Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow’s Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story has become a cult favorite because, like This Is Spinal Tap before it, Walk Hard is littered with knowing references to the shared myths that constitute pop culture history. Though ostensibly a parody of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, Walk Hard really mocks music-themed movies in general, and doubles as a loving spoof of fads. Sometimes the best way to understand music history is to look to the movies—and not to the documentaries and biographies, but to fiction. It’s the fake pop and rock stars—the ones populating movies like Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, The Idolmaker, Eddie & The Cruisers, The Bodyguard, Airheads, and Hard Core Logo—who tell the story of modern music the way the culture has perceived it, rather than reflecting the way the artists themselves want to be remembered.
The 12 acts below—some solo, some bands—appear in comedies, dramas, musicals, and art films, and represent multiple genres and eras. There are plenty of other fake musicians who could replace or complement them, but this dozen collectively fills an alternate-universe timeline of chart-toppers and obscurities, stretching back over a half-century. Together, they function as a mosaic of American popular music, illustrating what artists have struggled with since the emergence of rock ’n’ roll: trying to connect simultaneously with young people and with the older corporate lackeys who are signing the checks.
The Tony-winning Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie was partly inspired by Elvis Presley’s army years, and revolves around a PR stunt that has swivel-hipped star Conrad Birdie giving “one last kiss” to a wholesome American girl before he ships out. Like the play, the 1963 movie version has little interest in the actual talent of Birdie (played by Jesse Pearson). This is more a story about the disproportionate influence of hype in show business, and how clever salesman can get the masses to believe—and buy—almost anything. The original stage production expresses some contempt (however mild) for what the older generation assumed would be here-and-gone teen idols. And yet Elvis Presley endures, as does Bye Bye Birdie. It’s rare for both the mockery and its object to remain so beloved.
Set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the days immediately preceding the rise of Bob Dylan, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis documents the brief period when lightly scruffy Americans made good money singing catchy, simple old songs; and it follows Oscar Isaac’s title character, who has a darker, ornerier, less commercial bent. The Coens have a lot on their mind with this film, pondering art, commerce, partnership, misanthropy, and how it feels to be a true iconoclast among peers who are only pretending. But Inside Llewyn Davis gains meaning from the specificity of the setting: a New York bohemian culture that beckoned to a generation of seekers who weren’t yet sure exactly what they wanted to find.
Tom Hanks’ debut feature as a writer-director is an homage to the mid-1960s era when regional garage bands could bang out a single on the cheap and get national airplay. Some of these musicians would graduate to the big time a few years later, transitioning to folk-rock and psychedelia before becoming platinum-selling arena-fillers. But Hanks is more fascinated by the moment of promise and possibility just before rock became big business, when it was still a way for young folks with guitars to get out of their small towns and see more of the world. That Thing You Do! doesn’t overly romanticize one-hit wonders like The Wonders, but Hanks does seem genuinely touched by the band-members’ varying level of ambition—some scheming to make a lot of money, some just wanting to be on TV—and delighted by their ability to write one heck of a catchy song.
The members of Death Records’ house band reappear throughout Brian De Palma’s satirical musical as The Beach Bums, The Undeads, and as the backing musicians for the rock diva known as Phoenix. Each incarnation is a not-so-thinly veiled parody of another 1970s band or trend, from Sha Na Na-like kitsch nostalgia to the gloomy hard rock of Alice Cooper. But really The Juicy Fruits are a nod to all the studio musicians who fueled the music business back then, either by playing all the notes on other people’s hit records, or by forming makeshift bands that would stick together for just a couple of singles or albums, working in whatever style was popular at the time. They were shrewd tradesmen, willing to play their part in reducing art to a commodity.
In Allison Anders’ era-spanning melodrama, Illeana Douglas plays a Brill Building songwriter modeled on Carole King, which gives Anders a lens through which to observe the parade of pretty young singers and tortured boy-wonder producers who made masterpieces out of the songs penned by hard-working artists in factory-like conditions throughout the 1960s. Grace Of My Heart’s King comparison extends all the way to heroine’s ultimate career path, as she moves out West, changes her name from Edna Buxton to Denise Waverly, and becomes a mellow soft-rock star. This is the inverse of The Juicy Fruits’ story, as an accomplished pro finds a way to record her own, highly personal music rather than just chasing a paycheck.
Cameron Crowe based Almost Famous on his own memories as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter, touring the country with various rising and superstar bands. Musically speaking, Stillwater isn’t based on any one group. (The songs were written by Crowe’s then-wife Nancy Wilson, formerly of Heart, but they sound more like 1990s Seattle grunge than Wilson’s own 1970s arena-rock.) But the dilemmas that Stillwater confronts in the film are rooted in where the rock ’n’ roll industry stood in the mid-1970s, as record labels sought to maximize profit at the expense of the creativity and sense of community that had been the foundation of the scene a decade earlier. Ever-generous, Crowe gives his shaggy, careerist rockers the benefit of the doubt, showing how they try their best to make honest, exciting music even while aspiring to live like kings.
The main character of Todd Haynes’ glam-rock fantasia is Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a David Bowie-like pop chameleon. But the real heart of the movie is Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild, a fictionalized version of proto-punker Iggy Pop. A lot of Haynes’ film is about shifting identities, and the different disguises worn by gay men in a culture hostile to queerness. In that context, Wild is the untamed, unfiltered id: the ideal of impulsiveness and sensuality that Slade tries to mimic onstage, even if he’s too aloof and calculating to emulate it for real. Similar to what Stillwater faces in Almost Famous, the Slade/Wild dynamic in Velvet Goldmine encapsulates a lot of what was dividing rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1970s: pretension versus emotion, and the huge and synthetic against the small and the authentic. And similar to Crowe, Haynes sees past the dividing lines, finding reasons beyond chart success for Slade to play pretend.
Rock wasn’t the only genre going through a crisis of conscience in the 1970s. In 1972’s Payday, Rip Torn plays country music star Maury Dann, who maintains his popularity by touring constantly and doing one radio appearance after another (personally assuring that the disc jockeys get their payola). Payday isn’t meant to be a cautionary tale or an exposé: It’s more of a character sketch, about a hard-living, hard-partying musician doing what he has to do to keep the money coming in. This movie isn’t cynical, it’s clear-eyed about the music business as a business—with the performers as the traveling salesman, working their territory.
Technically, The Revolution is (or was) a real band: They backed Prince on tour throughout the 1980s. But “The Revolution” in Purple Rain is about as real as “The Kid,” Prince’s character in the film. One big reason that Purple Rain became a surprise hit back in the summer of 1984 is that it turns Prince’s fairly mundane real-life origin story—which saw him rising quickly as a teen through the Minneapolis funk scene, getting signed by a major label while he was still a teenager, and becoming a reclusive studio-rat—into a bit of old-fashioned showbiz mythology, involving rival bands jostling to get top-billing at the hottest club in town. The fantasy version of The Revolution served two purposes. First, the mid-1980s was the era of the bar band, and though Prince had little in common with Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, or any of the other down-to-Earth rockers who hit the charts at the time, Purple Rain did position them as just another local act who made good. More importantly, the movie is essentially a two-hour music video, and appealed to a generation that had gotten used to seeing their favorite musicians as ordinary folks, in simple little dramas.
The most significant trend in popular music since the end of the 1980s has been the rise of hip-hop, which evolved quickly from a niche genre to the mainstream. Craig Brewer’s half-allegorical Hustle & Flow tells a version of the classic hip-hop rags-to-riches arc, all about a low-level pimp named DJay (played by Terrence Howard) who follows a whim to become a rapper, with the help of an old friend who has a studio. Brewer’s film isn’t especially realistic about either the realities of prostitution or about what it takes to make and promote a record. But Hustle & Flow makes great use of its Memphis location—tying the city’s current music scene to its history as the home of Elvis Presley and Sun Records—and it captures the essence of rap’s populist appeal. With little more than determination, a few instruments, and a story to tell, DJay is able to make music, and to communicate with people he doesn’t even know.
The “boy band” boom gets a thorough roasting in the 2001 satire Josie And The Pussycats, which begins with the revelation that the U.S. government has been mind-controlling the youth of America through subliminal messages in songs. The implication is clear: that most of the hottest acts at the turn of the millennium wouldn’t be so successful without some kind of mass hypnosis. Even harsher? What Josie And The Pussycats has to say about what teen idols like Du Jour have been selling: junk food, expensive technology, and wanton sexuality. (Not for nothing is the quartet’s biggest hit called “Backdoor Lover.”) This film is another Bye Bye Birdie/Phantom Of The Paradise-like eye-roll at the state of modern music, but with a little more snarl behind the sneer.
One of the best films about music in recent years pulls together a lot of the themes from this list. At the start of Beyond The Lights, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni Jean is a cog in the industry machine: a young performer who sings the hooks on other people’s hits and allows herself to be objectified as video eye-candy. After having a near-suicidal breakdown in the run-up to releasing her first album, Noni spends time with a kindly cop (played by Nate Parker) and rethinks what kind of music she wants to be making, and what kind of image she wants to present. Beyond The Lights is unusually attuned to what the business is like today, and how young artists struggle as they ever did to find their own voices and to be allowed to develop them. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood layers in some harsh criticism, but she’s not dismissive about 21st-century pop. The movie ultimately affirms the possibility of hope and redemption in the communal connection of performing for an audience, and in the healing power of a great song.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story concludes here. Don’t miss Scott’s Keynote on how the film reinvigorated the flagging spoof genre, and the accompanying Forum on its inspired casting, music, and box-office disappointment. Next week, we’ll take on the verbose ensemble drama of Glengarry Glen Ross. Do we have you attention?