Would someone hurry up and write a Hold Steady musical? It surely couldn’t be a worse idea than Tim Burton’s decision to keep the blood in Sweeney Todd (not that that was a bad artistic decision, but commercially… not so much) The Hold Steady (for those who don’t cling desperately to popular music) is a bar-band from Brooklyn. They play the kind of music Bruce Springsteen would approve of, but the losers in Craig Finn’s lyrics seem lost by choice, not victims of circumstance. In bar-light, she looked alright/In daylight, she looked desperate… So goes one chorus. Who wouldn’t want to see a musical based around that?
What you need is a movie that plays like Beautiful Girls – You know that Ted Demme movie from the mid-90s? Where Timothy Hutton plays a guy who seems to aspire to play piano in some seedy (yet heart-warming) bar? It was one of a million movies from the 90s where Nathalie Portman played jailbait; one of million movies where Michael Rapaport played The Goofy Friend. Matt Dillon’s in there, doing the Joey-from-Friends (but with a pair of balls) schtick. Mira Sorvino (man… this was the 90s) is Dillon’s anorexic girlfriend. Rosie O’Donnell plays The Font of All Wisdom. Uma Thurman is The Unattainable Prize.
A real Hold Steady musical should be Beautiful Girls, plus music. You could keep most of the cast. Hutton – if he’s even acting anymore – would look good at a bar-stool. Dillion, Rapaport… both ideal. You’d want Mickey Rourke in there somewhere. It’s impossible to imagine a movie set in a bar that wouldn’t require the presence of Mickey Rourke. Bruce Willis… Would any of these men even need a character in this goofball musical? I’m thinking of them as a chorus to the action, really. They’re mostly New York guys. Set ’em up with a round of drinks, a couple-a pool cues… They’d know how the story was supposed to go.
Our hero would be a boy from someplace unfashionable… irregular income, sly – but not out to hurt anybody, good with women, moral enough (for a bar-fly). He’d be the kind of guy Billy Joel wrote about, thirty years ago – only, with a better sound-track behind him this time. He’d meet a girl at a party, lose her number, meet her again, and so on (till the songs ran out). And she’d be: a really cool kisser and [not] all that strict of a Christian… a damn good dancer but [not] all that great of a girlfriend. Because women are like Mai Tais in Craig Finn’s lyrics; they’re complicated, they’re bad for you and they don’t last for long.
To imagine what The Hold Steady sound like: think guitars, think piano, think of a band in the corner of a bar where everyone’s pretending they’re Irish for the night… a sound that’s sometimes exuberant, sometimes melancholy (but never sad)… sort of like The Doors if Jim Morrison had been fun to be around… horn section, sing-alongs… unpretentious, unabashed, perfect for New Year’s… the kind of band that knows good poetry but doesn’t let it intrude on the music.
There’d be no place for perfect singing in this musical. Lord knows Craig Finn can’t sing a note. He’s of the Shane McGowan-school of rock-star; it’s the living that counts, not the way you sing. As long as everyone looked right; looked like they’d been beaten up once or twice, divorced, boozy… not tough, but not the kind of guys who’d be comfortable making a restaurant reservation. It could be a breakthrough! The kind of musical John Turturro was trying to make when he made Romance & Cigarettes (which was at least halfway to working as a movie – right?). Men could watch this. Think: Mamma Mia, seen through a shot-glass.