Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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With Dennis Hopper.
Directed by Malcolm Leo.
(MGM/UA Home Video cassette, 97 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Start with the title. Why survey 20 years of rock and roll in 1987, when this rock-doc was put together? Rock and roll, you'll recall, began in 1954 or thereabouts. What began in 1967 was Rolling Stone itself, which has been claiming suzerainty over the music ever since. So while the exposition does include references to Elvis et al, it also implies that San Francisco's so-called Summer of Love, which also took place in 1967, was a rock and roll watershed. And with that as a starting point, it delivers Stone's usual boring rock-as-idealism myth.

To present an hour and a half of meaningful history on such a scale would be no mean feat. This tape simply isn't up to the job. Sure, the snippets of performance visual can be truncated fun. But most of them are lifted from more worthwhile films: Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Soul to Soul, Sympathy for the Devil, Saturday Night Fever, The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, the Paul Simon and USA for Africa videos, various promos, and on and on.

The original material consists of interviews with a predictable panoply of stars and "survivors." Shot against tinted backdrops, these tend to be platitudinous and canned-looking. The big offenders are Grace Slick, an old fart [a bad civics teacher], George Harrison, a simpleton, and Robbie Robertson, an even bigger windbag here than he was in The Last Waltz. Others are merely useless, or adequate. But only sarcasm addict Randy Newman and a surprisingly candid and irreverent Jerry Garcia provide consistent insight or entertainment value. Alternately shaky and zombielike in a wrinkled suit and tie, major-domo Dennis Hopper reads his lines like he needs the money. And the lines themselves, credited to newly discovered rock historians Peter Elbling and Steve Muscarella, lack even the zing one anticipates from Rolling Stone's resident pundits.

Dilettantes looking for a painless way to absorb a toothless myth--well, as they said in the '80s, go for it. Music fans, draw your own conclusions.

Video Review, Nov. 1989