The later DVD reissues of this love letter to the college rock era proclaim the film as “This Is Spinal Tap meets The Commitments” on the box copy. However, I feel a more accurate pitch to inspire your viewing is “Kevin Smith’s Clerks meets Singles.”
I’d pair this delightful (and accurate) indie comedy about the trials and tribulations of musicians alongside its college radio chronicle counterpart, A Matter of Degrees (1990), long before double-featuring it with the faux-band tomfoolery of This is Spinal Tap. In fact, Bandwagon plays better as a two-fer with Steve Buscemi’s feature film writing/directing debut Trees Lounge, as both films carry that same looser-with-hopes vibe — only Buscemi’s flick didn’t have a rock band in it (but did give us a great, college-rock title cut theme song by Hayden).
When it come to films encapsulating the Athens, Georgia, to Chapel Hill (and Raleigh-Durham), North Carolina ’80s college rock scene — spreadheaded by that scenes “Nirvana” in R.E.M — no film does it better than this debut feature film writing and directing debut by John Schultz, the original drummer for Raleigh, North Carolina’s the Connells (he left the band prior to their debut recording to pursue film).
If you had a college rock or community/non-commercial radio station (that supported indies and local music) in your area, or if you stayed up late on Sunday nights to watch MTV’s alt-rock programming block 120 Minutes, or perhaps you picked up copies of Alternative Press, Option, or B-Side magazines instead of the faux, non-commercial ramblings of Spin, you come to know the Connells melodic Elvis Costello-cum-the Smiths sounds with their underground hits “Hats Off” and “Seven” from their well-received debut album Darker Days (1985), and “Scotty’s Lament” from their sophomore effort Boyland Heights (1987). Both albums should have taken the Connells to the commercial heights of their contemporaries, R.E.M — but did not.
Instead, the Connells settled into a comfortable, college-rock star status with their albums Fun & Games (1989), which produced the modern rock hit “Something to Say,” and One Simple Word (1990), which produced the Billboard hits “Stone Cold Yesterday” and “Get A Gun.” Their fifth album, Ring (1993), while still not finding any headway on commercial U.S. radio stations (even in the “Rock Alternative” craze flipping hair-metal oriented AOR stations at a dizzying rate), none the less expanded the Connells audience to Europe, where the album and its related singles, “74-75,” and the should-have-been-the-hit-that-broke-them-in-America (on the level of Cracker with “Low”), “Slackjawed,” charted in several Euro-counties. Not even a national television appearance with “Slackjawed” on NBC-TV’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien (it didn’t work for John Doe* on David Letterman’s show, either) could breach the commercial inroads afforded to the drek spewed by the likes of the Crash Test Dummies and the Spin Doctors.
The film’s connection to the Connells, by way of the band’s ex-drummer John Schultz, continues with the band’s lead singer Doug MacMillan starring as the legendary band manager Linus Tate, who takes the film’s scruffier, ersatz-Connells of the film, Circus Monkey, under his wings to college rock stardom.
Courtesy of John Schultz writing what he knows (a lesson that many first time screenwriter-directors fail to realize; keep it intimate) for his first feature film, Bandwagon displays a well-honed grace against its low budget, a skill that Schultz developed while creating feature documentaries for Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Jurassic Park. If you enjoyed Kevin Smith’s grungy, Gen-X debut, Clerks (released two years earlier in 1994; both the film and its soundtrack), then there’s something here in this North Carolina-shot musical chronicle for you to enjoy.
Courtesy of his connections working on those documents, and Bandwagon being well-received at Sundance, Schultz came to direct two major studio projects that you may have come across on cable or plucked off your local video store shelves: the Melissa Joan Hart-starring Drive Me Crazy (1999) and the basketball comedy Like Mike (2002) starring Lil Bow Wow. His most recent features (his 9th and 10th) were the Netflix-backed A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding and The Royal Baby (2018/2019). His sophomore screenwriting credit to Bandwagon was the comedy When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (2003) (from the days when the kid from Jerry Maguire was a “thing” set to be the next Macaulay Culkin).
In an interview with The Boston Globe (the city was a major college radio hub/market at the time), John Schultz said, “On the shoot, we (as with most of the crew, as himself, it was their first-ever film) didn’t really realize what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong [during their six-weeks shoot in 1993 in Raleigh, North Carolina] and a lot of the problems we found in the editing room.”
Musician Greg Kendall, hired to write the songs for the faux Circus Monkey, met Schultz through their mutual friend, Doug MacMillan. “They were to have good songs,” Kendall told The Boston Globe‘s Jim Sullivan, “but they had to be believable. They couldn’t be too stupid and they couldn’t be too ornate.” Schultz, Kendall explained, supplied the titles to the songs and Kendall wrote and sang them. The songs were recorded at the world famous (well, at least in college rock circles) Fort Apache Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts (know you Dinosaur, Jr. history). In addition to the film’s eight songs, Kendall also scored the film. “There’s nothing ‘MTV’ about it [the film]. It’s naive, some would say to a fault. I would say it’s a strength,” explained Kendall.
You just gotta love humble musicians and filmmakers who know their strengths and weaknesses, and are truthful in their quest do their best to create their art.
As far as the original tunes go: If you enjoy the Connells, or the lighter, less fuzzy-distorted side of Dinosaur, Jr., and the poppier-sloppy sounds of the Replacements, with a dash of Uncle Tupelo/Wilco, you’ll enjoy the tunes crafted by Kendall. For me, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” is a real stunner (the link takes you to the video single of the tune that features scenes from the film). Sadly, the official soundtrack was an elusive one to track down . . . so, yeah, this was one of those patch the VCR into the cassette deck movies to get the songs for your car, type of films.
The band Circus Monkey comes together as three slacking Raleigh musicians — Eric (Steve Parlavecchio), a jock bassist; Wynn, a drug-addicted guitarist (the always great Kevin Corrigan; Ray Liotta’s brother in Goodfellas); and the always-babbling drummer, Charlie (Matthew Hennessey) — deal with their own issues of friendship and relationships and career frustrations on the local indie scene. The label signing of the rival “frat-band” Spittle (think Pearl Jam’s “fake grunge” vs. Nirvana’s righteousness) instills a resolve for our ne’er-do-well six-string slingers to get their you-know-whats together and net a record deal . . . if only they could win Rival Records’ upcoming Battle of the Bands talent showcase . . . and not become a Faustian record company victim . . . and end up like the bane of their existence, that is their rivals, Spittle.
The only problem: none of them can write a decent song. So they recruit Tony (a really fine Lee Holmes), a shy, neurotic garage mechanic whose songs — perpetually about a girl named “Ann” — never leave his makeshift studio in the back of said garage. And when Tony is finally coaxed out of the garage and onto the stage — he stands in the corner with his back to the audience . . . if only the elusive Ann (who no one believes is real) would turned up at a show and notice him. . . .
Is the script a bit uneven, punctuated with some directorial missteps and a wee-bit of thespian weakness? Sure. But, again, John Schultz lived the life and he expertly encapsulates the romanticism for his college-home town roots.
As we discussed in our “Drive-In Friday: First Time Directors & Actors Night” featurette**, not every celluloid neophyte is hitting a Quentino Tarantino over the 410 at PNC Park, or infield-homering a Boondock Saints. But make no mistake: John Schultz is no Tommy Wiseau and Bandwagon is no The Room. Unlike Matty Rich, who wowed us with his heartfelt simplicity in his debut Straight Out of Brooklyn, only to scuttle his career Troy Duffy-style, Schultz, gave us an admitted strained, but technically adept film that, like Alex Kendrick before him with his first film, Flywheel, came not from a quest for fame, but to express his soul though a lens instead of behind a drum kit.
And I am glad John Schultz came out from behind that drum kit to create one of my favorite — and not just rock films — but films, period. It was a blast watching this again (how many times does that make, now).
You can enjoy the full film as a free-stream on You Tube.
* We blew out a week’s worth of films starring John Doe of X, so do check out our “John Doe Week” of reviews.
** In a continuation of our Drive-In Friday feature on first time filmmakers, we also discuss the careers of other first-time Tinseltown hopefuls with our “Drive-In Friday: Documentaries About Directors” and “Drive-In Friday: Movies About Movies” featurettes.