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Berkeley Talks: Music historian David James on cinemas dance with popular music

By Public Affairs

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Elvis dancing with other dancers

Cover of music historian David James’ book Rock ‘N’ Film: Cinema’s Dance With Popular Music

In his book Rock ’n’ Film: Cinema’s Dance with Popular Music, music historian David James explores how rock’s capacity for cultural empowerment and its usefulness as a driver of commerce and profit have been reproduced in various kinds of cinema: independent documentaries and concert films including Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter; narrative films, such as King Creole and Privilege; and the experimental cinema of artists, like Kenneth Anger.

portrait of David James smiling

David James is a professor of critical studies at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. (USC photo)

In a June 22 lecture at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), James, a professor of critical studies at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, explored the rich legacy of cinema’s dance with popular music. Illustrating his talk with clips from classic rock films like Blackboard Jungle, A Hard Day’s Night, and many others, James shared with his BAMPFA audience how rock music was distinctive from other cultural developments of its era because of its multiracial appeal, anticipating and helping to precipitate the utopian ideals of the civil rights era and other left-wing movements.

These transformative energies, James said, were channeled into a growing body of films that became important to the development of rock music — not just as delivery mechanisms of the new sound, but as engines for its production. Marquee musicians like Elvis and the Beatles found themselves able to experiment with new forms of creative expression in films that captured the exciting and transgressive spirit of their musical moment.

James’ lecture was delivered in conjunction with an ongoing film series at BAMPFA inspired by his work, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, which runs through Aug. 31. For more information, visit .

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