The Amazon Prime miniseries culminates a bold attempt at portraying a fictional band across literature, TV & recorded music
*The following article contains spoilers of ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ and other films and TV shows
When the miniseries Daisy Jones & The Six debuts on Amazon Prime tomorrow, it will accomplish a unique feat in entertainment history. As far as I know, it will become the first media property ever to portray a fictional band in a novel, followed by a film/TV adaptation and a full album of the band’s songs.
It’s an audacious experiment that’s going to be interesting to watch unfold in the coming weeks. For those unfamiliar with the Daisy Jones entertainment sphere, allow me to catch you up. Daisy Jones & The Six is a 2019 novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid that traces the stratospheric rise and inevitable crash-and-burn of an enormously popular ’70s rock band, and the turbulent relationship between its two songwriters and front-persons Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones. The story is told through a series of interviews with the band members decades after their break-up. It’s a full-blown oral history, and reads like an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. If this story sounds a bit familiar, Reid was heavily inspired by the plight of Fleetwood Mac, and the superficial similarities between that band and Daisy Jones & The Six are endless.
The novel was destined for success well before it’d even been published. Through Reid’s manager, a manuscript for Daisy Jones managed to land in the hands of Reese Witherspoon and her production company Hello Sunshine. In recent years, Witherspoon has morphed into a bit of a tastemaker in the literary world thanks to her Oprah-like “Reese’s Book Club,” in addition to several book-to-screen adaptations that Hello Sunshine has spearheaded. Some of those novels and their adaptations (Gone Girl, Big Little Lies) have been better than others (Where The Crawdads Sing), but nonetheless, whenever Witherspoon singles out a book, it’s going to become massively popular. Eventually, Hello Sunshine bought up the rights to Daisy Jones & The Six, and almost immediately after, the project sold to Amazon Prime. When the novel finally debuted, Witherspoon awarded it the much-coveted Book Club pick, and it skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list to mostly critical acclaim.
Adapting a book-to-screen is a tough task on its own, but here, the filmmakers really had their work cut out for them. Not only did they have to adapt the story, but also the band itself; the look of the band, their sound, their album cover, photo shoots, and especially the songs – some of which are described in vivid detail in the book. The result will underscore the difficulty of portraying a fictional band across three different mediums (literature, TV, recorded music).
According to my research, this has only been done once in the novel-to-screen pipeline. In Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity (and its 2000 John Cusack-starring film adaptation), the main character’s best friend plays in a band called Sonic Death Monkey. But this is a minor C-storyline in the plot, which mostly centers on the protagonist’s midlife-romantic crisis. And in the film, the Jack Black-fronted Sonic Death Monkey don’t perform any original songs; during the climax, they instead perform a sexualized Marvin Gaye cover called “Let’s Get It On.” Still, that track does appear on the High Fidelity soundtrack, completing the three-pronged medium approach.
However, when you consider the medium of comic books and graphic novels, you get a lot more results. The most notable cases of fictional bands portrayed from comic-to-screen actually come out of the Archie/Riverdale universe. Starting in the late ’60s run of Archie comics, Archie and his pals Betty, Jughead, Veronica, and Reggie all form a band together called The Archies. Later, the band appears in the cartoon TV series The Archie Show, with the show’s musical collaborators even crafting for them a golden original track to perform – the classic, inescapable 1969 hit “Sugar Sugar” (which would go on to reach #1 on the Billboard singles chart). Of course, from that same universe, you’ve got Josie & The Pussycats.
Josie & The Pussycats – the Riverdale-based all-girl pop rock band – are probably the most prolific fictional band in entertainment history in that they’ve existed for 60 years across various media. They originally debuted in the Archie comic books in 1963 before later appearing in The Archie Show, followed by a ’70s spinoff cartoon series, a 2000 cult-live action film, and most recently in The CW’s Riverdale. Each iteration of the band has “released” original music along the way (more on that later). However, the music of Josie & The Pussycats (and The Archies) is rarely a focal point in these stories, and more a stylistic backdrop for the cartoon’s silly Scooby Doo-like misadventures, or in the case of Riverdale, histrionic teenage melodrama.
Another fictional band in the comic-to-screen pipeline is Sex Bob-Omb from the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series and its 2010 Edgar Wright-directed film adaptation. That film features several original songs written and recorded for the band, and the music is key to the action – utilized as sensory vehicles for Scott Pilgrim’s highly fantastical, videogame-like battles against his crush Ramona Flowers’ many villainous exes. The songs on the soundtrack all slap in that crusty DIY alt-punk way, but compared to Daisy Jones & The Six, Sex Bob-Omb hardly feels like a real band.
Countless fictional bands have been concocted throughout the history of cinema and music, but rarely do they touch three different artistic mediums. And when they do, typically they originate onscreen before crossing over into comic, novel or theatre spinoffs. For instance, The Banana Splits were a fictional rock band of costumed animal characters who starred in their own Hanna Barbara variety show. In addition to their original children’s tunes, which they performed across 31 episodes that aired from 1968 to 1970, the Banana Splits’ shenanigans also appeared in a handful of spin-off books and comics also geared towards kids.
There are other more minor examples in this vein, including The Blues Brothers, who spun off into a brief comic run documenting their musical misadventures following the hit 1980 John Landis film. There’s also the Star Wars Cantina band, otherwise known as the Modal Nodes, whose iconically silly jazz number from the first Star Wars film (performed in real life by composer Meda) spent multiple weeks at number 1 on the Billboard chart and even received its own vinyl release. In the Star Wars extended universe, the Modal Nodes are regarded as a huge touring band, and they appear in several non-cannon spinoff novels. And then there’s also the rare film-to-theatre pipeline, of which the School Of Rock band can be considered alums.
The most visible recent example of a three-tiered multimedia fictional band is definitely Dethklok, the melodic death metal group and protagonists of the cult classic Adult Swim animated series Metalocalypse. The show is as much a sardonic sitcom as it is a musical parody, with Dethklok’s highly satirical lyricism and over-the-top instrumental carnage soundtracking wacky plots from episode-to-episode. Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha, the musicians and showrunners behind Metalocalypse, even formed a real-life band to record and tour the fake band’s music. Dethklok have also appeared in spinoff comics, and they’ve “released” three full-lengths albums of original material. For this reason, Dethklok feels like one of the most “real” fictional bands, this despite Metalocalypse‘s highly stylized, fantastical vibe.
The most difficult aspect of portraying a fictional band onscreen is coming up with the music. This will be especially true for the Daisy Jones miniseries (more on that later). In general, there are mostly two ways to go about it. You can either strive for painstaking authenticity, or you can go in a completely opposite slapstick direction. Either way, for a fictional band to really pop onscreen, it is crucial that the film or TV show’s visual and thematic elements are in lockstep with the music.
Some of the best and most iconic fictional bands or musicians come from musical parody films: This Is Spinal Tap, CB4, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. There’s nothing really real-world authentic about Spinal Tap’s music. In no reality would tracks like “Big Bottom” or “Stonehenge” be hit songs, but they don’t have to be. They’re over-the-top, satirical gimmick tunes that recall and mock the misogyny and self-seriousness inherent in the ’80s hard rock and hair metal scenes. On one song in Popstar, Connor4real – the pop superstar played by Andy Samberg – sings about wanting to fuck somebody “harder than the U.S. government fucked Bin Laden.” No real life pop star would be caught dead making a song like this. But like the film, it’s ridiculous, silly, clever, and it aggressively skewers the cringey, maximal, sexualized pop landscape of the 2010s. The same effect takes hold in the 1993 Chris Rock vehicle CB4, a Spinal Tap-like mockumentary that parodies the late ’80s-early ’90s NWA-gangsta rap craze. In films or shows like these, the songs don’t necessarily have to stand on their own merits, they just have to fit with the context and the tone. That’s what makes those fictional artists memorable. Bonus points to the actors in these films who actually do perform the songs, including Chris Rock, who raps admirably on the outrageous CB4 track “Sweat From My Balls.”
At the other end of the spectrum, you can strive for dramatic authenticity, which is what Daisy Jones & The Six does. At least on the surface, a film that I would consider to be a spiritual sibling to Daisy Jones is That Thing You Do!, the 1996 Tom Hanks-directed comedy-drama that traces the fictional rise and fall of the The Wonders, a ’60s one-hit wonder pop rock band. Adam Schlesinger, the power pop purveyor and mastermind behind Fountains Of Wayne, crafted all the original songs for The Wonders, including the title hit “That Thing You Do!”. Schlesinger was a musical genius, and with these Wonders tracks (which all appear on the soundtrack), he expertly recreated the sounds of the era, helping to conjure a fictional band that feels stunningly authentic (strong Franki Valli and Kingsmen vibes). The film does an especially wonderful job of incorporating these songs into the narrative, and ultimately, “That Thing You Do!” sounds exactly like the kind of song that would score a ’60s band their one and only hit.
Another excellent example of authenticity in a film about a fictional artist is the 2005 Craig Brewer-directed drama Hustle & Flow. That film tells the story of DJay (played by Terrence Howard in a brilliant star-making performance), a struggling Memphis pimp who finally attempts to chase his dreams of rap stardom from the ground up. In one particularly riveting scene, DJay and his producers – played by Anthony Anderson and DJ Qualls – workshop a new song called “Whoop That Trick.” It’s a stunning scene with a gritty, sweaty realness to it that perfectly encapsulates the infectious DIY vibe that comes with scrapping hard and creating art in real time. The track itself is a snarling behemoth with one of the greatest trap beats you’ll ever hear. Forget “Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” the sappy rap ballad that won the Oscar for Best Original Song. “Whoop That Trick” is one of the most legitimate tracks by a fictional artist in any film, and exactly the sort of banger that a Memphis rapper would blow up with. The filmmakers understood this perfectly, and at the end of the movie, that’s exactly what happens – as DJay gets out of prison and discovers that “Whoop That Trick” has become a radio smash. The fact that Howard actually raps all of his parts adds yet another layer of authenticity.
Of course, the music of a fictional band or artist doesn’t always have to be great – not if the film doesn’t demand it. In the 1993 screwball comedy Airheads, The Lone Rangers (“how can you pluralize The Lone Ranger?”) – played by Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler – come across as derivative meathead hacks in the Sunset Strip rock scene. Thus, their “hit” track “Degenerated” plays out exactly like that: an average, by-the-numbers punk/hard rock radio single.
In Almost Famous – another film I’d consider to be a spiritual sibling to Daisy Jones – there’s a bit of debate as to whether the band Stillwater is actually good. Initially, the main character William (played by Patrick Fugit) worships them and thinks they’re “incendiary.” His rock critic mentor, the very real journalist Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t seem to think too highly of them. As the film progresses, the members of Stillwater increasingly come off as buffoons. The music composed for the band (Heart’s Nancy Wilson pulled the most weight) seems to nail this dichotomy perfectly. They’re “a mid-level band coming to terms with their limitations in the harsh face of stardom,” and the mixed-bag quality of their music reflects this. “Love Comes and Goes” is probably their best track, a well-written and bona fide midway point between Allman Brothers and Black Sabbath. The band’s signature “hit” though, “Fever Dog,” is dumb, bombastic, and perfectly representative of a run-of-the-mill ’70s rock band on the rise. Ultimately, nobody remembers Stillwater’s music from Almost Famous. They remember “Tiny Dancer.” Whatever the story calls for, the music just has to align with the narrative.
There are, however, a couple exceptions, and for the better. As referenced earlier, the live action movie version of Josie & The Pussycats is bright, slapdash, and channels the whimsical, cartoonish spirit of the comics and animated series. It’s also a covert parody of the fake, plastic, commercialized mainstream music machine circa Y2K-era MTV. And yet, somehow, the actual songs by Josie & The Pussycats in the film are straight fire. In real life, the ’90s alt rock band Letters To Cleo had a few moments in the spotlight, but they mostly remain a deeply underrated group. Cleo frontwoman Kay Hanley wrote and recorded all the Josie & The Pussycats songs, and they’re straight-up some of the best and most realistic songs ever created for a fictional band. Given the tone of the film, they have no business being as good as they are, and yet, they’re all immaculate bangers that totally would’ve launched a real-world all-girl bubblegum pop punk band to chart-topping, Warped Tour-playing TRL fame at the time. Simply put, Kay Hanley is a genius for that. The Riverdale version of the band simply stood no chance.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a weird fucking movie. Written by Roger Ebert, directed by Russ Meyer, and released in 1970, the film tells the melodramatic story of all-girl rock trio The Carrie Nations, their rapid rise to fame, and their descent into sex, drugs, and mass murder mayhem. It’s an endlessly campy, oftentimes hilarious, so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure flick with dialogue so insane and acting so bad it gives The Room a run for its money. On the other hand, the film was intended to be an over-the-top parody of the nighttime soap opera Valley of the Dolls; thus, there’s a deliciously self-aware, satirical charm to the film that’s helped turn it into cult classic. And yet, in this cinematic canvas where not a single character acts like a real person, everything about the music rings true to life. Everything from The Carrie Nations’ career trajectory, to their Svengali manager-producer Z-Man, to the songs themselves, feels strangely spot-on. Music producer Stu Phillips helped compose all The Carrie Nations’ music for the film, which features bravura vocal performances from singer Lynn Carrey. In particular, the songs “Find It,” “Sweet Talkin’ Candyman,” and “Look On Up At The Bottom” are fiery garage-tinged psychedelic rock rippers that would’ve launched any ’60s-’70s all-girl rock group to superstardom. In attempting to satirize the hellacious, cartoonish plight of a famous rock band in seedy Los Angeles, the masterminds behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls accidentally created a legendary fictional rock band that sounds very, very real. It doesn’t exactly match the tone of the film, but I’m here for it. I listen to The Carrie Nations all the time – so much so that I even once flirted with writing a pilot for a modern TV series remake.
Ultimately though, in any film or show that strives for authenticity, if the fictional band is regarded in any particular way, then the music has to back that up. Which is why the musical powers behind Daisy Jones & The Six have a Herculean task ahead of them. In the book, the band’s breakthrough album Aurora is described as a Rumours-style generational hit:
“Aurora was romantic and brooding and heartbreaking and volatile all at once. In the age of arena rock, Daisy Jones & The Six managed to create something that felt intimate even though it could still play to a stadium. They had the impenetrable drums and the searing solos—they had songs that felt relentless in the best way possible. But the album also felt up close and personal. Billy and Daisy felt like they were right next to you, singing just to each other.
And it was deeply layered. That was the biggest thing Aurora had going for it. It sounds like a good-time album when you first listen to it. It’s an album you can play at a party. It’s an album you get high to. It’s an album you can play as you’re speeding down the highway.
But then you listen to the lyrics and you realize this is an album you can cry to. And it’s an album you can get laid to.
For every moment of your life, in 1978, Aurora could play in the background.
And from the moment it was released, it was a juggernaut.”
This presents quite an obstacle, since Rumours was a once-in-a-lifetime record, a cultural phenomenon, and an album that made Fleetwood Mac into one of the biggest and most iconic bands of all time. I don’t think anyone, including myself, can expect Blake Mills and his collaborators (Marcus Mumford, Phoebe Bridgers, and others) to come up with an album that good – or especially one that you could envision making such an impact in the ’70s time period that the story takes place. Based on the two very solid Aurora tracks released so far – “Look At Us Now (Honeycomb)” and “Regret Me” – I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll at least be passable, especially when you add in some cinematic suspension-of-disbelief. On the other hand, reception to the two tracks has been…mixed. Book fans can be harshly critical of screen adaptations. On top of all the other aspects of adaptation that readers will inevitably decry, fans have formed distinct visions of what the band Daisy Jones & The Six should sound like. No matter what Blake Mills and company cook up, not everyone will be fully satisfied, and that’s just another complicated angle in this particular book-to-screen adaptation.
Besides the songs, to the filmmakers’ credit, they’ve done everything right in trying to sell Daisy Jones & The Six as the band readers know and love from the book. The casting is perfect; Riley Keough and Sam Claflin are exactly how I pictured Daisy and Billy, respectively. The Aurora album cover looks almost identical to how it’s described in the book. And the band’s nervy desert photoshoot, in which Daisy and Billy stand as far apart as possible, looks like it’s been recreated verbatim. And to make it all seem as grounded as possible, Keough, Claflin, and the other actors who make up The Six (Suki Waterhouse as Karen, Will Harrison as Graham, Sebastian Chacon as Warren, and Josh Whitehouse as Eddie) all learned to play their instruments and perform together as a real-life band. Thus, the songs that you’ll hear on Aurora are all them. All of this is fairly impressive.
Music aside, the storytelling of the Daisy Jones & The Six series is gonna have to pull off a bit of high-wire act if it wants to be successful. The book is one big clinic in unreliable narration, with so much left open to interpretation. Characters have very real reasons to not to tell the full truth, especially once the reader finds out who it is that’s interviewing them. Their versions of events frequently contradict one another, from disagreements over the inspiration behind specific songs to whether or not they named themselves The Six because it sounds like “The Sex.” As the author’s note dictates, “the truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.” For book readers, it will be tantalizing to see which “middles” the storytellers go with, and how they will inform the musical journey of Daisy Jones & The Six.
We’ve never really had a fictional band that’s been developed on so many levels, and in a way that feels so singular and central the plot. When the miniseries debuts tomorrow on Amazon Prime – simultaneously with the digital and physical release of Aurora – it will culminate a bold multimedia experiment, whether it ends up being good or bad or somewhere in between. Whatever happens, consider me very intrigued.
‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ debuts on Amazon Prime on Friday, March 3. ‘Aurora’ drops the same day via Atlantic Records. You can purchase the vinyl HERE.