TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

How to Write Like a Rock Star
Written by Denis Faye

(December 17, 2013) 

WHERE TO LOOK

If you to ask…  

Seriously, the first place to look is the music. With (legal) services like Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark available, it’s simple to immerse yourself in just about any genre, ranging from prog rock to polka.  

For a way to discover those anecdotes that’ll add depth to any script, rock star tell-all biographies always satisfy. And if you want to get really fancy about it, check out memoirs from different members of the same band. Case in point, all four original members of KISS have published some sort of autobiography. We might never know the real story behind Ace Frehley’s and Peter Chris’ expulsions from the line-up, but we can certainly read both sides of what went down.  

Oral histories are another great way to get the dirt. For example, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain is an excellent primer on the birth of the New York punk scene and Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman will give you a solid overview of what it means to be a headbanger.  

Finally, go to concerts. Whether it’s Justin Timberlake at the Honda Center, Marshall Crenshaw at the Troubadour, or your neighbor’s cover band at the bar down the street, musicians are storytellers. That’s what they do – so let them do it for you.  

What makes a hit pop song? Of course, it takes a talented musician or two – and solid producer doesn’t hurt – but the ultimate ingredient is the “x-factor,” where everything just…works.

As readers of this column know all too well, the same holds true for a great film. Sometimes, you combine a great script with great talent and a great crew – but you get nothin’. So when you combine the two – a movie about music – you’re just asking for trouble. “It's really hard to make a good movie about rock and roll,” attests veteran rocker Marshall Crenshaw. “It just seems to be a real elusive thing.”

If anyone would know what it takes to really understand a pop song, it’s Crenshaw, whose five decade-spanning career includes top-40 hits like “Someday, Someway,” the Golden Globe-nominated title song to Walk Hard [Written by Judd Apatow & Jake Kasdan], and a Saturday radio show, The Bottomless Pit, on WFUV in New York. He’s also in the middle of releasing a series of EPs, the latest entitled Driving and Dreaming.

There is one thing, however, that’s mandatory if you’re going to write a script about rock – or any other music, for that matter. “You have to really love it,” Crenshaw told Technically Speaking, “and you have to really know it. You really have to have some depth of understanding about it. That's necessary if you're going to do it right.”

What does Hollywood get right about rock and roll?  

That's hard to say. It just tends to vary from instance to instance. There have been a lot of movies made about popular music. A certain percentage of them just plain don't work. I can't put my finger on what Hollywood always gets right or always gets wrong, it just doesn't work that way.

Let's get specific then. What are some films where it just worked and why?  

I was involved in one, La Bamba [Written by Luis Valdez]. It told the story pretty well and was a fun movie. It really sort of captured a moment in time, struck a nerve with people.

Obviously, somebody whose music-related films always seem to do well and work well is [La Bamba producer] Taylor Hackford, and I know for a fact that he just knows and loves popular music. During La Bamba, I went out to dinner with him once, and he talked about the Chuck Berry film that he was editing just then. And he recommended that I see a documentary called Say Amen, Somebody. I rented it when I got home and learned a lot from it. There's a scene where a vocal coach gives a lesson to a young student; I still try to observe the advice she was giving him.

What does Hollywood get wrong?  

One thing I think is the downfall of some movies is that even great actors struggle to really convincingly portray a musician. I'm thinking of Steve McQueen in Baby the Rain Must Fall [Screenplay by Horton Foote], for one, where he's great in the movie except when he's supposed to be performing and singing and playing. Then he just looks utterly wrong. I didn't watch the Phil Specter movie, but I just thought Al Pacino looked really strange trying to act and come off as a person in that realm of art. It didn't feel right.

So there's a mystique that's missing?  

Yeah, there's just something that actors don't necessarily understand; they just can't really get inside of being a musician and seeming like one. It's like a different set of muscles that some people have, some people don't.

I can't really put my finger on what it is that's missing. You're either kind of musical or you're not.

Do you think the script is what's leading them the wrong way, or it's just some kind of unknown quality?  

I would say the latter.

In addition to La Bamba, what are some films that you think really nailed it in terms of musicians and music?  

I love That Thing You Do! [Written by Tom Hanks] because it was all about this one particular period in rock history that I have a real fondness for, the stretch of time between 1964 and 1966. I just happen to be of the age where that moment is magical to me. That Thing You Do! was obviously made by somebody who sees it and loves it the same way that I do. The period details are correct. It's a great nostalgia trip.

How about the themes and the characters?  

Here's a for instance. There's a scene in that movie where the band, The Wonders, appear in a movie and they have to use borrowed instruments and mime to somebody else's backing track. It's just like they're being shoved through this kind of cheap machine. And that story is literally the truth, it happened to the Bobby Fuller Four on this movie called The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini [Screenplay by Louis M. Heyward and Elwood Ullman]. They were a great band but in this movie they were using borrowed instruments, and it's exactly what happened to them. So I think Tom Hanks was enough of a fan of rock music from that time period that he knows that really obscure story. And it's a thing for fans, you know? I got a kick out of it.

What are some films that just didn't work for you?  

I don't want to badmouth anybody's movie. I feel bad about that.

That’s honorable. How about I name a few films and you review them here? Let’s start with The Buddy Holly Story [Screenplay by Robert Gittler].  

That was a great movie, and it was great because Gary Busey was great. It worked for me even in spite of the fact that they missed the mark in a lot of ways in terms of period correct details and a lot of the actual literal facts of his biography were mishandled, just kind of fumbled. But still, it worked, that movie, mainly because his portrayal was so strong and the script was good enough to support what he was able to deliver. He made it work somehow. So that kind of defies some of the other things I said about having a real depth of understanding of music being necessary in order to make a great music film. So I guess there are always exceptions to whatever rules you set down.

But it does support what you said about that certain something, that intangible quality. I mean even though the script might not have been mind-blowing, Gary Busey brought that quality as a musician to the movie.  

I guess that's true. And the one brilliant thing about that movie that they should always do in rock and roll movies, is they performed all the music live. There was no lip-synching.

What would you like to see in a movie about musicians and rock and roll that you've never seen?  

Oh boy. I guess I'd like to see more films really capture the music and not get in the way of the music and not over-think the music. It's really a crucial thing to be able to capture the music, and it's hard to do. A lot of people, their intentions might be sincere, they're coming from a place where they really do love the music, but somehow manage to get in the way of it.

Do you think it's important to collaborate with musicians when making a movie about rock and roll? In That Thing That You Do! Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne wrote the main song.  

I submitted a couple of songs for that, but I didn't take it as seriously as I wish I had.

How so?  

I sent them a song that I wrote with a woman named Kirstie MacColl. Musically it was kind of in the right vein, it was a good kind of a girl group sounding thing, but then the lyrics that she wrote were a little bit risqué with stuff in there about being drunk and so on and so forth. So that didn't get past the step one. It wasn't used in the movie.

After that happened and I saw the movie and liked it, I thought, Okay, from now on whenever somebody asks me to do this, I'm going to really try to approach it in a sincere manner. So then the next time somebody did ask me was Walk Hard and I did try hard with that and I was able to get the theme song for that.

When someone comes to you and says, "We're making a movie and we want a song about X," do you see a script, are you given a brief?  

I got a script for Walk Hard, and I read it, and I really loved it. On paper it was hilarious. I also felt a sense of understanding about the whole thing. I just really understand that time period, have a feel for it and a sense of it. And the music from that time period, I know it really intimately. It was all accessible to me.

Sometimes scripts are very technical and sometimes they're written in a more narrative style. Did the writing of Walk Hard help you paint a better picture?  

Yeah. In my whole life, I've only been sent a dozen different scripts, but some really good ones. And Walk Hard was a really good one. Again, it made me laugh while I was reading it. But there were a couple of scenes that I went, Oh I don't know. Like the scene where he meets the Beatles. A lot of people like that scene but to me it just doesn't work, it doesn't make sense. But that’s because I remember that time period, and I could tell that the person who wrote that scene didn't really live through that time period the way I did.

Sounds like authenticity is very important to you.  

Yeah, firsthand knowledge of something is a good thing. It's impossible a lot of the time.

What's your creative process when you write a song?  

The first thing for me is to start it with a rhythmic idea, like a drum beat. That's the first thing, to get a musical thing going. That's what inspires everything else. So I always just figure out what the beat is and then I'll either program the beat on a drum machine or I'll put some percussion tracks down.

And then write the words?  

Yeah. It's very painstaking for me to write what I consider to be a good set of lyrics because I really like to have the words perfectly glued to the melody. I'm able to write strong melodies. I don't know why, that's something that I can do and so then once I do that I feel a real allegiance to that melody, so the words have to serve the music; that's critical. That means that the words have to be interesting, they have to hold the listener's interest so they have to kind of work in a poetic way and they also have to work musically too. Those are the two things.

But the music comes first and then the lyrics come after?  

The words have to serve the music but they also have to be strong themselves. Like a great piece of music with crummy lyrics is going to fail as a song.

Do you have advice for screenwriters who are embarking on a script about rock and roll?  

Yeah. Good luck!