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The Fabulous Stains
Still from Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982)

The best fictional bands on film

From Laura Dern as a schoolgirl punk in The Fabulous Stains to alien opera singers in The Fifth Element, here are ten fake artists we wish we could hear in real life

More than any other artform, cinema transforms larger-than-life moments into palpable experiences that feel – or even demand – to be real. Throughout the film Big Night, Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub cook and serve a tantalising timballo that leaps out of the screen. For a kid watching The Goonies, the grappling hook that pops out of Data’s belt made such a gadget arsenal an unimaginable dream. Music in particular lends itself to this feverish wishing: there are just so many fictional bands that seem like they should be real, as if the world would be a better place with them in it. Dozens of bands have exploded into the public consciousness and public playlists throughout the history of cinema, whether it was the exquisite power pop of Josie and the Pussycats, the brash slacker cool of Sex Bob-Omb, or the giddily saccharine hop of The One-ders.

Here are ten fictional artists we could do with hearing more from in our lives.

DIVA PLAVALAGUNA, THE FIFTH ELEMENT 

Opera doesn’t get the audiences it once did, but a mystic alien being – with the pipes of an angel and the adventurous fashion sense and genre-fusing sensibilities of Björk – would be just the thing to revitalise the genre. Enter Diva Plavalaguna, the statuesque, fluorescent blue, be-tentacled saviour of the aria. In a climactic scene from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, the Diva uses her unimaginable range and power to awe a massive crowd, all while her performance perfectly syncs with the supreme being’s battle with monstrous Mangalores. The Diva herself similarly fuses two beautiful strengths: the expressive motions of French actress Maiwenn Le Besco and the voice (that voice!) of Albanian opera singer Inva Mula. If any one performer were to contain all four elements (or, well, four out of five), it would certainly be this one.

PARANMAUM, LINDA LINDA LINDA

A highlight of a line of schoolgirl punk films (including The Fabulous Stains and the excellent recent Swedish film We Are the Best!), Linda Linda Linda tells the story of three Japanese teens and a Korean exchange student performing at a festival for their high school. Their band, Paranmaum, opts to cover Japanese punks The Blue Hearts, and their shouty pop punk passion both highlights the joy of making music and offers a beautifully detailed look into teenage friendship. Though she’s playing in a fake band in the film, Shiori Sekine is a real bassist and one-third of the band Base Ball Bear, reinforcing the punk pedigree.

AUTOBAHN, THE BIG LEBOWSKI

For some bands, the ideology is more important than the music. Such was the downfall of Autobahn, who are far better known for their philosophical allegiance to nihilism than their status as Germany’s premiere electronic outfit. The trio, a clear parody of Kraftwerk, appear in The Big Lebowski with their album Nagelbett, which is German for ‘nail bed’ (as in, the one attached to the toe that’s used as proof of kidnapping in the film). Frontman Uli Kunkel – billed as ‘Karl Hungus’ – makes an appearance in a low-rent porno, the only thing that nears competing with the band’s repeated utterances of “We believe in nothing.”

THE STAINS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS

The 1982 cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains offers not one but two top-tier fictional acts – one composed of famous musicians, the other of up-and-coming acting stars. The film details the rise and fall of The Stains, a trio of teen girls (Marin Kanter, Laura Dern, and Diane Lane in early, yet thrilling roles) who find refuge from their tough lives in punk. The Stains cross paths with a more established outfit, The Looters (Paul Simonon of The Clash; Paul Cook and Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols) before inevitably crumbling. But Lane and her crew are the stars of the show, part-inspiration and empowerment, part-tragic tale of the injustice faced daily by women (The Stains gain attention once they change to more revealing outfits and male journalists and musicians mock them.)

KRYSTA NOW, SOUTHLAND TALES

Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly didn’t need to look too far into the future to find a sensational dystopia to sink his teeth into with his 2006 film Southland Tales. The extravagant, ridiculous film is set in an imagined 2008, with Kelly using the twin totems of Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” and the signing of the PATRIOT Act as his main pop culture and political reference points. At the centre of the film is Krysta Now, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose Britney-pastiche single “Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime” fuses overt sexuality with a gun control message, pinning school shootings on sexual frustration: “Teen horniness is not a crime / Open your heart and your mind / Cause the numbers don’t lie / Observe the nerds who shot up Columbine.”

THE SORONPRFBS, FRANK

In the history of rock biopics, a band heavily featuring a psychotic theremin player and a frontman with a ballooned papier mache head seems unlikely fodder – but then there’s nothing about Frank Sidebottom that could be described as ordinary. While Frank isn’t a one-to-one representation of the legendary outsider artist, its fusion of surreal and hilarious certainly drinks from the same fountain. In the film, Frank and his band The Soronprfbs make music that pairs toothbrushes and glass jars with guitars and synths – or at least they would, if they could ever complete a gig or song without imploding. At the fore, Michael Fassbender’s Frank is a man of utter mystery, never seen without the giant single-expression beacon until the film’s end. Some trainwrecks are more interesting to watch than others, and the Soronprfbs are of the most fiery and explosive. While I wouldn’t be keen to pay full-price for a ticket for a show likely to collapse five minutes in, they’d put on one of the most unique performances you’d ever see. 

CITIZEN DICK, SINGLES

Singles, Cameron Crowe’s ode to the Seattle grunge scene, gets extra meta. The band Citizen Dick are played by the actual members of Pearl Jam with the exception of frontman Cliff Poncier (played by Matt Dillon, doing his best to fill in for Eddie Vedder). The band deliver a riotous performance of “Touch Me, I’m Dick”, itself a parody of fellow Seattle grunge group Mudhoney and their hit “Touch Me, I’m Sick”. Among a list of fake song titles that Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Carpenter Gossard developed for Citizen Dick, one was titled “Spoonman” – which was later turned into a 100% real rock supernova by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Citizen Dick and Singles blurred the lines of tangibility, Gen X beautifully carving out a parody of itself.

JIM AND JEAN, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Coen Brothers have proven themselves plenty capable of handling larger than life musical characters (see both the nihilists of Autobahn from The Big Lebowski and the “aww shucks” Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but Inside Llewyn Davis shows that they’re just as skilled at sketching intimate portraits. It’s always as if they’re holding up a magnifying glass to complex human behaviour – but if they get too close, it could burn. Though Llewyn Davis may be the title character, the tender folkie harmonies of Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) gliding through Hedy West’s absorbing “Five Hundred Miles” feels lifted from the idealised vision of the Village folk scene. In the face of the solemn struggle of Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn, Jim and Jean’s simple, warm tones are a beautiful respite.

SONIC DEATH MONKEY AKA KATHLEEN TURNER OVERDRIVE AKA BARRY JIVE & THE UPTOWN FIVE, HIGH FIDELITY 

Jack Black has been in IRL comedy rock band Tenacious D for years, but he got to give viewers something a little sweeter with the unfortunately concocted band Kathleen Turner Overdrive in High Fidelity. Or was it Sonic Death Monkey? Or Barry Jive & the Uptown Five? Whatever name the band decided on, Black is capable of soaring to any note and getting even the most jaded listeners grooving. This was his music debut on the silver screen, but absolutely nailing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” with masses of charisma to spare that helped shape his status as a multi-talented superstar.

STILLWATER, ALMOST FAMOUS

Though the faces on the screen in Almost Famous may make Stillwater a “fake” band, its pedigree is palpable. Using knowledge from his previous life as a music journalist for Rolling Stone, director Cameron Crowe mashes together elements of various classic rock bands to create the band and then hired Peter Frampton and Heart’s Nancy Wilson to write and perform the songs (Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers has said that his band may have inspired a part of the story, including a leap into a pool from a roof). But no matter the music, the explosive infighting and personal drama that fueled Stillwater would make them a compelling follow.