger bucks. Yet another Doors album compilation has been released in connection with the film and it is already in the national Top 20.
But there is a deeper motivation too.
“I don’t think Hollywood is attracted to rock primarily for the dollar sign,” said Jack Epps, who wrote “Top Gun” with partner Jim Cash and is now putting together a film on ‘50s rock sensation Eddie Cochran.
“As filmmakers, writers, directors, we all grew up with these (rock stars). They were our earliest heroes,” continues Epps, who likes to reminisce about the time as a youngster that he was so thrilled by Elvis Presley’s recording of “King Creole” that he swears he listened to it something like 175 times in a row.
“It’s the same reason there had been a lot of baseball movies (two years ago). As we mature and get into a position to make these movies happen, we look to those heroes--and for much of this generation of filmmakers, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Hollywood flames are especially hot around one of the genre’s most appealing devices: the rock biography--or “rock bio” in the jargon of the industry.
One reason is that there is a large number of subjects available--artists associated with classic music and evocative stories.
Biographies of more than a dozen members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are either in early stages of development in Hollywood or being actively explored.
Eddie Cochran--Heavily influenced by Elvis Presley, Cochran was an outstanding guitarist and an energetic performer. He broke into the Top 10 in 1958 with “Summertime Blues,” still a quintessential expression of youthful frustration. Cochran, who grew up in Bell Gardens, was killed in a 1960 auto accident in England. He was 21.
Roy Orbison--The man behind the trademark dark glasses sang of romantic desperation with such chilling vocal purity and individuality that he was once dubbed the Caruso of Rock. Known for such classic hits as “Only the Lonely,” Orbison led a personal life filled with tragedy, including the deaths of a wife and two children in separate accidents. He died of a heart attack in 1988 at age 52.
Otis Redding--Widely regarded as the greatest male soul singer of the ‘60s, Redding virtually defined soul singing for a generation of rock fans with his highly emotional, testifying style. An equally dynamic performer, Redding died in a 1967 plane crash--just three days after recording his biggest hit, "(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” He was 26.
Ray Charles--A singer and musician whose great vocal styling is among the most influential in modern pop music, a musical stamp felt in country and well as rock and soul. Blind since age 6, Charles taught himself to arrange and compose by braille, played the first ever integrated concert in Memphis and has won almost a dozen Grammys. At 60, he continues to tour and record.
Sam Cooke--An equally heralded soul singer and writer, Cooke contributed to more Top 40 singles (29) than Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis combined. He had movie-star good looks and a lovely voice, with an almost choir-boy innocence. His songs ranged from disarming pop novelties to affecting social protest. He was shot to death in a Los Angeles motel in 1964. Cooke was 33.
Bobby Darin--Though his frequent shifts in musical direction (rock to country to folk-protest to Sinatra-style pop) made Darin something of an “outsider” to rock audiences in the ‘60s, he was a remarkable entertainer whose vocal authority and passion reflected the spirit of the rock experience. He died in 1973 at age 37.
Marvin Gaye--Arguably the most arresting yet tormented member of Motown’s extraordinary adult roster in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Gaye was a man who balanced sensual and spiritual themes in his music, giving us such commanding hits as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On.” He was shot to death by his father in Los Angeles in 1984. He was 44.
Jimi Hendrix--A bigger star and more revolutionary force in ‘60s rock than Morrison, Hendrix expanded pop’s imagination--for musicians as well as fans--almost as much with his guitar as Dylan did with his words. The Seattle native first gained attention in England, then made a triumphant return to this country with a 1967 appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. He died in London in 1970. He was 27.
Phil Spector--The legendary record producer’s spectacular “wall of sound” style was reflected in such classic ‘60s hits as the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” For years he lived a reclusive, Howard Hughes lifestyle, all but disappearing from the music scene, but reportedly is returning to the studio. Spector, 50, lives in Los Angeles.
Tina Turner--As part of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, she was the focal point in the ‘50s and ‘60s of one of the half-dozen most sizzling live shows ever in rock. She has gone on to even more success as a solo artist, winning a Grammy in 1974 with “What’s Love Got to Do With It” for best record of the year.
Other rock bios in the early stages of development or proposal include Jim Croce, the singer-songwriter with the gently philosophical style who was killed in a 1973 plane crash in Louisiana, and Frankie Lymon, the teen-age sensation in the ‘50s who died of a drug overdose at the age of 25 in 1968 in New York, as well as such other Hall of Fame members as Bill Haley, Rick Nelson and Jackie Wilson. And there’s more, including Phil Ochs, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the Mamas & the Papas.
Taylor Hackford, who produced “La Bamba,” the biography of ‘50s teen star Ritchie Valens that has grossed more than $100 million worldwide and now has the rights to the Ray Charles biography, agrees that passion for the music plays a large part in the continuing interest of filmmakers in rock music and rock subjects.
But he also feels the music itself is an effective cinematic device that helps a director forge a strong, sociological link with audiences.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is a universal language, a common bond for filmmakers and audiences,” he says. “It’s one of the things people can relate to in a big urban society, where there is a great deal of alienation and where you don’t know a lot of people.
“You feel that bond in a concert, the sense of camaraderie when a song comes on that means so much to you and you look around and see other people responding, too. It’s like you all become one.
“It may be our own passion that draws us a filmmakers to these themes, but what makes the music work on the screen is that the audience has a passion for it, too.
“I like the Doors movie. (Oliver Stone) is an uncompromising artist and whether you like it or not, it’s an amazingly strong vision that is going to stand as a challenge to other filmmakers. It’s going to make a lot of people want to do their own rock film . . . the one they’ve been dreaming about for years.”
Phil Walden, the “boy wonder” who started one of the ‘60s and ‘70s’ most powerful recording and talent management empires in the baggage room of a bus station in Macon, Ga., laughs when he realizes that someone may think he’s just jumping on the Doors bandwagon when he talks about his dream to make a film about Redding’s life.
Walden has been trying to make that movie ever since Redding’s death 24 years ago. The frustrating path included talks with producer David Wolper in the late ‘60s about a TV documentary and discussions in the late ‘70s with Shep Gordon, the Los Angeles manager of such acts as rock star Alice Cooper and R&B; singer Teddy Pendergrass.
“We spent about six months talking about it with Shep,” says Walden, whose clients once included Redding, Sam & Dave and the Allman Brothers. “Capricorn (Walden’s label) was going to get the soundtrack and Teddy was to play Otis. He even cut a couple of sample tracks with (producer) Kenny Gamble.
“But ultimately Pendergrass lost interest. I think his own career was so big that he felt he should be doing the Teddy Pendergrass story rather than the Otis Redding story.”
The Redding film was one of 15 projects that Dale Pollock, president of A&M; Films and a former Los Angeles Times reporter, inherited when he joined A&M; Films in 1986.
“This company has developed the Redding project for nine years and we’ve done that for one reason and one reason only--that’s his music,” Pollock says. “Usually when you develop a project, you say, ‘What’s the story?’ because it’s the story that moves or drives you. . . . But in terms of an Otis Redding film or, I’d imagine, a Jim Morrison film, it’s the music that is the driving force.”
Long timetables are common in the film industry, but Pollock says he would have given up on this one long ago, except for the music.
“I grew up on Otis’ music and have always loved it. The challenge is to then find the right (script). That’s what has taken so long. Every time we get discouraged, I swear to God this is true, we sit down and we listen to Otis Redding’s music and we get revived.”
Malcolm Leo, who was already at work producing the Redding film before Pollock joined A&M;, and Billy Bob Thornton, who is writing the final script with partner Tom Epperson, were intrigued by the project because they are longtime rock fans--and rock movie fans.
“I remember racing to the movie theater in North Hollywood as a kid in the ‘50s to see ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (an early rock exploitation film featuring Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and others) and it was amazing,” recalls Leo. “It totally captivated me. . . . everything about the movie. It was like being in a candy score. It was fun, glittery . . . .”
Thornton adds: “When I was a kid, Elvis was my hero. I was raised in Arkansas, a couple of hours from where he was raised and he was the guy I wanted to be.”
“You remember all those Elvis movies . . . the ones everybody laughs at today? I saw ‘em all and I’ll tell you what: I loved ‘em.”
All those Elvis movies made millions of dollars for everyone involved. But the toll on Presley was high.
After some early films, including “King Creole” and “Jailhouse Rock,” that were strong musically and suggested a trace of acting promise, Wallis and the other producers realized that quality had little to do with the long lines at the box office. Elvis had given up live shows when he moved to Hollywood, so the movies were the only way fans could see him.
It wasn’t long until the stories all seemed drawn from the same formula: “Girls! Girls! Girls!” . . . “It Happened At the World’s Fair” . . . “Fun in Acapulco” . . . “Girl Happy” . . . “Paradise--Hawaiian Style.”
If Presley’s influence in music and films was on the wane in the mid'60s, the rock culture--thanks chiefly to Dylan and the Beatles--was on the rise, and filmmakers responded to the energy and imagination of these new forces by giving us some of rock’s most treasured moments on film.
The two most memorable movies of the period remain standards of the genre: D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” a chronicle of what it was like for Bob Dylan to be at the absolute center of pop attention in 1965 during a tour of England, and Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” a film that captured the innocence and dizzy excitement that the Beatles represented in the group’s early days.
At the same time, filmmakers were beginning to reflect the spirit and music of the changing times in movies that used music as punctuation for dramatic stories. The two breakthroughs: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” in 1966 and Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” in 1969.
By 1970, rock movies reflected the same mixture of artful aims and crass opportunism as rock music itself--movies in all shapes and sizes, from gritty documentaries to fictionalized mainstream bios, from topical films that scored big at the box office (“Saturday Night Fever” and “Flashdance”) to spectacularly ambitious concepts (the animated “American Pop” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) that were spectacularly bad.
It was too tempting or, at least, too big a movement for serious Hollywood filmmakers to ignore. Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” in 1975 may be the best rock concert film ever made. On the other hand, Ken Russell’s “Tommy” in 1979 may be the silliest rock film ever attempted.
Nothing seems to disarm movie audiences and fascinate film audiences, however, as much as the rock bio--a genre that is still in its infancy.
“The Buddy Holly Story” and “La Bamba” were both light but winning films that benefited from the warm, high-spirited music of Holly and Ritchie Valens. But 1988’s cartoonish Jerry Lee Lewis bio “Great Balls of Fire!” showed just how far wrong you can go.
The biggest trap in making a rock bio, according to Taylor Hackford, is thinking that the music is so wonderful that it will make the film work. “That’s what concerts are for, not movies,” he offers.
And it’s the script that has kept the Otis Redding film on the shelf for nine years at A&M.;
“I remember the first script I saw out in Los Angeles and it was terrible,” says Phil Walden, who is now based in Nashville. “To me, Otis represents an inspiring chapter in race relations in this country, a man who showed his own Georgia town and millions of other people not to judge a man by his color. Yet this script was childish, full of stereotypes.”
With a script nearly in hand, A&M; is now scouting for a director. Producer Malcolm Leo hopes the film will go into production this fall and be in theaters next year. The Orbison and Cochran films appear next in line at this point, followed by Charles and Darin.
Allen Klein, the former business manager for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, has been looking for the right Sam Cooke script for almost two decades. He, too, sees the film as a black musician’s struggle linked with the civil rights consciousness of the time. Klein managed Cooke during the ‘60s and now controls his publishing.
“I would rather not make a film unless I am going to be happy with it,” says Klein, who is also hopeful of making a film about Phil Spector, with whom he has business ties. “I have passion for Sam Cooke and Phil Spector and I’m not going to allow (their stories) to be some piece of crap because you only have one chance at it. The ones I’ve seen so far have been horrible.”
Bill Graham, the most celebrated concert producer in rock, shudders when he thinks of what Hollywood might do to the life stories of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, two of his all-time favorite performers.
Graham has just seen what Hollywood did to Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and, like the nation’s film critics, he is divided. He isn’t looking at the movie from the sidelines--he co-produced it. He has serious doubts about Hollywood’s ability to make a great rock film.
“It was my hope that ‘The Doors’ would shed some light on that era and that didn’t happen (in the movie). To me, the ‘60s was a remarkable time, perhaps the only time in modern civilization that millions of young people truly believed that they could be involved to the extent where they could affect positive change.
“Unless you capture the times, there is nothing there. What you have left (in the case of Hendrix, for instance) is just facts: Hendrix was born in Washington. He moved here. He moved there. He joined a band. The fact that he was famous and sold ‘X’ number of records and put a bandanna around his head isn’t enough. That’s the challenge for Hollywood if we are ever going to capture the rock experience on film.”
Redding producer Leo agrees that most Hollywood rock bios have been superficial, but he is more optimistic than Graham that someone can come up with an artful and moving rock bio.
“The initial rush, in terms of motion picture interest in rock, was on the music and the personality of the star,” said Leo who has made rock documentaries on Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys.
“There wasn’t the same attention devoted to character. But I think now many of the people who are writing, producing and directing the films will bring perhaps a bit more understanding and ambition to them. They have a respect for the subject. That’s why we’ve moved so slowly on the script. We wanted to do the story justice.”
Roy Orbison’s widow, Barbara, who is beginning to develop the script for the Roy Orbison film with producer Steve Tisch, says she has yet to see a great rock film.
“My biggest nightmare is a movie just showing Roy from one side--say that rock ‘n’ roll myth that surrounded him . . . the lonely man behind these dark glasses who trudged on this earth. That would a nightmare for me to see because there was so many layers of Roy’s courage.
“At the same time, I would hate to see a whitewashed story. Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Roy was the sweetest man’ and he was the sweetest man, but if he hadn’t also been spunky, I don’t think I would have been married 20 years to him.”
Orbison, who is also writing a biography of her late husband, pauses.
“Just because someone was sweet and had hits, it’s easy to forget that they had to deal with life and that’s a disservice to the man. Roy had to get up every morning and fight and struggle with life just like everybody else.
“The reason people are fascinated with rock stars is because they are heroes, but the thing it is important to show is that they are also just people,” she says. “That’s what even the filmmakers sometimes seem to forget. They forget the humanity and just show the star.”