Sometimes, they seem better than the real thing. I am a sucker for a great fake Rock n Roll band and there have been some stellar ones over the years on the big screen. Mined for comedy but also the shared stories of being human, these pseudo-groups have given us a ton of laughs but also made us love them at the same time. Surprisingly, the musicianship is fantastic in each of these groups. In fact, the commitment to making real music together is likely what makes each of these bands work so well.
As I continue my week of “High Fidelity” Top Five’s, here’s My Top Five Fictional Band Faves and the movies that made them seem so real:
5. The Rutles
Long before the Rock n Roll “Mockumentary” that brought us Spinal Tap, there was the alternative universe Fab Four, The Rutles. From the comic genius of Monty Python alum Eric Idle and his musical collaborator Neil Innes, the Rutles were a parody of the Beatles and originated on a TV show in sketch comedy form. A made-for-TV movie was released in 1978, All You Need is Cash which gave the “history” of the band. George Harrison helped produce the movie and made a cameo appearance in it. Their hilarious and ingenious parodies of Beatles’ songs, the mimicry of album covers, and satirizing of actual Beatles history became so popular that this fictional band has recorded and toured for real. This group is a must-see for Beatles fans as they continue on their “Tragical History Tour”.
4. The Commitments
Who wouldn’t love a Soul band from Dublin? Based on a novel of the same name, the 1991 film The Commitments follows the story of a young Irishman who forms a soul band of working-class youth from northern Dublin. The movie is an almost Shakespearian tragi-comedy about the rapid rise and swifter collapse of a band that truly swings. The cast was almost all novices to acting but had great musical chops, meaning there is a great amateur feel to the story but also some fantastic performances. It feels real and gritty because so much of it is that way! The movie is bitter-sweet and oh so funny. The scene where the band leader is getting his pasty white Irish mates to say “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” is one of my favorites. But their covers of great R&B classics are what give the movie its drive and staying power.
Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie, Almost Famous, based on his own experiences as a young Rolling Stone journalist, gives us the fictional American rock band Stillwater. Set in 1973 it is the perfect picture of Rock n Roll transitioning from the soaring 60’s to the bloated 70’s, complete with a portrayal of real life rock critic Lester Bangs by Philip Seymour Hoffman that acts as the druggie moral compass of the story. Stillwater is a fictional band that looks and sounds incredibly authentic for the time period, even down to the “uniform” of untucked flannel shirts, blue jeans and hiking shoes (exactly how I picture my oldest brother from that time). They are lovable and annoying all at the same time. Presented as talented enough for the stage but not enough for super-stardom, they seem to embody the thousands of rock groups that never quite shoot into the stratosphere. This is homage and satire combined in the perfect package.
2. Spinal Tap
In perhaps one of the funniest movies ever made, to which we owe the phrase “Turn it up to eleven!”, we are introduced to the loudest fictional band of all time: Spinal Tap. The first of many hilarious “mockumentaries” from the creative madness of Christopher Guest and his crew, 1984’s This is Spinal Tap! has become legendary. Directed by Rob Reiner and shot in loving homage to real Rock n Roll documentaries, the acting and musical performances by Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean had some people convinced this was a real band. But the satire is broad as everything possible to be mined for comedy in the rock world is tapped (no pun intended… I think). The portrayal of a shameless band that has jumped on all the latest musical trends for 20 years is unforgettable, with more individual scenes that will make you laugh than ten comedy movies put together. If you’ve never done so and are a fan of Spinal Tap, watch the movie again with the commentary on by the trio who make up the band. They give their thoughts in character and, though I didn’t think it was possible, at times it is even funnier than the movie itself.
1. The Wonders
Tom Hanks’ 1996 directorial debut, That Thing You Do has my vote for giving us the best fictional band of all time. Why? Because the Wonders are lovable, make us laugh, and draw us into their lives like no other fictional band has ever done. Hanks’ labor of love (he wrote the screenplay and also wrote many of the songs for the movie) is set in the sweet spot of the early 60’s, when Rock n Roll was still naive and had not yet experienced the excess that would almost kill it. It is a funny and authentic story of the rise of the One-ders to becoming the Wonders, and the subsequent and predictable fall to becoming another one-hit wonder. The mostly unknown young actors are incredibly convincing in their roles and up on stage, and the wonderful performances of Liv Tyler and Tom Hanks, among many others, ground the story firmly in real human experience. From the bass player who is never given a name (credited as T.B. Player) to their matching outfits to their wide-eyed wonder at their rise to fame, the band and this movie hit all the right notes.