From Music and Lyrics to That Thing You Do – it takes real talent to write a fake hit

The songs of Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant’s last good romcom, had no business being that great. These were, after all, fake songs written for fake bands – and most of them sung by the vocally challenged Grant, at that. And yet, from the Eighties naff of “PoP! Goes My Heart” to the Taylor Swift-lite ballad “Way Back Into Love”, Music and Lyrics hit the right notes.

The tone is set from the off. The film opens with the music video for “PoP! Goes My Heart”, by fake band PoP!, all ruffled shirts and dodgy dance moves. In one scene, over a pulsing synth beat, our hero Alex (Hugh Grant) lies in hospital (dying of a broken heart, of course), and dreams he’s skipping along a green-screen beach with his love. As his heart starts to glow neon through his shirt, he jumps up and dances with the sexy nurses surrounding him. “A twist of fate makes life worthwhile,” Alex sings. “You are gold” – beat – “and” – beat – “silver-huh-HUH”.

In a sweet enough, but fairly middle-of-the-road romcom, this is the moment that people talk about when they remember Music and Lyrics. Released 15 years ago this week (on Valentine’s Day, no less), it is the film even Grant himself considers to be his last great one before a series of duds. He is Alex Fletcher, the lesser frontman of Eighties pop sensation PoP!, a name just quirkily unimaginative enough to be realistic. Drew Barrymore plays Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the klutzy lady who waters his plants and, it turns out, has an unexpected knack for songwriting.

Alex is now a regular on the school reunion and state fair circuit, and has graciously accepted the title of “happy has-been”. Were this 2022, Alex would probably be competing on The Masked Singer, but his career is given a new lease of life when teenage pop icon Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) asks him to write her new song. Cora, we’re told, is “bigger than Britney and Christina combined”. She knows what the track’s title will be – “Way Back Into Love” – she just doesn’t have anything else. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” she tells him, a deadpan, glazed-over look in her eyes. “It’s destiny. Or not.” Struggling to write lyrics, he teams up with Sophie and sparks (naturally) fly between the pair. Yes, it’s a plot you can see coming a mile off, but it’s also sweet and funny.

For all the chemistry Grant and Barrymore have on screen, Music and Lyrics isn’t really loved for the romance at its heart. It’s the soundtrack that hooked fans in, consisting of fake pop songs so believable, they’d slot into a playlist undetected. Each could feasibly be a hit, whether performed by PoP! in the Eighties, Alex in his short-lived solo career, or Cora in the present day. That “Pop Goes My Heart” video at the start – the song was written by Andrew Wyatt, frontman of rock band The AM and songwriter for Liam Gallagher and Florence and the Machine – is as believable as any Wham! release. You believe, with its catchy bridge and hook, that it would have been enough to catapult the band to fame. “Way Back Into Love”, the song that Alex and Sophie write together (though it was actually written by the late, great Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger) is romantic and heartfelt without being twee.

But writing fake songs for fake bands is a deceptively hard task. Some other successes include the Sixties pastiche that is the title track from Tom Hanks’ 1996 directorial debut That Thing You Do! The film follows the rise and fall of fictional, Beatles-inspired band The Oneders – “That Thing You Do” – also written by Schlesinger – is their one hit. Then there’s Sex Bob-Omb’s “Black Sheep” (performed by Brie Larson) from Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a song that fans campaigned to be released for 11 years before director Edgar Wright gave in. “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street, “Take Me Away” from Freaky Friday and basically any track from the Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping soundtrack have the same effect.

In recent years, we’ve even seen actual pop stars give it a go. Between Ariana Grande’s “Just Look Up” from Don’t Look Up and Lady Gaga’s songs as Ally in A Star is Born – “Shallow”, which was co-written by Andrew Wyatt, has racked up more than 1.7 billion streams on Spotify alone – it’s become clear that real-life artists have a knack for producing those uncanny songs. Cora’s track “Buddha’s Delight” clearly parodies Britney’s 2001 VMAs “Slave 4 U” performance (without the snake, sadly), while the incredibly named “Entering BootyTown” is every bit as mind numbing as that title suggests. Both those songs and A Star Is Born’s “Why Did You Do That?” – best known for its opening lyrics: “Why do you look so good in those jeans?/ Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” – represent the soulless churning of the pop machine… but they’re also undeniable bangers.

When Cora remakes “Way Back Into Love” in her own style, complete with rap breakdown and belly dancing, we’re meant to hate it for – in Alex’s words – “simultaneously destroying two musical cultures in under a minute”. But Cora and Ally’s songs are still incredibly catchy. It takes talent to make music this derivative (or in Cora’s case, culturally appropriative). Reviewing the soundtrack of Music and Lyrics, AllMusic said that: “Rather than just slapping together some pre-existing, heartwarming tunes, the soundtrack features custom-written songs that lovingly send up the sounds of [1980s] and 2000s pop… only a few of the songs feel like obvious parodies – these are the best compliments that you can pay to this kind of project.” The film itself was far less well received, with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw calling it a “very moderate romcom” but singling out the opening PoP! video as a highlight.

Music and Lyrics’ secret weapon was Adam Schlesinger. The songwriter who brought us “Stacey’s Mom” (we are so blessed) was responsible for many of the greatest fake pop songs of all time. “That Thing You Do”, the perfect one-hit-wonder song, is utterly believable – impossibly catchy yet nondescript. It’s the only song on the film’s soundtrack that Schlesinger wrote and it earned an Academy Award nomination. When you wanted a fake hit, this was the man you got. When Schlesinger tragically died of Covid-19 in April 2020, Hanks remembered him as the catalyst for turning Playtone, the fictional production company from That Thing You Do!, into a real one. “There would be no Playtone without Adam Schlesinger, without his ‘That Thing You Do’ He was a One-der,” Hanks tweeted.

With the Schlesinger effect clear, Music and Lyrics invested in him as a songwriter. The musician wrote a number of songs on the soundtrack, from the Eighties power ballads to the mid-Noughties pop bops. Schlesinger had an uncanny ability to jump between genres, a talent he would later prove again on dark musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which ended its four-season run in 2019 with more than 140 original song parodies. The self-loathing anthem “You Stupid B****”? The Cole Porter-inspired “Settle For Me”? Weather Girls parody “Let’s Generalise About Men”? All Schlesinger (along with co-writers Rachel Bloom and Jack Dolgen). “I’m a good chameleon, but it’s dangerous,” he told Songwriting Magazine in 2014. “You don’t just want to do pastiches and that’s it, but I can do them and if someone tells me they want me to do something that sounds like a particular era then I can figure [out] the hallmarks of that style.”

In the mid-2000s, Hugh Grant was still riding the wave of his Richard Curtis romcom-hunk status, but could feel the goodwill wearing out. “I developed a bad attitude from about 2005 onwards, shortly after Music and Lyrics,” he said of the period in 2020. “I just had enough… At that point, it wasn’t me giving up Hollywood. Hollywood gave me up.” But even though it prompted his hiatus, Grant adored Music and Lyrics. “I love to hate the films I’ve been in and I do hate some of them, but Music and Lyrics [is] impossible to hate,” Grant said while appearing on Drew Barrymore’s talk show last year. “We’re so good in it and so charming.” That their friendship has endured is impressive – Grant has said that Barrymore “did hate me a bit” during filming.

While Barrymore has always spoken positively about her co-star, Grant insisted in interviews at the time that he’d been “miscast” as a pop star (has-been or otherwise). But it was those songs that made Music and Lyrics one of the films the actor says he’s “particularly fond of” to this day – just as they’re the thing that have stuck with fans. When Schlesinger died, Grant said that it was “awful” to lose the songwriter. “But what a genius he was.” Schlesinger’s soundtrack not only convinced audiences that PoP! and Cora were living artists, but achieved the rare feat of making Hugh Grant actually like a film he appeared in. Proof, as if it needed it, that Music and Lyrics must have done something right.

Hugh Grant (second from left) with fictional pop group PoP! in the music video for ‘Pop Goes My Heart’

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