Book Review: The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia

At first glance, John Kenneth Muir’s The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopediais a staggering piece of work: 358 pages chronicling the legacy of the rock and roll movie through entries on individual titles — documentaries, musicals, and narratives — and the rock stars and musicians who star in them makes for an impressive-looking volume.

And it should be. Based on Muir’s brief, breezy introduction, and his even more succinct conclusion, he’s quite a fan of the rock movie. In his opening remarks, Muir is so into cinematic rock and roll that he likens many of the films from the genre to the mantra of Dewey Finn, Jack Black’s character in School of Rock: one great rock show can change the world. Muir believes this so deeply that he temporarily loses himself in the utopian dreams rock music and movies can elicit:

…the glorious thing about Dewey Finn’s “great rock show” theorem is that perhaps, just perhaps, it could happen.

After all, music is often termed “the universal language.” Music bridges ethnic differences, leaps over language barriers, and can overcome lines of racial divide. It’s the one thing every human being anywhere on Earth can experience and internalize without the interference or stratifications of class, wealth, or country of origin.

With such a passionate soul as the guide through rock and roll movie history, you would think that the encyclopedia itself would be a flawless piece of well-researched reference material. Unfortunately, The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia proves that there's something to that cliché of not judging a book by its cover.

No one can quibble with what Muir decided to include in the book. The movies he included are based on five categories: documentaries, soundtracks, musicians starring in the film, the subject of the movie is rock and roll, and rock operas and musicals. These groups, Muir says, make up the “rock genre.” From the genre he plucks 231 entries: movies, ranging from the popular to staples of the midnight movie scene to titles few have heard of, and individuals found in those movies. Some entries are longer than others, and the length of each entry seems based on the popularity of the movie, its availability, its significance, or if Muir could get someone to talk to him about the movie.

The entry on Purple Rain, for instance, is a three-and-a-quarter pages long rehash of the movie’s production history and features interview material from the film’s director, Albert Magnoli. On the other hand, the movie House, a B-grade horror schlocker included in the book because of its 1960s rock-heavy soundtrack, is barely a quarter of a page rundown of its synopsis and why it’s in the encyclopedia.

For as well-, or at the very least passably-, written as the majority of the entries are, they prove to be the book’s major flaw. Not because of what’s included, but because of what isn’t.

In his introduction, Muir writes “for the purposes of this book, films that involve rock music, but also disco, rhythm & blues, soul, and pop are all included in the mix.” Oh, if this were only true. There are glaring omissions in the book of important works of soul cinema. This isn’t meant to mean blaxsploitation, but instead movies with a soul soundtrack, soul artists, or simply about soul music. While What’s Love Got to Do With It, the Tina Turner biopic starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, is included in the encyclopedia, it is one of the only examples of a movie with a soul or R&B subject.

Shaft is missing, as is Superfly, two movies notable for their exceptional, influential soundtracks by Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, respectively. The Harder They Come, while more reggae than Muir's rock, is considered a soul film in certain circles and is likewise notable for its soundtrack. Most egregiously, though, two important documentaries were left out: Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Wattstax. It’s impossible to conceive of an encyclopedia framed around the idea that one rock show can change the world and missing from that book is Wattstax, a documentary about the “black Woodstock” that took place in 1972 in Los Angeles, that featured the likes of Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, and Albert King, and that was one of the most socially relevant music events to happen in the United States.

Equally shameful is that The T.A.M.I. Show is missing. This concert film from 1964 is as rock and roll as you can get. The concert, which took place in Los Angeles, featured the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Marvin Gaye, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and early performances from James Brown and the Rolling Stones. Granted the movie is a bit esoteric because it isn’t readily available in any format, but that’s no excuse. Any rock and roll film encyclopedia worth its weight must include The T.A.M.I. Show or it is incomplete.

Other notable absences arise when you consider musicians-turned-actors. David Bowie has a prominent role in this book; he has his own entry and a movie like The Hunger, Tony Scott’s campy ‘80s vampire movie, gets an entry, too, because Bowie starred in it. But conspicuously missing is Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Amazingly, Muir includes the film in the biography in Bowie’s entry but doesn’t include an entry on the movie itself. The Man Who Fell to Earth was Bowie’s first role, and a publicity still from it served as the cover to his album Low. Seems pretty rock and roll. Labyrinth, a movie Bowie not only starred in but contributed a soundtrack to, is also missing. Diana Ross also gets the shoddy treatment, with Muir leaving out Lady Sings the Blues and The Wiz. So forgotten is Diana Ross that she doesn’t even warrant a personal entry, a fate most soul musicians and soul musicians-turned-actors suffer in the book.

These omissions, all of which fall under the purview of what Muir himself deems rock and roll, is quite distressing. Encyclopedias are, by definition, books that contain comprehensive information. The Rock & Roll Encyclopedia is hardly comprehensive. The book is an admirable effort on Muir’s part. He has an obvious reverence for the rock and roll movie and he’s enthusiastic about sharing his love of these films with others. Unfortunately, what he calls his “survey” seems far too short-sighted. It’s a primer, not an encyclopedia.