Kevin Sampson: How my fictional band the Grams came to play V festival

Why is it so hard to capture the energy of rock'n'roll on film? That's what Powder writer Kevin Sampson asked himself as he watched the Grams take to the stage

A crowd of some 50,000 edged forward with mild irritation as the Grams took to the stage. The lad next to me nudged his pal, their faces set in that certain way that has become ritual at music festivals over the years.

"Here come the whipping boys," said those faces. "Get the bottles of wee-wee ready."

It was quite some journey that had taken the Grams to this top-end-of-the-bill slot at the V Festival. Paolo Nutini had just finished, the Enemy were on next, with Oasis due to play what turned out to be their last-ever show later that night. So what were a band that doesn't actually exist doing up there on stage?

The Grams made their debut in my novel Powder some years ago – but now the cats behind Awaydays were making a movie out of the book. That's what the Grams were doing, edging on to the gargantuan 4Music stage. As lead singer Keva McCluskey (Liam Boyle) hesitated, I clocked the film crew's cameras and found myself pondering a slightly different riddle. Namely: why do directors keep trying to make The Ultimate Rock'n'roll Movie?

I mean, it's asking for it, isn't it? Unless they're comedies (Spinal Tap) or hip little flicks about cult heroes (Telstar), movies about bands are always stinkers. Cinema's list of band-themed turkeys rolls off the tongue like a sickly jello shot. Velvet Goldmine; Across The Universe; Almost Famous; Nowhere Boy; Breaking Glass; Once; Still Crazy. They're all pretty shit. Even revered directors like Oliver Stone (The Doors) and Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) have fouled up majestically when it comes to guitars and leather trews.

So I was jittery when Working Title approached me about a film version of Powder, and strangely relieved once we'd talked one another out of the madness of attempting an adaptation. That was the first of literally dozens of meetings with producers, directors, TV companies and film studios, most of which ended up with a familiar conclusion: "Rock'n'roll movies. Tricky blighters. Best not, on the whole, what-what?"

How do you entice an audience into a demi-monde of band intrigue if the soundtrack doesn't transport them like a real band would?

Grams crowd
Photograph: PR

Generally, we'd end up agreeing on two principles. Firstly, if the film had hopes of being a faithful retelling of a real band's story, you were pretty much doomed to the opprobrium of fans. "Fercryingoutloud, man! He didn't dance/lisp/snog/snort/die like that!!" Even the very best of the bunch – Closer, The Buddy Holly Story and Walk The Line – still manage to divide acolytes.

The other stumbling block we'd hit was the fuel that drives any credible music picture: the music bit. How do you entice an audience into a demi-monde of real-band intrigue if the soundtrack doesn't transport them like a real band would?

That's where Simon Moran came into the equation. His company, SJM Concerts, stages the V Festival, and it was SJ Moran himself who suggested filming the movie in and around the festival site. His fiendish ruse was that, in the dead time between one band finishing and the next taking the stage, we could shoot the Grams' performance, then cut it to the unhinged bacchanalia of the Oasis crowd.

Thus began a long weekend. The previously angelic cast got into character the moment the tour bus juddered across the V site's threshold. This was the day before the festival proper opened for business, but night one in Stafford turned into a bender of mythical proportions as co-star Alfie Allen led seasoned professionals astray. Given there was no pub for five miles, no transport to get them there, and the only liquor on site was the communion wine in the chapel, the pallid faces in Powder's opening scenes bear testament to the younger Allen's powers of persuasion, transubstantiation, or both.

But this was nothing compared to sending the band into the seething cauldron of the 4Music Stage. And even though I knew this was far from being 4Real; even though I knew we had cameras everywhere to capture the sweat, the pumping fists, and the magisterial epiphany of a band taking its crowd to a higher plane, the truth was that I knew festival crowds. When faced with a band they don't like or know, a festival crowd throws bottles of wee. It's in the rules.

In this business of make-believe, the looks of naked terror you'll see when the Grams grace your local cineplex are all too real

Grams powder v
Photograph: PR

I gave the lads next to me another glance.

"Who are these twats?" whined one. Before his mates could confirm their indifference, the crowd asked the question again – in unison.

"Who the fuck? Who the fuck? Who the fuckin' hell are you?!" they chanted. I could see the colour drain from Boyle's face. "Come on, the Grams!" I murmured to myself. "Be amazing! Then they'll see …"

But they didn't. They saw red instead. And as for the Grams, all they saw was yellow as a volley of bottles rained down on their heads – and to think the hair and makeup team had spent time spraying their faces to make them look sweaty and adrenaline-scared.

In this business of make-believe, the looks of naked terror you'll see when the Grams grace your local cineplex are all too real. Director Mark Elliott's alchemy in capturing the euphoria of a massive festival congregation going off on one is some of the most moving live music footage you'll see anywhere. But as I stood hypnotised as one projectile exploded at Elliott's feet, I had to ask again: why are film-makers so fixated on making The Ultimate Rock'n'roll Movie?

"Because it's there!" grinned Mark.


Kevin Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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