In This Is 40, Paul Rudd's character tries to revive an aging rock legend's career. That's not far off from how the film itself came together.
In the mid-1970s, rock and roll was bloated. Led Zeppelin and their many imitators were singing about mystical dragons. Bands like Yes and Rush indulged symphonic pretensions. The charts were ruled by the hyper-polished Southern California fusions we now call yacht rock.
Graham Parker wanted to change that. He and a cohort of like-minded Brits championed Chuck Berry and Elvis, Stax and Motown, and worshiped rock's original holy trinity of three chords played for three minutes with three verses and chorus. It was fast, loud, stripped-down R&B, filtered through the willfully nasal rage of working class Britain in the depths of a Thatcher-era malaise. The critics called it "pub rock," and it was the first post-Baby Boomer rock, with sound and sensibility that would spawn genres from punk to grunge.
Many of the pioneers became legends. Joe Strummer left a band called The 101'ers to form The Clash. Nick Lowe, house producer for Stiff Records, emerged as an impeccable crooner. Elvis Costello, supposedly signed to Columbia Records because he sounded like Graham Parker, built a Hall of Fame career. Parker cultivated a loyal following with a stream of near-classic and classic records, including the masterful "Squeezing Out Sparks" in 1979, and earned a reputation for explosive live shows. Yet he never quite won the same recognition as many of his peers.
That all might change on Friday with the release of Judd Apatow's new comedy, This Is 40. In the "sort-of sequel to Knocked up" Parker plays an exaggerated version of himself. Paul Rudd, the owner of an independent record label, wants Parker to reunite with his original band The Rumour.
The role is unprecedented exposure for Parker, certainly, but also represents a fairly bizarre case of art imitating life. Or, possibly, a case of life imitating art. When Judd Apatow is involved, it can be very hard to tell the difference.
Much of This is 40, is based on Apatow's own life. Like his marriage to Leslie Mann, who plays Rudd's wife in the film. Or like how Rudd owns a small record company and Apatow grew up in the music business. His grandfather was Bob Shad, a producer for the likes of Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan who founded Mainstream Records.
Also like Rudd's character, Apatow is a devoted Parker fan. "I've got an affinity for guys like Graham who don't care about adjusting for others," he told me. "There are those people out there who only want to follow their own instincts. And it's okay if they don't sell as much as Ke$ha."
At the start of his career, in fact, Apatow thought he might be one of those kind of artists with only a cult-sized appeal.
"Back when we did Freaks and Geeks we had a very small audience that was very loyal," he say. "I just sort of figured that's the way my career would go. That we would have this niche audience, and that would have to be okay."
But it didn't turn out that way. Apatow has written, directed or produced virtually every hit comedy in the last decade that doesn't have Tyler Perry's name in the title. He is the definitive comic voice of his era, like Woody Allen was in the '70s or John Hughes in the '80s. Or, more accurately, like Preston Sturges in Hollywood's golden age. Both Sturges and Apatow make fundamentally sweet comedies set in contemporary America, mixing whip-smart dialogue with screwball antics. Both directors are mostly interested in relationships and sex roles. Both have strong female characters, often written to be smarter than their male counterparts on screen.
Sturges also had a brilliant eye for finding unconventional talent, and often cast from the same coterie of quirky actors to makes his films feel textured, like a world of their own.
Apatow too has made stars from some unlikely candidates. It takes a sharp eye for talent to look at teenage version of Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen and see box-office gold. He has also created a film world so real it has its own nickname: "Apatown." (The folks at College Humor sing an ode to it.)
Judd has invited lots of musicians to Apatown before Parker. Michael Penn scores the much-praised HBO series Girls, for which Apatow is executive producer. Longtime favorite Loudon Wainwright III scored Knocked Up.
"That's my favorite part of the process: Where you get to share what you feel passionate about," Apatow said. "You get to this point in the writing where you start to go 'Now who could we get?'"
Sometimes he even lets the musicians act. Wainwright played the annoying dad in Apatow's short-lived sitcom, Undeclared.
Now, in This Is 40, Parker gets his turn.
Throughout the 2000s, he kept making records and developed his literary bent, publishing an illustrated novella, a collection of short stories, and a full-length novel. Much of that time, Parker was also the subject of a film project by documentarian Michael Gramaglia, but it stalled for lack of cash.
In early 2011, though, the project found new life after a Kickstarter campaign drew overwhelming support. Inspired by the outpouring, Parker found himself writing new songs. To record them, for the first time in more than 30 years, he reunited all five original members of The Rumour. Just a few weeks later, weirdly, Apatow got in touch to ask if Parker would be interested reuniting The Rumour on film.
It gets weirder. About the same time as the Kickstarter took off, Graham also got a new deal on his music publishing rights. Announcing it on his website, Parker wrote that he wished his songs were used in movies more often. Then he jokingly added, "Where are you Judd Apatow?"
Apatow, as it turned out, was already looking to cast a semi-retired rock star for Rudd to badger on film. A friend showed him Parker's post, and Apatow took it as a sign. The results can be seen in theaters Friday. They can also be heard in Parker's new album, Three Chords Good, and as he tours with The Rumour in 2013.
"For me it's like a Hollywood ending," the 62-year-old Parker said. He sounded almost disbelieving describing it. "It's quite incredible how everything has come together: the album, the band. Judd's film, now the tour. The whole thing feels like a movie."