You’d be hard pressed to find me at many musicals. I remember seeing Chicago when it was hyping up for a Best Picture win; I agreed to see Les Miserables (the 2013 Tom Hooper-helmer) after much prodding and a bit of deal-brokering (which proved to be unintentionally hilarious — watching Russell Crowe sing); Mama Mia may or may not have been used to impress a date. However, my wife and I went and saw Jersey Boys, the Clint Eastwood movie based on the Broadway musical of the same name. Jersey Boys fell more in my wheel house; it featured that sugary, harmony-drenched ’50s pop I always liked on oldies’ spins. The film eschews the cheese (or leaves that solely to the soundtrack) by essentially being a straight-ahead rock biopic. There are no break-into-song-and-dance-in-the-middle-of-the-street moments (save for the closing credits sequence — yes, the reprise — which is just that). All the musical numbers are contained in their logical, linear place with zero spontaneity; sequences show songs being written, recorded or performed as the band’s star rises, and, accordingly, we get the montage of hits and cutaways to TV performances and spinning gold records.
Some of the negative reactions to the movie seemed a bit unfair. It’s an aptly-filmed period piece containing the right dramatic turns. It also happens to feature catchy sing-a-long tunes. Some would discredit the film on the merit of the band itself, The Four Seasons, being undeserving because they weren’t influential enough or because some other big names haven’t yet landed their own modern Hollywood biopic treatment yet: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams (which is in the works). I don’t give much credence to either idea, particularly because the Four Seasons were quite massive in album sales — though dwarfed by the British invasion at the time — and the production was backed by founding members (irking past such roadblocks as life-rights and song permissions).
But it did get me thinking. Jersey Boys had the makings of a good musical because it had good songs and a good, if standard, rising-star story. The movie did make the main dramatic thrust the relationship between the voice, Valli, and his combustible best-friend and collaborator, Tommy Devito. (This is something another recent music biopic, Get On Up, got right for James Brown, to steer away from the unsavory domestic drama and leave his musical genius untainted). And there are definitely some good music biopics due; I am currently writing the script to The Replacement’s story, the best American rock band.
But what are some other artists with material ripe for the musical treatment, not for their notoriety or record sales, but because of their worthy songs and some shameless screenwriting willing to squeeze the drama from their story? Here is my look at a couple of little-heard bands ready for celluloid sing-a-long glory.
Three high school friends from Bremerton, WA, form a Christ-infused punk band and are quickly courted by the top Christian indie-label, Tooth and Nail. As the band gains alterna-mainstream exposure (around the release of Life In General with “Chick Magnet” a veritable hit), the band kicks back against their money-grubbing label with some not-so-subtle jabs at their practices (“You don’t own me / They’ve abolished slavery.”) Claiming they were defrauded as kids, the band remains bound, even releasing anti-label tracks on albums released by T&N as they fulfill their contract. The band watches other like-sounding bands hit gold (and occasionally platinum) as the world of radio and TRL briefly turns their attention to pop-punk, even making stars out of tourmates Good Charlotte. After flirting with mainstream exposure (A&M records, a Diet Pepsi commercial), things quiet down for the punk rawk trio. The movie wraps up with a return to their original label for the release of Secret Weapon before the band quietly disbands as a full-time project.
Song highlights: “Teenage Politics,” “Middlename,” “Chick Magnet,” “Self-Serving with a Purpose,” “Initiation to Understanding,” “Responsibility,” “Heard That Sound.”
Orange County teens, led by frontman Ryan Sheely, start a punk band to escape the anonymity of being unattractive white males (pining for the Prom Queen in verse one, then writing her off by the chorus). Over the course of two albums writing teenage anthems for the dateless, Sheely’s mom is diagnosed and succumbs to cancer. The unrequited love story quickly turns into boy-battles-God as he struggles with mortality in the face of a loving God who allows for tragedy. The movie ends on a triumph with “Free,” declaring “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you / Freedom is what you do with what’s been taken away from you.”
Song highlights: “Ugly,” “Final Request,” “Prom Queen,” “Dear God,” “Prodigal,” “Free.”
Nashville natives start a grunge band in college and are championed as scrappy, unlikely heroes across Christian radio, heralded by both the Dove Awards and Tooth & Nail crowds. Captain Josh Byers, brother to band members Jared and Milam, is deployed to Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He doesn’t return. Devastated, the band release their most earnest, praise-filled record, Astronomy, choosing to side-step growing jaded in favor of a positive, upward outlook (alongside a prescription-strength dose of heavy rock and roll catharsis).
Song highlights: Super Good Feeling, Sun Stands Still, Celebrate, Weak at the Knees, Jaded Now, Patience.
Five Iron Frenzy
A nine-piece ska band actually survives the year 2002.
Song highlights: “The Phantom Mullet.”
Five PA-area friends, who share a love of fast music and rapid-fire jokes, start a punk band with a goofy, slapstick edge, like imagining Bible-titan Sampson as an inept dater on the modern singles’ scene. After two lovable but watered-down-with-filler albums, the band’s main songwriter, Conrad, leaves to pursue life as an accountant. Not looking back, the band returns with a glorified karaoke record, bypassing their lack of original content. Constant touring eventually takes its toll and crowds begin to dwindle. The next year, the band releases the best album of their career, the straight-ahead rock of Two Years to Never, going out on their own terms.
Song highlights: “Samson,” “Shrinky Dinks,” “Banana Man,” “Two Years to Never,” “Next to Me.”
An eccentric Moog pioneer, Ronnie, devotes his life to songs of whimsy — fairy tells and unicorns and clockwork cities. One day, he wakes up inside a creation of his own imagination — a starkly bright, candy-coated dreamland with garish, freak-show corners and a constant LSD-haze over the labyrinth of back alleys. Ronnie must team up with Nikola Tesla, who helps him commandeer a hot air balloon and escape — not back to reality, but to a land run by steam-punk Moog robots!
Song highlights: “Drum Machine Joy,” “Children of the Lord,” “Monosynth,” “Sugar Rush,” “Nikola Tesla,” “I Sing Electric.”