When rock music is made the star of a film, extra attention has to be paid to songs and their historical contexts. Otherwise, the movie will be full of anachronisms that disappoint discerning music fans.
Why music (in movies) matters
Movies about music have an extra burden in addition to plot and characters. Producers must also consider genre, year and context of songs used in pivotal scenes. Failure to consider song-specific aspects might lead to some audiences disengaging with the movie. Music fans are as ardent as any other group. They take music seriously and are aware of esoteric facts in relation to key songs in the genre(s) they like.
Songs are used to create settings, establish characters, and in some movies, they are used to advance plot. If a song is used that wasn’t released by the time of the movie’s chronological year, for example, it is problematic. Further, if producers don’t seem to understand what a song is about, that is a difficulty some music fans won’t forgive.
Music of “The Identical”
“The Identical” (2014) is allegedly loosely based on the idea of “What if Elvis’ twin had lived?” If this is true, there is already a problem with logic. The story begins in the Depression Era, 1933. The movie is set in Alabama. Two parents have twin boys but can only afford to feed one. The husband goes to a church and hears the preacher, (Ray Liotta), explain that he and his wife cannot have children. The desperate father gives away one of his sons.
As the story makes its way toward a conclusion, audiences find that both twins are musically adept. However, the child who has been given away to the pastor and his wife is considering life in seminary to please his parents. He really wants to perform music. In one of the least-thoughtful scenes, the teenager and his friends integrate a black night club in the late 1940s or early 1950s Alabama. When the police arrive, the integration isn’t the problem. It’s the teenagers in a club. At this point, the movie is so flawed, most audiences don’t want to see or hear more.
Meanwhile, his twin is super famous. The preacher’s kid notices that he looks like the famous guy. This is supposedly taking place in the 1960s, I believe. However, the famous twin looks like an early 1980s Stevie Ray Vaughn, right down to the jewelry.
There is another moment when one of the twins is performing on television, and it is supposed to be the early 1960s, but the music sounds like 1970s soft rock. Audiences want a refresher as to the year of the story because everything seems off at this point.
The movie’s critics (including Roger Ebert and others) took it to task for failing to remind audiences why early rock and roll was exciting, and the role black American music played in creating the sound. The anachronisms aside, the movie failed to serve as an imaginative retelling of the story of rock and roll.
“Rock of Ages”
“Rock of Ages” is different from “The Identical” in that it is supposed to be a musical. The year is 1987. A small town girl named Sherrie meets a city boy named Drew. Already the names and events sound like a Journey song. Journey is very cool. Journey is not, however, heavy metal. Most of the music in this movie isn’t heavy metal, either. The movie contains songs by metal bands, but most of them are ballads. The exception being Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” The song, “Rock of Ages” by Def Leppard is not used. What is used over and over, is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
The subplot to Sherrie and Drew’s love story is that they are both seeking their rock and roll fortunes on the Sunset Strip. It seems every character has dreams he or she believes in because this is sung by everyone as they go about their lives in the musical.
There is an additional subplot or two. The bar Sherrie and Drew work for is in financial ruins. They are counting on a performance by mega metal band, Arsenal. Whose lead singer, Stacee Jaxx, is played by Tom Cruise. For his part, I thought Cruise looked like a missing member of L.A. Guns, and therefore, authentic. The gig happens, and Drew’s band is the opening act. Too bad due to a series of unfortunate events and a lack of communication, Drew thinks Sherrie has been unfaithful with none other than Jaxx.
There are more subplots. I will not reveal them all. Spoiler alert: It all works out. The problems with this movie are caused by the number of subplots–there is even one involving a mayor who wants to crack down on rock music and that for all its heavy metal trappings, all the potential metal bands have been muted into ballad machines. In addition, a few songs, “More Than Words” by Extreme (1990), “Heaven” by Warrant (1989), and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison (1988) had not been released in 1987. Notice too, that with those three bands alone, there was potential for a hard-rocking soundtrack.
People who make movies that are based on music have to do a better job with music selection than drunken deejays. They have to realize that audiences know about the genre’s hits and will expect filmmakers to have done the necessary research. The effort will yield better movies.