In the wake of the untimely passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we here at FSR were asked to think of our favorite Hoffman performance. I immediately thought of his portrayal of rock journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous which got me thinking about the band Stillwater which William (Patrick Fugit) ends up following on tour. Stillwater is a fictional band created for Almost Famous, but they feel like anything but fiction, instead coming across as a real band just starting to climb the charts, easily existing alongside The Who and Black Sabbath (the band they opened for in the film).
So what was it about Stillwater that made them feel like a real life band and not one simply created to help drive the story?
Director Cameron Crowe drew from his own experience as a young music reporter, helping him create a lead character who feels like someone you actually knew (or were yourself) in William, but that experience also helped Crowe create a band that feels like another part of the musical sound of the 1970s. Stillwater certainly embodies the look and the sound of the era, but it’s the fact that they do not try to emulate any one band that helps them feel so real. Working as an amalgamation of several different bands of the time (The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd), Stillwater feels like a real up-and-coming group that may be drawing inspiration from these bands, but doing so while trying to make a separate name for themselves.
Plus having musicians like Heart‘s Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton as the writers of Stillwater’s songs gives the band’s sound a real sense of authenticity. When Stillwater perform “Fever Dog” in Almost Famous, it is an electric scene, but the fact that “Fever Dog” also stands well on its own helps give Stillwater real clout and keeps them from feeling like a gimmick.
That Thing You Do – The Oneders/The Wonders
In the midst of Beattlemania, a group of friends in Erie, Pennsylvania come together to form a band, The Oneders, and quickly become popular around their hometown thanks to the last minute addition of dreamy dummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) who’s decision to make the group’s song, “That Thing You Do,” uptempo instead of a ballad ends up turning the song into a hit. The group soon catches the eye (and ear) of A&R rep Mr. White (Tom Hanks) who signs them to Play-Tone Records and changes their name to The Wonders before sending them off on a state farm tour with their fellow Play-Tone artists.
The Wonders feel like a real band because That Thing You Do! wisely shows how Guy’s addition to the group changes their sound into something catchy that a record executive like Mr. White would want to capitalize on, even if their success only lasted as long as that first hit. They did not become popular because the film needed them to, there was a tangible reason that made them suddenly catch people’s ears. Small town kids turning into overnight successes were fairly common place in the 1960s with bands like The Bryds and The Turtles rising to the top from homegrown beginnings which make The Wonders success story not so hard to believe.
Plus putting the group on tour with other fictional artists that reflected the sound of the time (and having the boys be appropriately star struck by certain acts) creates the sense that Play-Tone was a major label with acts like The Chantrellines and Freddy Fredrickson rocking the Billboard Top 100 alongside The Supremes and Roy Orbison. Hanks even released the soundtrack for That Thing You Do on the fictitious Play-Tone (a joint venture with Epic Records) which helped launch the real Playtone Records, further blurring the lines between fact and fiction with Playtone even going on to become the name of Hank’s production company.
The Blues Brothers – The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers may have started as a comedic SNL sketch, but John Belushi‘s “Joliet” Jake Blues and Dan Aykroyd‘s Elwood Blues real musical chops helped the duo become more than a comedy bit. Soon The Blues Brothers were a real group, even releasing the album “A Briefcase Full of Blues.” They even continue to tour and make appearances to this day. When director John Landis brought the duo to the big screen in The Blues Brothers, the film was not creating the act from scratch (the fact that The Blues Brothers already were a real act born from a fake act is what makes them feel like a real duo in the film), but The Blues Brothers was able to expand on the fictional story of the group as detailed in the liner notes of “A Briefcase Full of Blues.”
Belushi and Aykroyd are talented musicians and performers, but when appearing as The Blues Brothers they never strayed from their alter egos. With a fictional backstory to boot, The Blues Brothers are the perfect combination of reality and fiction. In The Blues Brothers, art imitates life as the duo make fans wherever they go (even prison) just as the real life The Blues Brothers were climbing the charts.
Back to the Future – Marvin Berry and The Starlighters
Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) turn on the guitar during “Johhny B. Goode” in Back to the Future is certainly the most memorable part of Marvin Berry and The Starlighters’ performance at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, but when Marvin (Harry Waters Jr.) calls his cousin Chuck to have him hear Marty jamming out to the song (which would become a hit for Chuck Berry three years later) it becomes a great tongue in cheek moment that roots Marvin and The Starlighters in reality. It is clear Marvin and his group are content playing the sounds of the ’50s, but Marvin also has has an ear for talent and Back to the Future essentially gives him credit for turning his cousin onto a whole new sound (and eventually ushering in the era of rock and roll music).
Marty’s guitar solo at the end of the song doesn’t go over as well, but the way Marvin and The Starlighters play 1950s blues standards like “Night Train” and the doo-wop song “Earth Angel (You Will Be Mine)” (all of which are featured on the soundtrack for Back to the Future) roots them in the decade and helps them feel like a true band of the time — albeit one stuck making the rounds on the high school dance circuit. Marvin is clearly a talented singer, but he clearly won’t be the breakout star of his family. However this seemingly comedic aside works to validate Marvin’s talent as a real musician.
Can’t Hardly Wait – Love Burger
Any good house party features a live band (at least any good movie house party) and Can’t Hardly Wait lives up to this expectation with Love Burger – the high school band with big dreams and a tumultuous dynamic. Love Burger delivers more comic relief than music in the film, but when everything in high school feels like life and death, the heightened state of a band who can’t quite get it together hits on a universal truth of the ups and downs of high school and what happens when people still trying to form their identities try and come together.
Love Burger is silly and never plays a single song, eventually getting kicked off stage in favor of William’s (Charlie Korsmo) drunken rendition of Guns N’ Roses‘ “Paradise City,” but they feel like a real group of friends who happened to know how to play certain instruments and created a band to have fun — a sensibility and goal most high school bands strive for. Unfortunately there is usually one member who takes things a bit too seriously and for Love Burger that’s faux British lead singer Walter (Brekin Meyer), but even his misguided passion and desperation to be something more than just a “high school band” brings a sense of honesty to this rag tag group.
This is Spinal Tap – Spinal Tap
The fact that This Is Spinal Tap is a mock-umentary suggests that this film, and certainly Spinal Tap the band, should not be taken seriously. But Michael McKean as lead singer and guitarist David St. Hubbins, Christopher Guest as lead guitarist Nigel “Tuffy” Tufnel, and Harry Shearer as bassist Derek Smalls take their roles as a struggling heavy metal group so seriously (and do so with a real passion and love for the songs they are singing), the group actually comes across as legitimate. Since This Is Spinal Tap is filmed documentary style with behind the scenes footage and interviews, the “reality” behind the group is revealed alongside David and Tuffy’s genuine musical chops. The fact that Spinal Tap ends up with a hit song (“Sex Farm”) in Japan also helps add to the band’s authenticity because some acts that do not find success in the US, do quite well overseas (see: David Hasselhoff).
Much like The Blues Brothers, Spinal Tap began releasing actual albums like, “Break Like the Wind” (which was even produced by T-Bone Burnett) and “Back from the Dead,” as well as touring with their own “fictional” opening act, The Folksmen (who were also comprised of McKean, Guest, and Shearer, but performing folk music instead of heavy metal). Spinal Tap is another fictional band that blurs the line between what is real and what is fake by creating a band that feels and sounds real, and at this point, is real!
The key is to stay in character while bringing real musical chops and talent to the table. Real musicians + fake personas = the perfect blend of good music and exaggerated/entertaining personalities. Also, making a few catchy songs helps, too.