Films

Raw punk, cooked pop

Rolling the camera for two kinds of rock

Brian D. Johnson October 14 1996
Films

Raw punk, cooked pop

Rolling the camera for two kinds of rock

Brian D. Johnson October 14 1996

Raw punk, cooked pop

Films

Rolling the camera for two kinds of rock

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Ever since The Beatles hammed their way through A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, film-makers have been trying to capture the energy and irreverence of rock ’n’ roll. Although rock musicians had “acted” in earlier films, such as the Elvis musicals, Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester was the first to really translate rock ’n’ roll cheek into cinematic chic. Some landmark rock movies have followed. Gimme Shelter (1970) freeze-framed the death of peace and love at an infamous Rolling Stones concert; The Last Waltz (1976), Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s farewell performance, dignified the end of an era; and This is Spinal Tap (1984), Rob Reiner’s portrait of a fictional heavy-metal act, offered the consummate satire of rock posturing, while sending up the whole “rockumentary” genre.

Documenting the licks, and antics, of a real band is one thing. But building a movie around a fake one is a challenge of a different order. The key, as Spinal Tap proved, is to fabricate a band that looks, acts and sounds at least as good as the real thing. Two new movies opening this month—That Thing You Do! and Hard Core Logo—attempt just that. Both are comic tales of fictional bands on the road to oblivion. But they come from opposite extremes of the film world— and the rock world.

That Thing You Do!, which marks the directing debut of actor Tom Hanks, is about

an American band that clones The Beatles sound in 1964 and becomes a one-hit wonder. Hard Core Logo, by Toronto director Bruce McDonald, is about a Canadian punk group staging a last-gasp reunion tour in the 1990s. The Hanks movie, a $35-million Hollywood confection, is a set-decorated nostalgia trip to rock ’n’ roll’s early innocence; Hard Core Logo, which cost just $1.5 million, is an edgy excursion to the nihilism at the end of the rock rainbow. Both films work on

their own terms. And it is hard to compare product with anti-product—That Thing You Do! is aimed at a much broader audience. But Hard Core Logo is the superior film, a deceptively sophisticated piece of work by one of Canada’s most talented directors.

As a mock documentary, Hard Core Logo borrows its conceit from Spinal Tap. It is, however, less cartoonish, and its affectionate parody is undercut by a raw nerve of realism. After tripping up with Dance Me Outside (1994), McDonald has found his voice with Hard Core Logo. The final instalment in a loose trilogy that includes Roadkill (1989) and Highway 61 (1991), it is his best and toughest film, striking just the right chord of insolence and wit. The premise goes back to Roadkill, which was originally planned as a documentary about a Toronto punk band called A Neon Rome. After A Neon Rome’s lead singer shaved his head and took a vow of silence, the band split up, forcing McDonald to make Roadkill as fiction.

His new film follows the ragged odyssey of a defunct band called Hard Core Logo. Its obnoxious leader, Joe Dick—played with rivetting authority by singer Hugh Dillon of the Toronto band Headstones—reunites his ex-bandmates to perform a benefit for punk idol Bucky Haight (a spectral Julian Richings), who has apparently lost the use of his legs after being shot in Saskatchewan. Following the benefit, Dick takes the band on a low-rent reunion tour of Western Canada, with McDonald’s film crew in tow. On the road, a bitter rift develops between the volatile singer and his dead-cool lead guitarist, Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie). Meanwhile, the puckish drummer (Bernie Coulson) helps drive the sensitive, speech-impaired bass player (lohn Pyper-Ferguson) into a state of blithering psychosis.

Of the four actors playing band members, only Dillon is a musician. Onstage, he delivers such songs as Who the Hell Do You Think You Are? with a blue rage that galvanizes the band into the spitting image of punk authenticity. More remarkable, however, is his acting. With almost no previous experience, Dillon—who resembles a leaner, meaner Bruce Willis— plays his scenes with note-perfect conviction while conveying the charisma of a movie star. And as his foil, Rennie (the shy suitor opposite Sandra Oh in 1994’s Double Happiness) looks like another Canadian movie star just waiting to be discovered.

Hard Core Logo continually delivers more

FILMS_

than it promises. Behind the satirical facade is an emotional drama of disarming depth. Behind the appearance of casual improvisation is a cunning script and real directorial flourish. The ambient highway footage— sunlight strobing through trees, the drummer gazing out the van’s bubble roof as it skims through mountain tunnels—has a hallucinogenic beauty.

That Thing You Do is a much bigger movie than Hard Core Logo, but its scope is more modest. A slender story follows the rise of a garage band called the Wonders, four freshfaced boys from Erie, Pa., who record a surprise hit single and catch a taste of the Big Time. The focus is on the drummer, a jazz fan named Guy (Tom Everett Scott) who works in his father’s appliance store and is the coolest guy in town. His bandmates are an ambitious singer who takes himself too seriously (lohnathon Schaech), a girl-chasing clown of a guitarist (Steve Zahn) and a nerdy bass player set on joining the Marines (Ethan Embry).

The four actors are newcomers, and all are engaging performers. Also along for the ride is ingenue Liv Tyler, who plays Faye, the singer’s neglected girlfriend and the band’s unofficial fifth member. And Hanks, packaging the band both onand off-screen, appears as the slick Play-Tone Records executive who grooms the lads for stardom.

As pure nostalgia, That Thing You Do! is warmly evocative. The movie conjures up a world of Studebakers, transistor radios and Polaroid Land cameras, while the soundtrack is wallpapered with satirically cheesy knockoffs of Bert Kaempfert ballads and Ventures riffs. But there are some jarring anachronisms—“wicked!” was not part of the lingo back then. The plot, such as it is, hinges on a typical rift between the drummer and the singer, with Faye’s affections hanging in the balance. But much of the movie consists of the band playing its one hit, a Beatles-like ditty called The Thing You Do, over and over again. Fortunately it is a good song. And, against all odds, it does not wear completely thin.

The danger, of course, in concocting a feel-good movie around a band designed to be derivative is that it will seem fake. And, to some extent, it does. But what saves That Thing You Do! is the spontaneous charm of its cast—and a slow-fused romance that, while predictable, melts away the artifice. Tyler, who spends most of the story just hanging around, steals the movie in the final scenes with her emotional candor. She knows how to play a pause, how to bring time to a dead stop, and Hanks gives her room. What transpires is a glimmer of pure stardust, a kiss that is more than just a kiss. That Thing You Do! does that thing Hollywood does so well. It is a rock romance with a soft centre—and as far from Hard Core Logo as Paul McCartney is from Sid Vicious.

Hankering back

A star turned director revisits ’60s music

He is Hollywood’s Everyman for the Nineties. A sensitive man with a sense of humor. Smart but not a smart-ass. Able to play straight or gay. A face softened by humility and candor, with a wary intelligence behind the squinting smile. A nice face, but not movie-star handsome. He could be one of us. Tom Hanks has come to embody a whimsical heroism for the boomer generation. As the lonely widower in Sleepless in Seattle, he brought retro-romance back to fashion. Then, as the noble naïf

in Forrest Gump and the stranded astronaut in Apollo 13, he incarnated a lost (or mythical) age of American innocence. And now, with his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, he has returned to that era once again.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he told Maclean’s before his film’s première at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival. “I didn’t want to make a nostalgia movie, and yet it is one. I set it in 1964 for a specific reason. It’s pre-Vietnam, the last gasp of a former America. But I didn’t want to dwell on Sixties themes. This really is about the British invasion’s effect on American pop culture.”

Hanks, now 40, was just 7 when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I remember it very well,” he says. “When I was a kid I fantasized that I was a drummer, such a fabulous drummer that John, Paul and George would hear

about it and hire me.” As it turned out, Hanks never played in a group. “But I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamic of a rock ’n’ roll band,” he says. “It’s usually four people not getting along. It’s fraught with dramatic tension.”

The actor began writing That Thing You Do! last year as an escape from the grind of promoting Forrest Gump. “I carried the movie around in my head for a real long time,” he recalls. “When I actually started writing it, I was kinda possessed. It was so complicated in the most delightful way, this huge puzzle that I had to solve.” Like other superstars who have turned to directing, he had no trouble getting support. “It’s a one-shot opportunity, based on our cachet or power,” he says. “Chances are nobody in an executive suite is going to want to offend AI Pacino or myself and say they don’t want to make that movie.”

It was an ambitious project. Deciding not to use any period music, Hanks co-wrote and commissioned original songs in a vintage style—but not too original. For the title song, he says, “the template was Please Please Me, La Bamba, Twist and Shout, maybe a little Satisfaction thrown in.” After recording the sound track, Hanks recruited the band, casting Tom Everett Scott (who looks like a I young Tom Hanks) in the lead as « the drummer. None was a musi! cian, but they spent 10 weeks ® learning to play before filming. Hanks remembers the first morning of the shoot. “I literally felt as if everybody on the set, all 112 people, turned and looked at me at the same exact moment.

I was in this impressionist painting. I felt like this huge tree unable to move. Finally I said, ‘OK, very good.’ ” Recalls Liv Tyler, who plays the girl-with-the-band: “Tom might not have been really confident at first, but he knew what he wanted. He likes things to be very real and natural. He hates overacting. You can see through this film what an amount of heart he has—this huge, enormous, squishy, huggable kind of feeling.”

Hanks now returns to being a squishy, huggable actor. Next, he plans to shoot Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s epic of the Normandy invasion. But he does hope to direct another movie— which may well depend on whether That Thing You Do! does business.

B.DJ.