“. . .rock ‘n’ roll is always a quintessentially B art form. Its potency, even the bulk of its charm, has always been about no respect for artistic authority, musical elegance, refinement of taste, or virtuosity.” So write David Sterritt and John Anderson in the introduction to one of the 11 sections in their eclectically focused selection of essays culled from sources ranging from the Los Angeles Times to tcm.com, The B List (Da Capo Press; $15.95). The section in question is titled “Whole Lotta Shakin’: Rock, Pop, and Beyond,” and it contains essays on the movies The Buddy Holly Story, King Creole, American Hot Wax, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Greendale. The essay on Neil Young’s Greendale, by Sam Adams, contributing editor at Philadelphia City Paper, is quite possibly worth the better part of the price of this collection of essays on that movie as well as 57 others that Sterritt and Anderson encompass in the subtitle The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love.
Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and a film professor at Columbia, and Anderson, a writer for venues including Variety, miss the point vis-à-vis B movies and rock and roll. A better way of looking at it is that a B movie is to a full-blown feature what a B side is to a disc. Peter Keough, a film editor at the Boston Phoenix, writes in one of the collected essays, “Traditionally, the term B movie refers to those cheap, readily accessible, generally lurid exploitation films from pulpy genres designed to fill the second billing for the main feature.” The occasion of his essay is Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation (1974), which was made just after The Godfather. Clearly, Coppola didn’t make a film that had “no respect for artistic authority;” Keough points out that Coppola acknowledged Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow-Up (1966) as inspiration for the film; Blow-Up was nominated for two Academy Awards (director; screenplay), and while it didn’t win either, let’s face it: back then, mainstream was the only stream so far as the Academy was concerned. Keough writes that The Conversation represented a “new kind of B picture,. . . an intensely personal expression of the filmmaker’s soul.”
And by and large, the connection between rock and roll’s B sides and B pictures is more in that vein. B sides are not necessarily any less than the reverse side: they are made by the same performers, possibly during the same session. But it was ordinarily the case that the record company decided which of the two songs had a better chance of being a “hit,” so the A side was released to the radio stations and the record stores as being the one to play. There are countless examples of the absurdity of the A side being “better” or the B side being in some way inelegant or somehow less tasteful or capable than the other. Consider a few examples from the Beatles‘ singles: “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You”; “I Feel Fine”/”She’s a Woman”; “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out”; “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down.” No, B’s are in many cases better.
Arguably, the B movie aficionado is very much like—and possibly the same person—as someone who reads content like that found on Glorious Noise. There is a level of interest and commitment that goes beyond the norm in the subject, and while not necessarily tripping over to the full-blown trainspotting obsession (as in those who tick off serial numbers of Brit rail, not Danny Boyle‘s 1996 film), is more on that side of the line than is the norm.
In The B List there are essays by people who spend the better part of their time writing about mainstream films, such as Roger Ebert and Peter Travers, and in some ways, their writing about B films (e.g., Ebert on Beat the Devil; Travers on Forty Guns) has a freshness and incisiveness that their mainstream coverage often lacks. As Travers writes in his piece on Forty Guns, “For me, the best B movies always reflect the joy a gifted filmmaker takes on busting loose from the shackles of realism, restraint, and good taste.” It is the “busting loose” that is most germane, I’d argue, about what makes “B picture” a category onto itself.
There is an abundance of good writing in The B List, writing about movies that you are familiar with, such as Reservoir Dogs and Night of the Living Dead, and about movies that you may not have even heard about (unless you have the obsessional interest), such as Out of the Past (“one of the greatest noirs,” according to essayist Stephanie Zacharkek) and Man of the West (“Jean-Luc Godard wrote a review of Man of the West when it came out,” notes Jonathan Rosenbaum in his piece). The B List should be—to make a movie blurb-like crack at this—on your A List.