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Hollywood's favorite fake movie musicians

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In a large meeting room on the seventh floor of Los Angeles’ Beverly Wilshire Hotel, about 50 people have gathered this late November afternoon to — hopefully — take in a rare performance by mercurial singer and rock icon Dewey Cox. Cox has had his problems — notably a long, dark period in the ’60s and ’70s when he succumbed to various narcotic addictions in an attempt to blank out the memory of killing his brother in a bizarre childhood machete accident. Right now he’s 20 minutes late. Has Cox fallen back into his old habits? It seems not. Cox bounds on stage, resplendent in a white suit, gleefully glad-handing audience members and leading his five-piece band through a greatest-hits set that climaxes with his signature country anthem, ”Walk Hard.” And then, after explaining that he has to travel to Manila later in the day, the man — the legend! — is gone.

Actually, Dewey Cox does not have an appointment in Manila. Nor did he cut his brother in half with a machete. He never even had a brother (or a machete). In fact, Dewey Cox does not exist at all; he is the fictional subject of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (due Dec. 21), a movie directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County) and produced by comedy overlord Judd Apatow that good-naturedly lampoons musical biopics such as Ray and, clearly, Walk the Line. John C. Reilly stars as Cox — with comedic support from Tim Meadows, Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, and real-life rock star Jack White (who portrays a karate-crazed Elvis).

”No one had done an entire movie that was a fake music biopic in the tradition of Coal Miner’s Daughter and Ray,” says Apatow, who co-wrote the script with Kasdan. ”What we’re making fun of is movies that reek of their makers expecting to win Oscars. We do it with great affection — those are some of my favorite movies. But it doesn’t mean they deserve not to be mocked.”

Reilly, meanwhile, has been getting a taste of the real rock-star life on this promotional tour, which has also included a date at L.A.’s legendary Roxy. ”It’s really fun to be Dewey,” says the actor. ”I don’t think I have the kind of looks that make me a rock star — or a movie star, for that matter. But these songs, they’re so catchy and powerful, it just gets people going. It’s intoxicating!”

Reilly & Co. aren’t the only ones mining the fake-rock-star shtick. On TV, Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse follows the adventures of animated rock quintet Dethklok, while tween viewers can watch the mockumentary-style high jinks of the Naked Brothers Band on Nickelodeon. Cartoon pop stars Gorillaz are a hugely successful, utterly nonexistent combo in the music world. HBO’s Flight of the Conchords finds the eponymous joke-folk comedy duo coping with some decidedly surreal situations. On the big screen, a jam-band mockumentary called National Lampoon Presents Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo received a limited release last month. ”It’s lampooning the notion of creative individuals and how much that creative individual can have his or her head up their ass,” says the film’s director and real-life jam-band-scene mainstay, Les Claypool.

”I think real bands aren’t cool enough now,” says Metalocalypse co-writer Brendon Small of the current plethora of fake rockers. ”Rock stars are supposed to be crazy, drug-addled, and scary. We have to invent characters to be like that nowadays.” Reilly has an alternative theory: ”Audiences are very smart right now, because of the Internet and the speed with which popular culture travels,” he muses. ”If you try to sell them a line that something’s real, they’ll just call bulls— right away. But if you come out saying, ‘Will you buy into this fantasy with us?’ they’re into it.”

Constructing such a fantasy, however, is no laughing — or easy — matter. Kasdan says that he and Apatow compiled an insanely detailed backstory for their lead character, much of which never made it onto the screen. ”For a movie this absurd, we could not have put more energy into it,” he explains. And it is important to hit the right notes, literally, when penning the actual oeuvre. Neil Innes, who wrote songs for 1978’s Beatles-mocking TV movie All You Need Is Cash, believes that for parodies to be effective, ”the songs have to be straight. There’s nothing worse than hamming it up and winking and saying, ‘This is funny.’ You’ve almost got to make it better than the original.” All You Need Is Cash revolved around the Rutles, a hapless version of the Fab Four that Innes (who appeared in the film as band member Ron Nasty) created with Monty Python’s Eric Idle. Writing the fake band’s early love songs was the hardest, he says. ”I tried to remember what it was like on a first date — the first time I put my hand inside a girl’s bra.”

Of course, the Rutles were not pop culture’s first fake band. The Monkees, who were a television-sitcom cast before they became an actual group, preceded them by a good decade. But the Rutles were the first to caricature a particular band in such a detailed, realistic fashion. ”We copied the Beatles’ production techniques,” says Innes, ”where they placed the drums, what kind of reverb was used.” In this quest for authenticity, they were aided by Idle’s friend, and actual Beatle, George Harrison. ”George made a lot of things happen,” Innes recalls. ”We had real footage from [the band’s record company] Apple. He got Mick Jagger to come along. George was interested in debunking the myth of the Beatles.”

Innes and Idle had set the mock-music bar rather high. And then the creators of 1984’s This Is Spi¨al Tap raised it to 11. Before shooting on the classic mockumentary began, Harry Shearer — a.k.a. Tap bassist Derek Smalls — even traveled to the U.K. to hang around with the then-popular heavy metal band Saxon. ”I wanted to get little wardrobe and/or behavior tips, which I did,” says Shearer. ”Derek got part of his taste for snakeskin boots from one of the guys in Saxon. And I watched the bass player play open strings as much as possible so that he could always thrust that left fist in the air.” This Is Spi¨al Tap would inspire a slew of music mockumentaries. ”Pretty much every two or three years since Tap, somebody has come out with a version for a different genre,” says Shearer. (1993’s CB4 and 1994’s Fear of a Black Hat spoofed hip-hop; 1996’s Hard Core Logo parodied the punk scene.) Even non-mockumentarians have followed Tap‘s lead in trying to ensure that their films’ rock bands (and rock tunes) are as authentic as possible. Cameron Crowe, for example, recruited his wife, Heart member Nancy Wilson, to help write the material performed by fake band Stillwater in his 2000 film, Almost Famous.

But none of the music would be remotely convincing without the right people holding the mics. Shearer’s Tap bandmates, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, had both actually been in bands — at times Together — while Shearer himself learned the bass from a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Walk Hard‘s song list may include tracks co-penned by cult singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw and Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, but Apatow knows it was Reilly — anything but cellophane in 2002’s Chicago, for which he won an Oscar nomination — who makes them rock. ”He can sing, he’s hilarious, and he’s this great actor who’s the kind of guy who would star in a musical biopic,” Apatow says. ”I guarantee, if John hadn’t made this movie, in the next five years he would have played the lead singer of T.Rex or something. So we have saved him from actually doing this for real.”

Sometimes the results can be almost too good. ”I went to Spi¨al Tap with friends,” recalls Apatow, ”and they didn’t realize it was a fake band.” Claypool says he had a similar experience with Electric Apricot: ”At the Tiburon Film Festival, a couple of little old ladies came out of the theater and said, ‘Oh, what a great band you’ve got there!’ Even one of the guys at National Lampoon thought it was a real documentary. Which was a little frightening.”

But none of these fake musicians are arguing with real success. The Blues Brothers, which began as a Dan Aykroyd-and-John Belushi sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1976, spawned numerous albums, two movies, and the House of Blues clubs. Last summer, 23 years after This Is Spi¨al Tap‘s debut, the band appeared at Live Earth, and they once even played England’s famous Wembley Stadium — something many ”real” superstars have never done. ”Yes,” laughs Shearer. ”You know, that is hot!” To be fair, Spi¨al Tap have an advantage over actual music icons. As Reilly says, they will never disappoint: ”They’re already disappointing. That’s their appeal.” In any case, the band’s fame long ago eclipsed that of Saxon — a couple of whose members, Shearer says, recently interviewed him for a book they are writing. ”It’s called Saxon Drugs and Rock & Roll, ” he explains. ”No, I’m not joking.”

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