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Gilbey on Film: the chequered history of rockumentaries

Why the White Stripes' live film is a blast from the past.

How quaint to think of people settling down in their cinema seats to watch the White Stripes' live documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, which was released last Friday.

I realise that the brief theatrical outing of such films is really just a promotional exercise to shift more copies of the DVD (and, in this case, the accompanying live album, too), as it was with the Blur film No Distance Left to Run at the start of the year. But there's always been something faintly absurd about watching concert movies in the cinema, aside from those rare occasions when the picture in question is such a corker that the old divisions between performer and audience are scarcely palpable -- as in the obvious but honourable cases of Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense, and D A Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. When I'm watching David Byrne grooving with a living-room lamp during "Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)", or Angie Bowie striking poses around the dressing room of the Hammersmith Odeon, I'm in pop-movie heaven.

As someone who paid to sit through warmed-up gig-going leftovers such as Sign o' the Times and The Cure in Orange (the shame), I don't nurse a longing for the concert movie's comeback. My preferred species of musical cinema (outside the musical itself, that is) will always be those movies in which the band members make some sort of gesture toward acting -- think of the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman's first film, Catch Us If You Can, or Madness playing versions of themselves in the underrated Take It Or Leave It.

And that's not forgetting the film on which a thousand childhood dreams of the pop life were founded: Help!, which showed the Beatles all living in the same house. As if that wasn't cool enough, each band member entered their shared abode through his own separate front door. Bliss. Unless, of course, you happened to be the Arcade Fire, the Blue Aeroplanes or So Solid Crew. (Or, for that matter, The Fall. Can you really picture Mark E Smith giving anyone else a door key?)

That's the sort of film I would start a petition to resurrect. There have been sporadic examples over the past decade or two -- Spiceworld The Movie, the would-be trippy All Saints caper Honest, S Club 7's Seeing Double and and the maligned but seriously strange Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn't Happen Here, as well as 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin'. But I wonder if the wind hasn't been taken out of its sails by two competing sub-genres. One is the cringingly frank documentary (the finest examples of which remain Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and DiG). The other is the fictionalised biopic, spawned by early 1970s Ken Russell movies: Velvet Goldmine begat 24-Hour Party People (both featured scenes of real figures -- Oscar Wilde in the former, Bez in the latter -- being delivered to Earth by flying saucer) and from those films sprang Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

It's a shame the now-tarnished Britpop movement missed out on its opportunity for celluloid immortality. Suede might have suited something vaguely apocalyptic. Oasis would've been just right as the villagers in a Straw Dogs remake. And take a minute to envisage Menswear, Sleeper, Gene, Shed Seven and the like, all holed up in an isolated mansion while Luke Haines of the Auteurs roams the hallways swinging a machete. Who wouldn't have paid good money to see that?

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.