When fictional bands move from screen to stage

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

“The Broken Circle Breakdown” is undoubtedly one of the best films you’ll see this or any year — passionate, joyous and heartbreakingly sad — but it’s also remarkable for being one of those rare music films where a fictional on-screen band goes on to actual off-screen fame.

The film follows two Belgian aficionados of American bluegrass music in a story about “life, death and everything in between,” as director Felix van Groeningen has described it, and for once, that’s not just hype. The relationship between musician/back-to-the-land dropout Didier and tattoo-artist Elise is born of and poured into the music they make, and as such, it was vital for the cast to really perform it. Actor-writer Johan Heldenbergh plays banjo and sings in the film, while co-star Veerle Baetens also sings for real; backed by a tight ensemble of roots musicians, they’re not just adequate but outstanding.

The soundtrack, which features great renditions of such classics as “Wayfaring Stranger” and “If I Needed You,” was a huge hit, topping the charts in several European markets and even reaching No. 19 in the U.S. This prompted the band to hit the road with the film’s stars front and center, and their latest Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band tour is looking at 32 sold out shows between March and June.

It’s a hard trick to pull off. While plenty of popular bands have appeared in films over the years, it almost never works the other way, with a movie band graduating to the concert halls and stadiums as the “Broken Circle” band has done.

The notable exception, of course, is Spinal Tap. Parodying hard-rock pretension and excess, comedians Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean wrote and performed their own material so convincingly in the mock-doc “This is Spinal Tap!” — released 30 years ago this month — that many viewers didn’t get that it was a joke. (Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler reportedly didn’t laugh once.) The film became a cult favorite over the years and the band has been sporadically active since, with followup album “Break Like the Wind” and a tour in 1992, appearances at Glastonbury and a third album in 2009 (“Back From the Dead”), and even a cameo on “The Simpsons.” A tour is rumored for later this year, and odds are they will continue treading water in a sea of deranged sexuality and bad poetry.

Even more impressively, the same trio repeated the trick in 2003 as faux-folk band The Folksmen in “A Mighty Wind,” with live performances to follow.

Another fictional band made good were the frat-house party rockers Otis Day and the Knights from the 1978 movie “Animal House.” The movie band was fronted by actor DeWayne Jessie, and when the raunchy comedy became a runaway hit, the producers encouraged him to tour the band for real. They traveled the globe playing 260 sold-out shows in one year, eventually releasing an album (“Shout,” 1989) produced by none other than George Clinton (Parliament-Funkadelic).

This is all even more incredible when you consider that Jessie didn’t even sing in the movie or soundtrack: He lip-synched to vocals by Lloyd Williams. Some 35 years later, they’re still playing, though, which even Jessie chuckles about, telling a recent interviewer, “From a fictional character, it became a real character. … My alter-ego. I mean, it’s crazy!”

Another success story of sorts is “The Commitments,” the 1991 Alan Parker-directed musical film about a bunch of hard-working, oft-bickering Dublin musicians trying to make it big playing soul music staples such as “In the Midnight Hour.” The soundtrack, performed by a cast made up of mostly unknown musicians, sold more than 12 million copies, and became a meal ticket for many of them for years to come, although interestingly not as a band.

Singer Andrew Strong immediately signed as a solo artist with MCA for a six-figure contract, but was quickly dropped when his debut album didn’t perform up to expectations. Dick Massey and Kenneth McCluskey — the drummer and bassist in the film — formed a tribute band called The Stars From the Commitments, which has logged more than 1,000 shows so far. Guitarist Glen Hansard would return to the screen in 2006 in the low-budget film “Once,” about Dublin buskers and unrequited love, where he co-starred with his real-life partner Markéta Irglová. The film picked up a best original song Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” and the duo continued performing and touring as The Swell Season, and — like the Tap — have been honored with a “Simpsons” cameo.

While the full Commitments band did get together for a 20th-anniversary reunion in 2011, perhaps the most successful band to emerge from that movie was one you can only glimpse amid the extras: The Corrs. All four Corr siblings were cast, and they impressed the film’s musical coordinator, John Hughes, enough that he became their manager. Sixty million records later, they are probably better known than the film.

The same can’t be said of Julee Cruise, the angelic-voiced chanteuse whose haunting vocals pretty much defined the mood of director David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” from 1989-1992. Cruise did the soundtrack for the cult TV series and followup film in collaboration with Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose twangy echoing guitar and lush synth orchestration gave her the perfect backdrop in songs such as “Falling” and “Into the Night”; she also appeared with a band occasionally, performing incongruously ethereal music at what seemed to be a mountain-man biker bar.

“Falling” was a huge hit, but Cruise — who previously had been a rocker in the Janis Joplin mold — chafed at being cut out of the creative process and used like a puppet by the director. By the time her second album came out, she and Lynch were history, and so was her career, which took a long time to rebuild. Still, Cruise credits the director for finding “a voice I never knew I had before,” and “how to approach my songs like an actress.” While rumors of a “Twin Peaks” revival never go away, the entire “Twin Peaks” series is out on Blu-ray later this month, supposedly with nearly 40 minutes of long-lost deleted scenes restored; can a Cruise tour be far behind?

“The Broken Circle Breakdown” is out March 22.