Book review: Magical Musical Tour by K. J. Donnelly

Magical Musical Tour by K. J. Donnelly

Magical Musical Tour by K. J. Donnelly

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The silver screen has had film fans tapping their feet since the earliest black and white silent movies first flickered their way through the reels.

Calling them silent was a misnomer anyway as the entertainment in those long-gone grainy days was usually accompanied by a musical score. And sales of souvenir sheet music were to prove a lucrative spin-off for the cinema industry.

Fast forward around half a century and the advent of rock’n’roll brought even more opportunities for exploitation, a trend which has continued through successive technological breakthroughs taking in vinyl, CD, downloads and streaming.

Magical Musical Tour gives readers not only the best seat in the house but the best beat too, focusing on the extensive growth of rock and pop in film soundtracks.

Author K. J. Donnelly admits to an ‘obsessive interest’ in the subject dating back to his teenage years. He reckons the real game changer came in the mid-1960s with A Hard Day’s Night and its follow up Help!, suggesting: ‘The Beatles’ films, on the back of their music, changed the landscape of music’s relationship with film.’

As well as throwing the spotlight on the Fab Four, whose Magical Mystery Tour TV film presumably inspired the book’s title, Donnelly devotes a chapter to the extensive incidental film music created by Pink Floyd over a five-year period.

He presents a convincing case that this pioneering move in the late 1960s and early 70s was crucial in changing the group from ‘drug-inspired psychedelic acid rock to serious coffee table superstars.’

Donnelly notes that movie-makers realised films made around pop groups could be put together relatively cheaply and were guaranteed a certain amount of success by the performers’ established history of record sales, which resulted in a ready-made audience.

Then, in 1969, the so-called counterculture film Easy Rider provided a breakthrough of another kind. It was extremely successful, made on a small budget and, most importantly, soundtracked with a compilation of contemporary songs which added an extra dimension to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s druggy motorbike trip across America.

By the 1980s, the entertainment giants controlling both movie and music empires, saw the synergy –or rather the huge profit potential – of films being built around a selection of pop songs by diverse musicians, but on the same record label. This not only provided a soundtrack album but allowed for the staggered release of songs as singles. A true money-making double feature, as they say in the cinema world.

Rock documentaries, or ‘rockumentaries’ as they became known, were a notable genre of the late 1960s and 1970s, remaining vibrant today but almost wholly for the DVD and Blu-ray market rather than cinemas.

Another key market Donnelly explores in his book is the 1970s phenomenon of ‘blaxploitation,’ depicting black American urban culture.

These films exploited black popular music and, 45 years on, Isaac Hayes’ iconic theme tune for Shaft remains so easily identifiable from even the first few seconds of that choppy rhythm guitar and wah-wah pedal.

David Bowie, The Monkees and rap music stars such as Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy also come under the scrutiny of Donnelly, a Reader in Film at the University of Southampton, whose in-depth book should appeal to anyone with an interest in cinema music.

(Bloomsbury, paperback, £23.99)