This month, among the hopefully many delights of Tron Legacy, electronic duo Daft Punk will lend their fictional selves to the movie’s alternate sci-fi world as a band inside the digital machine — presided over, presumably, by Michael Sheen’s prancing ringmaster he’s based heavily on David Bowie. That got us thinking about many of the great fictitious bands to have appeared n film over the years. Sometimes they’re just a poster on a bedroom wall or a theme blasting out of a radio (think Big Fun in Heathers or Low Shoulder in Jennifer’s Body); others, as in Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do! or Eddie and The Cruisers, the entire movie revolves around them. Often inspired, frequently terrible, and sometimes both — it was hard to leave off The Cherry Bomb, Lea Thompson’s crimped-hair rockers that duet with Howard the Duck — they hold a special place on the fringes of our cult movie affection. Chopping down a potential play list that on any other day could have included the Muppets, Buckaroo Banzai and the Fifth Dimension or any of the freak retro bands from Phantom Of The Paradise is a tough task — and hey, I could easily have filled the bunch with fake girl bands from ’80s movies; my personal favourites — but anyway, here they are…
11. The School Of Rock, The School Of Rock (2003)
Tenacious D frontman Jack Black established his career with wailing movie performances like Barry Jive And The Uptown Five in High Fidelity, but few were as sweet as when he turned over the spotlight to a bunch of kids his slacker teacher schools in the ways of rock and/or roll. Corny as lifting a lighter during a concert ballad — and embraced with all sincerity by director Richard Linklater — this gang of grade school virtuosos are also incredibly talented. Plus, there’s something that’ll always warm our black hearts in seeing small children stomp through an AC/DC track.
10. CB4, CB4 (1993)
Looking uncannily like late NWA rapper Easy-E — and rocking a note-perfect vocal parody in the song Straight Outta Locash — Chris Rock, together with director Tamra Davis, satirized hip-hop’s lucrative gangsta genre at a time when anyone claiming to have some street cred seemed to be offered a record deal. Rock’s MC Gusto cribs the real-deal felon credentials of an incarcerated pal and uses them to propel his gangsta trio CB4 to the top of the music charts, complete with a timeless romantic classic, Sweat From My Balls, that could easily have been an actual rap hit.
09. Soggy Bottom Boys, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Since most of the music industry consists of criminals out to make a fast buck, it’s easy to see why three chain-gang escapees billing themselves as the Soggy Bottom Boys go from crooners for cash to national pop sensations with their bluegrass quickie, Man Of Constant Sorrow — recorded on the fly for a blind radio station owner they hoped to swindle a few bucks from. Not only is the song a hit, it saves their necks: the Governor of Mississippi being such a fan that he grants the gang a full pardon. The film’s soundtrack, guided by blues legend T-Bone Burnett, became a smash for real, too.
08. The Max Rebo Band, Star Wars: Episode VI—Return Of The Jedi (1983)
While the Mos Eisley Cantina Band may be a smooth cocktail jazz combo, playing a dive to some drunken scum and villainy is nothing next to being the house band for the galaxy’s most notorious gangster slug — where every note could well be your last. The Max Rebo Band — named for their eponymous blue pachyderm keyboardist — are thus the toughest movie three-piece in the universe (in the theatrical version, we stress), whether they’re tearing through hard funk while Jabba’s pet Rancor munches on slave girls or just easing back with Caribbean grooves on the master’s sail barge.
07. Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2000)
If Todd Haynes had done the fictional glam rock thing with Velvet Goldmine then John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig went one better, imagining Ziggy Stardust (or, more accurately, his forgotten clone, Jobriath) if he were a transgender East Berliner transplanted to the seedy bar circuit of nowhere America. Sounds depressing but it’s actually rather exuberant, an arch little expose on the nastier underside of fame boosted by some hard-ro0cking glam songs from Hedwig’s band, The Angry Inch — performed in part by Husker Du man, Bob Mould.
06. Sex Bob-omb, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
Powered by their jackhammer dynamo drummer Kim Pine and her manic “WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB!” count-in, Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim’s fictional group aren’t exactly much chop; in fact, to describe their skuzzy garage rock sludge as average might be high praise. But they pull it together when it counts, unleashing a maelstrom of guitar noise in order to defeat the giant dragons manifested by their deadly dance opponents in the movie’s epic band face off. Sex Bob-omb’s amateur noodling was provided by Beck, in full junkyard mode.
05. Wyld Stallyns, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989); Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Most bands on this list have their heroic moments, but none can lay claim to defining the very shape of mankind the way San Dimas’s metal morons Wyld Stallyns do. Sure, Bill S. Preston, esq. and Theodore Logan — or The Great Ones, as they will one day be referred to by future generations — can barely strum a chord on their guitars (though they do, importantly, recognise the value of a “triumphant video”), but that soon changes after they receive a paradoxical visit from tutor/future disciple Rufus; whereby they proceed to foster a most excellent new utopia (and perform a bodacious version of God Gave Rock And Roll To You, with Death himself on double bass).
04. Marvin Berry And The Starlighters, Back To The Future (1985)
Unlike his more talented cousin Chuck, Marvin Berry fronts the Starlighters, an unremarkable if agreeable doo-wop and jazz unit crooning covers of hits like Earth Angel at ’50s high school dances. That is until an impromptu guest appearance from a time-traveling Van Halen fan from the ’80s goes and changes the course of music history entirely, his epically discordant guitar solo sealing the band’s legend as pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll that only the stunned audiences’ kids will one day understand (and seemingly putting poor Chuck out of a career in the process).
03. The Fabulous Stains, Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)
With their sneering pouts, shocks of skunk hair and coarse, infectious dirges like Waste Of Time, DIY all-girl punkers The Fabulous Stains (who included Diane Lane and Laura Dern) overcome their obvious lack of musical talent to create a cult of teenage girl worshippers and eventual, ironic MTV success (a trick aped in Josie And The Pussycats 20 years later). The film, which also features members of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, puzzled the studio and was never released at the time, but the fictional Stains proved bigger than the product, inspiring a legion of real-life riot grrl bands like Hole and Bikini Kill.
02. Stillwater, Almost Famous (2000)
Having already created fictional Seattle rockers Citizen Dick for the grunge-era Singles, former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe went all out for his autobiographical fan letter to the early ’70s rock circuit, loosely based on his own travels as a teenage writer on the road with the likes of Led Zeppelin. And what must the Zep have thought, with Stillwater’s screeching vocalist and bombastic lead guitarist locked in a battle of egos over the direction and supremacy of their band? Billy Crudup’s guitarist Russell Hammond also gets one of movie rock’s great moments as he proclaims himself a “Golden God” before taking a swan dive off a roof and into a swimming pool.
01. Spinal Tap, This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
You know those Empire lists that go to 10? Well, this one goes to 11, in honour of the one and only David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, collectively known — heavy metal umlaut and all — as the mighty Spinal Tap. A fake band created in 1979 by director Rob Reiner and propelled to notoriety in this 1984 mockumentary, Tap satirised the absurd excesses of rock dinosaurs wobbling into an era that had forgotten them. Spinal Tap’s surreal behavior — including tales of bizarre gardening accidents, shark sandwiches and ambitiously staging Stonehenge, the concert — was so outlandish that it engendered less parody than outright affection for these crazy buffoons. So good was the creation of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer that Spinal Tap fooled a few into believing they were existed, and actually became a band in real life, touring and releasing albums (Smell The Glove, sadly, remains unreleased.) We salute you, our half inflated dark lords.
Originally appeared in Empire, April 2010