Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not loony enough to think that Music and Lyrics was the best music-related film of the year. Indeed, there’s no real competition on that score: Once was not only the best film that used music to propel its narrative, it was quite simply the best film of the year. Are you listening, Academy?!? Once was the best film of the year!!!
That being said, last Valentine’s Day I got those familiar goosebumps when the screen flickered to life and there was Hugh Grant, getting his Wham! on with Scott Porter as ’80s superstars Pop! The music video for “Pop! Goes My Heart,” which opens Music and Lyrics, is a perfect faux-’80s confection — the hair! the pirate shirts! the keyboards! — and it’s matched by the song, which manages to channel both George Michael’s frothiness and Spandau Ballet’s pretentiousness. (Porter, by the way, gets bonus points just for standing up — his day job is playing paraplegic fallen QB Jason Street on Friday Night Lights.)
When I say “those familiar goosebumps” I’m referring not so much to Grant, or to Wham! for that matter. I’m talking about the excitement that overtakes me when my two favorite obsessions (well — cough — two of the three) come together: movies and the music biz. I’m a complete sucker for a well-told tale about pop musicians and the star-making machinery. In fact, here’s a quick top-ten list of my favorite music-related films, not counting anything released this past year:
10. The Idolmaker (1980): Ray Sharkey as a star maker/vulture. Peter Gallagher as Fabian. (The range — and the eyebrows! — of early-career Gallagher: to go straight from Fabian to Summer Lovers …)
9 (tie). CB4 (1993) and Fear of a Black Hat (1994): I’m pretty sure these are the same movie, but whatever — “I’m Black” (from the former) and “I’m Just a Human Being” (from the latter) are outrageous. I must say, I like my rap movies comical — Hustle & Flow is OK, but too moody.
7. Grace of My Heart (1996): Illeana Douglas as a knockoff of Carole King who wanders through the ’60s like a musical Forrest Gump. A bit too much women’s lib/empowerment BS, but it’s hard to argue with Matt Dillon playing a Brian Wilson/Jim Morrison composite who eventually walks into the ocean and doesn’t come back.
6. 24 Hour Party People (2002): Only the great Steve Coogan, playing Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, could shepherd us through a comedy about Joy Division.
5. Velvet Goldmine (1998): What a cast — Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Izzard, Toni Collette. But then, who wouldn’t want to be in a Todd Haynes film about the glam-rock era? This is perhaps the most complete fictional portrayal of a musical era ever captured on celluloid, employing the greatest quantity of “guyliner” in film history.
4. That Thing You Do! (1996): Writer-director Tom Hanks captures the joyride of Beatlemania with no Beatles! It goes all soft at the end, but the film’s sheer giddiness (and some excellent period detail) is irresistible.
3. The Commitments (1991): “The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!” ‘Nuff said.
2. This Is Spinal Tap (1984): No explanation is necessary for this pick, although I bet it’s number one on most people’s lists. After all, it goes up to 11.
1. Almost Famous (2000): How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. Memories of my own rock-crit youth. (Why didn’t I end up like Cameron Crowe? Answer: no talent.) The brilliant Frances McDormand. “This is a house of lies!” “I am a golden god!” Etc., etc., etc. Not just my favorite music-themed movie — one of my top five of all time.
One thing all these movies have in common is that they are fictional, or at least fictionalized, tales. The music biopic is another story. Plenty has been written in recent years about why music-biz biopics (La Bamba, The Doors, Ray, Walk the Line, and, arguably, Sid and Nancy) don’t work, so I won’t deal with that too much, except to wonder if Ray Charles and Johnny Cash might actually have been brothers, separated during childhood and then fed traumatic stories about each other’s death, thus fueling their mutual rise to stardom, descent into drug abuse, and eventual redemption. Wouldn’t that have made for a better storyline for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story?
Another thing that most, though certainly not all, of the movies I listed have in common is that they were commercial flops. My good friend Bob Cashill, whose excellent film- and theatre-centered blog can be found here, once dismissed a music-themed screenplay idea of mine with a quick “Yeah, nobody goes to see those movies.” Why is that? And why, this year, when Once proved Bob wrong and performed so dramatically well at the box office — at least for an indie foreign film about an Irish folk-pop singer and his Czech almost-girlfriend — is it getting no love during awards season? After all, it’s the best film of the year!!!
Anyway, in case you’ve missed Music and Lyrics (it’s all over HBO this month), it concerns the romance that develops between Grant’s character, onetime Pop! star Alex Fletcher, and a novice lyricist (Drew Barrymore) as they try to write a song for Britney/Shakira-like chanteuse Cora Corman, played hilariously by Haley Bennett. On the surface it’s little more than a date-night chick flick, and Barrymore’s studied amateurism as a thespian nearly sinks the film (when doesn’t it?). And yet … and yet …
For me, at least, the movie’s tweaking of ’80s white-boy dance-pop and today’s sexed-up, pseudoreligious starlets is hard to resist, mostly because writer-director Marc Lawrence obviously loves the music he’s messing with, and he gets the details right. His protagonist is a pop archetype whose backstory falls somewhere between Andrew Ridgeley, who was jettisoned by his partner on the path to global domination, and Robbie Williams, who battled former Take That bandmate Gary Barlow for chart supremacy during his own rise to worldwide megastardom (America not included). Fletcher’s sights aren’t set nearly that high — he’s merely looking to get a song on Cora’s album so he won’t have to keep playing afternoon gigs at Knott’s Berry Farm, or be doomed to boxing Billy Idol on “Battle of the ’80s Has-Beens.” (See Jeff Giles’s recent Howard Jones column for a related discussion.)
Meanwhile, the film’s songs playfully recall Wham! (one old Pop! hit, “Meaningless Kiss,” is a dead ringer for “Careless Whisper”) as well as the belly-dancing, snake-charming bombast of Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” or Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U.” (Cora’s idea of religiosity is chanting “shanti, shanti” while shaking her ass throughout a song called “Buddha’s Delight.”)
The song Hugh and Drew’s characters write together, “A Way Back Into Love,” was penned by Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne and Ivy multi-instrumentalist who broke into film composing when he wrote the title song for That Thing You Do! (He recently cowrote the score for the Broadway-musical version of John Waters’s film Cry-Baby.)
It’s the combination of affectionate musical imitation/reinvention and torn-from-the-pages-of-Rolling Stone characterizations that hooked me on Music and Lyrics, the same way it kept me enthralled through That Thing You Do! and Almost Famous. The Lennon-esque knee bends that accompany Johnathon Schaech’s guitar playing as lead singer of the Wonders, Jason Lee’s Robert Plant-like swinging of the microphone stand as Stillwater’s frontman, Grant’s silly “Pop! move,” and Bennett’s Buddhist booty shaking — I find myself looking for these echoes of iconic musical moments, looking for the tiny thrill of being part of a community of people who are in on the references.
I didn’t find enough of those moments in Walk Hard. This film should’ve been brilliant, considering its pedigree and the massive potential for shredding the Ray/Walk the Line genre of psychobabble biopics. But it isn’t particularly well written, and it doesn’t seem committed to its central conceit. Instead, director Jake Kasdan, producer Judd Apatow, and company created the Superbad of music-movie spoofs, placing more emphasis on sight gags and double entendres than on characters who might rise above simplistic parodies of their Walk the Line antecedents.
Still, even 30 seconds of Paul Rudd and Jack Black as Lennon and McCartney was nearly worth the price of admission. Walk Hard is very funny in spots, but it generally fails to offer up those goosebumps I was describing earlier, which was a major disappointment. What can I say? Some guys are fanboys for Spider-Man or Freddy Krueger or grindhouse flicks, but I’m a fanboy for movies about musicians, so if you’re gonna make one, would you get it right, for Chrissakes?