All this talk about the visiting Beatles tribute band 1964 got us thinking about fake rock 'n' roll bands ... and the fact that the Beatles' first movie, the groundbreaking A Hard Day's Night, is 50 years old this week got us thinking about fake rock 'n' roll bands in movies.
We all know there are loads of non-documentary movies about rock ‘n’ roll. And most of them suck, because Hollywood people as a rule don’t know a whole lot about the mechanics of music or the people involved.
Following that (admittedly thin) train of logic, here—for no reason other than we thought it would be fun—are our favorite examples of times they actually got it right.
These are entirely fictional (i.e. scripted) films about bands. Because the movies are so good, the bands in question seem realer than real.
But, of course, they aren’t.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Amps that go to 11, foil-wrapped cucumbers, pokey hors d’oeuvres with “no one home,” tiny Stonehenge trod on by a dwarf, Shit Sandwich and Smell the Glove are part of the rock ‘n’ roll lexicon these days, thanks to Rob Reiner’s faux-documentary about the self-important British band that refused to die. Spinal Tap has become the yardstick by which all fictional rock comedies are measured. Comic masters Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer virtually inhabit the dimwitted musicians Nigel Tufnell, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls, and their brilliance is even more amazing when you learn that virtually all of the dialogue was improvised. The trio actually wrote and performed the songs, including “Big Bottom,” “Hell Hole” and, yes, “Stonehenge.” The film, which wasn’t terribly successful on initial release (many people thought it was a documentary about an actual heavy metal band), has become one of the most beloved American satires of the past 25 years. U2 guitarist The Edge said that when he first watched it “I didn’t laugh, I wept,” because it depicted, in his view, what vacuous, self-important shite rock music had become.
Still Crazy (1998)
Realistic in every respect, and still hilarious, Still Crazy is the greatest rock movie you’ve never seen. It’s been 20 years since the members of Strange Fruit have spoken to each other, much less performed together. When a reunion offer they can’t refuse comes in, the guys decide to bury the hatchet and give things another go. But the old animosities resurface, and the reconstituted Fruits’ test-run tour of European clubs is a disaster. There are so many things to recommend about this British comedy-with-heart, from stellar performances by thespian royalty Bill Nighy, Timothy Spall, Steven Rea, Bruce Robinson and Billy Connolly, to a winning script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenzies (who later collaborated on Across the Universe). The original songs were provided by Chris Difford (Squeeze), Mick Jones (Foreigner), Jeff Lynne (ELO) and Clive Langer (Morrissey), among others—so they ring true. Comparisons to This is Spinal Tap are inevitable, but Still Crazy mines a much richer, more human, vein. When Strange Fruit’s manager says, wistfully, “I want to stand in the dark and see an audience feel the way I do,” anybody who’s ever succumbed to live rock ‘n’ roll will get it.
That Thing You Do! (1996)
In the wake of the Beatles, every kid in America wanted to start a band. Tom Hanks’ lighthearted film chronicles the rise and fall of the Wonders, four Midwestern kids who take up the gauntlet and, improbably, get a record deal —and a hit—in 1964. It’s full of little period in-jokes, like spelling the band’s name the Oneders (think the Byrds, the Cyrkle) until someone mispronounces it “The O’Needers,” to the cash-in record exec who signs them but never bothers to learn their names. The presence of director/producer Hanks as the boys’ sharp-dressing, fast-talking Svengali adds to the thespian gravitas—with the exception of the Wonders’ lead guitarist (played by good old wisecracking Steve Zahn), they’re not too memorable as individuals. Liv Tyler is on board as the pouty girlfriend of one of the guys, but she’s not what makes this movie great, either. It’s the attention to detail—the painstaking re-creations of mid ‘60s package shows, obnoxious emcees, obsequious disc jockeys and, above all, the insanely catchy, straight-from the ‘60s title song. Which did not exist in the ‘60s, but was written specifically for this movie.
Almost Famous (2000)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical paean to early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll is justifiably revered for its winning combination of humor, pathos and brilliant performances, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as snarky critic Lester Bangs to Jason Lee’s strutting-ass turn as the lead singer for the fictional band Stillwater. Yet the movie’s genius is in the details, as groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) begins to realize she’s been used by the band; as budding journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) finds himself the unwitting custodian of acid-addled guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup); as William’s otherwise-liberal mother (Frances McDormand) cries out in disbelief: “Rock stars have kidnapped my son!” And hey, it’s got Zoey Deschanel at her big-eyed quirky-cutest! Favorite line: “Wanna watch me feed a rat to my snake?”
For an even more potent experience, check out the “director’s cut” version, available under Crowe’s original name for the film, Untitled. It’s 40 minutes longer.
The Commitments (1991)
What happens when white, working class Irish kids form a powerhouse soul band? Alan Parker’s adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s novel is gritty, heartwarming and heartbreaking, as nine young Dubliners fight their way out of poverty, prejudice, indifference and the virtual guarantee of a bleak future. The driving force behind the band is wannabe impresario Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins), whose desire to assemble “the world’s hardest-working band” leads to a lengthy series of humorous auditions— and, ultimately, to Dublin’s best approximation of Wilson Pickett (Andrew Strong, 17 at the time of filming, as lead vocalist and sweaty frontman “Deco” Cuffe) and a kickass R&B rhythm section, horns and a trio of hot-chick backup singers. What follows is a less-than-typical rise-and-fall band story. The Commitments is inspirational, and absolutely jammed with great music.
Trivia: The part of veteran musician Joey “The Lips” Fagan, the conscience of the band, was originally offered to Van Morrison, who turned it down. Doyle adapted his novel into a play in 2013, for London’s West End.
Our honorable mentions: Not Fade Away, Velvet Goldmine, Eddie and the Cruisers, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Rock Star, 24 Hour Party People.