Although some hip movie theaters still host regular late-night screenings of modern cult favorites like The Big Lebowski and The Room, the rock-and-roll midnight movie proper is very much a product of a bygone time. That time, specifically, was the 1970s and ’80s. If you wanted to see your favorite group in action between stops on their concert tour, the rock-and-roll midnight movie provided just the ticket. As a result, 12 AM showings of inventive concert films, experimental cinematic interpretations of a group’s output, or crazily original rock musicals became a rite-of-passage for the post-Woodstock, pre-music-video generation.
Come the second half of the ’80s, MTV and home video made it possible to watch your favorite bands and their various motion picture undertakings whenever you wanted to, wherever you were. Thus, traveling out in the wee hours to sit in the dark with strangers and watch whatever was playing gave way to simply firing up the VCR and crashing on the couch.
Still, no small number of rock-and-roll midnight movie classics have endured and even intensified in popularity throughout every format evolution. Here are the deviant dozen that continue to rock hardest (they’re so deviant, in fact, that this dozen goes up to thirteen).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The queen mother of all midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still reigns on the cusp of its 40th anniversary as cinema’s ultimate over-the-top (and under-the-panties) coming-of-age ritual.
Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon star as Brad and Janet, repressed ’50s-type youths who willingly fall prey to the no-limits hedonism of Tim Curry’s screen-devouring Dr. Frank N. Furter, the proudly self-proclaimed, “Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Meat Loaf unforgettably bursts into the action as biker Eddie, and “The Time Warp” (and takes a jump to the left) as one of the great song-and-dance segments in movie history.
Instantly devoted fans championed Rocky Horror early on in 1975 and returned to midnight shows week after week, shouting comebacks to the film’s dialogue and acting out what was happening on screen. Four decades later, such mayhem continues at still-thriving midnight screenings, where teens converge to indulge in Rocky’s pelvic-thrusting panoply of vintage Hollywood musical aesthetic, EC Comics sci-fi fright fare, and overflowing pansexual glam-rock joy.
On a relatively microscopic level, Rocky’s little-known 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment, a strikingly prescient new-wave satire of 24-hour media mania, boasts a cult of its own. It’s certainly worth watching at least once—and/or 500 times in a row.
The Song Remains The Same (1977)
For three nights in 1973, the mighty Led Zeppelin landed in New York’s Madison Square Garden and, courtesy of the mammoth concert film The Song Remains The Same, every one of us has a front row ticket and backstage pass forever.
Woven into the dozen monstrous song performances (which kick off with a joltingly ferocious “Rock and Roll”) is behind-the-scenes footage that captures events such as the group’s $350,000 cash payday vamoosing from a vault. There’s also a gruesome scene of a presumably chemical-inflamed fan pissing off the wrong security guards and being dragged behind a locked door. Gulp.
Song also boasts elaborate, psychedelic-tinged fantasy sequences that play out as the band rips through a succession of classic cuts. Robert Plant is a sort of Viking-knight who rescues a distressed damsel with masterful swordplay. Jimmy Page scales a mountain in pursuit of a wise hermit. Jon Paul Jones rides through 18th century England as gothic superhero, “The Scarecrow.” John Bonham’s fantasy is unexpected and even moving: he dreams of simply being at home with his wife and son, albeit his farmland estate is loaded with rip-roaring race cars.
Bonzo, as the drummer is affectionately called, also snags Song’s premier spotlight showcase during the ocean-stomper “Moby Dick”: an uninterrupted eight-and-a-half minute drum solo.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
As the ultimate psychedelic band, the ultimate prog-rock band, and the ultimate arena-rock spectacle-makers, Pink Floyd essentially closed the book on concept albums and rock operas alike in 1979 with its history-making double-LP, The Wall.
Floyd performed The Wall live in just four cities, mounting a theatrical stage production of unprecedented hugeness that told the life story of a rock star named Pink from his father’s death in World War II to his mental and chemical breakdown and descent into fascist fantasy.
Director Alan Parker’s film interpretation, Pink Floyd: The Wall, tells the same story on a similarly epic scale, but with cinematic mastery so adept that no emotional impact ever gets lost amidst the movie’s onslaught of battlefield skirmishes, surreal British schoolboy fantasies, high-’70s rock-and-roll excess, and amazing, frightening animations by artist Gerald Scarfe.
Much credit goes to the music, of course, which plays continuously, revealing the plot in lieu of almost any dialogue. Bob Geldolf also nastily nails the lead role as Pink. Then the lead singer of the new wave group Boomtown Rats (and not yet the mastermind of Live Aid), Geldolf is always magnetic, whether he’s shaving off his eyebrows, leading a rock-and-roll Nazi rally or, as he does most often, just sitting and staring, his eyes blank but always fraught with terrifying notions of what lies behind them.
Rock-‘n’-Roll High School (1979)
Initially conceived by B-movie kingpin Roger Corman as “Disco High,” director Alan Arkush and his partner Joe Dante (who later made Gremlins) transformed Corman’s notion of a contemporary youth rebellion musical into an uproarious showcase for CBGB’s geek-fathers of punk, the Ramones.
P.J. Soles is irresistible as Riff Randall, the coolest rock chick and Vince Lombardi High School, where teenage wheeler-dealer Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) runs a zany black market out of his office in a boys’ bathroom toilet stall and pent-up fascist Principal Togar (Mary Woronov) rules with iron panties (Togar gets the movie’s best line: “Do your parents know you’re the Ramones?”).
Amplifying RNRHS’s anarchy are exploding mice, Togar’s chubby slapstick minions, rock radio legend The Real Don Steele, and, of course, the Ramones. New York’s punkest light up the screen with Prince Valiant haircuts, black leather jackets, torn jeans, and one-of-a-kind freak-show charisma, whether frontman Joey is being denied his beloved pizza, bassist Dee Dee is jamming in Riff’s running shower, or the entire group is blasting through a raucous, rousing concert scene, complete with sing-along lyrics onscreen (“D-U-M-B, everyone’s accusing me!”).
While the Ramones proved to be the perfect fit for Rock-‘n’-Roll High School, it’s fun to imagine the other possibilities that almost happened. The script was first written with solo star Todd Rundgren in mind. When he passed (a decision Rundgren says he’ll forever regret), Cheap Trick got the offer, but their management couldn’t make it work. After that, Van Halen’s name came up, but bigwigs at Warner Bros. records—VH’s own label!—warned director Arkush away from trying to sufficiently corral those wildmen into being able to shoot an actual movie. Finally, Arkush stumped for his beloved Ramones, and all involved turned Rock-‘n’-Roll High School into a great, goony splatter of rock-‘n’-roll heaven.
Visionary filmmaker Ken Russell once proclaimed his movie version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy to be “the greatest work of art the 20th century has yet produced.”
That remains open to debate, of course, but for tuned-in and turned-on audiences in 1975 when Tommy debuted, Russell backed up his braggadocio with an quadrophonic quantum leap forward in surrealistic rock-and-roll rhapsody.
Who frontman Roger Daltrey stars as the titular “deaf, dumb, and blind kid [that] sure plays a mean pinball.” Ludicrously sexy Ann-Margret is his mother. Charming brute Oliver Reed plays dad. En route to discovering the extraordinary pinball abilities that ultimately elevate Tommy to messianic status, our traumatically disabled hero must contend with sick sadist Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas), “fiddling about” pedophile Uncle Ernie (Who drummer Keith Moon), and literally drug-pushing Gypsy, the Acid Queen (Tina Turner, electrifying).
Other top-tier guests include Eric Clapton as a guitar-slinging faith healer, Jack Nicholson as a singing doctor, and, most iconically, Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, a bumper-flipping, glitter-rock phenom in four-and-a-half-foot tall Doc Martens who radiates so much dynamism he virtually tilts the screen.
Urgh! A Music War (1982)
Come the end of the 1970s, long-running superstar bands began evolving into “classic rock” and punk proved to gnarly for the mainstream palate. The music industry therefore bet big and hard, albeit briefly, on new wave.
With a clean-but-jagged pop art look and sounds that range from techno to roots rock to white reggae to retro-surf to baroque avant-garde, Urgh! A Music War supplies an ideal time capsule of new wave as it was poised to conquer the world just before Michael Jackson and Madonna pooped the trapezoidal-haircutted party.
Urgh!’s series of performance clips includes, coincidentally, the three biggest rock acts in the world at the time of the movie’s release: The Police (who get to jam out three hits), Joan Jett (playing “Bad Reputation”), and the Go-Go’s (who do “We Got the Beat,” a song featured prominently in another 1982 fave, Fast Times at Ridgemont High).
Devo and Gary Numan plug in their robotic freak factors. X and the Cramps reinterpret ’50s rock through cutting-edge ’80s rave-ups. The Dead Kennedys hasten the advent of hardcore. The Surf Punks serenade a beach babe out of her bikini. Oingo Boingo bangs out the world’s most jittery party soundtrack. Operatic space alien Klaus Nomi closes the proceedings with a proper aria.
In all, 34 bands perform in Urgh! A Music War. Others include XTC, Wall of Voodoo, Steel Pulse, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, UB40, Jools Holland, OMD, Skafish, the Fleshtones, and Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, as well as a direct portal into an all-too-unsung moment when mainstream rock made a conscious, admirable attempt to go really, really weird.
The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)
In The Grateful Dead Movie, director Jerry Garcia—that’s right, director Jerry Garcia—chronicles the Dead’s five-night 1974 run at the Winterland Ballroom on their home turf of San Francisco.
Planet Earth’s jam master generals explore their way through a dozen numbers, beginning with “U.S. Blues” and wrapping up with a rollicking run-through of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The concert scenes document the “Wall of Sound” audio system the Dead used at the time that was designed by acid guru Owsley “Bear” Stanley.
Brain-bending psychedelic animations, meanwhile, conjure the effect of Owsley’s better-known stock in trade, with the Uncle Sam skeleton, dancing bears, and other Dead iconography oozing, shimmering, and expanding to life in technologically groundbreaking segments by artist Gary Gutierrez.
When taking in those cartoons, you might ask, “What was that guy smoking?;” only to realize, “Oh, yeah! The same thing everybody else is when they’re watching The Grateful Dead Movie!”
Heavy Metal (1981)
Every teenage boy’s bedroom posters and adolescent libido explosively leapt to vivid, lustful, appropriately cartoonish life in Heavy Metal, the animated 1981 sci-fi landmark adapted from the “adult fantasy” magazine of the same name and bolstered by an ass-stomping soundtrack of hard rock heavy hitters that includes primo cuts by Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Nazareth, Sammy Hagar, and, yes, Devo.
After a groovy opening wherein an astronaut pilots a Cadillac convertible down to Earth while “Radar Rider” by Riggs thumps out of the car radio, an evil green rock beguiles an innocent young girl with five tales of treachery and heroism throughout, as Heavy Metal’s poster puts it, “a universe of mystery, a universe of magic, a universe of sexual fantasies, a universe of awesome good, a universe of terrifying evil.”
The two best stories take place up front. “Harry Canyon” follows Robert Romanus (Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as a hard-bitten cabbie in 2030 New York. “Den” chronicles a high school nerd voiced by John Candy who slips through a vortex and transforms into a righteous barbarian warrior on another planet.
The other segments, while each entertaining, are more hit-and-miss, although they’re often elevated to awesomeness by way of song choices. Don Felder’s “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” perfectly scores the WWII zombie bomber saga “B-17”, and the laser-dragon attack on a space city set to “Mob Rules” by Black Sabbath stands as one of the all-time most metal moments in the whole of cinema.
The Harder They Come (1972)
With a soundtrack often credited for popularizing reggae throughout the world, The Harder They Come also made a superstar of Jimmy Cliff, who plays the lead role, and exposed life among the destitute in Jamaica, where music is an even more potent intoxicant than marijuana.
Cliff plays Ivanhoe Martin, a hardscrabble hustler who gets a job running errands for a music producer. He’s able to record his song “The Harder They Come,” but Ivanhoe’s attempts to deal pot on the side lead to deadly consequences.
What ensues is a straightforward, occasionally jarring crime film, but the music score launches every moment of The Harder They Come into rapturous Rastafarian bliss.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
The 1988 sequel, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, has surpassed its 1981 predecessor in popularity, but that came as a result of VHS rentals, tape trading, and cable TV broadcasts. Director Penelope Spheeris’s first non-fiction chronicle of Sunset Strip rock culture was born a midnight movie and it retains its power to simultaneously stupefy and inspire.
Decline interweaves black-and-white talking-head interviews with L.A. punk fans among live performances and behind-the-scenes talks with the bands at the center of burgeoning hardcore maelstrom. Like Decline II, this film is utterly perfect.
Black Flag (pre-Henry Rollins), the Circle Jerks, and X all come off talented, likable, and smart, and their concert scenes deliver the short-fast-loud goods.
Wailing, flailing, human disaster Darby Crash pukes out star power while leading his Germs through a couple of chaotic outbursts (not shockingly, Darby fatally OD’d before the movie came out).
Pure punk powerhouse Fear closes the movie with a nuclear blast of five-songs punctuated throughout by lunatic on-stage violence and language that would now likely qualify as a hate crime. Do not miss it.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Director Brian De Palma’s “rock-and-roll phantasia” is a one-of-a-kind mash-up of gothic horror, glam extravagance, silent movie theatrics, cutting-edge filmmaking, and the age-old legend of Faust, the seeker of greatness who sells his soul to the devil.
Connecting all the film’s flashy, forever moving pieces is an eclectic, brilliant score by Paul Williams, who co-stars as Swan, a diabolical record executive who seeks to capture the heart of innocent songbird Phoenix (Jessica Harper) after a multi-act mega-concert at his Paradise theater.
Gumming up Swan’s dastardly plan is the Phantom (William Finley), a songwriter mutilated by Swan in a record-pressing machine who reinvents himself as a dark angel of vengeance.
Sprinkled throughout are performances on the Paradise stage by doo-wop greasers the Juicy Fruits, surf harmonizers the Beach Bums, and most spectacularly, the Kiss-like Undead, who introduce monster rocker Beef (hilarious Gerrit Graham), a butched-up combo of Gary Glitter and Alice Cooper.
200 Motels (1972)
Ringo Starr opens 200 Motels, Frank Zappa’s freaked-out meditation on the utter madness of rock-and-roll touring, in the role of Frank Zappa. He continues to play the weirdo visionary musician throughout the movie, appearing in bizarre set pieces in between concert scenes where the real Zappa and his Mothers of Invention play alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Lead singers Flo and Eddie consistently amuse, as do cool, nasty cartoons that mock Zappa’s rock contemporaries such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, in addition to the Who’s Keith Moon hamming it up as a cockney nun.
Forbidden Zone (1980)
Forbidden Zone is a black-and-white, anything goes musical that arose from the live stage show of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, a multimedia performance group that eventually boiled itself down into new wave combo Oingo Boingo.
Richard Elfman, brother of Boingo leader and future A-list film composer Danny Elfman, creates a hellzapoppin’ world where Herve Villechaize (Tattoo from Fantasy Island) reigns over a Sixth Dimension populated by his mad diva Queen (Susan Tyrell), naked slave girls, gorillas, performance artists the Kipper Kids, old ethnic stereotypes come to comical life, and a giant frog in a classy tuxedo.
When surface dwellers literally get pooped into the Sixth Dimension, chaos reigns, tin pan alley songs turn dirty, Satan captures a topless princess, and the movie plays like a berserk 1930s cartoon flawlessly made flesh.
Few films genuinely qualify for the descriptor, “You have to see it to believe it.” Forbidden Zone is a one such madhouse masterpiece.