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From Back to the Future to the Piano... You hum it and I'll play it

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Mark Kermode | 15:47 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

So you like Joy Division in Control and Jeremy Northam at Gosford Park but Michael J Fox on stage in Back to the Future movies stirs up all kinds of reactions. And what about all those accordion movies, eh?

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  • Comment number 1.

    You heard it from The Doctor first people :


    I can't stress enough how cross he gets when you finger it the wrong way! (Well HE said it.)

    Actually more annoying than any of this is the over-steering car gaff when the optical background is clearly just going straight ahead, but the actor deems it necessary to HEAVE the steering wheel round to the left or right to show that they definitely ARE driving the car.

  • Comment number 2.

    I actually don't notice bad musicianship so much. What gets to me is lousy fighting. As a martial arts student, I can't help but wince when I see the likes of Uma Thurman pretending to be a skilled martial artist as in Kill Bill. Ha! Sure! Don't get me wrong, I appreciate she did a pretty good job at training into a moderately decent level of craftmanship, but she's nowhere near mastering any of it. I can see it from a mile away and really distracts me. The movie wasn't that good either, anyway.

    Another example: Star Wars episode 1. Stumbling Liam Neeson and even more stumbling Ewan McGregor pretend to fight against an absolute graceful master, and at the end they WIN! Because the script says so! What a bad joke!

  • Comment number 3.

    Elvis Presley movies were the best. No matter where he was: a ski lift; on the beach; or at the carnival, he always had perfect reverb. What really annoys me is when people have conversations, and can be clearly heard, when in clubs or when a live band is playing. Something that is impossible in reality.

  • Comment number 4.

    Like I said before, they're actors, they're paid to act, we complain endlessly when singers try to act, such as Bowie (man who Fell to Earth wasn't really a stretch for him), Sting, and Jagger, who no matter what time period they're in, they still want to keep they're 80s hair style, (Bowie in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), which I find even more annoying, than actors pretending to play instruments.

  • Comment number 5.

    If I remember correctly from the DVD documentaries for Back to the Future, Michael J Fox was concerned that it wouldn't look like he was realistically playing the guitar so tried to take some crash course lessons before filming.

    At least he recognised the problem, even if it didn't turn out 100% realistic.

  • Comment number 6.

    I also thought the fox was good at the guitar at the end of back to the future.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interesting, no-one's mentioned the pianist. Where The Soloist gets the editing wrong, The Panist gets it perfect, because Adrian Brody cannot play piano, but he mimes it perfectly (I can play Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor,so I genuinely know.) And for shots of just his hands, they got proffessional piantist Janusz Olejniczak in, heavily make-upped his hands to make it look like he hadn't washed in months, and filmed those gliding accross the ivories instead. The two are edited together seamlessly, making the effect 100% convincing. Let me know if you disagree. As well as piano, I play organ, arcorordian, and bass... bass guitar that is... does that count?

  • Comment number 8.

    This post reminded me of Crossroads, with Ralph Macchio, which is pretty cheesy but I loved it when I was a nipper and I can remember thinking it was great the way the piece of music was like a character in the movie.

    According to Wikipedia "Macchio's fingering on the guitar was a studied acting job in itself because he didn't know how to play guitar prior to taking on the part of a guitarist. He received intensive training from classical guitarist William Kanengiser of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and Blues guitar Master Arlen Roth to approximate playing realistically enough to hide that fact respectably well."

    There's a clip of the guitar duel on youtube. But it's a spoiler if you've not seen it (and have any intention of seeing it).

  • Comment number 9.

    They are actors, they are pretending to do everything! they either pretend well or they don't.

  • Comment number 10.

    I find musically challenged actors a grim sight but why does no one get upset about the fact that suitcases in movies are always always always clearly empty and swung around showing their lightness and emptiness? I don't notice anything else now in scenes with suitcases. I just sit and stare and wonder why so much care is taken about everything and no one thinks to stuff the suitcase with some weight for the simple sake of old fashioned verisimilitude.

    I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a heavy suitcase on film. I haven't seen one yet.

  • Comment number 11.

    Dr. Kermode,

    I would like to ask you a question that might be a little vague, but it's one that I think you would be fairly accomplished at answering.

    I wanted to know if you could name me movies that are about people making mistakes. Now I'm sure you could name me dozens of comedies and dramas where people screw up in spectacular ways, like Bean for the former and Fargo for the latter. What I'm after, though, is at least one movie that CELEBRATES the act of making mistakes.

    I've been told many times that making mistakes and suffering for them is what pushes you along in life. Being in my late teens, it's this sort of advice that keeps me anxiously thinking late at night. As with many - if not all - of my problems, I turn to movies to illuminate these sorts of issues, which has led me to you.

    Movies that CELEBRATE mistakes. I'd love to hear an answer. Thanks in advance.

  • Comment number 12.

    Totally off topic here, just listening to some old podcasts at work . . .

    Are the Guy Ritchie 'classics' (ahem) Swept Away & Revolver worse than Bride Wars & Transformers 2?

    Just a thought!

    PS I'm a bass owner (as opposed to player!) who bases (ahem) his style on Peter Hook & JJ Burnel.

  • Comment number 13.

    Regarding the use of non diegetic music during live performances in film- You have wonder whether this trend is the result of lazy sound design or misdirections from powers on high to simply create what is perceived as the highest quality audio rather than the most realistic audio. Would it really be that hard to take a set of speakers and re-record the music in a similar physical space to capture the reverb and early reflections? All these things increasingly break the suspension of disbelief when watching a film but it's curious to see which of these cliches become part of the lexicon of cinema. For example, when was the last time you watched somebody talking into a microphone on film that didn't first momentary feel the need to feedback?

    I generally find it a much more distracting phenomena when it's applied to dialogue. It seems every film these days feels required to re-record the dialogue in post production- it seems especially incongruous in adverts these days. I understand that getting a good quality dialogue recording isn't always possible but if you do re-record, do try and 'worldize' the recording. Walter Murch managed this subtlety in the 70's.

    Do you think it's only musician's that react to this minutia or are there astronomers out there that have hacked off internal dialogues every time a TIE fighter noisily whooshes past the screen?=]



  • Comment number 14.

    Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future made me pick up the guitar

  • Comment number 15.

    Bandslam yes... High School Musical also. I can't stand to watch these films. The undisputed talent of the actors is muffled by the polyethylene bag of over-production. Bosh.

  • Comment number 16.

    Sorry to be a bit late with this one.
    I have done quite a few 'Dummy' sessions for film, booked because i am a professional musician so supposedly it should seem genuine when the miming/playing is viewed on screen! It should look like the musicians are actually playing. When you watch these films afterwards though, they all look the same, out of time and out of sync due to editing and the amount of multi angled shots that are taken.
    The exception to this was on the film Delovely a desperately boring biopic about Cole Porter by Irwin Winkler. There is a quintet on screen surrounding i think its Sheryl Crow . I am 'playing'/miming the saxophone. I turn up at the Old Vic for the filming with one of my saxophones that was used during that era. I'm put in period costume that was selected the week before. It looks quite believable. I sit down and the track begins. It's Begin the Beguine. I'm listening out for the saxophone..cant hear any. The track ends ,still no saxophone. I question this and after consulting with the director, who is slumped in his chair with the stage manager trying to check that he is still awake/alive, i am told that it does not matter, just move around and pretend to play, really look as though you are enjoying it..."the show of your life". We do the scene over and over again i am getting more and more animated miming to nothing looking more like a poor soul suffering from severely inflamed haemorrhoids! Hurrah, it is the one time i cannot possibly be out of time or synced badly, best bit of miming i have ever done.. 'the show of me life'! Thanks Mr Winkler if your still with us.
    When they come to filming and cutting these films just employ somebody with some musical training to check and oversee the syncing and also that the right instruments are playing to the track!!! It might look more genuine. Still it does not matter its image, that all that counts.
    Kind Regards twosleeps

  • Comment number 17.

    Good Doctor,

    Given your comments I've just rewatched the said scene from Back to the Future and I must admit on reflection, Michael J Fox's 'guitar' work is not as bad as I remembered.

    During the early part of the song, his playing is pretty spot on, but it becomes less believable when he goes into Van Halen mode; although his blushes are spared somewhat by playing the guitar behind his head - a smart move by Robert Zemeckis!

    Regards. William.

  • Comment number 18.

    Quite frankly, I couldn't care less about the intricacies of Johnny B Goode in BTTF - I just loved the whole film, performance and all, and just went with whatever was put in front of me. That film is that good.

    As ever, it depends on how bothered you want to be. If the film cannot engage you sufficiently to go with it, and run with it's logic, the it follows you'll be looking for flaws, have I left the oven on, etc etc

  • Comment number 19.


    are there astronomers out there that have hacked off internal dialogues every time a TIE fighter noisily whooshes past the screen?

    Oh, yes. We are legion:

  • Comment number 20.

    Hello Dr K: Love your posts. On the subject of realism in sport on film, (re. iverscrewkick's comment about swimming), you think that's bad - have you seen the 1996 film True Blue about the Oxford Boat Race mutiny? Rowing is a very technical sport and, as a rower and coach, it was horrendous to watch a boat full of men who clearly could not row pretend to be in the Oxford Blue Boat. Looked like a spider on ecstasy.

  • Comment number 21.

    How bist Dr K?

    Not being particularly musical, I don't suffer from said affliction. However, perhaps more worryingly, I often get distracted or mildly annoyed in films when a supposed sports person has no understanding or skill of the sport they are meant to portray. Being a big boxing fan for instance, it annoyed me to no end during Cinderella Man; something I wasn't too keen on for other reasons, with Russell Crowe's 'boxing'. Interestingly though, I'm a huge fan of most of the Rocky's, which are truly hilarious and heart warming underdog films, which, I would argue are enhanced by the terribly unbelievable boxing. This begs the question then, that much the same as bad music playing in films, if a film is bad which contains an unbelievable portrayal of sporting feats, is it not an excuse or argument to say that you don't enjoy the film because of said 'unbelievability'?

    Love to hear back from you, peace.

  • Comment number 22.

    Actors 'playing' musical instruments badly in their roles is as bad as watching John Redwood MP pretending to sing the Welsh national anthem while not knowing the words and hoping no-one would notice. (I know that won't mean much to you Mark, being "out of the loop" when it comes to politics, but you get my point).

  • Comment number 23.

    In Master and Commander, there are many scenes where Russel Crowe...( I like to call him) furiously attempts to pull off intracite violin duets with his friend and chello partner, the result is halarious. Its so horrible that I can't watch that film without gagging with laughter and neglecting any other part of the movie.

    And the good Doctor is right, editing is vital. In Interview with a Vampire they edited it in such a way it that was decent enough to not annoy the audience to point of death, and did not pull from the film as it did in Master and Commander.

    Young Frankenstein summed it up.


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