We’re on a mission from God

Posted: January 12, 2019 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , ,

blues brothers bobs country bunker

If you’ve just joined us, we’re examining movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody. This list is incomplete, idiosyncratic, and possibly inaccurate. Welcome to Category C: Totally fictional biopics!

The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler stars in a film that’s “loosely based” on the life of Janis Joplin. I’ve never seen The Rose because the Divine Miss M and I go together like peanut butter and SPF 50 sunscreen.

Midler doesn’t have Joplin’s grit and she doesn’t know Joplin’s pain, but she has a superlative voice, and on this platter she proves she can sing rock ’n’ roll and the blues. Two of the songs became hits, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the title track. Her producer used different musicians for different songs; to my ears, that prevents the songs from hanging together. And yet in many places this record rocks. I’d say it’s unlike anything else in Midler’s catalog but first I’d have to listen to Midler’s catalog. I’ll stop here.

Renaldo & Clara (1978)
Bob Dylan filmed his Rolling Thunder tour and cast the musicians in a movie-within-a-movie. Ronnie Hawkins stars as @RealBobDylan and Bob Dylan stars as the fictional Renaldo. Dylan co-wrote the script with Sam Shepard. Jettison the escape pods.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film has as much to do with making a living in music as Raiders of the Lost Ark has to do with making a living in archeology. The soundtrack is a gas, even though John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd don’t sing well. The six people who did the most to popularize American roots music were John, Paul, George, Ringo, Jake, and Elwood.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can anyone say about this picture except turn the volume to 11? It’s the closest thing on my list to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Commitments (1991)
One of those rare moments in Western civilization where the book and the film are equally memorable. The soundtrack, though it was played by amateurs, holds up well on long car trips.

Almost Famous (2000)
A teenage boy cons Rolling Stone’s editors into giving him the sort of assignment an experienced writer would kill for: Embed yourself with Billy Crudup’s band and write a psychologically revealing feature about them. Hijinks ensue. It’s a fun film, the soundtrack is a buffet of early-’70s gold, and I can even accept the two songs written by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

What I particularly loved about this picture was the kid finally admitting to his editors that he had no story and instead presenting them with wadded-up pages of disconnected, almost indecipherable, notes. That, ladies and gentleman, is what I put my editor through every week.

That Thing You Do! (1996)
I was working at a software company when this film was released. One of my co-workers, Hojo*, appeared at my desk one day, proclaimed, “I have discovered the worst song of all time,” and placed his headphones over my ears. This is what I heard:

You got me all tied up in knots
And I’m lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m just lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m lovin’ you lots and lots

Hojo was right. The opening track of That Thing You Do! is so bad that resistance is futile. The rest of this album is a perfect rendering of pop music after The Beatles invaded the U.S. but before the U.S. struck back with The Byrds and The Monkees.

True, this is an all-white lineup, the two songs by girl groups are abysmal, and the true-to-the-period fake band names (Saturn V, The Heardsmen) will only take you so far. But a couple of songs are worth repeat listens. “She Knows It” could’ve been a Beau Brummels B-side. “Mr. Downtown” sounds like the theme song to any American private-eye show of the ’60s, and it’s sung by somebody who can belt out ridiculous lyrics without losing one goddamn bit of his pretentiousness.

The film is silly, and it needed a clash between the two alpha males over Liv Tyler (who plays The Reward), but as a glimpse of that era it’s above average. It was probably written by the kid from Almost Famous.

* I immortalized Hojo in this story. After he read it, he said, “Your Hojo is too nice!”

La La Land (2016)
I was impressed by La La Land, the story of an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, and I was happy that so many people would pay real money to see a film packed with all that jazz. This is particularly noteworthy today, where jazz festivals that want to turn a profit usually start by ejecting the jazz.

The soundtrack sounds just like a musical from the swinging ’60s. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do their own singing; they’re not great, but they don’t embarrass themselves. Gosling’s character is a reactionary who wants to stop the musical clock in 1960, and Legend’s character might as well be walking around with a big sign on his chest that says SELLOUT, but Stone won an Oscar and I’d see this picture again in a heartbeat.

Grace of My Heart (1996)
Illeana Douglas tries to make it as a female songwriter in the ’60s. (Note how often that decade appears on my list.) Douglas is always watchable, but the vaguely Carole Kingish narrative is dizzy with plot and the music doesn’t stand out for me. Joni Mitchell and the team of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello each contributed a song.

Subcategory: Totally fictional biopics that star actual musicians

’Round Midnight (1986)
A slow, ultra-depressing movie about a self-destructive sax legend played by formerly self-destructive sax legend Dexter Gordon. The real theme of this film is France’s unending love of American jazz. The soundtrack is an avalanche of bop-you-in-the-head jazz players, led by Gordon and Herbie Hancock.

Next time: We wrap up with our final category, Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Brace yourself for some serious suckicity.


  1. Jerry Kaufman says:

    Wrong Belushi, Steve – it’s John, not Jim.

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