OurStage’s Top Ten Fictional Music Movies: There are many film scripts that invent bands as part of the narrative. Most are just an afterthought, and many more are forgettable and awful, even as a figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. These films created the best, funniest, most realistic, lived-in bands in film.
10. Light of Day (1987)
Who in 1987 wasn’t waiting for the Michael J. Fox – Joan Jett big screen pairing? The only question was what the vehicle would be. A rom-com? Sci-fi thriller? A Tango & Cash“esque buddy cop action-comedy? A Back to the Future sequel where Marty meets The Runaways in 1977? What we actually got was an unexpectedly gritty family drama, centering on the relationship between brother and sister Joe and Patty (Fox and Jett), who perform together in a struggling E Street-esque bar band called The Barbusters. I have just told you the worst part of the movie. The band is called The Barbusters. This blow is softened by the appearance of the great Michael McKean as a band member”one of McKean’s THREE appearances on this list.
Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, wrote and directed this film and in fact commissioned a song by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen came back with Born In The U.S.A. but decided to keep that one for himself. Too bad, it could have been a hit. The Barbusters do a decent job with his alternate effort, the title song, Light of Day.” And, hey, look, Michael J. Fox can sing. This begs the question”what the hell, Robert Zemeckis? The idea that it’s Fox’ voice singing Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future is the least credible part of a movie about a time traveling DeLorean that runs on plutonium.
9. 8 Mile (2002)
People say that Eminem was basically playing himself in this film about an aspiring rapper from Detroit with a fucked-up mom and few prospects aside from an innate and unique lyrical flow. But it’s a mistake to go into this thinking it’s the Eminem Story. Em and director Curtis Hanson wisely keep the character of B-Rabbit sullen and low-key. The rapper is not a great actor, but he plays this one just right, with visibly crippling insecurity and remarkably restrained rage. The cleverness of the “improvised” rhymes staged on street corners and at club battles is just short of believable, but (spoiler alert) at the end, when B-Rabbit destroys all comers with Eminem’s signature delivery, disbelief is easily suspended. This won an Oscar for the great lead song Lose Yourself.
Mark Wahlberg already knows a thing or three about reinvention. When he first burst onto the entertainment scene in 1991 as the leader of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunk”a two-hit wonder from whom nobody expected any kind of longevity, and afterwards as a Calvin Klein underwear model”few probably thought he’d be likely to succeed past the mid-decade mark.
Yet two decades later, he’s still here. He’s a movie star and a respected actor, a successful producer (of the TV series Entourage and Boardwalk Empire, and of last year’s Best Picture Oscar contender, The Fighter) and an Academy Award acting nominee (Best Supporting Actor for 2006’s The Departed).
His next project: making Justin Bieber a film star. “I see the guy and spent time with him, and you see what he does and how he does it,” Wahlberg told MTV News last year, “and then you actually have a conversation with him, and it’s there.”
Picture this (because Wahlberg already has): Bieber in a The Color of Money-type film, which Wahlberg is developing for Paramount Pictures, with basketball replacing pool. Bieber would take the Tom Cruise role, and Wahlberg would cast a formidable screen legend like Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall or Jack Nicholson as the grizzled vet, the Color of Money archetype that finally won Paul Newman an Oscar in 1987.
It sounds like a dream job”for someone else. If Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Justin Timberlake, Tim McGraw and Wahlberg himself have taught us anything, when making the transition from music to movies, it’s best to start small. Both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera tried to fulfill their film-star fantasy by starring above the title the first time out (in Crossroads and Burlesque, respectively), and thus far, neither one’s Hollywood dream has come true.
Enimen has yet to find a follow-up worthy of his debut starring role in 2002’s 8 Mile; the Hollywood heat surrounding The Bodyguard star Whitney Houston, set to test the acting waters again in a 2012 remake of Sparkle, quickly cooled after three films; Beyoncé has gotten plenty of acting work, but her Hollywood career has yet to generate any kind of major excitement; and Evita aside, Madonna has been most successful onscreen in supporting roles (Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy, A League of Their Own). Former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar her first time out for Dreamgirls, but what has she done for us lately?
That Bieber’s 2011 documentary/concert film, Never Say Never, was a major box-office success ($73 million in North America) indicates that movie-ticket buyers will shell out bucks to see him on the big screen. And he’s already had a guest-starring role in C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation. But pop stars are always booking cameos and story arcs in hit TV shows, and in Never Say Never, Bieber was literally playing himself. If Wahlberg is going to guide him through the Hollywood jungle, he’d be wise to pull out the map that he himself used.
For now, let somebody else drive. Don’t even let him ride shotgun just yet. Bieber would be better off in the backseat, cast in an ensemble movie where he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting (see Taylor Swift in Valentine’s Day”on second thought, don’t).
When Wahlberg landed his first major starring role, in 1997’s Boogie Nights, he was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and surrounded by highly esteemed talents like Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly and a soon-to-be-briefly resurgent (and Oscar-nominated for the first time) Burt Reynolds.
Even after Boogie Nights, Wahlberg’s most notable films”I Heart Huckabees, The Departed, The Fighter”have featured plenty of Oscar-caliber talent. And in The Departed, it was Wahlberg, not costars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon or Jack Nicholson who walked away with the Oscar nod.
Good luck to them both. They’ll need it. Wahlberg may have proven that he’s a miracle worker by going from rapper to underwear hunk to Oscar nominee, but Bieber holding his own with a DeNiro or a Duvall or a Nicholson sounds like an almost-impossible dream.
10 Music Stars Who Deserve a Hollywood Big-Screen Test
1. Lady Gaga
Best Performance in a Video: “Paparazzi”
2. John Mayer
Best Performance in a Video: “Who Says”
Best Performance in a Video: “Blow”
4. Mary J. Blige
Best Performance in a Video: “Be Without You”
Best Performance in a Video: “Glitter in the Air” (live at the 2010 GRAMMY Awards)
Best Performance in a Video: “Warwick Avenue”
7. Fiona Apple
Best Performance in a Video: “Fast As You Can”
8. Richard Ashcroft
Best Performance in a Video: “Break the Night with Colour”
9. Roisin Murphy
Best Performance in a Video: “Overpowered”
10. Brandon Flowers
Best Performance in a Video: The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”
Every great screen biography of a music superstar needs three key ingredients to really sing: 1) An icon with the greatest story never told. 2) A talented lead actor or actress gunning for an Oscar nomination”singing talent and striking resemblance optional (Angela Bassett didn’t sing a word in What’s Love Got to Do with It, and she looks nothing like the film’s subject, yet she was Tina Turner). 3) Kick-ass songs.
Fantasia Barrino as gospel great Mahalia Jackson is coming soon. The Elton John Story (aka Rocketman) is reportedly finally in the works (I’d cast Justin Timberlake over mentioned favorite James McAvoy and pray that he can nail a British accent), as is Aretha Franklin’s (with or without Halle Berry, the Queen of Soul’s No. 1 choice), Anne Hathaway as Judy Garland and Sacha Baron Cohen as Freddie Mercury.
Robert Pattinson was announced as a possible Kurt Cobain at one point last year, but it’s hard to imagine that we’d get the true story as long as Courtney Love is around to kill it or put her spin on it. Ryan Gosling has the chops to pull off Cobain, but he’s already in everything and he’s several years older than Cobain was when he committed suicide. Note to aspiring biopic producers: One doesn’t have to cast a “star” as the star. Some biopics (Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce as Mozart; La vie en rose, with Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf) do just fine without huge names.
Now that she’s gone too soon, too, it’s probably only a matter of time before we get Amy Winehouse‘s “untold” story. Note to aspiring biopic producers: Tabloid-era stars are best left alone unless, as with Eminem’s 8 Mile, the focus is on life before they were famous. Otherwise, we’ve already seen the action play out in the pages of Us Weekly and People magazine.
But what about those biopics in various stages of development and non-development? Here are six that I’m dying to see.
1) David Bowie: The star. The spectacle. The songs… Iman. I can’t think of a rock icon whose story is more deserving of the screen treatment. It would be a shoo-in for the Best Costume Design Oscar, and with a star like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who already played a Bowie-esque figure to perfection in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine), an actor worthy of the material.
Mike Check started his career in music behind the kit, eventually trading sticks for a pen and becoming a songwriter. Turns out it was a good swap. Today Check is one of New York’s up-and-coming MCs, firing up audiences with fervent lyrics about anything from crime and poverty to Christian Laettner. On the bubbling, synth-driven Mega Man Check details his A-game with the ladies, promising to fade away like Laettner after its over. The mood gets heavier on My Back Yard, a lyrical tour of NYC set to a sample of Benny Mardones’ Into the Night. From Fifth Avenue to Ground Zero, Jamaica Queens, South Bronx and Brooklyn, Check explores the worlds of the haves and have-nots. The rapper’s fierce determination to move out of the latter category is on display in For the Rush, an adrenaline-filled banger about owning the audience. Every time I close my eyes never seen another dream, he spits, like New York’s version of Jimmy B-Rabbit Smith. If it’s true you gotta lose yourself in the music to really make it, Mike Check is well on his way.
“For the Rush” – Mike Check
The EditoriaList is the devious brainchild of one Scott Janovitz, who will use this space to summarize, in convenient list form, the best and worst of whatever occurs to him. Anything related to music, anyway. Janovitz claims to be a Boston-based writer, music producer and award-winning singer and songwriter, but according to the research we can piece together is more likely a petty thief. He is highly opinionated but will begrudgingly listen to those who disagree with him in order to explain to them why they are wrong.
10. Light of Day (1987)
Who in 1987 wasn’t waiting for the Michael J. Fox – Joan Jett big screen pairing? The only question was what the vehicle would be. A rom-com? Sci-fi thriller? A Tango & Cash“esque buddy cop action-comedy? A Back to the Future sequel where Marty meets The Runaways in 1977? To everyone’s surprise, what we got was an unexpectedly gritty family drama, centering on the relationship between brother and sister Joe and Patty (Fox and Jett), who perform together in a struggling E Street-esque bar band called The Barbusters. I have just told you the worst part of the movie. The Barbusters. This blow is softened by the appearance of the great Michael McKean as a band member”one of McKean’s THREE appearances on this list.
Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, wrote and directed this film and in fact commissioned a song by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen came back with Born In The U.S.A. but decided to keep that one for himself. Too bad, it could have been a hit. The Barbusters do a decent job with his alternate effort, the title song Light of Day.” And, hey, look, Michael J. Fox can sing. This begs the question”what the hell, Robert Zemeckis? The idea it’s Fox’ voice singing Johnny B. Goode in Back to the Future is the least credible part of a movie about a time traveling DeLorean that runs on plutonium.
9. 8 Mile (2002)
Everyone said Eminem was basically playing himself in this film about an aspiring rapper from Detroit with a fucked-up mom and few prospects aside from an innate and unique lyrical flow. But it’s a mistake to go into this thinking it’s the Eminem Story. Em and director Curtis Hanson wisely keep Em’s character B-Rabbit sullen and low-key. The rapper is not a great actor, but he plays this one just right, with visibly crippling insecurity and remarkably restrained rage. The cleverness of the impromptu rhymes staged on street corners and at club battles are just short of believable, but (spoiler alert) at the end, when B-Rabbit destroys all comers with Eminem’s signature delivery, disbelief is easily suspended. Eminem won an Oscar for the great lead song Lose Yourself.
Ah, the soundtrack. The personal heavy-rotation staple or the CD that’s keeping company with unlabeled mystery CD-Rs, the free magazine compilations or your friend’s band’s terrible demo”all filed somewhere after Misc. ˜Z’. You’d like to sell or toss them, but it was an awesome movie. And it does have that one great song you can’t find on any other album.
Whether gold or garbage, if you have a couple of soundtracks in your collection, you are not alone. Film and television soundtracks have been a constant in a market that has seen many ups and downs, but which now seems to be on a steady decline. Record sales overall have now slipped beyond the point of reasonably being termed flagging and are really in full cardiac arrest. Yet music consumers continue to boost soundtracks into the solid sales stratosphere. At press time, there are six soundtrack albums among Billboard’s Top 50 albums. This is a historical trend. Certainly, not all soundtracks sell. In fact, many fail dismally. But every generation has a few landmark, bona fide blockbuster soundtracks that top the charts, regardless of their contemporary sales trends. Since the ’20s and ’30s, when Charlie Chaplin began composing the scores to his hugely popular films, soundtracks have been in demand. In the last few decades, soundtracks to Hair, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Back To The Future, Purple Rain, The Big Chill, Top Gun, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Reservoir Dogs, Forrest Gump, Titanic, 8 Mile, and the biggest selling soundtrack ever, The Bodyguard, have sold millions of units each. Some have been so successful as to spawn sequels (Dirty Dancing, Trainspotting, Dazed and Confused, Juno). A sequel to a soundtrack, what will they think of next?
These albums and the films they accompany are truly cultural moments, for better or worse. Multiple and diverse factors have contributed to their success, but in any case, they struck a chord in the cultural consciousness. For the fan, the soundtrack to a film or show has always been a way to extend the positive emotional charge they got from the overall experience. The best of these albums offer that emotional connection, along with exclusivity (unavailable material), and a cohesive flow that makes them worth revisiting. But how do we account for their continued sales power in a time when the public is not just tightening the collective belt, but in fact being weaned off the concept of having to pay for music at all?
A look at some recent best-selling soundtracks gives a hint: Glee, Twilight, High School Musical¦ yes, indeed, the answer lies with the tweens. This crowd not only feels the emotional connection to their favorite movies and shows more intensely than other demographics might, but they also remain blissfully, crucially unconcerned with cost. All they have to spend money on in this world are CDs, books, posters, etc. These are not luxury buys for them. They are the important things, and they are all purchased for them. Thus they have no need or interest in pirated material.
In our increasingly media-saturated and obsessed culture, it will go on like this. The greatest media successes will be those that achieve¦wait for it¦synergy. The book, the movie, the soundtrack, the lunchbox and the bath towel” the combination of these things builds interest into passion into phenomenon. The comparatively measly CD of (yawn) a band’s songs just can’t compete. The big studios and record companies are catching on.