Friday, October 28, 2011

"Rich on personality": 11 songs by fictional musicians from movies and TV that are surprisingly not terrible

I haven't seen this much guyliner since that time I plowed through a marathon of Lost episodes about Richard Alpert.

1. "This Is a Low" by Swipe (Tamara Drewe)
In High Fidelity director Stephen Frears' entertaining 2010 adaptation of Posy Simmonds' Far from the Madding Crowd-inspired comic strip-turned-graphic novel, childish drummer Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) romances Gemma Arterton's title character, a London newspaper columnist and rock music journalist who, unlike most rock music journalists, looks smokin' in a red tanktop and a pair of Daisy Dukes. Ben may be what's known in the U.K. as a git, but the tunes by him and his Britpop band Swipe are pretty damn catchy, especially "This Is a Low," perhaps the catchiest song about a guy getting his ass kicked by his temperamental girlfriend ever written ("This is a call for a domestic dispute/She's got me by the collar and she's going to shoot"), which is why I've added it to the "Assorted Fistful" and "New Cue Revue" blocks on A Fistful of Soundtracks.

Not to be confused with the Blur tune of the same name, "This Is a Low" has an interesting pedigree. In the movie, the song is a source of tension between Swipe and the disgruntled Ben, who wrote "This Is a Low" and is steaming mad that the rest of the band doesn't give him enough credit for his work, but offscreen, it was actually written by Cooper's younger brother Nathan. (In another interesting tidbit, the female vocalist during "This Is a Low" is Sexy Beast star Ray Winstone's daughter Lois, who has a wordless bit part in Tamara Drewe as Ben's female bandmate and ex-girlfriend.)

Cooper's appearance as the younger version of Tony Stark's industrialist father Howard in Captain America: The First Avenger was an amusing bit of casting because in his Tamara Drewe emo garb, Cooper is a dead ringer for the effeminate partyman characters his cinematic son Robert Downey Jr. played in Weird Science and Back to School.

Ho is short for honey! Woops, wrong Black Sheep.

2. "Black Sheep" by The Clash at Demonhead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
One of the best jokes in HBO's Flight of the Conchords TV series was that Bret and Jemaine were nothing like the Bret and Jemaine they imagined themselves to be in the show's fantasy sequences/musical numbers. In those sequences, Bret and Jemaine were expressive, self-confident and brimming with musical ability, while outside those sequences, Bret and Jemaine were inexpressive, socially awkward and sucky as musicians (they were always seen performing the same song, some terrible acoustic clone of Moby's "Bodyrock," and only one person liked their music, Kristen Schaal's child-like stalker Mel). That decision to make Bret and Jemaine untalented musicians that hardly anybody likes is what distinguishes Flight of the Conchords from other shows about fictional wannabe musicians that are filled with elaborate musical numbers but are worshipful of those characters, like The Monkees, Fame and Glee.

A similar joke recurs throughout Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novels and Edgar Wright's film version of Pilgrim: Scott (Michael Cera) may be someone we're supposed to root for, despite his dickishness, but the Toronto band he plays bass for, Sex Bob-omb, sounds mediocre (and their Mel is Knives Chau). One of the charms of the original music in Wright's film is the way that Beck, who wrote Sex Bob-omb's material (while Metric, an actual band from Toronto, represented Sex Bob-omb's rival, The Clash at Demonhead, whose wardrobes O'Malley patterned after Metric's), purposely downgraded the quality of his own sound to capture how an amateurish band in the Toronto indie scene would sound like (that is until the climax, when Sex Bob-omb starts to gel at about the same time as Scott gains the power of self-respect).

Scott and his Sex Bob-omb bandmates view the glitzy Clash at Demonhead--led by Scott's ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson)--to be evil corporate sellouts, but the ironic truth is The Clash at Demonhead don't sound as mediocre as Sex Bob-omb do, as we discover during "Black Sheep," sung quite nicely by Larson in the film (while sung by Metric frontwoman Emily Haines in the album version).

"I think that it probably is poking fun at pop music and a band that's just so completely commercialized," said Larson about "Black Sheep" to Collider, "but at the same time, you can't deny that the song is the most infectious song."

No wonder "Black Sheep" was the first tune off the Pilgrim song soundtrack that was introduced to the public. And no wonder Heather Morris likes to do what I imagine are butt crunches to "Black Sheep" while she hears it on her iPod.

Yo, look, it's Cowmeo, the new supergroup formed by Reba McEntire circa 1987 and two of the guys from Cameo.

3. "Odyssey" by Andromeda (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, "Space Rockers")
If Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is as accurate about the 25th century as I expect it to be, then in the future, we'll all be dancing with some giant rubber band/hula hoop/glowstick thing wrapped around us like we're some cross between a raver and Tony Randall and Jack Klugman awkwardly doing the Maypole dance in Central Park in the opening credits of The Odd Couple.

You haven't lived until you've heard Jack Klugman sing 'You're So Vain' during the Odd Couple Sings LP.
(Photo source: Gary Dunaier)

The dancing during the Buck Rogers "Space Rockers" episode may be on the lame side, but the music isn't. Scottish composer Johnny Harris, whose other dope contribution to film and TV music is the funktastic score to the 1970 British psychological thriller Fragment of Fear, came up with the proto-Daft Punk synth-pop instrumental sound of Andromeda, the 25th century's most popular rock band.

Bull's got hair!

Twelve years before actor/song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach took on his most famous and final role, Law & Order's Detective Lennie Briscoe (sort of a kinder, gentler version of his crooked cop character in Prince of the City), he was on the opposite side of the law as Andromeda's evil manager Lars Mangros, who plots to use the synth-pop trio's music as a form of mind control on its teen fans.

A late '70s/early '80s TV show ain't complete with a Judy Landers guest appearance. Judy Landers is the Mark Sheppard of late '70s/early '80s TV.

Besides its guest stars (in addition to Orbach, the episode also features a Landers sister and Bull Shannon, or as I prefer to remember Richard Moll because I'm a Batman: The Animated Series fan, Two-Face), "Space Rockers" is my favorite non-Princess Ardala Buck Rogers episode because of the catchy "Odyssey." The Harris instrumental experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2004 when it turned up on the playlist of the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas funk radio station Bounce FM.

Now here's where the technology that George Lucas utilizes to fuck up his first three Star Wars movies would actually be useful. Get someone to replace the dancers in the Buck Rogers 'Space Rockers' episode with America's Best Dance Crew champions like the Jabbawockeez.

"Odyssey" is surprisingly good synth-pop that's aged well. (The opposite of "Odyssey"--a.k.a. the worst synth-pop ever--has to be that wack "I Am America" song in Herman Cain's weird and creepy cigarette-smoking campaign ad, recorded by some right-wing version of Lady Gaga.) The instrumental is ideal popping-and-locking music. Speaking of which, the Andromeda footage in "Space Rockers" would be much more badass if the Jabbawockeez were on the dance floor instead of those whitebread-looking rubber band/hula hoop/glowstick ravers because the Jabbawockeez are what 25th-century dancing will look more like.

'Let's have some action! Let's have some asses wigglin'... I want some perfection!' I know, I know, it's not a line that The Kid said, but it's my favorite line in Purple Rain.

4. "I Would Die 4 U/Baby I'm a Star" by The Kid (Purple Rain)
Actually, every song by Prince's onscreen alter ego The Kid is not terrible. But the one-two punch of "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star" has to be my favorite part of both the movie's performance footage and the Purple Rain album. As Jeremy Ohmes notes in PopMatters, "If 'I Would Die 4 U' was Purple Rain's spiritually anguished yin, then 'Baby I'm a Star' was its cocky, narcissistic yang... More than any other song on Purple Rain, 'Baby I'm a Star' documents the unbridled energy and graceful sleaziness that was Prince live."

The porno remake of Walk Hard would be called Walk Hard.

5. "Let's Duet" by Dewey Cox and Darlene Madison (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story)
Director Jake Kasdan's Walk Hard has forever ruined musician biopics for me. It points out how clichéd all musician biopics are by taking aim at every single cliché, from the Oscar-bait moments where the star portrays the subject's emotional meltdown (not since the Sexy Beast underwater heist sequence has a film done so much damage to bathroom sinks) to the dialogue that has all the subtlety of a jackhammer ("That was freaking transcendental, Paul McCartney. Don't you agree, John Lennon?").

What separates Walk Hard from the Epic Movies and Meet the Spartanses of the film parody genre are the intelligence that Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow poured into every gag in Walk Hard, whether highbrow or lowbrow, and the Walk Hard songwriters' ability to make Dewey Cox's fake songs, particularly the Johnny and June Carter Cash-inspired double-entendre-fest "Let's Duet," not just authentic and hilarious but also good songs outside the context of the movie. As The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin notes in his "My Year of Flops" entry on Walk Hard, "Like 'Let's Duet,' Walk Hard is blessed with a fundamental sweetness and a loving attention to detail." Walk Hard is so funny I convulse with laughter even when I'm reading dialogue from it on IMDb's Walk Hard quotes page.

Sometimes, I doubt Sister's commitment to Sparkle motion.

6. "Something He Can Feel" by Sister and the Sisters (Sparkle)
Loosely based on the turbulent history of The Supremes, Sparkle, the story of the rise and fall of the fictional girl group Sister and the Sisters, is exactly the kind of overwrought and poorly written movie about troubled and drug-addicted musicians that Walk Hard rips apart mercilessly.

"[Sparkle singer character Delores] tells her mother that there's more to life than being a maid (which is true) but her speech is some White guy's idea of Black power. She says she's leaving because she's tired of taking the White man's shit. Fine, but where the fuck is she going when she leaves? It's 1958," wrote blogger Odienator in his funny 2008 takedown of the Joel Schumacher-scripted, currently-being-remade 1976 melodrama. "I have no fucking idea why Sparkle is beloved by us [African American viewers]. It's a terrible film, despite the acting and the soundtrack."

Yes, that Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack is--like all of the late Mayfield's other film music work--amazing and an example of how much of an outstanding and insightful lyricist Mayfield was. "Something He Can Feel" was a big 1976 hit for Aretha Franklin, who, with the Kitty Haywood Singers on backup, sung all the tracks on the Sparkle soundtrack album instead of Sparkle stars Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and Dwan Smith (many fans of the film feel that the actresses got gypped big-time when their vocals were ditched for Franklin's).

My first exposure to "Something He Can Feel" wasn't through Sparkle or Aretha. It was through En Vogue's sultry video for "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," one of two cover versions of Sparkle numbers that the girl group recorded for their hit 1992 album Funky Divas. The video features cameos by Sparkle cast member Dorian Harewood, Johnny Gill and El DeBarge and an appearance by a pre-Oz-and-Lost Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Harewood, Gill, DeBarge and Akinnuoye-Agbaje are among the nightclub audience members in the video who are enthralled (or in some cases, reduced to a sweaty and trembly mess) by Cindy, Dawn, Terry and Maxine in their slinky red dresses. The video dropped when I was in my teens, so the way Cindy, Dawn, Terry and Maxine looked during "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" had a similar effect on me: that video was probably the one that made my voice turn from falsetto to baritone.

7. "I Can Dream About You" by The Sorels (Streets of Fire)
Walter Hill's rock n' roll musical tanked big-time in the summer of 1984, but the movie's R&B number "I Can Dream About You" was a smash, and it's not hard to see why. I hate the word "transcendent" because it's so pompous-sounding and James Lipton-y, but that's the best adjective that could describe the late Dan Hartman's slice of blue-eyed soul.

Both versions of "I Can Dream About You" are terrific. Hartman performed the single version, while the film version was sung by the late Winston Ford (and lip-synched by a moonwalking Stoney Jackson) and was the version that MCA Records used in the "I Can Dream About You" video that aired frequently on MTV in the summer of 1984. The latter version is particularly noteworthy because two of the members of the film's fake doo-wop group The Sorels (pronounced "SIR-ells"--thanks, Rocklopedia Fakebandica!) are a pre-Hollywood Shuffle Robert Townsend and a pre-Forrest Gump Mykelti Williamson.

It says 'ROM.' Are they performing at ROM the Spaceknight's sweet-16 party?

8. "Find It" by The Kelly Affair (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
Was '70s Battlestar Galactica composer Stu Phillips aware that he came up with an early version of punk when he composed "Find It" for Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert's 1970 comedic masterpiece?

9. "Say No More (Mon Amour)" by Rex Manning (Empire Records)
We've all had a "Say No More (Mon Amour)" in our lives: a dumb and overplayed pop song we refuse to admit liking, even though we might dig its rhythm section or choice of samples, whether it's "Rump Shaker" by Wreckx-N-Effect, "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" by Pitbull or any song by The Fratellis. One of the best and most dead-on touches in the otherwise inconsistently and sloppily written Empire Records (besides how brilliant a parody of vapid late '80s/early '90s pop music "Say No More" is) is how the title store's employees continually diss Adam Ant-esque, puffy shirt-clad pop star Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) and view him as a toolish sellout but are utterly powerless when exposed to the sounds of Rex's biggest and cheesiest hit and can't help but dance to it.

Aspiring graphic designer A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is an emo dumbass who refers to the very Japanese Mr. Miyagi as "the Chinese guy from The Karate Kid" and is someone we'd wish would slip off the Empire Records rooftop and fall to his death whenever we have to hear him attempt to tell his co-worker Corey (Liv Tyler) he loves her. But A.J. has one likable moment where he tries to cheer up the suicidal Deb (Robin Tunney in shaven-headed riot grrrl mode) by dancing like an idiot to "Say No More" and getting her to join him (everyone else in the store who's not Anthony LaPaglia ends up joining A.J. and Deb in their dance too). Aside from the The The "This Is the Day" dance (stutter-lanche!) on the rooftop in the film's finale, it's the happiest we see A.J. or Deb look in the film.

10. "I'm Just a Human" by New Human Formantics (Fear of a Black Hat)
Influenced by This Is Spinal Tap, star/director Rusty Cundieff's 1993 mockumentary poked fun at the excesses of gangsta rap and even imbued the members of N.W.H. (Niggaz with Hats) with a Spinal Tap-like trait: a tendency to try on and then quickly discard musical trends as if those trends were groupies. At one point, an N.W.H. member dabbles in pseudo-political, C&C Music Factory-style dance pop with "Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y." (the acronym stands for "Political Unrest Stabilizes Society, Yes").

But the funniest of Fear of a Black Hat's fake tunes has to be ex-N.W.H. member Tone Def's solo effort "I'm Just a Human," a parody of the New Age rap duo P.M. Dawn's 1991 hit "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" (that's Mark Christopher Lawrence, a.k.a. Big Mike from Chuck, as Tone Def, espousing his Stephen Colbert-style "I don't see color" philosophy to the documentarian character played by future Talk to Me director Kasi Lemmons). A plea for racial tolerance ("You are just like me/I'm just a human") morphs into one of the most delightfully disgusting songs ever written ("'Cause black, white, yellow, red, brown or gold/Our shit all comes from the same little hole"). And as a bonus, the album version of "I'm Just a Human" gets even more delightfully disgusting ("Sometimes I smell the lint from my belly button/How could something so small make a stench so rotten?").

11. B-Rabbit's freestyle against Papa Doc, the top battle rapper in Detroit (8 Mile)
Troubled and unconfident Detroit battle rapper B-Rabbit (Eminem) is ashamed of his white-trashiness. But at the end of 8 Mile, B-Rabbit gains the power of self-respect like another fictional musician, the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim, and learns to wear his trailer-park background with pride--with the help of the instrumental version of Mobb Deep's tough-as-nails, Quincy Jones Dollars soundtrack-sampling "Shook Ones (Part II)"--in one of the greatest using-your-weakness-as-a-strength moments on film since, I don't know, John Cusack skied on one ski in Better Off Dead.

Okay, on second thought, that was more awesome than the Cusack-skiing-on-one-ski scene in Better Off Dead.


  1. Great assessment on all these tracks. Very have cool! You have great taste in music!

    1. Thanks! I may not like the original Sparkle as much as you do, but the Curtis Mayfield songs rule. And it's nice to finally know why the three lead actresses' vocals were omitted from the soundtrack album, thanks to your Sparkle tribute blog.