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A Rock Film Plugged Into Reality

There's no big star and no hit soundtrack, but the makers of 'Clubland' know the inside story.

January 18, 1998|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman writes about pop music and movies for Calendar

Mary Lambert knows the music scene pretty well--certainly well enough to wince almost every time someone tries to make a movie about what it's like to be a struggling, aspiring pop star. Only two come quickly to mind in the past 15 years that she thinks came close: Prince's "Purple Rain" and the Irish soul hit "The Commitments."

And as the director of some key music videos by such figures as Madonna ("Material Girl" and "Like a Prayer"), Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and the Eurythmics, as well as both "Pet Sematary" films and the feature "Siesta," she's found herself having to cringe even more when she's been sent scripts tackling the territory.

"I remember reading all these scripts that had things like, 'And then she breaks into an incredible song and an incredible dance and the audience is transfixed,' " Lambert says.

"First of all, that kind of thing never happens with people who are just trying to make it, and who are they going to get to do this? With most of those awful scripts I got, they were written so no one could do the lead character except maybe Madonna, Michael Jackson or Janet Jackson and I'd say, 'Have you spoken with Michael?' And they'd say, 'Well, no, but we're sure he'd want to do this.'

Los Angeles Times Sunday January 25, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 92 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Also, Poison's Bret Michaels, not Motley Crue's Vince Neil, has formed a film company with Charlie Sheen, as was reported in an article on the film "Clubland."

"Then you meet with the studio and they are only interested if Michelle Pfeiffer is in it. But she probably doesn't know how to break dance!"

It's been a standard Hollywood foible from Al Jolson to Ginger Spice to try to get that insider's look--and usually come up short.

And yet, Lambert not only read a script called "Clubland," about a young artist trying to get a foothold in the music scene sent by first-time screenwriter Glen Ballard last year, but she also has made the movie. It's her return to features after five years of mostly TV movie work that allowed her to stay close to her L.A. home while raising her 5-year-old son.

The "Clubland" hook: Ballard himself knows a thing or two about the music world. You might recall seeing him gathering an armload of Grammy Awards two years ago as the producer and co-writer of Alanis Morissette's mega-hit breakthrough album, "Jagged Little Pill."

"I know there have been many attempts to do the music business thing in film," Ballard says. "But I'm confident that what we have is special and different. I can authenticate a lot of what goes on in the story, because I've been there. There's not a lot in it that I can't say is real."

"Clubland" is the story of aspiring rocker Kennedy Johnson (played by newcomer Jimmy Tuckett) and his brother King (Brad Hunt of "Dream With Fishes") who come to Hollywood from their Riverside trailer-park upbringing to try to make it. Also in the cast is Lori Petty as a flamboyant singer who has never gotten the break she has sought.

"I'm telling a story first," Ballard says. "I didn't set out to write a story about 'the music business.' I really envisioned the character first and his relationship with his brother. This character happened to be a musician, but could have been any kind of artist. Saying I want to do a movie about music wouldn't mean anything, but at the end of the day, the story and characters make it compelling."

He also knew, though, that his approach might not be so compelling to a major studio. With neither a Michael Jackson nor a Michelle Pfeiffer involved, it lacks star power.

So Ballard decided to go ahead and make the movie himself with a budget of less than $4 million and without studio financing, as part of a deal he made last year for his own music and media company through Capitol Records. Only with the movie now completed is he shopping for a distributor.

"This afforded us a creative freedom that just doesn't exist in the system," he says. "I know I wouldn't have been able to make this picture, especially as a first-timer, if I had asked the studios for some money. But this is the picture I wanted to make."

He also had no interest in the now-standard soundtrack-as-marketing-tool album, instead supplementing the six songs he wrote for the main character to sing with 18 acts that are themselves, for the most part, unsigned unknowns that are believable in the film's setting.

"But from my standpoint, clearly those pictures where the music really is in the DNA of the piece have a better chance of lasting," he says.

As a Hollywood backdrop to this venture is a growing trend of music people getting their fingers (and mugs) into movies. Jon Bon Jovi is currently filming starring roles in two upcoming movies, the romantic comedy "Little City" and, alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Jamie Lee Curtis, "Homegrown"; from his own script, Meat Loaf (a veteran of both "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Roadie") is currently filming "Black Dog"; Flea, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Aimee Mann all have cameos in the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowsky"; and Mann's new hubby, Michael Penn, did a great bit as a put-upon record producer in "Boogie Nights," for which he also did some music.

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