February 6, 2007

Film Scholar

David James Ph.D. focuses on the link between music and movies

By Allison Engel, USC Public Relations

James, who has been at USC for 16 years, has a moment with Oscar. Photo:AMPAS

David E. James, professor in critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has been named one of two 2007 Academy Film Scholars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

His award, presented at a luncheon on Jan. 26 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, comes with a $25,000 grant to write a book on the interaction between rock ’n’ roll and cinema in the United States and United Kingdom. His research will cover the mid-1950s and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s through the eras of country, disco, punk, heavy metal, hip-hop and rap.

The first half of the grant was given at the luncheon. The remainder will be presented upon completion of his manuscript, when James will present a lecture on his project at a public academy event.

The Institutional Grants Committee of the Academy Foundation, which is the educational wing of the academy, has selected two Academy Film Scholars annually for the past seven years. Steven J. Ross, professor and chair of the history department in USC College, won the award in 2001. His proposal was “Hollywood Left and Right: Movie Stars and Politics.” He is on leave to finish his book, which looks at the relationship among movies, movie stars and American popular culture across the 20th century.

Popular music in film is a relatively new academic interest for James, who has been at USC for 16 years. Three years ago, he began teaching “Rock ’n Film,” a course he developed on the graduate level. His previous academic interests had been avant-garde cinema, East Asian cinema and culture in Los Angeles.

Asked to describe films that successfully combine rock or pop with narrative, James cited The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield, Gimme Shelter, the documentary about the Rolling Stones, Nashville, Robert Altman’s look at country music, and Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film starring Diana Ross as Billie Holliday.

James said the award recognizes “that both black and white traditions of popular music have become integral components of commercial film and television and similarly central to most other forms of contemporary culture.” His project also reflects the trend towards interdisciplinary studies that USC has been encouraging for several years, he said, as well as the recent growth of interest in sound in cinema.

This year’s other Academy Film Scholars recipient is Jan-Christopher Horak, a visiting professor at UCLA, who will write a biography of graphic designer Saul Bass.