Movies and music are closely entwined, as the name of this site demonstrates and as we've shown several times recently (each word there links to a different recent music/movie feature). But rarer —and frequently more fun— than pre-existing songs or known musicians showing up on screen are films where the music and the musicians purely fictional. We looked at the phenomenon last year in a precursor version of this list, but every once in a while we encounter a movie that gives us the ideal opportunity to go back and flesh out an earlier feature. And this week, a film arrives in which the fictional musicians are so good they remind us of what’s so great about movies and music in the first place.
This weekend, you'll finally be able to check out Lenny Abrahamson's “Frank," a film which...well, we’ve been trying to explain it to you for months now, not least with an ecstatic A review from Sundance, but here goes one last try. Infused with the offbeat DNA of cult British comedian-musician Frank Sidebottom, who haunted the fringes of various cultural, musical and televisual scenes in Northern England for much of the '80s and '90s, “Frank” is a comic road musical about a less-than-talented musician (Domnhall Gleeson) who falls in with an underground band headed up (geddit?) by the very odd Frank (Michael Fassbender, though you won’t really get to see much of his face), who plays —and lives— wearing an elliptical fibreglass head, like a living cartoon character. If that all sounds strange, well… it is. But it doesn’t stop “Frank” from having a heart as big as his fibreglass head: it’s a totally unique, enthralling film, with a spine of genuinely excellent experimental indie music specially composed for the film and performed by the actors (sample the track "I Love You All" right here). The band--unpronounceably called Soronprfbs, because it’s that kind of film--are so good you’ll wish you could go see the band, but you’ll have to content yourselves with seeing “Frank” instead.
So, in the spirit of “Frank,” and with thanks to everyone who chimed in with their suggestions the last time around, here’s a bigger, better list of 20 of the most essential fictional movie bands around.
"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2005)
Who were they? Myron Wagtail (Jarvis Cocker) on vocals, Kirley Duke (Jonny Greenwood) on lead guitar, Heathcote Barbary (Jason Buckle), rhythm guitar, Donaghan Tremlett (Steve Mackey) on bass, Gideon Crumb (Steven Claydon) as keyboardist and bagpiper and Orsino Thruston (Phil Selway) on the drums.
Best Track: “Do The Hippogriff”
How hard do they rock? Surprisingly hard, given that they a) have a bagpiper and b) are wizards. Massively popular in the wizarding world, apparently, the Sisters come across less like One Direction with wands and more like eccentric glam-rockers, but Hogwarts students are clearly excited to have them as the surprise act at the Yule Ball. Then again, they should be, since the line-up contains two members each of the popular Muggle bands Pulp (Cocker and Mackey) and Radiohead (Greenwood and Selway), making them a kind of Brit-indie supergroup. Cocker also composed the three songs they perform in the film, complete with awful wizardy lyrics (“I spin around like a crazy elf/ Dancing by myself”). It’s far from Jarvis’ finest work —and try not to think too hard about how a school full of wizards probably won’t have their minds blown by a song called “Magic Works”— but it’s one of the few fun moments in one of the weaker Potter films, and presumably those involved got more approval from their kids for one brief movie appearance than for their entire previous careers.
Extra Rock Credit: The band are never actually announced by name in the film, but rather as “the band that needs no introducing,” because of a lawsuit from the entirely real Canadian folk-rock group The Wyrd Sisters. Rock ‘n’ roll.
Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes
"Star Wars: A New Hope" (1977)
Who were they? Figrin D’an on the kloo horn, Nalan Cheel on the bandfill, Tend Dahai on the fanfar, Doikk N’ats on the Dorenian Beshniquel, Ickabel G’ont on the Fanfar and Tech Mo’r on the Ommni Box. Obviously. No one actually knows who played who —they aren’t credited, outrageously— but it was an assortment of special effects experts who happened to be on set, including creature feature make-up legend Rick Baker (of “An American Werewolf in London” and many other classics). Their tunes were written, however, by John Williams, and form one of the stranger components of one of the finest film scores ever written.
Best Track: “Cantina Band #1”, narrowly beating the more lounge-y “Cantina Band #2”
How hard do they rock? Actually, the question is “how hard do they jizz?” Stop giggling: the Modal Nodes are highly respected players of the galactically popular form of music known as jizz: they’re also ethnically (is that the word?) Bith, a species of highly intelligent alien. On the other hand, they're not playing the classiest of venues; the Mos Eisley cantina is the kind of place where someone can get their arm cut off with a semi-legendary energy weapon and someone else can get shot messily in the head (first!) without the multi-species patrons batting an eyelid. The Modal Nodes do briefly stop playing when the blood starts spraying, but, like the consummate bug-eyed professionals they are, they pick up again without dropping a note, so we have to conclude that, yes, they jizz pretty hard.
Extra Rock Credit: If you really can’t get enough of the stylings of D’an and the band, you can punish yourself by checking out the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special," where they play a small role in a plot that’s far too elaborate and stupid to explain.
The Soggy Bottom Boys
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)
Who were they? Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop and Delmar O’Donnell all sang, accompanied where necessary by Tommy Johnson on guitar. The four were played onscreen by (in that order) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and Chris Thomas King, but the actual singing and playing was by country and bluegrass stalwarts Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen and Pat Enright
Best track: Their version of the bluegrass standard “Man of Constant Sorrow”
How hard did they rock? Pretty hard, assuming you’re not snobbish about country music (see also Banjo & Sullivan, below). The outstanding, bestselling soundtrack to 'O Brother' was curated by producer and frequent Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett, who assembled a series of rootsy classics for the film and gave arguably the best of them to the Soggy Bottom Boys themselves: both “Man of Constant Sorrow” and their cut of “In the Jailhouse Now” are so good that it’s almost disappointing to realize it isn’t really gorgeous George Clooney and Co. doing the singing.
Extra Rock Credit: The soundtrack was a big enough hit to trigger a collaborative tour from many of those featured, including Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, whose version of “Down in the River to Pray” is the other standout musical moment in 'O Brother.' That tour was itself filmed by no less than D.A. Pennebaker, maker of numerous legendary concert films from the '60s onwards, and released as “Down from the Mountain”: it’s well worth a watch.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001)
Who were they? There have been various incarnations, all centred around Hedwig herself (John Cameron Mitchell). For most of the film, the rest of the Angry Inch consists of Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), Skszp (Stephen Trask), Jacek (Theodore Liscinski), Krzysztof (Rob Campbell) and Schlatko (Michael Aronov).
Best track: “The Origin of Love”
How hard did they rock? As hard as only a wronged, transgender, surgically maltreated and fabulous East German woman can. Mitchell’s 2001 cult film of his own equally cult musical is a queer riot of colour and anger in which Hedwig, jilted by the American soldier she married in order to escape Communist Berlin and now back on that city’s transformed, ex-Communist streets, forms a band to tell her story and find a new love, even if it is by playing fractious gigs in scuzzy seafood restaurants. Backed by an assortment of other lowlifes and gender rebels, Hedwig storms her own stage night after night, despite being repeatedly screwed over by life and the unscrupulous superstar Tommy (Michael Pitt). Hedwig and the Angry Inch are half-glam, half-punk, a band so preposterous and necessary that, since they didn’t exist, Mitchell was forced to invent them, demonstrating at once how boring the world had been before.
Extra Rock Credit: 2003 saw the release of an album of covers of Hedwig songs, “Wig in a Box,” featuring Rufus Wainwright, They Might Be Giants, Cyndi Lauper, The Breeders … and Stephen Colbert.
Nick Rivers/The Nick Rivers Band
“Top Secret!” (1984)
Who were they? Well, it’s really just the fictional character Nick Rivers, a teen idol in the vein of ‘50s pop hearthrobs Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and Ricky Nelson, as played by actor Val Kilmer. Touring in Europe during WWII, Rivers stops off in East Germany and becomes embroiled in a French resistance movement that is trying to stop the Nazis and rescue a brilliant scientist who has been forced to help create a deadly naval mine that could change the course of the war.
Best track: Lots to choose from, but "Spend This Night With Me" is easily the film’s best musical and funniest moment, though only by a hair as all six original songs are terrific.
How hard did they rock? It really depends on who the filmmakers —Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker— were trying to musically emulate in any particular scene. "Skeet Surfing" is an an obvious Beach Boys spoof that is credited to Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and also Chuck Berry since the opening riff is pretty much lifted wholesale from "Johnny B. Goode." “Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is a Lou Handman/Roy Turk cover made famous by Elvis, "Tutti Frutti" is obviously a Little Richard song, and the aforementioned ballad ""Spend This Night With Me" is actually credited to the filmmakers and producer/musician Mike Moran.
Extra Rock Credit: There's a Maurice Jarre score CD released through Varese Sarabande, but getting your hands on those silly and ridiculous pop spoofs means buying a rare vinyl edition via Passport Records, which was released a few years back. But it can run you about $100 as it's now out of print.