Almost True: The Real, Realer and Realest of the Music Movies


IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A DRAMATIC STORY, the life of a musician is a good bet. Filmmakers know this, and they continue using the “scrappy fellowship template” of the rock band or the “misunderstood outsider template” of the solo artist to explore the human condition. In success and in failure, musicians, by nature, court crisis, and that’s screenwriter gold. Every step on a stage, every navigation of a song is a potential – or realized – dance with chaos. Musicians tend to take that element of risk into their lives, resulting in love, lust, betrayal, hope, rage, loss, sex, disappointment, and (hopefully) humor. (Also drugs.) In other words: great stories. As a musician for over three decades, I would know. And as a film buff, I check out any movie that attempts to tread on my distinctive turf. I pay special attention to fictional narratives, as opposed to biopics, in part because the bar is set higher. The filmmakers can’t fall back on hits, beloved icons, and airing dirty laundry. When starting from scratch, they need to do more research, more work, and they’re obliged to employ actual musicians (always a plus). As the lights dim, I always wonder: Will they get it right? Most do not. But I daresay some do.

And yet, I have been accused of being a cheap date, easily impressed. So recently, I checked in with my more “selective” peers. I wanted to know which, if any, narrative films featuring fictional bands rang true – or almost true – with them. I conducted a survey of folks who, like me, have toiled in dank clubs, worked in studios, signed and broken contracts, been ripped off, been part of a scene, enjoyed some fame, been electrocuted by an ungrounded microphone, endured obscurity and poverty, dealt with “the suits,” toured, bombed, soared, and dreamed, dreamed, dreamed. I asked: in your not-so-humble opinion, which narrative movie, if any, most accurately portrays your experience of being a musician and playing in a band? (Drummer Jason said, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

Below is a selection, by no means comprehensive. (And by the way, the satires This Is Spinal Tap, Walk Hard, A Mighty Wind, et al, do not count. They’re just too painful to dwell on.)

Almost Famous (2000): Cameron Crowe’s irony-free valentine to 70s rock resonates across the board, with punks and acoustic troubadours alike, musicians who “made it” as well as eternal strugglers. Everyone admits it’s a bit of a fantasy that glosses over seedy underbelly aspects of rock, but because of its strong suits, this movie is quite beloved. The scene where protagonist – and Crowe doppelganger – William touches his sister’s forbidden LPs as if they’re powerful talismans? That made my tough-as-nails guitarist friend Josh cry. (Turns out those LPs are powerful talismans.)

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In fictional quartet Stillwater, Crowe, a former teen journalist for Rolling Stone, captures the volatile ensemble dynamic of bands. Clearly, he was privy to some choice ego-tripping in many a cinderblock dressing room. Stillwater is convincing, even occasionally cringe-worthy. As much as it borders on cliché, their combo of “dark, brooding guitarist,” and “megalomaniac, delusional lead singer,” is quite predictable in real life. (Frankly, you don’t want an easygoing, humble lead singer, sad but true.) And a tiny bit of fame, even if we’re talking local-hero variety, can result in a speech eerily similar to Jeff Bebe’s (Jason Lee) infamous “The T-shirt Is Everything” monologue, rumored to have been inspired by Crowe’s time with The Eagles: “I work as hard, or harder, than anybody on that stage! You know what I do? I get people off!”

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Jason Lee and Billy “Swoon” Crudup (as Russell Hammond) really commit, capturing the proto-marital angst of two dudes codependent in the name of the muse (and fame). They inhabit the (not stellar) songs (credited to Peter Frampton, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, and Crowe) and lean deep into the braggadocio-mixed-with-insecurity, with alpha male moves par excellence. True, Lee and Crudup do not really sing and play, respectively, but they mime with admirable accuracy, proving it can be done. (It helps that the other actors in Stillwater are legit musicians and that Crudup learned some guitar so he looked like he knew what he was doing.)

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And of course, the performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth the price of admission. His turn as the brazenly uncool genius scribe and rock zealot Lester Bangs gives the flick a big, beating rock and roll heart that remains, for the time being, immortal.

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Georgia (1995): Part crowd-pleasing folky soap opera, part bite-the-hand-that-feeds punk rock. Despite occasionally being hard to watch, it’s worth your time. It reminds me of a quote attributed to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: “When you go to a show, you’re paying to watch someone be brave.” Unlike many narrative music-themed films, Georgia is all live and raw; every actor plays in real time. This is rare in movies, as most filmmakers try to control the sonics as much as possible. (None of Almost Famous is live.) No one mimes anything, nothing is “sweetened” afterwards, and it all rocks.

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Jennifer Jason Lee is the druggy, fame-hungry, Courtney Love-inspired Sadie Flood, living in the shadow of her effortlessly successful, married-with-kids, Mary Chapin Carpenter-esque big sister Georgia, played and sung by Mare Winningham. While a couple of the songs are Winningham originals (she’s released several singer-songwriter CDs) covers ranging from the Velvet Underground to Stephen Foster dominate the soundtrack.

Fascinating fact: Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner wrote the screenplay for Georgia. She and her team made it on a shoestring, and the low budget actually gives the film some of its verité. Georgia transpires in bona fide clubs and at festivals, i.e. there are no contrived sets. As directed by enigmatic Belgian Ulu Grosbard, Turner’s screenplay tackles the unsavory aspects of fame-hunger, yet Grosbard allows simple beauty to seep through the cracks, like when Sadie, from whom we expect mostly screaming, delivers a haunting rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” in a sparsely populated dive. (A one-take shot. Watch for John C. Reilly on the drums, really playing.) The scene wreaks beauty from sadness, and it’s great. Been there.

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Leigh won a New York Film Critics Circle award, and Winningham was nominated for an Oscar, and why not? In addition to acing two very different kinds of performers, they play sisters who both love and hate each other, and you buy it. As a pair, they’re all nuance; a flinty glare followed by affection, brutal honesty overwhelming hope. Leigh offers up a convincing addict, while Winningham achieves the resigned despair of loving an addict.

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Leigh’s Sadie reminds me of so many pitchy singers who ensnare not with talent, but with willpower and gumption, frontpeople who lean on drugs and alcohol for both strength and some notion of “authenticity.” Being in a band with that sad nonsense is, of course, exasperating/infuriating, but in the right hands, that sad nonsense makes for intense cinema. And this crew possesses the right hands. A big assist comes from X’s John Doe, as Sadie’s guitarist and long-suffering bandleader Bobby. He executes great renditions of Lou Reed classics “Sally Can’t Dance,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “There She Goes Again.” Bobby insures the band brings the rock, even when Sadie loses it onstage, which Leigh makes fascinating, and, well, authentic.

That Thing You Do! (1996): When Tom Hanks wrote and directed this paean to pre-Sgt Pepper American guitar pop, set in 1964, he earned the fealty of musicians everywhere. A music geek, he’d collected 45s as a kid, and was fascinated by the slew of one-hit wonders in the wake of Beatlemania. Literally hundreds of bands burned bright and brief, snatched up by mercenaries who sent them on package tours, put them on TV and in the movies. If that doesn’t reek of adventure, what does? Especially considering what loomed on the horizon: Vietnam, the counterculture, and the rise of the Boomers. Hanks, using fictional Erie, Pennsylvania quartet The Wonders as his centerpiece, catches these details of a seismic era, when energy radiated from the cultural cracks. A certain time of life – teendom and early adulthood – was finding its musical voice.

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The engine of the movie, however, is the band. The Wonders are barely in their twenties, taking on the challenges of instant fame, which Hanks presents as both fun and scary. Their muse, Faye (luminous Liv Tyler) may or may not realize she belongs with drummer and moral conscience, Guy (Hanks doppelganger Tom Everett Scott) instead of talented, magnetic and… wait for it… insufferable asshole lead singer Jimmy (played to the hilt by Johnathon Schaech). As The Wonders go from garage to Hollywood in a few short weeks, they’re mostly like deer in the headlights, except for goofball, party-on guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn). Lenny is our eyes and ears; we share his wide-eyed, I-won-the-lottery amazement. Vietnam-bound bassist T.B. (Ethan Embry) is a bit of a non-character, but ably represents the looming darkness of war, leavening the frequent humor. My favorite scene takes place on the sleepy afternoon The Wonders hear their record on Erie radio for the first time. The crazy joy is spot-on, the intoxication of possibility. Been there, too.

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NYC singer-songwriter Tom (not Hanks) remarks on the period-correct gear, and he would know. We musicians are not unlike the fashion police – cruel and unforgiving – about era-correct gear.  But thankfully, Hanks did his homework and cares about musicians, who, God help them, will not suffer a ’68 Fender Precision bass in a scene that takes place in 1964. That’s a deal breaker. Hanks’ even lovingly micromanaged the music to the point of writing the movie’s opening song, the intentionally cheesy, Ray Coniff-sounding “Lovin’ You Lots and Lots.”

Hanks cast himself as opportunistic company man Mr. White, talent scout/executive for Playtone Records. He’s almost a villain. Yet White, the gatekeeper, makes everything happen. At first he seems to act mostly in self-interest, but he develops genuine fondness for The Wonders. White remains condescending and acerbic to the end, but Hanks humanizes him, even grants him the role of “romance catalyst.”

Similar to Almost Famous, no one actually plays or sings, and the music is radio-ready instead of raucous and unwieldy like in Georgia. But the actors, especially Tom Everett Scott, mime quite well. (There must be a school for this in Hollywood now.) And the irresistible song “That Thing You Do!” penned by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger, actually charted, peaking at #18 on the Adult Top 40 charts. I dare you to unhear it.

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Due to the frequent incandescent joy, it’s often hard to see the movie’s depth, but That Thing You Do! has some gravitas. Also: exemplary tunes, and plenty of accuracy to keep a lot of nitpickers happy.

Sling Blade – The Doyle Hargraves Band: (1996): My bassist friend Mark says his band experiences echo the Sling Blade scene featuring uber-villain Doyle’s combo, aka The Doyle Hargraves Band. Doyle, of course, is Dwight Yoakam, in a star-making performance. Some might say he steals the movie. Perhaps. The multi-Grammy-winning musician’s acting ability shines quite bright here, as writer-director Billy Bob Thornton, who won the ’96 Oscar for Best Writing, challenges him to suck as a guitarist. Yoakam obliges, making Doyle rock out with hilarious ineptitude. Doyle tries to engage musically with wheelchair-bound singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt (RIP) and various addled rednecks on the Christmas light garlanded porch. A captive audience watches, fearful and put-upon, commenting from lawn chairs as neighbors scream in protest. Been there. It’s sublimely awful. Doyle and his cohorts play with punky conviction, and argue exactly like drunken musicians argue, regardless of style or success level. It hurts so good.

As in Georgia, this is a live, warts-and-all performance, recorded on the fly, no sweetening, no miming, certainly no expensive gear. The porch is poorly lit, the sound is a wall of noise to keep despair at bay. It’s mercifully brief, and when it’s done, you get a moment to sigh – and laugh – before settling back into Sling Blade’s drawn-out tension.

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Most musicians, especially in their salad days, inflict performances like this one on unwitting friends and loved ones. I know I did. No one knows where to stop, and no song ever gets finished, but alcohol, bragging, and meanness flow freely, and it’s always a good time to take a break, fish for accolades from the meek onlookers, and go get more beer.

Has Hollywood produced a perfect, fictional movie portraying the trials and tribulations of a band or musician? No. Although musicians tend to be a contentious lot, I think we would all agree on that. Yet the lure remains, and filmmakers keep trying, while judgmental musicians keep watching, perhaps a little too closely. So if you’re sitting next to a bona fide musician during a film about a rock band or a crooner or a folk troubadour (lucky you) you’ll most likely see him or her hide their head, or shake it in frustration. But occasionally they’ll nod in recognition, and the gratitude will be palpable.

For your listening pleasure, a playlist from some of our favorite movies about musicians, both real and fictional.

About Robert Burke Warren

Robert Burke Warren (@RBWUncleRock) is a writer and musician. He's written for Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, The Woodstock Times, Salon, the Good Men Project, the Bitter Southerner,Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I ‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is out now from The Story Plant.
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