1. The Brady kids’ “Time To Chaaaaaange,” The Brady Bunch (1972)
The whole phenomenon of a movie or TV show trying to pass off a pedestrian song/poem/painting/what-have-you as a work of world-changing genius is epitomized by the 1972 The Brady Bunch episode “Dough Re Mi.” That’s the one where the family’s oldest brother, Greg, writes a surefire hit song with a positive message, called “We Can Make The World A Whole Lot Brighter,” but then sees his activist rock-star dreams nearly shattered when one of the key members of The Brady Six—middle brother Peter—starts going through the voice-cracking phase of puberty. The solution? Greg writes an equally insipid song called “Time To Change,” which uses Peter’s barbaric yawp. In both cases, whenever Greg and/or his siblings perform, the camera catches the reactions of everyone in the room, as they all beam with appreciation, and occasionally look at each other to give what shall henceforth be known as The Brady Nod. It’s that gesture that says, “It’s not just me, right? This thing we’re all hearing is amazing.”
2. Daryl Hannah’s “Put Out The Fire,” Legal Eagles (1986)
The New York-set comedy-thriller Legal Eagles, which is one stylish, trendy piece of work in its dreams, stars Robert Redford and Debra Winger as lawyers who agree to defend Darryl Hannah, a young artist who was traumatized when her father was killed in a house fire when she was 8 years old. As part of her campaign to tantalize Redford, she sits the poor, dazed bastard down and treats him to a special in-home performance of her masterpiece, a kinetic performance piece featuring images of her childhood self and everything going up in flames. (Somehow, it works as an aphrodisiac on Redford, though most people who sat through this would skip the sex and just go straight to filing for a restraining order.) In theory, it illuminates her tortured psyche as it’s expressed through her work, and also suggests what a Laurie Anderson show might look like to Rain Man. In actuality, the only thing the sequence does effectively is stamp a time date on the movie. The only way it could be any more 1986 would be if flaming debris from the Challenger space shuttle crashed through the ceiling.
3. Mr. Holland’s Opus, Mr. Holland’s Opus (1996)
The inspirational musical drama Mr. Holland’s Opus covers three decades in the career of a Portland high-school-band director, but it’s also the story of a dream deferred. When Richard Dreyfuss’ Mr. Holland takes a job as a music teacher in 1965, it’s understood that he’s temporarily shelving his ambitions as professional composer. As the decades pass and America changes from a place transformed by the music of John Lennon to the site of his assassination, Dreyfuss continues to work on his orchestral masterpiece, but reaches a point where his hopes of having it performed are diminished. Yet on his last day as a teacher, he walks into an auditorium filled with appreciative former students who have gathered to perform his opus, “The American Symphony,” with Dreyfuss as conductor. The tear-choked finale is tempered by Michael Kamen’s actual composition, which sounds less like a modern-day Mozart than the score from an emotionally manipulative mid-’90s Disney movie.
4. Wayne Jensen (as played by Teddy Geiger), Love Monkey (2006)
In 2006, the usually stodgy CBS made a rare play for the youth market with the mid-season replacement Love Monkey, a light drama starring Tom Cavanagh as a New York music-business executive who has a Jerry Maguire-like epiphany and decides he wants to commit himself to music he loves, music that matters, like The Clash and Bob Dylan. The artist who symbolizes the “real,” “important” music Cavanagh is willing to lose his job to promote? Wayne Jensen, a floppy-haired singer-songwriter with an emo attitude and a Radio Disney sound, played by former Hilary Duff opening act and In Search Of The Partridge Family finalist Teddy Geiger. Love Monkey’s Wayne has a sweet voice—especially after it’s been sanded down in the studio—and he writes pleasant Top 40 fare, but the fanatical devotion he inspires in the purportedly hip Cavanagh is so comically out of proportion that it effectively killed any interest that actual hip, young people might’ve had in Love Monkey. Ratings plummeted after a fairly well-watched première, and CBS yanked the show after three episodes.
5. Queens Boulevard, Entourage (2004)
Still in search of a star vehicle worthy of his talents in Entourage’s early days, protagonist Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) hits upon an independent film called Queens Boulevard, made by presumed auteur Billy Walsh. As is usual with the show, viewers hear about the film’s genius more than they see it, but its pedigree is high—the gritty black-and-white drama about a man running from the law triumphs at Sundance and scores Vinnie a role in the blockbuster Aquaman. The one clip offered to the audience, though, gives the impression of a gangster movie written by a 12-year-old. As Vinnie leaves his buddy in the pelting rain, he’s asked if he’ll ever come back. He stops, pauses, turns right to the camera, and says, “Are you kidding? I am Queens Boulevard.” Hey, that’s the name of the movie! Walsh ends up upset when, ludicrously, the film the studio garishly colorizes the film. But at least that means there’s one interesting thing to say about it. For a while, Entourage continued its struggle to make Vinnie’s fake movies look good, but it eventually caught on to the joke, with his Pablo Escobar biopic Medellin turning out to be a straight-to-DVD bomb.
6. Vanessa Redgrave’s dancing, Isadora (1968)
There are far fewer biopics about famous dancers than there are about other kinds of artists, and for a good reason. An actor playing Picasso or Hemingway or Beethoven doesn’t have to actually produce a credible imitation of the work of the person he’s playing; it’s enough to just play the part, occasionally staring at a canvas or a blank piece of paper, or banging on a piano, with the music to be tacked on to the soundtrack later. But a dancer in a movie has to actually be able to dance, Jennifer Beals notwithstanding. Vanessa Redgrave is one of the greatest actresses of her generation, and she won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance as Isadora Duncan. But it probably would have been some violation of natural law if she, or anyone, had the ability to both play a woman as unusual as Duncan and dance like her. Natural law can rest easy. The movie’s conceit is that its heroine is a naturally expressive artist who transcends conventional training and ordinary standards of technique and grace, which is one way of describing the way Redgrave swings her arms and bounces around clumsily like the world’s tallest 3-year-old. Whereas Duncan started out as a Music Hall performer whose infectious charm and high spirits delighted the audience, then developed into a serious, spiritual artist, the biggest development in Redgrave’s style over the course of the movie is that she trades in her clown clothes for a bed sheet, and stops trying to kick herself in the head.
7. Tom Hanks’ stand-up, Punchline (1988)
David Seltzer wrote and directed this drama about standup comics, starring Tom Hanks as a ferociously driven motormouth, and Sally Field as a housewife and mom who starts hopping onstage because she just likes to make people laugh. By this point in his career, Hanks had actually played several characters who probably could have held their own at an open-mic night, and having prepared for this role by working a few clubs, he gives a performance that’s both fascinating and disappointing. It’s fascinating because he gives the character an acidic, self-loathing quality that suggests the potential for a really interesting comic mind. But he’s never, ever funny, and viewers know he’s supposed to be, because all the other characters who’ve been in the business for a while keep insisting that he’s the most brilliant comic they’ve ever seen. The problem probably lies not with the actor, but with Seltzer, who, to judge from his script, doesn’t know from funny, but finds self-destructive comedians to be an interesting, and pitiable, psychological type. He seems to want the audience to feel sorry for the character rather than laugh with him, which may be why Hanks spends most of his time onstage having breakdowns.
8. The musical numbers, Staying Alive (1983)
Switching back and forth between Rocky and Rambo and raking in a little more money for his troubles every time out, Sylvester Stallone seemed to have hit on a foolproof, endlessly repeatable formula for success in the ’80s: Get up in their faces with sweat-coated, pumped-up, veiny muscles, thump his chest, and grunt. When some certifiable lunatic put him in charge of writing and directing the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, however, the only variation he thought he needed to make on his usual recipe was to add much worse music. John Travolta—whose performance in the film helped put him in a hole that it took 11 years and Quentin Tarantino to dig him out of—returns as Tony Manero, who’s trying to make it as a dancer in the big city, and finally lands a role as male lead in a Broadway musical set in Hell. Bodies writhe, steam billows, synths blare, and at the end, the audience rises and screams. It takes a few minutes to realize they’re doing this in apparent approval of what they’ve just seen, and not because they want their money back.
9. Katharine McPhee’s musical numbers, Smash (2012)
Former American Idol runner-up and current Smash star Katharine McPhee has a very good voice. Really, she does. Plus she’s gorgeous. It’s easy to see why people in the entertainment industry would see her as a potential superstar. But McPhee lacks a certain spark as a performer; she’s talented but largely passionless. To compensate for this void at the center of NBC’s birth-of-a-Broadway-show drama, the Smash creators have been mustering all their powers of persuasion on the audience, cutting frequently to big-time theater directors, producers, and songwriters, all giving The Brady Nod while McPhee’s character Karen Cartwright belts out another technically proficient, thoroughly uninspired number. To make matters worse, Smash has been comparing McPhee’s character directly to an actual Broadway star, Megan Hilty, who is so commanding when she sings that every time the show has someone say, “I don’t know, there’s just something about Karen,” it wrecks Smash’s credibility, and severs the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
10. Justice’s poems, Poetic Justice (1993)
Riding high off the acclaim of his debut feature, Boyz N The Hood, writer-director John Singleton invested his creative capital in the unfortunately titled Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson as Justice, a South Central Los Angeles hairdresser who writes poems on the side. The poems are meant to channel the traumas of the past—she witnessed her boyfriend’s murder—and the loneliness and desperation of her present, but as written by Maya Angelou, they’re murky word soup passing for socially engaged poetry. (The New York Times’ Vincent Canby likened Angelou’s poems to “a swarm of benign bees on a hot summer day.”) But most of the problem rests with Jackson’s remote performance, which creates a stark disconnect between her character and poems that suggest a much more substantial inner life.
11. The sketches, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006-2007)
To give credit to the writers (or rather, writer, since creator Aaron Sorkin pretty much wrote the whole damn thing himself) of the ill-fated inside-showbiz drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, there was pretty much no way the sketches on the show could possibly be as brilliant as the show’s universe desperately needed them to be. The sketches on the show-within-a-show were supposed to be so incandescently witty, satirical, and brilliant that they sparked a culture-wide tidal wave of appreciation and controversy around water coolers every Monday. In order to justify the show’s hyperbolic take on late-night sketch comedy as the epicenter of America’s perpetually boiling culture war, the show-within-a-show would need to cross-pollinate Saturday Night Live at its zeitgeist-capturing best with the ballsy, timely, politically engaged satire of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Alas, judging by the glimpses of sketches viewers had the misfortune to see, the show was more like MAD TV on an off week, a regrettable collision of shameless mugging, broad comedy, and parodies of celebrities (Holly Hunter, Juliette Lewis) who haven’t been culturally relevant or well-known enough to make for good satirical fodder in decades. Studio 60 had all manner of problems, but setting the bar for its sketches impossibly high certainly didn’t help.
12. The vaudeville routine, The Sunshine Boys (1975)
Neil Simon’s play premièred on Broadway in 1972, at a time when Simon seemed to open a new play every other month and start adapting it to film a couple of weeks later. The knock on Simon’s comedies was that he wasn’t really a playwright so much as a hack gag-writer stamping out formulaic one-liners with a rusty cookie cutter. By building a story around a couple of elderly vaudeville comics, Lewis and Clark, who break up acrimoniously and reunite to do their classic doctor-and-patient routine on a TV special, he tried to provide a context for his kind of comedy—Lewis and Clark have spent their professional lives talking the way all of his characters talk anyway—that would enable it to pass for a tribute to the comics’ theatrical past. But when the old guys do their act, the jokes are as unfunny as the stale one-liners that pass for their everyday conversation, and Walter Matthau, a naturalistic actor made up to look like an old codger, and George Burns, a genuine vaudeville star and a genuine codger, can’t find enough common ground as performers to get a rhythm going, much less convince the audience that they’ve been doing this together for decades. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that the script is so meta that their routine is supposed to suck, and that this is what makes it all so poignant. It’s an interesting theory, but it doesn’t gibe with the cuts to Richard Benjamin, as Matthau’s agent and nephew, watching them and grinning, as if he were thinking, “Oh, man, they’ve still got it!”
13. Steel Dragon, Rock Star (2001)
Loosely based on the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, an Akron singer in a Judas Priest tribute band who was hired to fill in on lead vocals after Priest frontman Rob Halford left the group in 1992, Rock Star is the definitive rock ’n’ roll fantasy picture. Mark Wahlberg plays a working-class kid who mans a copy shop by day, but by night fronts Blood Pollution, a tribute to the fictional hair-metal band Steel Dragon. There’s lots of silly stuff in Rock Star—some vintage camera-mugging by an eyelinered Timothy Olyphant, a “romantic” scene of Jennifer Aniston piercing Wahlberg’s nipple—but nothing’s sillier than the very idea of Steel Dragon being so insanely popular. Even by late-game hair-metal standards, made-up numbers like “Stand Up” and “Livin’ The Life” are almost comically lame. Wahlberg’s tribute act is even goofier, with him regularly wafting in and out of a thick, in-character British accent. Even worse, Rock Star imagines some ludicrous blue-collar American hard-rock underground, where glam-rock cover bands play packed shows at repurposed steel refineries.
14. George’s painting, The Art Of Getting By (2011)
The biggest weakness of the coming-of-age drama The Art Of Getting By is unfortunately its protagonist, a self-proclaimed “Teflon slacker” played by Freddie Highmore. His character has coasted through his senior year of high school without completing a single assignment, largely due to an above-it-all ennui that masquerades as nihilistic angst, but really feels more like disconnected laziness. When he’s finally forced to get his act together or repeat 12th grade, most of his teachers punitively load him down with a year’s worth of labor, but his sympathetic art teacher (Jarlath Conroy) offers to pass him if he produces just one sincere, meaningful, heartfelt piece of work. So Highmore supposedly puts his soul into a work which represents his transformation from disaffected, detached twit to committed artist, and his teacher applauds him. Problem is that the film actually shows the audience that artwork—a banal portrait of the girl he’s been passively aggressively not-pursuing while stewing over her inability to see his awesomeness. Not only is his painting not stylistically daring or impressive, the emotion he supposedly put into it doesn’t come across on the canvas. It’s meant to be meaningful because he finally acknowledges his feelings for her in an overt way, but he acknowledges them in the most generic, humdrum, Sears Portrait Studio way possible.
15. David Duchovny’s prose, Californication (2007-present)
In Californication, David Duchovny’s raging assholery is supposed to be at least partially excused by his literary brilliance. Sure, he’s a self-absorbed, womanizing bastard, but what genius writer isn’t? But the snippets of prose viewers are favored with suggest Duchovny’s hard-living, hard-loving, yet ultimately sympathetic scribe isn’t a Charles Bukowski or Tom Waits-like genius so much as a preening, pretentious, talentless hack. Then again, considering the show Duchovny smugly anchors is pretty damned hacky as well, that’s appropriate.
16. Kevin Bacon’s “personal” film, The Big Picture (1989)
Audiences never get to see much about the passion project Kevin Bacon spends most of Christopher Guest’s Hollywood satire trying to make, but based on the bits the film does present, the limited exposure is a blessing. Set in a snowy country house and filmed—at Bacon’s insistence—in black and white, it seems like a fifth-generation Bergman knockoff that bears little resemblance to his actual life. Give us guitar-playing Pez dispensers any day.
17. Winona Ryder’s video diary, Reality Bites (1994)
“I’d like to somehow make a difference in people’s lives,” Winona Ryder’s aspiring documentarian says in Ben Stiller’s lukewarm portrait of Generation X. Too bad her idea of fomenting social upheaval is pointlessly whipping around a low-grade video camera while her aimless friends blather about nothing in particular. It’s meant to come off as a desecration when a youth-oriented network called In Your Face TV re-edits her footage with an eye toward sensationalism and cheap laughs, plastering pictures of her friends’ heads onto animated slices of pizza. But cut the folks at In Your Face some slack: They had to do something to zazz up these dullards’ lives.
18-plus. Mark’s film, Roger’s song, and Maureen’s interpretive art, Rent (1996)/(2005)
The self-described young bohemians in Jonathan Larson’s rock opera Rent treat their families like crap, snipe and feud endlessly with each other, and live angry lives of mixed deprivation and entitlement. But the show implies that’s all okay—in fact, it’s perfect, because they’re all artists, dammit, living the mercurial, emotionally rich lives that their art and their artistic temperaments demand. Except that they’re all callow, lousy artists. Mark, the filmmaker who quits his lucrative but unsatisfying job with a “sleazy” news show to pursue his own dreams, spends the play sitting in on agonizing support-group sessions for his AIDS-stricken friends, and filming the proceedings—without sound, so instead of a documentary look at an epidemic in a crucial phase, he winds up with a jumble of silent, badly shot, chaotic images of his friends, barely one step up from home movies. That said, neither the original Broadway show or the 2005 movie adaptation could halt the big final reprise number to let the audience see his movie in full. Given that it plays in the background as a mere video effect, it’s no wonder it comes across poorly. But the entire show grinds to a stop twice for in-depth looks at his friends’ more musical-friendly art: His ex, Maureen, referred to as a swoon-inducing diva helplessly chased by would-be lovers of all genders, turns in a ridiculously pretentious performance-art piece about her nightmare trip to “Cyberland,” a commercialized dystopia where cows are forbidden to give milk and are only allowed to produce—insert self-important echo effect—Diet Coke. Her audience is so moved by her capering and her childish, thuddingly obvious symbolism that they riot against the police at her instigation. Meanwhile, Mark’s friend Roger, aware that he’s dying of AIDS, struggles to produce “one song to leave behind… before the sun sets on another empty life.” It’s telling that while “One Song Glory,” Larson’s song about Roger’s need to produce that final, memorable work, is a raw, powerfully emotional character introduction, when Roger does finally write a song and hail it as his masterwork, it’s a slow, repetitive, drippy love ballad to the girl he’s sullenly shoved away throughout the entire show.