Sometimes it’s because they need an original band to fit into their fictional story, sometimes it’s for parody, and sometimes it’s just because the filmmakers don’t want to pay to get somebody else’s song on the soundtrack. For whatever reason, there are a ton of made-up bands played by actors in the movies these days. I picked out some of my favorites for this list, but I have to issue dome caveats. Tenacious D did not make this list. Not because they put out an album before they released a movie and because they went on tour, but as a show of protest because their six HBO episodes were so much funnier than their movie, “The Pick of Destiny.” Many of the other bands that were created for movies have also actually played live and/or been on tour as well. Enough of my yappin’, let’s boogie!
Honorable mentions: Josie and the Pussycats (featuring Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and writing/production by and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet) and DuJour from Josie and the Pussycats (2001), DJay (music by Three 6 Mafia) from Hustle & Flow (2005), Future Villain Band (played by Aerosmith) from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Looters (Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, The Clash’s Paul Simonon and actor Ray Winstone) from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981), The Fabulous Baker Boys (Jeff and Beau Bridges, with Michelle Pfieffer) from The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell ) and Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000), The Quadratics (Mark Weiner’s band with cute guy Steve Rodgers) from Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995).
10. Blueshammer from Ghost World (2001)
God, I hate white-boy blues bands. One of the most tragic and funniest scenes in Terry Zwigoff’s underrated outsider-teen flick “Ghost World” is where lonely record geek and old-timey blues fan Steve Buscemi goes to a blues club to check out a grizzled old blues veteran who’s trying to play an opening set at a sports bar while the crowd ignores him. He tries in vain to make conversation with a woman about music, but when she says, “If you like authentic blues, you really gotta check out Blueshammer,” he knows he’s in trouble. Four frat-tastic white boys get onstage, introduce themselves as “authentic, way-down-in-the-delta blues” and start singing about “pickin’ cotton all day long.” It’s bad enough that the woman leaps to her feet and starts shakin’ it, but insult is added to injury when a dancing Blueshammer fan knocks Buscemi’s drink off the table and all over his pants. It’s a brilliant scene that shows the insular world of the record geek who can’t relate to people and the inherent comedy of “authentic blues.”
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9. Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate from Coming to America (1988)
It’s a short scene, to be sure, but an oh-so-memorable one. Remember when Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall were funny? They each play multiple roles in this cable-TV staple, and in this scene, Hall plays an reverend who introduces a local hero you all know as “Joe the policeman from the ‘What’s Goin’ Down’ episode of That’s My Mama.” Murphy comes strolling out as the jerry-curled crooner Randy Watson, singing a perfect parody of half-sung/half-spoken sexy soul with his cheesy band Sexual Chocolate. The song is Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” but it’s Barry White and Michael Jackson that Murphy oughta be paying royalties to with his fey loverman character. The topper? When nobody claps after his stirring rendition, Randy stomps his foot, drops the microphone, and does a Jesus Christ pose in a cheap attempt at applause. “Sexy chocolate!” Classic. I worked at the movie theater in high school, and we used to time our favorite scenes in this movie just right so we could stand in the back and watch them over and over again. I must have seen this a hundred times in one month.
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8. The Carrie Nations from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Roger Ebert wrote this insane cult classic directed by schlockmeister Russ Meyer about an all-girl rock band that travels to Hollywood with big dreams. Sucked into the dangerous post-Summer of Love, post-Charles Manson rock n’ roll/entertainment scene, their hopes are soon dashed and everything comes crashing down in a spiral of drug addiction, bisexual confusion, attempted suicide, and ultimately, murder. Their music—none of it written or performed by the actresses—falls somewhere in a category between bland and unintentionally funny. But the movie itself is so incredibly wrong and hilarious in so many ways that they have made the list. This is one instance where everything surrounding the band (formerly known as The Kelly Affair) is so bad ass that it makes the derivative music sound a whole helluva lot cooler than it really is. British all-girl band The Pipettes did a shot-by-shot parody of one scene in their music video for “Pull Shapes” (which is a way better song). First, the original performance from The Carrie Nations, backed by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, here:
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7. Curt Wild and the Rats from Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Todd Haynes does the history of glam rock in this ponderous movie, but the music and performances are electrifying. It was a bad move to have the whole thing framed by Christian Bale as a journalist trying to reveal the truth behind Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s washed-up rocker’s death. But the music has a special air of authenticity because Haynes used actual rock musicians and real tunes from the era, mixed with original songs performed in the very specific styles of each band being referenced. Ewan MacGregor fares best as Iggy Pop doppelganger Curt Wild, covering actual songs by The Stooges (“T.V. Eye,” “Gimme Danger”). The band on the recording features Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Ron Asheton of The Stooges, and Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Rhys-Meyer’s David Bowie-like character Maxwell Demon sings Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” with his fictional band The Venus in Furs, and the musicians on that track feature Suede’s Bernard Butler, members of The Verve, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Add in Placebo as T.Rex stand-ins The Flaming Creatures covering Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” and you’ve got the most authentic “fake” rock band soundtrack ever. You can search any of these on YouTube, but here’s curt Wild doing “T.V. Eye.” Beware: Because of MacGregor’s full monty, this is definitely NOT safe for work.
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6. Three Times One Minus One from Run Ronnie Run (2002)
Take the best (worst) parts of Blueshammer and Randy Watson and put them together and you’ve got Three Times One Minus One. Originally appearing on the brilliant HBO sketch comedy show “Mr. Show,” this freaky soul duo consists of Pootie T (David Cross) and Wolfgang Amadeus Stallonies Von Funkenmeister XIX 3/4 (Bob Odenkirk). “Run Ronnie Run” is a patchy affair, but the video for 3×1-1’s hit “Eww Girl, Eww” is a lesson in extreme soul. It’s about as subtle as the movie’s main character (redneck mullet-haired Ronnie Dobbs) and his non-existent courting skills. These guys don’t just sing in sexual innuendo, they go all the way. Well, at least Pootie T does. His co-hort just holds his cane steady and puts a schmoove exclamation point on each verse. Beware, this clip may have you falling on the floor in laughter, but it is also NOT safe for work.
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5. Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
The only fictitious group on this list to win a Grammy Award, the Soggy Bottom Boys (in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Depression-era retelling of Homer’s “The Odyssey”) are played by George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and Chris Thomas King. They perform “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, once in a recording studio for some money and again at a political rally to get themselves out of some hot water. The real Soggy Bottom Boys (a pun off of Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs’ famous ‘50s/’60s bluegrass outfit the Foggy Mountain Boys) are Union Station’s Dan Tyminski , Nashville songwriter Harley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Pat Enright. Nelson himself actually sings the lead vocals on “In the Jailhouse Now,” another song they perform onstage. The soundtrack to this film is good enough to convince anyone once and for all that what currently passes for popular country music on the radio has way more in common with Britney Spears than it does Hank Williams. I wish I could say similarly good things about the uneven movie. Here’s Clooney and company lip-syncing in the studio:
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4. Stillwater from Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s rock thinly disguised autobiography of his early years reporting for Rolling Stone featured this fictitious band. (Ironically, there actually was a ‘70s band called Stillwater, too!) His real-life on-the-road experiences with the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin informed the entire film, but musically Stillwater is a simpler and more straightforward Southern rock band, keeping in line with their not-so-stellar reputation as a “mid-level” touring act. Jason Lee (“My name is Earl”) plays egotistic lead singer Jeff Bebe, Billy Crudup (the upcoming “Watchmen”) is charismatic guitarist Russel Hammond, and real-life musician (and amazing singer/songwriter) Mark Kozelek plays the bass player. The band’s pitch-perfect ‘70s-appropriate music was actually written by Crowe, his wife Nancy Wilson (of Heart), and Peter Frampton. “Feverdog” is their newest single just when Patrick Fugit (the surrogate Crowe) meets the band and this scene is one of the movie’s most memorable, capturing all the excitement of being backstage at a huge rock ‘n roll event. Here’s Stillwater, whose actors underwent extensive training under Crowe’s supervision, performing the song for the first time in the movie:
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3. The Wonders from That Thing You Do! (1996)
I’m only rating The Wonders higher than Stillwater because I like their song(s) better. (Well, that and the fact that Tom Hanks’ directorial debut turns on the premise that a good drummer can make an OK band a great one, which is so true.) “That Thing You Do” was written by Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne and Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers provided the lead vocals. How it didn’t win the Best Song award at the Grammys that year, I’ll never understand, but it was a pretty significant hit on the Billboard Pop charts. Anyway, The Wonders (originally The One-ders, but changed because that could be mistakenly pronounced “oh-need-ers”) were a one-hit wonder band from Erie, Penn. who were heavily influenced by the British Invasion. In this affecting picture—a nice snapshot of a more innocent moment in time—the unlikely teenagers-turned-rock stars get put through the industry wringer, and all the band’s struggles and their fleeting moments of fame are expertly rendered by writer/director Hanks. And that song, that perfect song! It’s so catchy, it won’t leave your head for days. Here’s a music video for it, with lots of clips from the movie:
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2. The Rutles from All You Need Is Cash (1978)
Am I cheating by including this one? A little bit. Although it first appeared on NBC (and was the lowest-rated show that week) in 1978, the feature-length Beatles parody “All You Need is Cash” could really be considered a movie. Written and co-directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python, it traced the rise of The Rutles, a fictional band whose career just happened to mirror every single highlight of The Beatles. The band’s songs were written by Idle and Neil Innes, and not only mimicked the subject matter and style of the Fab Four, but it seemed like some of the Beatles’ melodies were actually turned inside out—the parodies are that familiar. Of course, it was all done in good fun, since there are cameos by Mick Jagger and even George Harrison, a longtime Python supporter. The Rutles began as a sketch on Idle’s BBC television series “Rutland Weekend Television,” and when the comedian brought clips with him to America when he hosted Saturday Night Live, producer Lorne Michaels suggested they turn it into a movie. The songs are great fun even if you aren’t that familiar with the Beatles, but if you are a huge fan like myself, you may believe they border on genius. Here’s just one of many brilliant tracks, a parody of “Help!” called “Ouch!”:
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1. Spinal Tap from This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Duh. The greatest movie of all time is Rob Reiner’s groundbreaking mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” which offers a brief and fictional history of “England’s loudest band” (parodying every rock genre along the way), then follows them through a disastrous American tour in support of their newest album of heavy-metal cock rock titled “Smell the Glove.” As Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (who play their own instruments and also wrote all the band’s songs with director Reiner) poke fun at every kind of stadium rock excess, they also manage to make a truly touching film. Taking inspiration from The Rutles, Spinal Tap went one step further and actually made the audience care about them. They were so true-to-life and the mockumentary format was so new (see “All You Need is Cash” and Albert Brooks’ 1979 “Real Life”) that many people thought the band actually existed. The actors helped that idea along by performing on Saturday Night Live and appearing on a Ronnie James Dio-organized heavy-metal hunger relief single called “Stars.” Hard rock bands everywhere were petrified to see their lives up onscreen in all of their ridiculous glory, as some of the movies’ most famous scenes were inspired by actual events (Black Sabbath had a dwarf crawling across a 30-foot fiberglass replica of Stonehenge, and one night, he fell backwards off of it!). I’ve seen it a million times and it never gets old. Witness a young Anjelica Huston in a clip that recounts the years before “the dawn of history”:
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