The other day, I caught a gif of Anna Kendrick correcting Stephen Colbert’s assertion that Pitch Perfect 2 was the most successful musical of all time because, as she explained, it’s not technically a musical. The characters know they’re singing and the music doesn’t move the plot forward. (Honestly, god bless the gif-makers. I get all my news in gifs now.)
Now, I love musicals. I love a good show-stopper. I love a choreographed dance number. I love a romantic duet. I have two songs from the High School Musical franchise on my iPhone. I have both the Original Motion Picture and Original Broadway Cast soundtracks for Rock of Ages. I destroyed a cassette copy of the Grease soundtrack because I listened to it too many times.
Soundtracks are important. A good quality soundtrack will evoke the emotions you felt while watching the film and, hopefully, introduce you to new music. I know my personal music library would be a lot more boring were it not for some of the soundtracks I’ve discovered over the years. Movies about real bands are hit or miss for me, but a good fake band is cinematic gold. Allow me to present my case with a series of examples.
Almost Famous (2000)
This is probably where it all began for me. I was turning 15 the year this movie came out and thanks to Freaks and Geeks and That 70s Show, was well into romanticizing the 70s. This movie has affected me in ways I probably haven’t realized yet. I’m still a little bit in love with Russell (even though both he and Billy Crudup are jerks to women) and will always have a soft spot for Kate Hudson. This is the movie that gave the world Patrick Fugit (what is that dude doing now?) and Zooey Deschanel. This movie had it all. Electrifying concert scenes, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, an amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, and the sing-along to end all sing-alongs. I don’t think you’ll ever meet anyone my age who won’t belt out the chorus to “Tiny Dancer” on cue. However, Almost Famous isn’t really about the band. Stillwater is great, but this is William and Penny’s story. If you want a movie that’s actually about a band (two bands really, almost three) look no further than…
Rock Star (2001)
I was pre-destined to love Rock Star. I didn’t have a choice. That choice was taken from me when someone decided to cast Mark Wahlberg and Timothy Olyphant in a movie about a hair metal band. I mentioned earlier how much I love hair metal, remember? Steel Dragon is right up there with Whitesnake and Warrant, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care how “real” they are. “Livin’ the Life” is my jam and I refuse to apologize for my impeccable taste.
Unlike Stillwater, Steel Dragon are extremely famous. So famous, they beget not one but two cover bands who fight about which of them is the most accurate “tribute” band during the opening of the film. Chris (Wahlberg) and Rob (Olyphant) founded Blood Pollution based around Chris’ incredible voice and his compulsive need to copy everything lead singer Bobby Beers does, including piercing his nipples. This leads to tension between Chris and Rob and they get into a fight onstage during a gig. The next day, Rob replaces him as lead singer and Chris storms out of rehearsals. But his luck is about to change…
Rock Star is based on a true-ish story about Judas Priest hiring a complete unknown as their new front man and features a motley crew of genuine musicians (John Bonham’s son Jason!) and exceptional British actors such as Dominic West, Timothy Spall, and Jason Flemyng. Also, the hair. Can’t have hair metal without hair, although Mark Wahlberg was the only actor who grew his own. Many of you (Christa) will remember our Marky Mark from his days as a rapper and those skills do translate. Mark didn’t do his own singing, but the stage presence and the abs were all pure Wahlberg. And still the Academy ignored him. I was genuinely convinced he would be nominated for an Oscar. In fact, his Oscar nom came much later for a much lesser film, which I’m guessing was a consolation for the Academy being so wrong about Rock Star, because it truly is a masterpiece.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Speaking of movies that were robbed at the Oscars… Meet Llewyn Davis. Llewyn is a homeless and depressed folk singer living in Greenwich Village in the early 60s. He is also a narcissist and pretty angry that the world hasn’t discovered his genius yet.
We know that he lost his partner, but we don’t know why. I assumed he had left for something bigger and better, which would explain Llewyn’s classic abandonment issues. Later when we find out his partner killed himself, it presents a whole other layer to his anger. He is not dealing with his grief well, which we can see clearly in a scene where he blows up at friends over the mention of his partner’s name and refuses to continue playing for them because that’s how he “pays his rent.” (What rent, Llewyn? You don’t have an apartment.)
Llewyn refuses to join another group, but agrees to perform on a novelty track to make a few bucks, although his desperation for a quick payday precludes him from collecting royalties on the project. He may be too proud to play in a band, but he ain’t too proud to beg for a couch to sleep on every night, cycling through the last 6 people in New York who will talk to him. One of those people is Carey Mulligan’s Jean, who slept with Llewyn at some point before the film starts, despite being in a relationship with Jim (Justin Timberlake). This leads to one of my all time favorite scenes in the film where they discuss their situation and Llewyn defends himself against Jean’s misdirected anger by saying “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘It takes two to tango’?” I totally get why she’s angry. Having sex you know you shouldn’t be having is all fine and well, as long as it doesn’t lead to real world consequences like it does for Jean. She is, of course, more mad at herself than Llewyn, but isn’t about to admit that to him and she knows he’s so depressed that he’ll accept all the blame anyway. At the centre of this sorely underrated gem is Oscar Isaac, a household name now, but then, a relative unknown. (I confess: when I saw the trailer my first thought was, “I didn’t know David Krumholtz could play guitar.”) A lifelong singer-songwriter, Mr. Isaac has maintained that music and acting were never separate vocations for him and he always pursued them in tandem. Llewyn is hard to work with and be friends with and share a car with but, he’s got skills. He’s a brilliant musician and when he sings, my heart stops. Regardless of his attitude offstage, there should be no manager or record label not quick to scoop him up.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Finally, some Oscar recognition. Crazy Heart is classic Oscar bait, and it also happens to be about an alcoholic country singer named Bad Blake. Llewyn Davis may be a dick, but at least he isn’t an alcoholic. Not that he’s doing that much better financially than Llewyn at the start of the film, but at least Blake had a successful career to destroy. Rounding out the cast is Maggie Gyllenhall as his love interest and Colin Farrell as his former protege and current rival. Farrell also sings on the soundtrack which is very nice. Most of the songs were written by Ryan Bingham who also appears briefly as a house band member at one of Blake’s gigs. The story is classic ‘underdog trying to redeem himself’ and is only really great because of the performances and the soundtrack. Apparently the Academy agreed because Jeff Bridges won Best Actor for his work and Ryan Bingham won an Oscar for his Best Original Song, “The Weary Kind”.
Remember what I said about soundtracks introducing you to new music? Well, I met one of my favorite bands, The Silent Comedy, through this movie. And I mean actually met after they opened for Ryan Bingham in Vancouver, I bought their CD and a t-shirt. They are very nice and I highly recommend them.
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Oh my god, it’s a movie about a woman! At this point, I’m really regretting never watching Country Strong (it’s on my list!) because at least that would help even the scales a little more. Meryl Streep plays the titular Ricki here and she also did her own singing and playing. The Flash is pretty solid, too, featuring Rick Springfield on guitar and as her boyfriend. The story is also a classic redemption tale about Ricki trying to make up for abandoning her family in order to chase her dreams of being a rock star, which is something apparently only men are allowed to do. It was an interesting choice therefore, to have her and the band never really “make it” in “the biz” so to speak. They are the house band at dive bar and that’s all they’ll ever be. In the end, though, her children accept her for the flawed women she is and everyone gets to rock out to an amazing Springsteen cover. Win win win.
Begin Again (2013) and Sing Street (2016)
I’m in the minority here with my affection for Begin Again, which I am perfectly fine with. I know it’s saccharine and cheesy and I love it anyway. My only complaints are that James Corden didn’t sing enough and the original version of Kiera Knightly’s song that she plays for Mark Ruffalo isn’t on the soundtrack. The rest is perfection. Even Adam Levine isn’t horrible as a caddish rising star who leaves Knightly and in doing so, inspires her to find her own voice. And if that line made you role your eyes, this is not the film for you. Just move along, ’cause you’ll never be happy. Go watch Once and be pretentious.
Splitting the difference between Once and Begin Again, John Carney also brought us Sing Street, the tale of some lovable lads from Dublin who form a new wave band in the 80s.
There’s so much right here. The daily struggles of life in Ireland in the 80s, the overbearing Catholicism, the music. The joyous, synth-heavy music. If you liked anything about the 80s, you’ll love this soundtrack. As far as I could tell, the cast did all their own playing and as the lead singer, Connor, Ferdio Walsh-Peelo displayed incredible talent. Connor initially starts a band to get a girl, but it soon becomes his ticket out of Dublin and the only way he knows how to express himself. It’s a classic coming-of-age story that never feels too sentimental or preachy. Obviously the message is “you have to be willing to risk it all if you want to find yourself” but it also features a kid who loves rabbits and it never tries to explains why. Sometimes kids just love rabbits.
As you can see, this genre, whatever we’re calling it, features some films as rich and diverse as my personal music taste. There’s many more I didn’t have time to mention, such as School of Rock, That Thing You Do!, and The Blues Brothers, but these ones arguably have the best soundtracks. And in the end, it’s all about the music, man.