A bit of New Year fun for you ... Looking at a favourite music list from a couple of years ago, I noted the jazz club scene from the film 'Collateral', and how much I enjoyed such scenes in films. So Chris Jones and I have been playing a little game, augmenting our fading memories with the magnificent YouTube, in order to create a list of the classic band performances in films.
The completely arbitrary rules are these: it mustn't be a musical like 'An American In Paris', or music-orientated like 'Round Midnight' or 'Downtown 81', or about a band, like 'Magical Mystery Tour' (which sadly rules out this classic Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band clip. Take a look anyway). Many early films are counted out as they would often feature a number as part of the show, functioning more of as entertaining interlude than plot device. Obviously, we're not talking backing music á là Scorcese's 'Mean Streets', either.
No, the examples we're looking for are those where a band performance is used as a signifier or symbol. They're not a character as such, more an atmospheric effect into which characters are thrust. Not part of the plot, but part of the scenery, almost. So there's a golden era for these, from the late 1950s, when jazz and then psychedelic bands would be used to indicate when a character was about to dally in something a bit shady, up to the mid-1980s, when bands stopped being, well, bands. In a meaningful sense for the movies, like.
They don't have to be real bands, though bonus points if they are.
Last rule is that the sequence has to exist on YouTube. That's just for practicality's sake. I just hope the following stay up long enough.
So here's our top twelve sequences of bands in films, in no particular order. There must be many more out there, so use the comments to suggest other contenders. In the meantime, enjoy! (Tip: If you're finding the videos a bit jerky, as I've embedded quite a few here, click the YouTube logo on the video itself and watch it there.)
San Francisco dinner jazz in 'Bullitt'
The scene that got me started. I've seen Bullitt so many times and this is as emblematic a scene as the famous car chase. Steve McQueen manages to look both super-cool and out-of-place simultaneously, eyeing up the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, as a boho 'Frisco jazz band get busy amidst the diners. It's fantastic. No idea who they are. All we know is that the guitarist is Mike Deasy. He was also in 'Dirty Harry' you know. Correction! See comment below.
Jazz club scene in 'Collateral'
Jumping forward, this scene is related to 'Bullitt' perhaps, yet this is a sharper brew - a version of Miles Davis' 'Spanish Key'. Michael Mann's use of music is exemplary, although he rarely places it in the foreground like this. The club shootout scene (here re-edited with just track, no dialogue) later - soundtracked to Paul Oakenfold - is more contemporary Mann. But this is beautifully put together.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in 'Wings of Desire'
Fantastic couple of performances. A classic example of mood-setting, Aussie wasters conveying Berliner decadence as angels wander invisibly on stage. Lovely. See also Crime and the City Solution's 'Six Bells Chime' in the same film.
Cliff Richard 'Junior' in 'Thunderbirds'
Oh yes, this qualifies. Just in case you thought this was all getting a bit dour. Cliff and The Shadows in puppet form, guitar-shaped rockets and all.
The Pretty Things and Norman Wisdom in 'What's Good For The Goose'
Yes, you read that right. Norman Wisdom plays a hippy in this 1969 British film, and goes to see a band called The Electric Banana. They're played by The Pretty Things. Norm seems to be getting into it. As Chris said: "Far out Mr. Grimsdale" etc. There's another clip here, dubbed in German and featuring swings, for added surrealism. (Norman Wisdom link for overseas readers.)
Graham Bond Organisation in 'Gonks Go Beat'
To complete this triumvirate of unbelievably dated British movies, here's a groovy classic featuring Carry On player Kenneth Connor encountering The Graham Bond Organisation, in some kind of future 'beat club'. Absolutely hilarious. And a fantastic track. The dancing is particularly enticing. Features the young Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and John McLaughlin before their subsequent stellar careers. Oh, and Kenneth Connor. Dig?
Warhol party scene from 'Midnight Cowboy'
OK, the band aren't actually visible in this, but it's clearly a Warhol Factory affair, so we can assume that John Cale arguing with LaMonte Young about tape loops somewhere while Nico and Lou Reed check out the girls. And boys. Actually, according to the comments, the track is 'Old Man's Willow' by Elephant's Memory. It's a great example of rock being used to denote seediness.
Moby Grape from 'Sweet Ride'
You have to fast-forward this one to about 5' 28'' in. (Although you'd be advised to just let it play through, as Moby Grape were rather good.) Anyway, when you get there, you'll see a scene from 'Sweet Ride' (1968), showing a freak-out in full effect. Note how 'engaged' the San Francisco crowd are compared to the London scene in 'Blow Up' (below). Check the drummer in a pith helmet. See if you can spot Lee Hazlewood and Peter Fonda too. "Phew it sure is wild out there ..."
Chico Hamilton Quintet in 'Sweet Smell of Success'
Noir often used jazz as one of its key signifiers. Frankly, could've used many similar clips here. I discounted Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine in Preminger's superb 'Man With The Golden Arm' due to it being too obviously about music. This strikes a better balance of scene-setting for the principal characters. Features Chico Hamilton. And it's a great film.
Jazz band creates havoc in Tati's 'Playtime'
Tati himself helps with the destruction of the impossibly ill-conceived modern restaurant in 'Playtlme' yet the super 'ip jazz band help things along by filling the dancefloor and playing at one hundred miles an hour. And keep going while everything falls apart around them and new social groupings emerge. Fabulous.
Bauhaus in 'The Hunger'
Sadly I can't embed this one, so you'll have to follow this link to see Bauhaus performing 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' at the start of 'The Hunger'. Deneuve, Sarandon, Pete Murphy. Hmm doesn't quite follow does it. Anyway, this one just sneaks in, despite being a little bit promo/title sequence.
The Yardbirds in 'Blow Up'
Perhaps the quintessential 'band in film' scene features The Yardbirds - Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck an' all - in Antonioni's 'Blow Up'. Love the way that Beck so carefully wrecks his amplifier. It's all so studied. As are the crowd. Look how utterly London they are. Motionless, too-cool. Compare again to the Moby Grape crowd earler! Save for a couple of groovers at the back, they're barely there. At least they wake up a bit when Beck chucks what's left of his guitar into the crowd. This was shot in the 100 Club on Oxford Street, which is still there, although Oxford Street looks a bit different now.