Thursday, April 16, 2020, at 4 pm I’ll be hosting a special program for the WTJU Rock Marathon. I’ll be featuring music — and the artists that perform it — specifically for movies and TV shows.
Fictional groups as characters
A fake band can serve various roles in a film.
“Animal House” was set in 1963. Soul band Otis Day and the Knights perform for a white fraternity party. Later, some of the brothers see them advertised at a roadhouse. They burst in, not realizing it’s an African-American establishment. Hilarity (of a sort) ensues.
Frankie Avalon’s head was often turned in the American International beach movies. In 1965’s “Beach Blanket Bingo” it was Linda Evans. Evans played Sugar Cane, a singer doing publicity stunts to promote her latest album. She performs numbers from it backed by the Hondells in the movie. Jackie Ward provided Evan’s singing voice.
A more curious example is found in 1964’s “Bikini Beach.” In answer to the British Invasion, Frankie Avalon plays two roles; Frankie the surfer, and Peter Royce Bentley, AKA Potato Bug. Both via for Annette Funicello’s attention. The Potato Bug is an amalgam of the Beatles. His songs pastiche the sounds of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At one point both Frankie and Potato Bug sing a duet, each in their own style.
In the 2007 rom-com, “Music and Lyrics,” Hugh Grant plays Alex Fletcher, still trading on his fame as a member of PoP. Based on Wham!, the group’s sole hit “Pop Goes My Heart” is performed in the opening credits in an 80s-style music video.
“Groupie Girl” is a 1970 UK drama, based on the memoirs of former groupie Suzanne Mercer. The heroine falls in with a number of bands. English Rose (created for the film) gets an extended sequence for their song “Yesterday’s Heros.”
Biofics – thinly disguised biographies
Sometimes an artist will play a slightly fictionalized version of themselves. In “Purple Rain,” Prince plays The Kid, but really — it’s Prince. And the rest of the cast also plays basically themselves. Apollonia Kotero as Apollonia; Morris Day as Morris, Jerome Benton as Jerome and so on.
Eminem plays Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, Jr. in “8 Mile.” The story of Jimmy is essentially Eminem’s as well.
But biopics don’t have to be autobiofictional. Several movies have told fictionalize versions of very real artists.
Bette Midler played Mary Foster Rose, a self-destructive singer. This 1979 movie was reworked when the Janis Joplin Estate denied the producers the rights to her story. Songs of the era are mixed with original music, all lending themselves to Midler’s Joplin-like delivery. “The Rose” was written by Amanda MickBroom.
“Grace of My Heart” was a 1996 film starring Illeana Douglas. Her character, Denise Waverly has a life quite similar to Carole King’s. Both start as songwriters and eventually emerge as performing artists with the release of a seminal album in the 1970s.
The score imitates the various eras — early 60s pop, mid-60s California sound, and of course, the piano-based sounds of Carole King’s “Tapestry.” Score contributors included Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and Jill Sobule.
“Dreamgirls” was a smash Broadway musical, becoming a film in 2006. In this case, the fictional biography is of a group. The Dreamettes are based on the Supremes. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen wrote the Broadway score, rearranged by Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas for the film. The end result is a score that parallels the historical development of the Motown sound. The rock-solid cast included Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, and Jamie Fox.
In “Almost Famous,” the biographical basis for the movie isn’t the band, but the reporter who followed it. Director and writer Cameron Crowe had been a journalist for the Rolling Stone in his teens. The movie tells the story of a teenage journalist covering a band on tour, trying to get a cover story for the Rolling Stone.
In real life, Crowe covered the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, Poco, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those bands are blended together to create Stillwater for the film.
A Star is Born (again and again)
The first version of this film was made in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Gaynor’s trying to break into movies, and March is a matinee idol. Her star rises while his fades, dooming their romance. The 1954 version (Judy Garland and James Mason) made it a musical.
The 1976 version transformed it further. The lead characters became musicians rather than actors. Barbra Streisand played Esther Hoffman Howard to Kris Kristofferson’s self-destructive rock star John Norman Howard.
In 2018, Lady Gaga as Ally Campano and Bradley Cooper as alcoholic Jackson Maine play the leads. In both these versions, the stars performed — and in some cases — wrote the songs their characters sing.