The Best Fictional Bands in Films?

A major hit of nostalgia was shot into my brain recently when I read that Breaking Glass (Brian Gibson, 1980) is to get a DVD release this month, 31 years after it was first released in September 1980.  31 years? Crikey, I saw this in the cinema when it first came out!! Yikes. All the songs played in the film by the fictional rock star, Kate and her band Breaking Glass, were mainly written by the film’s star, Hazel O’ Connor. I was getting seriously interested in music at this point (well, mostly Bowie and The Police) so I lapped up anything and everything going. I even bought a few Hazel O’ Connor singles on the back of the film’s release! Oh well, I was young and easily impressed. It would be fun to see the film again now though.

Anyway, it got me thinking – and this is the perfect idea for a Friday post –

Who are the best fictional bands/artists you’ve seen in films?

I have listed the my choice of films below, with links, in no particular order. I’ll kick off with Hazel, for old time’s sake.

Who have I missed and who would you include?

1. Breaking Glass – Hazel O’ Connor plays Kate, who with her band, Breaking Glass, achieves the fame she’s always craved, but at what cost? Was Lady GaGa even born when this came out? Here’s Eighth Day –  

2. Grace Of My Heart – Alison Anders’ wonderful film from 1996, loosely based on the life and work of Carole King. The soundtrack features some heavy-hitting songwriters, such as Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, who provided this superbly crafted period song for Denise Waverly (Illeana Douglas) to perform –

3. That Thing You Do! – Also from 1996, Tom Hanks’ directorial debut charting the rise and fall of Beatles-style Beat Combo, The Wonders. This is their big hit! Great film too.

4.  That’ll Be The Day / Stardust – Well ok, I’ve snuck in two films here; but they go hand in hand, as they chronicle the life and times of fictional superstar Jim McClaine (David Essex) and his band, The Stray Cats. With great star turns from Ringo Starr (That’ll Be The Day) and Adam Faith (Stardust). Allied to Essex’s own real Star charisma, these are two of the best films there are about the Business of the thing we call Show. Watch out for turns from Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds as band members –

5. The School of Rock – Ok dudes, I’m going to finish on a real face melter. I absolutely love The School of Rock (2003). Directed by Richard Linklater, it stars Jack Black as failed musician Dewey Finn, who seizes one last chance at the big time by impersonating his teacher friend Ned Schneebly, and turning his class into a kick-ass, hard rockin outfit so that he can take part in a school’s Battle of the Bands competition, to get revenge on the band who dumped him. It’s top class from start to finish. Here’s the band in action, and remember, you’re not hardcore until you live hardcore! – Happy Weekend! 

Thanks to suggestions from commenters, I’m adding a few more bands to the list.

7. The Committments – Alan Parker’s film of Roddy Doyle’s hilarious novel about the titular Dublin Soul band was a huge success. Here’s a tune from it –

8. This is Spinal Tap – A classic –

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – How I could have forgotten The Soggy Bottom Boys from The Coen Brothers’ wonderful movie, I’ll never know.

10. Star Wars – The Cantina Band from George Lucas’ Star Wars seem to have a huge online following! Thanks to Ronan for pointing this one out to me – I can’t find a clip from the movie, but this is the tune they play in the Cantina scene.  

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Kes (Ken Loach, 1969)

Re-released in September 2011 to coincide with Ken Loach’s 75th birthday, Kes was the acclaimed Director’s debut feature, filmed in the summer of 1968, on a characteristically tight budget. It was also the first feature of Cinematographer Chris Menges, who later went on to shoot The Mission, The Killing Fields and The Reader, amongst others.  Kes also featured the debut acting performance of then 14-year-old David (now Dai) Bradley, who secured the lead role of Billy Casper; the Yorkshire schoolboy who captures and trains a Kestrel, allowing him a form of escapism from his constrictive and often cruel working-class surroundings.

Bradley is wonderful as Billy; the picked-upon, slight but bright schoolboy who, while not at all academic, manages to teach himself how to care for and train a wild Kestrel (the “Kes” of the title) that he finds in the grounds of a local farm. Billy’s home life is turbulent – shared by a bullying older brother Jud ( Freddie Fletcher) who works down the local mine, and an inattentive, nagging mother (Lynne Perry) who is doing her best to raise two boys alone.

Nor does Billy find any comfort in friends or at school; playground politics dictate which pupils rule and which get picked on. The schoolyard is just as brutal as the home or street; and teachers too are mostly over-worked, bad-tempered and quick to mete out punishments to their young charges. Loach’s template of social criticism centred on working-class lives is already fully formed here. Billy’s personal circumstances are leavened by his deep interest in caring for Kes, and there is a lovely classroom scene where one of his teacher’s, Mr Fletcher (Colin Welland), has Billy explain what this entails to the class – enthralling everyone in the process.

Indeed a nice contrast is struck between caring Mr Fletcher, who takes an interest in Billy, and Billy’s hard-nosed P.E. teacher Mr Farthing (Brian Glover) who subjects his boys to violence on and off the football field. In one of the film’s funniest and most enjoyable sequences, Mr Farthing plays out his fantasy of being Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton (“it’s too cold to be a striker”) in a match against the boys, marked by the teacher’s casual violence and dubious refereeing decisions.

Very much of its time and place, Kes still carries resonance in its depiction of the struggle of ordinary lives. Billy’s options for gainful employment after school, other than working down the mine like his dullard brother, are few, to say the least. When discussing potential work options with Mr Fletcher, the insightful schoolboy states that it doesn’t matter what work he does, as he won’t enjoy it any more than he does school, but notes “still, I’ll get paid for not liking it”.  

As you might expect, Kes ends on a characteristically downbeat note; the film’s ending also signals the death of Billy’s childhood, and leaves us wondering where he will go from here. Though David Bradley’s career did not again reach the heights of his debut performance, he can be assured that, in the character of Billy Casper, his place in the pantheon of great screen roles is most certainly assured.

Kes finishes its run in The Irish Film Institute today.

Watch a clip here.

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Ben Wheatley shot his first feature, Down Terrace (2009) in just eight days and on a ridiculously modest budget somewhere in the region of £6,000 (the actors deferred their wages until the film eventually made some money back).  He used real locations, such as the house of a friend’s father, who he also had star in the film. The film went on to win the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2009, and Wheatley was awarded a Best Newcomer prize by the Evening Standard British Film Awards in 2010.

With Kill List, the budget has improved but Wheatley’s modus operandi has remained much the same. He still uses real, albeit fairly anonymous locations; ring roads, petrol stations, lock-ups, suburban housing estates – these are the areas his desultory characters inhabit. But lest you think Wheatley is yet another British director fashioning some kind of social-realist aesthetic, think again – his filmic territory is more like Ken Loach meets John Carpenter.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are two best friends and former Army buddies. Jay is back in England following his last mission in Iraq, and is having real problems settling back into suburban married life with his Swedish-born wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson). In an attempt to help his mate out, and get him back into the world of work, Gal proposes Jay joins him in some lucrative work, as contract killers for the shady Client (Struan Rodger). The Client provides the two pals with their “kill list” and a suitcase full of money, and soon the pair are on the road, glad to be working together again.

What makes Kill List so unsettling is that Wheatley grounds these characters in everyday reality. During a fraught dinner party with Gal and new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), for example, talk turns to the recession, to lack of money, and we understand that these people are just trying to get by like everyone else. Fiona works in Human Resources, essentially firing people for a living. Both Jay and Gal have their problems-and Jay in particular seems to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but nothing that a nice bit of work can’t sort out. The difference is that Jay and Gal kill people for a living. What’s more unsettling is that Jay’s wife Shel knows what he does, is complicit in his actions, and nags him about not working; as if he were simply an unemployed plumber going through a bad stretch.

What starts as a realist drama about two hitmen going about their business then suddenly takes some very unexpected turns. Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carves a Hex-style emblem into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror. Is she putting a spell on the house, on Jay and Shel? Later, she turns up unexpectedly at Shel’s when Jay and Gal are away working, and tells Shel she’s waiting, but waiting for what? Meanwhile, on the road, Jay is becoming increasingly unhinged, as his previous professionalism on the job gives way to out-and-out violence and brutality.

Wheatley shifts the focus of the film, in its 2nd half, to a very British type of horror.  Calling to mind Brit-Horror classic The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal encounter a weird late-night torch-lit procession going on down in the woods; and when they erroneously intervene, they are chased by the mask wearing mob, complete with flaming torches and knifes. The film then proceeds to a bizarre and unsettling finale that leaves more questions than answers. Wheatley doesn’t favour exposition, so don’t expect much in the way of explanation or a tidy resolution to the story. Like the spooky soundscapes and jerky jump-cuts he employs throughout, this is a film-maker who is out to undermine and wrong foot the audience’s expectations at every turn, but who never talks down to them.

You are left to make of Kill List what you will. I can’t say that I fully understood what the hell was going on by the end of the film, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

Kill List is on general release now.

You can watch the trailer here