For the most part, movies about bands are about the struggle for recognition — for every breakout success in a film about the musical life, there are at least half a dozen acts like Sex Bob-Omb in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World or The Kid in Purple Rain, fighting to make a name for themselves outside of their local scene, and knowing they may never hit the big time. Struggling-band stories are popular because everybody loves an underdog, and because to anyone who’s ever tried their hand in the arts, what’s more relatable than competing to be noticed?
But the recent release of Bill & Ted Face the Music has us thinking about how much Hollywood also loves its success stories and its fables about the dark side of fame. There are plenty of movies about over-the-top musical stars like Bill & Ted’s Wyld Stallyns, a superstar band that achieves the pinnacle of fame. Sometimes those bands are used as an inspiration or arrogant contrast to the movie’s real protagonists, a less-successful act that might be on its way up. Sometimes, as with the Bill & Ted trilogy, a movie band only hits the top so it’ll be more dramatic when it plunges to the bottom. We surveyed 15 super-successful movie acts to see what kind of stories movies are telling about stardom and fame.
Lonely Island’s mockumentary about a successful but miserable pop artist follows the standard Behind the Music plot arc, because it’s making fun of that arc: Singer-rapper Conner Friel (stage name: Connor4Real, played by Andy Samberg) becomes a chart-topping superstar after his debut album, Thriller, Also, but he immediately becomes arrogant and starts alienating everyone he’s ever worked with, and his career starts going down the tubes. His failures take up more of Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping than his successes — but then again, Popstar is built around some pretty hilarious Lonely Island songs, which Connor performs for a huge, enthusiastic audience, so the film has to lean hard into his superstardom, too. —Tasha Robinson
Deena Jones & the Dreams, Dreamgirls
The Broadway musical turned movie Dreamgirls has it all when it comes to bands: there’s the bright-eyed up-and-coming act, looking for a road to stardom. There’s the initial success, the predatory manager, the splitting up and the selling out, and the long struggle back from obscurity for one member of the original band, Effie (Jennifer Hudson). But while Effie is coming to terms with the ways her life has fallen apart, her former musical partners, Deena (Beyoncé) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), are rocketing to fame and glory with a slick new disco sound. Their performances, particularly of a disco cover version of Effie’s heartfelt comeback song, are meant to sound empty and soulless, the epitome of processed, manufactured music. But honestly, like so many “sellout songs” in movies, the Deena Jones & the Dreams songs are pretty catchy, too. —TR
Gazelle isn’t a primary character in Disney’s animated animal fantasy Zootopia, but she is a ubiquitous name in the Zootopia universe. Essentially Shakira’s fursona, the pop diva’s music fills the entire movie. We only see Gazelle a handful of times, but characters bond over her music and fantasize about being her backup dancers. Her shows are full of pyrotechnics and studly tiger backup dancers. She’s so well-known in her world that her voice plays as the recording welcoming new arrivals to the city of Zootopia. And she isn’t just a star — she’s a prominent activist, rallying for peace between prey and predators in the back half of the movie. We stan a woke queen. Also interesting to note, she’s the only character whose name is just the species she is. Does that mean anything? Probably just a nod to first-name-only superstars like Shakira, but the fact that she’s powerful enough to reign supreme over all other gazelles in this world should be noted. —Petrana Radulovic
Zootopia is available to stream on Disney Plus.
The Cheetah Girls, the Cheetah Girls trilogy
The first musical Disney Channel Original Movie, The Cheetah Girls stars Raven-Symoné, Sabrina Bryan, and 3LW’s Adrienne Bailon and Kiely Williams as the titular group of BFFs who attend a performing-arts magnet school. The girls have big dreams of being stars, but they almost break up for good when an opportunity to sign with a big record label gives Galleria (Raven-Symoné) an inflated head, causing her to undervalue her friends’ contributions to the band. Of course, she learns her lesson, The Cheetah Girls ditch their shady producer, and they promise to never let ego get in the way of friendship ever again. In the sequel, they head to Spain to perform in the Barcelona Music Festival. The movies were such a success that Disney marketed the band as its own entity, selling the soundtrack and Cheetah Girls merch, and touring them around the country. (Ironically, Raven-Symoné didn’t appear in the third film, or go on tour with the group — instead, she focused on her solo career.) —Emily Heller
The Cheetah Girls is streaming on Disney Plus.
Jack Malik, Yesterday
Who wouldn’t be a hit performer, if they had exclusive access to the entire legacy of The Beatles? Danny Boyle’s 2019 movie Yesterday asks that question, mostly by way of exploring the larger question of The Beatles’ place in history. When unknown musician Jack (Himesh Patel) passes out and wakes up in a world where The Beatles apparently never became a band, he reconstructs their music and becomes a celebrated worldwide sensation. It’s a shame this movie isn’t more colorful or more fun about its weird fantasy premise — Boyle and writers Jack Barth and Richard Curtis mostly just use it as a far-too-ambitious framework for a familiar-as-hell romantic-comedy plot. But the idea of someone becoming an immense superstar just because they know “The Long and Winding Road” and no one else does is pretty compelling to anyone who’s ever sung Beatles songs to themselves in the shower, the car, or anyplace else nominally private. —TR
Yesterday is streaming on HBO Now and is available for purchase on digital platforms.
Alexander Lemtov, Eurovision Song Contest
Netflix’s musical-comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is more about underdog success stories than superstar success stories, but it makes a bit of an exception for Russian competitor Alexander Lemtov, a bare-chested, tousle-haired performer introduced singing his hit “Lion of Love,” and then treated as a humanoid lion for the rest of the film. Dan Stevens plays him as a pacing, growling, barely contained force of nature, turning rock-star sexuality into an ongoing visual gag. There isn’t much to suggest that the rest of the film’s Eurovision competitors are big hits, but Lemtov clearly has a worldwide following and an ambitious round-the-world tour schedule, and no wonder. He’s meant as the polar opposite of sad-sack leading man Will Ferrell, with his endlessly stymied musical ambitions, which means he has to be at least three times larger than life, and four times more leonine. —TR
Eurovision Song Contest is streaming on Netflix.
Spinal Tap, This Is Spinal Tap
The only thing riper for comedy than an underdog band with oversized pretensions is a mildly successful band with even more oversized pretensions. Throughout most of Rob Reiner’s largely improvised mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, the members of heavy-metal group Spinal Tap are struggling with low sales and each other’s expectations, after a series of modest hits from the days before their hard-rock reinvention. Much like Lonely Island with Popstar decades later, Reiner and company get to have it both ways, simultaneously making fun of the arrogance of stardom, and enjoying the comic schadenfreude of watching a piteous failure at the same time. But after equipment failures, sales failures, album-design failures, PR failures, and much more, Spinal Tap gets to go out on a high note, becoming a mega-success in Japan, at least long enough to erase the band members’ feeling of decline. It’s a last-minute happy ending for a band that doesn’t necessarily deserve one, but it still feels pretty good. —TR
Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
In another case of narrative contrast between “good, struggling performer” and “sellout, successful performer,” Tommy Gnosis is the mournful villain of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He has all the recognition and admiration the protagonist, Hedwig, is missing, but he owes her everything he has, since his education in music and fashion came from her — and so did all his hit songs, which she wrote and he stole on his rise to the top. Even his rock-star name is Hedwig’s creation. The whole movie (and the Off-Broadway play it adapts) is built around the tension between them, and how Hedwig still longs for their aborted romantic connection and his recognition and apology. But there’s more to it — the dreamspace ending suggests that he isn’t just her other half in the metaphorical sense (explored in the song “The Origins of Love”), he’s a kind of dark shadow of what she could have been, or wanted to be, if fate hadn’t intervened. It’s complicated, like so many other things in this lusty, wild musical. —TR
Lemonade Mouth, Lemonade Mouth
Lemonade Mouth is like The Breakfast Club if you take away all the references to drugs and sex and give the rebellious teens musical abilities. Another musical DCOM, it centers around a group of five kids in detention who discover that they can really jam together. They form a band called Lemonade Mouth, and perform at their school’s Halloween dance. That song, “Determinate,” is an absolute banger, but the stern Principal Brenigan (every school-based DCOM has gotta have a stern principal) bans Lemonade Mouth from playing or rehearsing at school after their guitarist Stella (pop star Hayley Kiyoko) makes a rowdy speech encouraging students to defy Brenigan’s authority. Of course, nothing makes teens want to listen to music more than some adult banning it, so Lemonade Mouth becomes super-popular, and the movie ends with the band playing Madison Square Garden. —EH
Lemonade Mouth is streaming on Disney Plus.
The Soggy Bottom Boys, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers’ loose adaptation of The Odyssey stars George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro as three escaped prisoners who set out to recover a buried treasure. Along the way, they meet a young man who claims he sold his soul to the devil in order to play guitar. They record a song together, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” then continue on their way. Unbeknownst to them, it becomes a massive radio hit, which ends up saving their asses in the film’s climax. While Clooney, Nelson, and Turturro didn’t provide the vocals for the song, they commit hard to lip-syncing, and their enthusiastic performances, combined with the twangy dubbed vocals of bluegrass musicians Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen, and Pat Enright make it clear why the song was so successful within the film’s universe. It just slaps — and it winds up showing how much the public is willing to forgive from anyone who creates art they like. —EH
A.D.D., The Rocker
At the height of The Office’s fame, Rainn Wilson starred in a box-office bomb called The Rocker. As the titular rocker, Wilson plays Robert “Fish” Fishman, the down-and-out former member of a successful hair-metal band called Vesuvius. When his nephew (Josh Gad) needs a drummer for his high school band, A.D.D., Fish enthusiastically volunteers, and the band goes viral after video leaks of Fish rehearsing in his underwear. Eventually, A.D.D. is offered a gig opening for Vesuvius at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, and Fish finally comes face-to-face with his old bandmates (Bradley Cooper, Will Arnett, and Fred Armisen.) It’s a wonderful oddity of a film, featuring Christina Applegate, Emma Stone, Jason Sudekis and singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger in supporting roles. —EH
The Oneders, That Thing You Do!
How do you make a movie about The Beatles without licensing any Beatles music? Imagine an American equivalent, then hire the best pop-song writers in the business to fill in their catalog. Tom Hanks’ directorial debut chronicles the rise and fall of The Oneders, a rock band out of Erie, Pennsylvania that survives a play-on-words brand debacle (“The O-neders!” “Uh, that’s The Oneders”) to become a phenomenon. Hanks’ script captures all the familiar biopic beats — the thrills of that first big performance, the cringy moment of selling out to Hollywood, the romance, the break-ups, and a necessary confrontation with the art of it all — with a sense of humor that only a fictional path could really provide. But to sell The Oneders’ ascension to Beatlesmania-level stature, Hanks had to pin the entire movie to the perfect song. The late Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger nailed it with “That Thing You Do!” —Matt Patches
Dewey Cox, Walk Hard
John C. Reilly makes a convincing rock ’n’ roll star in Jake Kasdan’s biopic parody, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story. Walk Hard mostly pokes fun at James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, but there are also some shades of Jim Morrison, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure — which means Dewey Cox has to find an audience rivaling all of them, to keep the gags about fame and ego rolling. The jokes are silly and stupid in a very Apatowian way (Judd Apatow produced and co-wrote the script) but the music is also solid, enhanced by Reilly’s husky voice. It’s a satire of rock docs and rise-and-fall stories, with extra emphasis on the standard childhood-tragedy story. —EH
Walk Hard is streaming on Netflix.
Hannah Montana, Hannah Montana
The secret alter ego of totally normal schoolgirl Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) skyrocketed to international fame at the tender age of 13. She’s so damn successful that she needs to live a secret double life so she can get a moment of peace. That arguably sounds more stressful than just embracing the fame, but what can you do? Hannah Montana parties with celebs — always in a PG, family-friendly, Disney Channel way, of course. She somehow does most of her performances within a 50-mile radius of her home and school. (She lives in Malibu, so maybe that makes sense, though it seems like it’d make it easier for people to figure out who she is.) Mostly, everyone she ever meets is a huge Hannah Montana fan. She’s a household name in her own universe. —PR
All four seasons of Hannah Montana are available to stream on Disney Plus.
Powerline, A Goofy Movie
Powerline is the Goofy world’s equivalent of Michael Jackson — a huge star with extravagant stage shows and performances. He’s just so cool that the protagonist, plucky and totally uncool Max Goof, decides to emulate his theatrics during a school performance, which lands him in detention. Max then decides to take advantage of his sweet, well-meaning father and use a family road trip to get him to a Powerline concert in Los Angeles, because the only thing that will save his popularity is being seen on stage with a superstar. The fact that this propels him to the top of his high-school social ladder is proof of just how successful Powerline is — apparently Powerline fandom is universal. Maybe it’s the singer’s pretzel-y dance moves? —PR
A Goofy Movie is available to stream on Disney Plus.
Bonus: Dethklok, Metalocalypse
Okay, so Metalocalypse isn’t a movie (and the “Metalocalypse movie” The Doomstar Requiem is a 44-minute TV special), but it’s hard to talk about fictional bands without talking about the one described as so popular and powerful that it’s listed as one of its world’s largest economies. With its own murderous police force and billions of fans who are authentically thrilled to be killed off by the band’s many asinine stunts, Dethklok maintains a startlingly high body count. And that’s in spite of the fact that all its songs sound more or less the same, with screaming guitars and lead singer Nathan Explosion growl-yelling all the lyrics about pain, blood, and destruction. Partly a satire of metal culture, partly just a satire of fandom in general, it’s a pretty funny series about the power celebrities can wield, even if they’re inane, incompetent, and out of touch behind the scenes. —TR