Rock Docs And Biopics Friday: Films With Great Ghost Written Songs

Ordinarily, I use the Rock Docs And Biopics Friday list to give you suggestions for films about or featuring music (in general terms) that you can rent from Netflix, or your local dvd rental outlet, or buy outright for your home collection. This list usually features a common theme. Today, I’ll also break with convention (it’s my convention, after all) and also suggest a film that is actually in theaters now. Today’s theme is films with songs written by hired guns, where the actors in the film are supposed to have written them, where they turned out so well that you’d want to hear them again, even without the film. (did that make sense?)

PRIVILEGE (1967) Directed by Peter Watkins

The parable of mythical rock icon Steven Shorter, played by actual UK rock star Paul Jones as stunningly realized by cult genius director Peter Watkins. Stunning for its Clockwork Orange like, often reactionary, predictions of a pop dystopia in the near future (the glam 70’s) the film is actually spot on in places and appears to accurately depict the kinds of manipulations pop stars would be subject to and subject upon their fans. Alice Cooper’s act is surely informed by the imprisonment simulation scenes, and one has to think that Michael Jackson would have identified with Shorter’s isolation from reality.  Besides co-starring model of the day, Jean “the Shrimp” Shrimpton, the film survives and is included here because of the original songs written for “Shorter” by pop maestro Mike Leander, one of which, “Set Me Free” was covered by The Patti Smith Group for their Easter album in 1978.

Here’s the cheesy and dated trailer for Privilege …”laughter is cut out of you with a surgical knife…”:

THAT’LL BE THE DAY (1973) Directed by Claude Whatham

Rumoured to be both loosely based on the early life of John Lennon  or Harry Nilsson’s song “1941”, That’ll Be The Day tells the cautionary tale of young Jim MacLaine, played by David Essex, a frustrated school leaver who finds sanctuary in the world rock ‘n’ roll. He meets an artful dodger named Mike, played by Ringo Starr and starts his own rock and roll journey. Part of the charm of the film comes from the fact that Waltham hired actual rockers in the film, Starr,Keith Moon and Billy Fury, to play the roles, all of whom had lived the storyline in life. Almost doesn’t fit on the list because the soundtrack, curated by Neil Aspinall and Keith Moon, relied on existing rock and roll hits with no new commissions, but it did set up a rather good sequel…

STARDUST (1974) Directed by Michael Apted

“Show me a boy who never wanted to be a rock star,” claimed the tagline to this 1974 followup to That’ll Be The Day, “and I’ll show you a liar.” Michael Apted’s film continues with the story of  Jim Maclaine, who has by now assembled a band called The Stray Cats (not the real life American rockabilly band), gets touring, recording and some heavy use of narcotics. Oh oh! Essex reprise his role and the cast includes a returning Moon, plus Larry Hagman and Adam Faith and some real cats like Paul Nicholas, Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (who was the official Musical Arranger for the film) plus veterans like Marty Wilde. Here’s a scene of the rockstar Maclaine given the documentary style treatment by interviewer Edd Byrnes:

Be careful you don’t get the other film called Stardust, a 2007 fantasy film from starring Clare Danes, or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Good as they are, they are not the one I mentioned.

VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) Directed by Todd Haynes

A decade after an androgynous British glam-rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) fakes his own death on stage and goes into seclusion, a tabloid journalist named Arthur, played by Christian Bale, tracks him down for the scoop. In the process of interviewing Slade’s cohorts and colleagues, the journalist gradually strips away the makeup and gets to know the troubled man beneath it. The friendship between Brian Slade and his rock friend Curt Wild, (played by Ewan McGregor) was directly inspired by the real life camaraderie of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Eddie Izzard and Toni Collette (as an Angie Bowie type) are also great. Haynes had trouble getting the rights for actual Bowie songs for the film, but the director turned lemons into lemonade by bringing in contemporary musician respectful to the film’s musical era. For instance, the band called The Venus in Furs are actually Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with David Gray, Bernard Butler of Suede and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay. Curt Wild’s band, the Wylde Ratttz features the actual Stooges’ guitarist, the late Ron Asheton, with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Gumball’s Don Fleming, and Mark Arm of Mudhoney. Haynes had news songs written for the film by Pulp, Shudder to Think and Grant Lee Buffalo, while Placebo covers T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” and Teenage Fanclub and Elastica’s Donna Matthews cover The New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” While they couldn’t get Bowie (whose song “Velvet Goldmine” inspired the title!) songs by Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T.Rex, and Steve Harley are featured.

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984 ) Directed by Rob Reiner

Yeah, I know, I recommend this every time. Well it fits in here, doesn’t it? The songs that Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean wrote for The ‘Tap (and for The New Originals and The Thamesmen) are all standalone classics. Where do I begin?

“Big Bottom”

or “Gimme Some Money”

Of course, Guest and his pals couldn’t resist doing it all again, this time parodying (tributing) the Folk Music boom of the 60s…

A MIGHTY WIND (2003 ) Directed by Christopher Guest

With many of the ensemble from Guest’s Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, the film centers on a reunion show featuring major stars from the 60s folk boom, Mitch & Mickey, The New Main St. Singers and The Folksmen, at New York’s Town Hall, taped for a PBS special, in tribute to their promoter manager mentor who has passed away. As with Spinal Tap, however, the songs stand alone as great originals (with only the slightest sarcasm present in all of it).

or Mitch And Mickey’s big hit “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow”


THAT THING YOU DO! (1996) Directed by Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks wrote and directed this tribute to the bubblegum bands of early rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, teenage garage band The One-ders — singer Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn), drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott) and a nameless bass player (Ethan Embry)  head to overnight stardom when their debut song, “That Thing You Do”  rockets up  the pop charts. Of course it wouldn’t be a movie if no one cried along the way. Nice little film, with a lot of heart and not a lot of grit, but Adam Schlesinger’s title song is the star for me, Liv Tyler is cute and Steve Zahn is his usual puckish self.

MUSIC & LYRICS (2007) Directed by Marc Lawrence

I didn’t really love the film, but I’m a sucker for stories about songwriters, even obliquely based on reality. The only reason I mention is that the pop star character, former singer from the Wham! like band PoP! named Alex Fletcher (played by Hugh Grant) had a hit single in the 80’s called “Pop Goes My Heart” which is actually sung by ABC’s Martin Fry and written by Andrew Wyatt (now the lead singer of the band Miike Snow), and there’s a bonus in that there are other songs in the picture by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains Of Wayne/Ivy/Tainted Windows), and that guy is a freakin’ pop genius.

GRACE OF MY HEART (1996 ) Directed by Alison Anders

Ostensibly, and loosely, based on the life of Carole King it’s the story of a New York, Tin Pan Alley pop songwriter who falls in love with a Brian Wilson like character and ends up finding her own voice in California as a singer-songwriter in a Tapestry mode. Anders brilliantly brought in everyone from Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach, Dinosaur Jr., Jill Sobule and even Joni Mitchell. J Mascis sounds nothing like Brian Wilson on the Californian “Take A Run At The Sun” but it’s such an awesome tune you kinda don’t mind. I have fond memories of this film, Ileanna Douglas’s “Denise Waverly” is a fun character, and there are solid performances from Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz and John Turturro as a Phil Spector-like character.

Here’s the scene where Denise (Douglas, voiced by Kristen Vigard) sings the Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach “God Give Me Strength”:

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007) Directed by Jake Kasdan

What would happen if you took EVERY rock biopic from Walk The Line through The Buddy Holly Story to Ray and blurred them all, adding in a bit of Brian Wilson / Beach Boys mythology and Beatles lore? You’d have this insane John C. Reilly vehicle about fictional pop icon Dewey Cox give rags-to-riches a whole new meaning. Packed with a lot of contemporary stars in cameos – Jenna Fischer, Justin Long, Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, Kristen Wiig, David Koechner, John Michael Higgins, Ed Helms, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Jerry Minor, Jack McBrayer and even music stars like Jack White, Lyle Lovett, Jackson Browne. The film is never boring, mainly because it never stays in one place. Either way, the original songs, written for Cox and mostly played and sung by John C. Reilly are as catchy as they are funny. Dan Bern and Mike Viola (of the Candy Butchers) wrote most of  the tunes, “There’s a Change a Happenin'” “Mulatto” “A Life Without You (Is No Life At All)” “Beautiful Ride” and “Hole in My Pants”. Charlie Wadhams provided “Let’s Duet.” Marshall Crenshaw wrote “Walk Hard”, and Van Dyke Parks sent up his pal Brian Wilson’s Smile era on “Black Sheep” (there were actual pets lending Pet sounds).

ONCE (2007) Directed by John Carney

Technicality here, as Frames singer Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova were playing characters in the film, even though they ended up becoming The Swell Season when the film took off. Hansard wrote all the songs for Hansard to sing…


GET HIM TO THE GREEK (2010) Directed by Nicholas Stoller

In theatres now. The character of rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) first appeared singing “Inside Of You”, his hit song with the band Infant Sorrow, in the 2008 film FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008) and in this film he’s the main attraction. Therefore, there’s more call for music. The producers were smart again and got good people to write it, former Libertines’ Carl Barat, Dan Bern, Mike Viola, Jason Segel (who created the character of Aldous Snow), Lyle Workman, and Jarvis Cocker also wrote songs for Snow and for the character of his girlfriend “Jackie Q” played by Rose Byrne.

Here’s Aldous singing “Inside of You” in concert

and here’s the audio only of “Bangers & Mash”

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2 Responses to “Rock Docs And Biopics Friday: Films With Great Ghost Written Songs”

  1. Phil Evans Says:

    Thanks Paul – gives me months of Fodder for Fake Song Fridays. Now – What about songs for commercials that ended up real? This song has been the bed for a lottery commercial for over a year – plus it was on a McDonalds spot through the Olympics. Now it’s on the radio (radio btw, is a wireless version of online streaming).

  2. Added note, Mike Viola voiced “That Thing You Do” and I believe did not take film credit for co-writing it with Adam. Definitely my fave tune in any movie about band.

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