From The Monkees to The Get Down: how music and TV try to stay in tune

Perhaps trying to court a younger demographic, TV networks are putting their muscle behind music drama – a trend that started back in the 1960s. But it takes a precarious mix of fame, talent and stellar songwriting to make these shows work

In television drama, rock’n’roll is the new rock’n’roll. When The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s eagerly awaited series set around a revolution of new sounds (hip-hop, punk and disco) in 1970s New York, drops its first six episodes on Netflix tomorrow, it thickens a back-catalogue of shows about the music industry that has recently included Empire, Vinyl and Nashville.

This lengthening playlist is surprising because successful music-based fiction has proved to be one of the hardest forms to achieve, as shown by the cancellation of Vinyl after one series, despite having had both Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese among its creative team.

Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana.
Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. Photograph: Imagenet

Pitching hopefuls will always quote The Monkees (1966-68), which resulted in an imagined hit band becoming an actual one. Because the potential rewards of doing Monkee business again would be so great, the fevered dream of TV executives for five decades has been to repeat the trick, although the returns have been diminishing. The Partridge Family (1970-74), a dom-com about a performing clan, turned David Cassidy into the only pop star able to give Donny Osmond a run for the pocket money of teenage girls. In a somewhat similar way, Miley Cyrus was launched by the teen series Hannah Montana (2006-11) – she gave her music career energy by rebelling against Hannah’s squeaky-clean perkiness.

A central creative question in any musical fiction is what material the characters should sing. Just as dramas about football generally stumble because even the most physically fit actors look as if they would struggle to hold down a place in a park team, a show about a singer will have a credibility problem if a protagonist who is supposed to be a superstar sounds as if they would struggle to break the Top 100.

The two solutions are writing new songs or relying on cover versions. Howard Schumann’s Rock Follies (ITV, 1976-77), a raunchy show about an all-female band, invented their repertoire, and were helped by the fact that one of the actresses, Julie Covington, had a CV that included the initial concept-album recording of Evita. In contrast, John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti (BBC1, 1986), featuring a Scottish rock band from the 1960s, was built around period hits.

Both Rock Follies and Tutti Frutti spawned spinoff albums, and it is a useful rule that if you can’t imagine listening to the tunes in isolation from the series, the show is in trouble. The Stone Age, a 1989 BBC sitcom with Trevor Eve as an ageing rock star, foundered partly because of the difficulty in believing that the character could ever have sold enough records to fund the multimillionaire bubble in which he lived.

Even in shows that use real or believably pastiche music, it makes sense for the recording studio to be a sparing location. Empire, for example, draws as much on a reading of King Lear as on back copies of Billboard. Musically, though, Empire took a risk by relying much more on specially written material than either Vinyl or Nashville, which balanced new compositions with covers.

Despite the failure of Vinyl, though, one new music-based drama keeps segueing into the next: The Get Down is joined by Roadies, a new series by Cameron Crowe.

The main reason for so many attempts at such a hit-and-miss target is cross-cultural envy. Because musical demand (if not necessarily purchase) has remained constant among young consumers, while viewing of television among the same demographic has sharply reduced, it’s unsurprising that television should court music fans. Indeed, as most of these shows go out on subscription or streaming services, recording moguls may feel some envy at the visual medium having persuaded people to pay to hear songs.

The cast of Empire.
The cast of Empire. Photograph: James Dimmock/FOX

And, as often in broadcasting, this huddling around a subject is a result of success-chasing within the industry. After the entertainment divisions of broadcasters turned pop karaoke into such a lucrative form – through shows such as The X Factor, Pop Idol and American Idol – drama departments set out to attract the same fanbase, further impelled by promotional and commercial opportunities from tie-in compilations.

Glee, which was also clearly influenced by the popularity in theatre of so-called jukebox musicals led by Mamma Mia, began the trend for dramas in which the soundtrack was effectively a major character. Although the songs are often less central, Empire, Vinyl, Nashville and The Get Down can be seen as post-Glee shows for a more mature viewership.

There have also been inevitable attempts to reverse engineer The Monkees by persuading existing stars to star in TV series. Lack of availability and acting talent were an obstacle to early such ideas – as a compromise, both the Osmonds and the Jackson Five were depicted in cartoons.

It was only with the rise of structured reality TV, such as The Osbournes and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, that the desired level of access to performers could be achieved. If there can’t be a modern Monkees, perhaps the ultimate dream of content providers is that someone might become famous enough through a musical talent show to merit becoming the subject of a reality series – and then finally make the jump to fiction.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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