The James Clayton Column: The movies killed our rock ‘n’ roll

With movies filled with fictional bands and actors churning out calypso records, James asks: has Hollywood killed rock ‘n’ roll?

Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!

Or, no thank you, ma’am. I just don’t know. I’m confused, it’s noisy in here and what is real, what is fictional – what is imitation and what’s authentic – are all merging and muddied.

I love the band Sex Bob-omb, except there is no such band as Sex Bob-omb beyond the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World movie, It’s really just Beck slinging Edgar Wright some soundtrack bits. That’s cool, but I want to see Sex Bob-omb, the band that features Scott Pilgrim on bass, in the flesh, but this is an impossible dream because they don’t really exist.

Likewise, The Clash at Demonhead, Crash and the Boys and the Katayanagi Twins from the Pilgrimiverse. While we’re at it, I’m also eager to see Wyld Stallyns of Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure in action, especially if they hold the key to a utopian future. Ditto the kids from School Of Rock.

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Alas, none of these are going to happen and even if these great fictional bands were to get in a van, hire a road crew and tour, it would probably all end up as an underwhelming, unmitigated disaster. Most likely, we’d just get two hours of Michael Cera asking an audience of disinterested drunk hipsters, “Am I Scott Pilgrim or Michael Cera?”

It’s inevitable that they won’t sound as good live as they do on record. They probably won’t play my favourite track either. I’ll only end up coming away resenting the fact that I forked out to see a crap show and, what’s more, spent £40 on an ugly hoodie at the merch stand. Plus, some arsehole thought it’d be funny to pee in a plastic cup and throw it all over the front row. Why did I bother? Colour me very disenchanted.

Consider the case of Spinal Tap as another fictional group who climbed to cult veneration by virtue of the fact that they were such awful screw-ups on screen. After This Is Spinal Tap, the band’s name became a by-word for rock star stupidity, tour disasters and embarrassing incidents involving stashed cucumbers. They were hilarious, heavy metal pastiche that you could laugh at and appreciate as improvised comedy and musical genius at the same time.

The problem is that Spinal Tap turned into a real band and played Live Earth (a.k.a. ‘The Al Gore Amps It Up To 11 Variety Show’) a few years ago, at which point tragicomic turned into pure tragedy. No one got the joke and the planet wasn’t saved from environmental disaster, but a fictional rock ‘n’ roll outfit became non-fictional and, in the process, really underwhelming.

The extension-to-actuality anxiety really hits home if I contemplate Flight Of The Conchords (“formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”). Bret and Jemaine are brilliant because they are a couple of completely clueless Kiwis with no hope of ever cracking the Big Apple. The charm is all in the fantasy dream sequences, the dead-on parody musical numbers and all-round lovable loserdom. Put them in a stadium in front of hundreds of adoring fans and the small screen magic is lost.

It’s probably a similar experience if you surrender yourself to a live concert involving someone from Disney’s catalogue of tweeny poptarts, say, the Jonas Brothers or Hannah Montana/Babygirl Billy Ray Cyrus. The key difference being that cult quirk is out and squealing preteen hysteria is in.

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Altogether, the modern multimedia fusion of popular music and film is a terrifying head-trip and I feel like I’m lost in a weird brave new world, more surreal than the most outlandish Yes album sleeve (imagine Avatar‘s floating scenery soaked with sprightly self-indulgent prog rock).

These ‘talents’ are TV personas blown-up onto the big screen though also having real life careers, yet they are all actors involved in a warped, sinister game of deception called ‘Let’s Play Popstar’. They are House of Mouse androids and they are coming to indoctrinate your children, sell them soulless music and a whole set of insidious, empty aspirations. Next they’ll rip the littl’uns apart from the inside like ‘the Thing’ and you’ll have alien spider guck all over the playroom and the High School Musical soundtrack haunting your memories forever.

At some point, rock ‘n’ roll music got swallowed up by cosmic horror and a fragmented digital age of mass media and mad consumerism. It’s even more unsettling when you realise that the rock stars are being overrun by actors or, even worse, carefully substituted for a Hollywood imitation, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style.

I can accept that Juliette Lewis, with her band The Licks, became a catsuit-wearing garage rock goddess. I can get my head around Steve Martin’s ascent to banjo-pluckin’ superstardom and thank him for decreasing the stigma of the instrument by wrestling it from the scary kid in Deliverance. I can also just about forgive film noir beefcake and Night Of The Hunter legend Robert Mitchum for releasing a calypso record. Nevertheless, when the actors become the biographical part they are portraying and steal the original musician’s identity, things become mind-bogglingly strange.

Musical biopics have the dangerous ability to screw with the legacy and there’s potential for mimics to segue in and seep into the lore.

For instance, thanks to Hollywood we now have an alternate history where Kristen Stewart is Joan Jett, Val Kilmer is Jim Morrison, Cate Blanchett is Bob Dylan and Joaquin Phoenix is Johnny Cash. What’s more, for Walk The Line, Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon re-recorded Cash and June Carter’s material, released it and, in effect, pulled a Stars In Their Eyes stunt that erased the departed Man in Black.

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But – and here’s where it gets hyper-peculiar – Joaquin Phoenix is not Johnny Cash any more but is now an inept bearded rapper, but he’s not really an inept bearded rapper because I’m Still Here is actually an elaborate conspiratorial mockumentary. Life was so much simpler when he was just Commodus from Gladiator.

I am completely lost. I just hope that the Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain biopics never get made. (I’ll pass on the Nirvana reunion fronted by Macaulay Culkin)

Rock ‘n’ roll is dead, the movie stars killed it and now we’re left facing an incomprehensible abyss of postmodern ambiguity. Sigh.

The Sex Bob-omb live experience, then. I just hope that Cate Blanchett does a good job as Scott Pilgrim…

James’ previous column can be found here.

James’ movie-spoof comic strips are right here.

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