While much is being made of pop stars Beyoncé and Mos Def portraying music icons Etta James and Chuck Berry in the movie Cadillac Records, several San Diego artists have also had stints impersonating hit-makers of the ’50s and ’60s.
In 1989, Mojo Nixon made his film debut in Great Balls of Fire, portraying James Van Eaton, drummer with Jerry Lee Lewis (played by Dennis Quaid) and other ’50s-era Sun Records artists. Nixon, a proficient drummer, spent several weeks studying vintage TV clips and changed his drumming style to match that of Van Eaton. However, as it turned out, the skills of Nixon and movie bandmates John Doe and Jimmie Vaughan were never utilized. The actors mimed Lewis’s original Sun Records recordings.
A decade later, blink-182’s Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus portrayed ’60s surf duo Jan and Dean in the 1999 CBS-TV mini-series Shake, Rattle & Roll. Their musical input in the program was minimal, singing a bit of “Dead Man’s Curve” in a scene set around a publisher’s piano.
In 2004, Jason Mraz portrayed Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts fame on NBC-TV’s teen drama American Dreams. Set in the ’60s and based around Dick Clark’s music-TV show American Bandstand, the plotline included Mraz as a guest on the show crooning his own take of DiMucci’s “Ruby Baby.”
Only one local group has been re-created for cinematic purposes — Rosie and the Originals. The part of Rosie Hamlin was played by Jeanette Jurado of vocal trio Exposé. Jurado and actors playing the band sang Rosie and the Originals’ lone hit, 1962’s “Angel Baby,” during a scene of an early ’60s teen dance in the 1995 film My Family.
According to Nixon, attention to detail in Great Balls of Fire was important to his role, but only to a point. “Van Eaton told me he used to put his wallet on his tom drum to deaden the sound. When I did it for a scene, the producer told me not to bother, since you probably couldn’t see it on the screen anyway.”
Nixon spent a month in London and three months in Memphis working on the film and cites his time between takes as the most exciting. Although the band was miming, the equipment was real, so the musicians would jam whenever the cameras weren’t rolling. The ad hoc band even managed to squeeze in a few gigs. “We were staying a block off Beale Street, so we went and borrowed equipment from one of the bands playing in a bar there. The crowd wouldn’t let us pay for our drinks, and we got to play rock ’n’ roll where it all started. Does it get any better?”
Though Nixon is now semiretired from music and concentrates on his Sirius Radio show, The Loon in the Afternoon, if the opportunity arose, he would jump at the chance to play ’50s rocker J.P. Richardson — the Big Bopper. The singer of 1958 hit “Chantilly Lace” died in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and has been portrayed in several films, including The Day the Music Died, due February 3. Nixon considers his own booming voice and larger-than-life personality a perfect fit for the part. “That’s a role I was born to play,” he laughs.