5 Famous Bands With Backstories That Would Make Great Movies
Did you see your new favorite movie yet? I'm talking about Straight Outta Compton, of course, which is worth paying for if only to see the looks on the rest of the group's faces when they hear "No Vaseline" by Ice Cube for the first time.
Since it's a thing we're collectively excited about, this seemed like a good time to look at a few more famous musicians whose background shenanigans might make for a decent flick. We talk about a few of them on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by Cracked editor Dan O'Brien (see us tell jokes in San Diego on 9/18 if you're bored, plug plug plug!) and actress Shelley Regner (Ashley from Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2). I'm talking about exactly that in this column too, as you probably gathered.
Why a Public Enemy movie? Well, for starters, any insight I can get into exactly how Flavor Flav turned out the way he did would be all sorts of good times. That's a fairly obvious draw. But they have a lot more going for them besides the fact that they featured the former Mr. Brigitte Nielsen.
You probably got all the background info you needed watching Flavor Of Love, though.
In fact, their story is quite similar to that of N.W.A., right down to the fact that Doctor Dre was instrumental in their success. It's just that it's this Doctor Dre ...
You know the one!
... whom you maybe recognize as the former co-host of Yo! MTV Raps and, even more importantly, the co-star of the cinema classic Who's The Man?
Yes, I do actually own that poster.
Still, his influence was enough to give the group the break they needed. The parallels don't end there. For one thing, founding member Chuck D and Flavor Flav met while Chuck was in college. One of my first thoughts upon hearing that an N.W.A. movie was coming out was whether they'd cover the fact that Ice Cube was actually a communications major at some college in Arizona when they formed the group.
Public Enemy was also among the first rap groups to add an element to their songs that hadn't been seen in the genre previously: politics. They weren't just sort of political, though; they were militant about it. So much so that their stage show included a full-on security team doing choreographed march numbers while carrying Uzis.
This is a fact that would make the scene in which they start their career opening for the Beastie Boys during their Licensed To Ill days easily exploitable for entertainment purposes. Think about the juxtaposition there -- basically the music version of the Black Panther party opening for the drunken white douchebags who wrote "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)".
Does it have anything to do with why their next album, the unspeakably important It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, features a song called "Party For Your Right To Fight"?
I don't know ... watch the movie and find out! Were they as successful as N.W.A.? They were the first rap group to have an album top The Village Voice's hugely influential and absurdly named Pazz and Jop list. That's a thing. They also sold a shit-ton of records. Three of the first five were certified platinum by the RIAA (that means they sold over a million copies each). The other two went gold (that's 500,000 copies each).
I know what you're thinking: "What about antisemitism?" The aforementioned "No Vaseline" (in which he scolded his former friends because they "let a Jew break up the crew") eventually landed Ice Cube in the middle of mostly well-earned reputation as an anti-Semite. Could a Public Enemy movie offer similar thrills? You bet! In 1989, Professor Griff, the group's Minister of Information (I know) was quoted as saying "Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world."
That's a pretty bold statement, especially coming from someone signed to a record label that, at the time, was owned in part by a Jewish man named Lyor Cohen. Unsurprisingly, people lost their shit. Griff claimed that his words were taken out of context (the actual recording the quote comes from has never been released to the public). Apologies were offered, but didn't suffice. Shortly after word of the scandal got out, Griff was fired from the group. Even worse, a few days later, Def Jam Records' other leader, debit card scam legend Russell Simmons, announced that Chuck D was disbanding Public Enemy for an indefinite amount of time.
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How's that for an act three plot twist? A group that built its reputation by raging against racism ultimately taken down by accusations of racism. Except not so fast! That lasted all of about six weeks before Chuck D announced that the news was false, and that Public Enemy was not breaking up. On top of that, he not only reinstated Professor Griff, but also promoted him to "Supreme Allied Chief of Community Relations" -- which I'll admit sounds insane and silly, but think of how huge of a "fuck you" that is to the people who were criticizing them at the time. The guy you had to fire for maybe being an anti-Semite is now the liaison between the group and the rest of the public, at least in title. To further confirm that they weren't going to be silenced by the controversy, the first single from their next album, the superb Fear Of A Black Planet, was a song called "Welcome To The Terrordome," and it addressed the controversy directly.
If you don't have time to listen, that acknowledgement comes when Chuck says, "apologies made to whoever pleases, still they got me like Jesus." Which, I mean ... still maybe kind of anti-Semitic. Anyway, I personally think that Public Enemy would actually have been the better choice for a movie, simply because they have a longer career to work with, meaning more opportunity for movie-worthy scandals. Like the time they wrote a song called "By The Time I Get To Arizona" to protest that state not recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday, as the rest of the nation had already done ... and then shot a music video for it which depicted them traveling to Arizona to assassinate its governor.
It might not have generated any form letters, but shit like that still gets you some attention from the government. Besides, who needs to send letters when the CIA could just invent gangsta rap to destroy Public Enemy, instead? For the record, it didn't work. The group has been recording and touring consistently ever since and, in 2014, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This one's pretty obvious, right? Who in the hell would not want to see a Vanilla Ice movie? One of the reasons I'm so behind the idea is that the window of time in which his story was actually interesting was short enough that you could fit pretty much all of it into one film. What was it? Eighteen months, maybe?
It all started innocently enough. In his earliest days, Vanilla Ice was very much accepted by the rap community. In fact, the gig that led to him finally signing a record deal was an opening slot on the legendary Stop the Violence tour, which featured legitimate rap legends like EPMD and Ice-T. He was in the tenth grade at the time. How's that for a start to your Vanilla Ice movie?
It gets better. One of his earliest supporters, weirdly enough, was none other than Chuck D of Public Enemy.
It's rumored that he tried to persuade Def Jam into signing Ice before he finally settled on a deal with a different label. From there, he had one of the most action-packed eight months or so in music history. His debut album, To The Extreme, became the fastest-selling rap album of all time. He appeared on Saturday Night Live. He had sex with Madonna, you guys. He did so much.
He also went to great lengths to protect his family from the glare of media attention, and weirdly enough, that was his undoing. Because he was so unwilling to talk about his background, his label, SBK Records, took ... extreme ... measures to give the world the info they so desperately craved. They accomplished this goal by writing a completely fake biography and releasing it to the media without his knowledge. Among the wildest of the claims was that he attended high school in Miami with 2 Live Crew founder Luther Campbell.
A lie like that is fairly easy to debunk, and people quickly did just that. Vanilla Ice did his best to explain, but it wasn't enough. He was officially labeled a fraud by the rap community. His subsequent appearance on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 soundtrack didn't help that at all.
Nor did his borderline insane attempt to explain how "Ice Ice Baby" and "Under Pressure" by Queen aren't actually the same song ...
... which they totally are, of course. That's how samples work.
Real talk alert. Let's just admit what we all know we really want to see in a Vanilla Ice movie. Say it with me: the part where Suge Knight allegedly dangled him by his ankles over the edge of a hotel balcony and forced him to sign away the publishing rights to "Ice Ice Baby."
It says a whole lot about how reviled Vanilla Ice eventually came to be that this incident has always been thought of as a funny thing. Think about the implications, though. What if Knight had dropped him? At that point in Ice's career trajectory, would anyone have given it a second thought if his death was reported as a suicide? If the story is true, it's an unspeakably dark situation. Would people still find it funny if they could watch it happen? Probably not, but I hope we find out someday.
Have you ever read Walk This Way: The Autobiography Of Aerosmith? If so, you already know why this band deserves a movie. Not just because the entirety of their history, up to and including Steven Tyler's fall off a stage in South Dakota and bizarre stint as a judge on American Idol, has been a drug-fueled circus. It's all that debauchery that makes the other part of their story -- the part where they become one of the most unlikely success stories in music history -- all the more film-worthy. Especially when you take into account that they did it twice.
Their first album, cleverly titled Aerosmith, wasn't all that successful. Yes, that's the album which featured "Dream On" as a lead single ...
... and that song is pretty huge. But it didn't become a hit until years after its release. That's generally a death knell for any band these days, but this was the 1970s, when record labels were a little more willing to invest time and energy into cultivating a band's success. Fortunately, their next three albums (Get Your Wings, Toys In The Attic and Rocks) were hugely successful, and still stand as one of the most impressive and influential trios of albums ever released.
It's around this time that Aerosmith did something that would become a trademark quirk of the band's various members over the years: They almost died. In 1977, several key members of Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, were killed in a plane crash.
Unfortunate album cover alert!
What's that have to do with Aerosmith? Well, not too long before that happened, Aerosmith almost bought that plane. They only backed out after seeing the plane's crew passing around a bottle of booze. In other words, the flight crew partied too hard for Aerosmith.
So that's a dodged bullet that might make for a good movie scene. I've always kind of wondered if narrowly avoiding a fiery, communal death at all contributed to the historic fall from grace that Aerosmith would endure over the next 15 years or so. That kind of thing can mess with a person's head sometimes, you know?
Whatever the cause, Aerosmith completely deteriorated. Founding members left and returned and left again. All of the music was shit. They were a unit that existed almost exclusively to consume cocaine and disappoint music fans. Then this happened:
That, of course, is the band's legendary team-up with rap legends Run-DMC. It's a cover of the Aerosmith classic "Walk This Way," and the world had seen or heard nothing like it at the time. It wasn't just someone rapping over a sample from a rock song. That happened plenty by then. No, this was Run-DMC covering a rock song, nearly verbatim, as a rock song. Pretty cool, even if it's also the moment in history that likely unleashed Limp Bizkit on the world.
They burst forth from his chest shortly after this and immediately scurried to safety under an Ed Hardy store.
It was enough of a hit that it revived interest in Aerosmith, and goddamn did they capitalize on it. In one of the unlikeliest turns of events in rock history, the band fronted by two men whom history has dubbed "The Toxic Twins" (on account of how many drugs they take and how much they sometimes seem to clean hate each other) cleaned up their act and reunited. Even more unlikely, they not only returned to their pre-Final Destination scare days level of success, but they also far surpassed it. Granted, the music mostly sucks, and their biggest hit of that era so far has been a Diane-Warren-penned love balled for the Armageddon soundtrack. But still, it's all impressive enough for a movie, if you ask me.
Yes, I understand that for all intents and purposes, a biopic about Prince already exists. It's called Purple Rain, and if you've never seen it, fuck you. That said, the problem with that movie in terms of telling the story of Prince Rogers Nelson (of course that's his real name) is that it stops when things are about to get really interesting. Sure, Prince was kind of a weirdo in the years leading up to that film (and album), but it was just a general early-'80s kind of crazy, and mostly revolved around androgyny and being an asshole to anyone who tried to talk to him. Yes, he took all that to heights most stars never will. We're talking about a man who, during his first ever appearance on American Bandstand, damn near refused to speak at all. When asked how many years it had been since he wrote the songs he was performing that day, this was his answer:
When asked how many instruments he plays, he grew 12 extra fingers and answered the same way.
Also, shout out to France for apparently being the only country where you can still post a Prince video online. But see, that's the point. Prince, for all the shenanigans of his early years, didn't really get weird until the late '80s. There's so much to work with that I don't know where a filmmaker would even begin. Would it be based on that unauthorized biography that came out a few years ago? Because I read that, and if my memory serves me correctly, it opens with Prince snorting cocaine in his kitchen shortly before checking into rehab. That's a far cry from the clean-living-except-for-all-the-fucking image he's always projected to the outside world.
In fact, that book maintains that a lot of his late-'80s / early-'90s antics were fueled by drugs. Like his decision to pull The Black Album days before its release ...
And now we'll never know why it's called The Black Album.
... which is rumored to have been the result of a bad ecstasy trip.
Even if the drug abuse allegations are completely false, there's still so much ground to cover. You do remember that he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol at one point during his career, correct?
What are you????
He also took to writing "slave" on the side of his face for a while, because he didn't like how his contract with Warner Brothers records was structured. Then, after spending a good deal of the '90s cranking out some of his most sexually explicit songs ever, he just up and became a Jehovah's Witness. Does that mean he went door-to-door trying to convince people to convert? Yeah it does! Only once, but he did it in Minneapolis right in the middle of a Minnesota Vikings playoff game, because goddamn right he did.
And on and on and on. Prince has never stopped being one of the most entertaining figures in entertainment history. He's just been really great at flying under the radar the past few decades; to the point that, as referenced before, he's somehow managed to get practically all videos and images of himself scrubbed from existence on the Internet. He practically pioneered that shit. It's exactly that kind of behavior that makes another movie about the life of Prince seem so appealing. Just, you know, don't let him write it this time.
Listen. I don't care if you think Fleetwood Mac is old people music that only your parents' parents listened to. Maybe you're right, but if you think that means their story wouldn't make for a good movie, then you clearly haven't read anything about them. Case in point: Take the recording of their legendary Rumours album, which my podcast co-host Brett Rader describes as "the movie Closer, but with five people."
Basically, in the earliest days after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (a couple at the time) joined the band, everyone was sleeping with everyone. In addition to those two, Christine McVie was married to bassist John McVie. Not long before the Rumours sessions commenced, everyone broke up. Even worse, drummer Mick Fleetwood took up a relationship with Stevie Nicks, seeing as how she was single now.
Unsurprisingly, the recording sessions for the album, which were a cocaine-powered show of excess the likes of which you'd normally associate with a hair metal band, resulted in the various members writing a bunch of mean songs about each other. Since they were still a band, that meant a whole lot of people having to give their very best effort to finish a song about how they, specifically, are a terrible person.
Somehow, all of that tension resulted in one of the best-selling and beloved albums in history. However, that wasn't even close to the end of their antics -- and by "antics" I mean "massive consumption of cocaine." It's a drug that leads to questionable decisions, like having the USC Marching Band on the single for your next album.
That's a really great song and all. Probably my favorite Fleetwood Mac song ever. But coming on the heels of stuff like "Landslide" ...
... the public was understandably a bit put off. Sales decreased dramatically. Tensions within the band, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. They kept it together for a few more years and a couple more albums, but on the eve of a tour to promote their 1987 album Tango In The Night, things took a turn for the catastrophic when co-frontperson Lindsey Buckingham just up and quit. To make matters worse, he's an extremely talented guitar player, so much so that the band actually had to hire two people to replace him.
I want to see the auditions that ultimately led to that decision in movie form, so very badly.
Also, how's this for a reunion story? When it came time for the band to finally stop fighting and pretend to like each other again, they made their first appearance as a unit on one of the biggest stages imaginable: Bill Clinton's inauguration.
That seems like it would make for a decent end to a movie, right?
Eminem is the perfect example of a musician with a rags-to-riches story that made an amazing movie. It's a truly inspirational tale, and ATB argues it's about time Eminem gave it a rest in Why Eminem Needs To Find Something New To Rap About. And check out 6 Inspiring Rags To Riches Stories That Are Bullshit to learn why the story of Bill Gates isn't exactly the fairy tale Hollywood has made it out to be.
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