Total Recall

Total Recall: Walk Hard While My Biopic Gently Weeps

Opening acts: This is Spinal Tap, Fear of a Black Hat, Sweet and Lowdown

by | December 19, 2007 | Comments

On Friday, you’ll finally be able to see
John C. Reilly
take center stage. He’ll be playing Dewey Cox in
Walk Hard
(94
percent on the Tomatometer), an absurdist spoof
on troubled musicians and the Hollywood biopics that their life stories spawn,
and for this week’s Total Recall, RT takes a look at some of the memorable
fictional troubadours that have crooned the silver screen.

It doesn’t take a Grammy winner to see why actors are drawn
to biopics. Good actors make a living playing made-up characters, but it
takes a great one to convince a crowd of millions that they can emulate the
mannerisms, speech patterns, and attitude of a musical legend. Plus, said great
actor gets to sing, play an instrument, go through a "dark period,"
and then
get saved or die a gnarly death. Pull all of this off and critics will dish out the
praise. There might even be a gold statuette waiting in the wings come February. Gee,
all that attention wouldn’t go to an actor’s head, would it?



Walk Hard: Meet the Beatles.

While acting calisthenics and musical artist movies go hand
in hand, spoof humor enters the equation just as easily. We can mention films
and groups like
A Hard Day’s
Night
(100 percent),
The Rutles
(88 percent), and The Monkees,
but let’s jump forward to 1984. The year’s headliner: the loudest (and funniest)
band in the world, Spinal Tap!

It’s hard to overstate the impact of
This is Spinal
Tap
(96 percent) on both cinema and pop music. Though it wasn’t the first mockumentary, Spinal Tap was such a perfect embodiment of the form that
the fake doc became a subgenre onto itself. Then there’s the sheer accuracy of
the whole thing; Spinal Tap was so merciless and informed as a send-up of
the rock universe that, according to This is Spinal Tap: The Official
Companion
, rock stars like Sting, Yes’ Jon Anderson, and Guns ‘n’ Roses’
Slash have all commented on the starling resemblance to their experiences. (It’s
also rumored that Steven Tyler and Eddie Van Halen didn’t get that Tap
was supposed to be a comedy.)

Spinal Tap is the story of a witless, second-string
British hard rock band (played by
Michael McKean,
Christopher Guest, and
Harry
Shearer
) in the midst of a sharp decline. A tour to promote their latest album,
Smell the Glove, has hit a number of snags, including low ticket sales,
concerns that their new album cover is sexist (not sexy!), internal tensions,
malfunctioning and/or poorly designed stage props, and the fact the band’s
drummers consistently die under bizarre circumstances. Director
Rob Reiner also
stars as a filmmaker shooting a documentary about the band; in interviews, he
gleans profound insight into why the band’s amps go up to 11, and how much more
black one of their album covers can be. (The answer is none. None more black.)



Spinal Tap: Stonehenge — No one knows who they were…or what they were doing.

Perhaps the most undervalued aspect of the film is that
Spinal Tap’s songs are good. Gleefully stupid, filled with profane double
entendres, such cuts as "Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight," "Big Bottom," and
"Heavy Duty" may not be in the same league as AC/DC, but they’re far more
entertaining — and tuneful — than your average Whitesnake record. "It stays so
wickedly close to the subject that it is very nearly indistinguishable from the
real thing," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

What Spinal Tap did for the world of hard rock,
Fear
of a Black Hat
(85 percent) attempted to do for hip hop. This unjustly
underrated 1994 satire follows a tumultuous year in the life of N.W.H. (N—- With
Hats), a group that melds Public Enemy’s radical politics with the 2 Live Crew’s
smutty rhymes. N.W.H. consists of rappers Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff, who also
directed) and Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott) and DJ Tone Def (Mark Christopher
Lawrence
), all of whom spout pretentious banalities and wildly un-PC vulgarities
(often in the same sentence) to documentarian Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons).
(When asked why their song "Kill Whitey" is not racist, Ice Cold responds
incredulously that the group was referring to a specific person: their former
manager, whose first name is Whitey.)

In addition, the film features hilarious parodies of
classic rap videos (send-ups of C&C Music Factory-style hip-house and PM Dawn’s
hippie-rap are especially devastating) and some sublimely silly moments
(especially a scene in which a "Rap Against Violence" presentation to an
elementary school class quickly devolves into a brawl between N.W.H. and a rival
crew). Some of the jokes are a bit dated, while others (as when the group gets
lost backstage, or the fact that the group’s managers are constantly being
killed) are almost direct rips from Spinal Tap. But anyone who loves
rap’s golden age will find a lot of big laughs here. And even some of the
throwaway gags — Tasty Taste has a necklace with a bowling trophy on the end;
one of the groups on tour with N.W.H. is an all-female ensemble called Parsley,
Sage, Rosemary ‘n’ Thyme — are at least good for a chuckle. "It’s sad that this
film has been relegated to cult oddity status," wrote Mike Bracken of Mike
Bracken’s Horror Films
. "If you like rap music, biting satire, or are just
looking for something different, check this out."




Fear of a Black Hat: Rappers Against Violence.

Woody Allen‘s career from the mid-1990s up until his
breathtaking comeback,
Match Point
(79
percent), is frequently considered a morass of light
comedies and experimental failures. Some deserve their reputation (Hollywood
Ending
[47 percent],
Celebrity

[39 percent]) and some are actually overrated (Deconstructing Harry), but
there’s treasures nestled here that recall Allen’s ’80s output and hinted at
the tenuous upswing he’s currently on. Case in point:
Sweet and Lowdown
(78 percent), Allen’s
1999 tender biopic of fictional guitarist and all-around bastard, Emmett Ray.
 Sean Penn earned an Oscar nomination for his role as
motormouth Ray, and
Samantha Morton, as Hattie, earned her first nomination as Ray’s mute love
interest. A low-key comedy with some gut-wrenchingly dramatic moments and
delectable jazz tunes, Sweet and Lowdown has been called "undeniably pleasant.
[Morton’s] performance is like nothing I’ve seen in recent years." (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.)

Most artists pay respects to the masters in subtle homages.
Woody Allen, on the other hand, wears his inspirations on his sleeve. One
doesn’t have to look further than Isaac Davis rattling off his favorite things
in the world into a tape recorder in
Manhattan
(97
percent), or the color recreations of
Marx
Brothers
skits in
Everyone Says I Love You

(82 percent) for evidence. Sweet and Lowdown is
quick to call Emmett Ray "the second greatest guitar player in the world" — a
droll joke and direct reference to guitar maestro Django Reinhardt. Ray passes
out during a chance encounter with Reinhardt and several facets of Ray’s
behavior — he’s reckless, a gambler, and has just as much luck as he does
talent — mimics Reinhardt’s. But it could be said those are common strains in
any musician’s life. After all, moral disintegration makes for great idols.




Sweet and Lowdown: You have underwear and socks to wash.

If you can’t get your fix from these fictional musical biopics, there are a number of other notables sure to tickle your funnybone and
tap your feet. There’s the Beatles-skewering mockumentary The Rutles: All You
Need is Cash
(88 percent), featuring cameos from
George Harrison,
Mick Jagger,
Paul Simon, and
Bill Murray.
Tom Hanks‘ sweet, energetic
That Thing
You Do!
(91 percent) tells the
story of a fictional Beatle-esque band’s brief moment in the sun.
Chris Rock
lampoons gangsta rap in CB4 (63 percent), and the
Roger Ebert-penned,
Russ Meyer-helmed
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
(62 percent) is the
X-rated tale of the trials and tribulations of an all female rock band. Rock on!

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