It’s one of the simplest rules in storytelling: Show, don’t tell.
All too often, though, movies fudge it when it comes to showing that a musician is great at his or her craft.
The default tends to be a scene like this one, from 2005’s Be Cool, where we know that Christina Milian’s character is an incredible singer/songwriter mainly from the utterly sent expressions on the faces of John Travolta and Uma Thurman while they listen to her belt an original tune.
The song’s not bad, but it’s not so transcendent that it performs its plot function: to convince other characters (and us) that this is a once-in-a-generation talent. We have to look at Travolta’s O-face to get that sense. I don’t blame Christina Milian for the uncanny valley here. The degree of difficulty in creating a fictitious hit song that sounds like a real hit is nearly impossible.
But there was one person who managed to do it. Twice.
Adam Schlesinger—who passed away at age 52 on Wednesday night, from complications due to the coronavirus—was an expert earworm wrangler. He was a master of catchy songs that felt neither cynical nor derivative. He fronted the peerless power pop band Fountains of Wayne, whose stacked catalog is often reduced to the inescapable single “Stacey’s Mom,” and he was a close collaborator with Rachel Bloom on the Emmy-winning songs in her musical TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But his two contributions to the musical cinematic universe were what, in this writer’s estimation, made him a full-blown legend.
First, he created the titular song in Tom Hanks’s directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, a sunny 1960s slice of one-hit wonderful. Can you hear the song right now, just from reading those words? That’s the power of indelible songwriting. It’s something you almost never hear in a fake hit song because if a musician is capable of producing such an undeniable jam, why waste it on a movie, where somebody else gets to sing it? Adam Schlesinger’s gift to the world was that he didn’t consider it a waste.
“That Thing You Do” had to sound convincing both as a relic of its era and as a career-catapulting hit. It’s no stretch to say that the movie does not work if that song doesn’t work. One need only read Tom Hanks remembering Schlesinger fondly to know that he understands as much too.
Just over a decade after That Thing You Do!, Schlesinger took on an assignment for the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics. The film centers around a has-been Wham-clone called PoP, in which Hugh Grant plays the Andrew Ridgely of the duo. (In other words, The Guy Who Wasn’t George Michael.) This band is mainly remembered for a synthy slay that passes the smell test, called “PoP Goes My Heart,” which has a laugh-out-loud hilarious music video.
Making fake hit singles in movies is a great opportunity for jokes, as demonstrated by the entirety of the Lonely Island’s underrated Popstar, or the equally underrated Johnny Cash parody Walk Hard. Adam Schlesinger offered something else instead: utterly sincere songwriting. Take, for instance, the sweeping ballad Schlesinger writes for Hugh Grant’s character, who is supposed to have co-created it (with the help of Drew Barrymore) as a comeback vehicle for himself later in Music and Lyrics.
Talk about a tall storytelling order! This song has to show the growth of Hugh Grant’s character as an artist and a person, under the influence of a romantic and working collaboration with Barrymore, and it has to sound contemporary to 2007, but also timeless. And somehow it does!
There is a world of difference between chameleonic songcraft such as this, and the believable hits Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper made for their characters in A Star Is Born. Those two knew they would get to reap all the glory and acclaim of having crossover singles from their prestige project, while Schlesinger knew that very few people would saw Music and Lyrics would ever even know his name.
Adam Schlesinger was a humble, once-in-a-generation talent who reliably showed us a cinematic world where music fans are as discerning as we are. Rest in peace.