Leader of the Band

Director: Nessa Hyams                   
Steve Landesberg, Mercedes Ruehl, Gailard Sartain

Before Steve Landesberg started to whore it by appearing in ads for United Furniture Warehouse, he appeared in well-known productions like TV's Barney Miller, I guess that's about all that he's appeared in that's well-known. Anyway, between Barney Miller and those rent-paying commercials, he appeared in the movie Leader of the Band, a movie by the now-defunct, major studio wannabe Vista. I never recall this appearing in theaters, and Vista's track record was, shall we say, below average in quality. And Landesberg has never struck me as a funny actor. Plus, the premise of the movie - a unemployed musician whipping into shape a band of bad junior high school students seemed both clichéd and lacking in material for laughs. So I sat down to watch this movie with a heavy heart, thinking I was in for 90 minutes of sheer torture. But guess what? I was right. Leader of the Band is so dead, that it can't even build itself up to use clichés! The only possible value this movie has is to explain why Vista went under.

From the start, the movie shows off its moroness (if that word has not been used before, I claim here the authorship of this new word): Landesberg, playing Eddie Layton (described as "one cool cat" on the back of the video box), is a struggling musician playing the piano at a redneck club. He sings, "I hate the North / I hate the dog s**t and the crime / They'll cut you up for just a dime / So for the time / I have the mind / To stay down South." A minute later, he's fired by the club's manager, so he gets revenge by singing one last song, entitled "I Hate The South". After he's finished, the clientele pick up their pitchforks and shotguns and chase him out the door. Nothing like reliable redneck humor to get those laughs, huh?

Unemployed, Eddie later watches the news on TV, seeing coverage of the Olmstead High School marching band, a band so inept that it drives the bandleader into a kind of instant insanity that you only see in the most goofy comedies. Smelling a job opening, Eddie goes to the high school and gets the band leader position. The band's in very bad shape, with some students playing the wrong song, and of course they all collide and fall down at one point, har har. (Actually, the students fall down just before they collide with their bandmates.) Of course, there are colorful characters, such as two overweight identical twins who play the tuba, a make-out king, and a bully with the colorful name "Mad Dog". But as I said before, the movie doesn't even have the energy to use these clichés - these characters appear once or twice in the movie, and never have any kind of focus again. And of course, there's a love interest for Eddie in the movie from the school's French teacher, though their scenes are so hopeless, we never see the attraction between these characters or even the outcome of the relationship after the trials ahead. And I'm sure you've guessed what probably happens next in the movie. Does Eddie get the kids to like him? Do the kids do something to a rival school that is insanely blamed on Eddie? Does Eddie get fired? Do the kids run to his place to support him, and ask him back? Does Eddie plan to get the kids in the national competition anyway, despite what the school says?

Landesberg is working with some thin (to put it kindly) material here, so he can't really be blamed for this fiasco. On the other hand, he gives an incredibly bizarre performance, not just hearing him sing on several occasions but also given some monologues that are so weird, we wonder about his mental health. His conversations with other people aren't much better. Here's a typical conversation:

Eddie: When I was a kid I used to make the big kids laugh so I wouldn't be knocked unconscious.
French Teacher: Can't imagine anyone wanting to hit you.
Eddie: Well, that's what I kept saying, but I spent most of my childhood unconscious.
French Teacher: Oh dear
Eddie: Yeah
French Teacher: Must be great to be conscious now.
Eddie: Much better, yes.

You may have noticed in the list of questions, I didn't include the question, "Does the band win at the big competition?" Well, the band (which has magically tripled in size) does perform at the competition, but we never know the official decision of the judges. However, Eddie is carried on the shoulders of the band members as fireworks pop in the background, so that might be a clue. But this lack of detail is typical of the laziness of Leader of the Band; the movie isn't even good enough to clean up behind the many many previous marchers of this formula.

UPDATE: Frank Steele sent this along:

"I saw your review of the Steve Landesberg masterpiece Leader Of The Band, and thought you might like a little more background about the movie.

"Both the bands in the movie were played by my high school band, from Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga. (that explains why the band is twice as big at the end). I graduated in 1985, but my sister was in the band, and in the movie, and my mother chaperoned during the shoot,
which was in late 1986. Lassiter had about 300 students in the band at the time, so it could easily split into two units for the rival bands.

"Mad Dog" was a pivotal part in the movie, of course, so instead of taking a chance with a "proven actor", the makers decided to cast an unknown from the band in the role. IMDB mistakenly credits "Jess Sisk"; his name is "Jeff Sisk". Another student, Robert Morsch, is credited as "Mascot"; I don't remember that part in the movie, but I remember Bobby and his father, who was himself a college band director.

"One of the least low points of the movie is the big mooning scene, required in late-80s teen comedies, but the Cobb County Board of Education refused to allow the band members to flash their derrieres, no matter how briefly, and the producers came up with the "underwear with smiley faces" you see in the film.

"The marching scenes were filmed overnight at Grady High School in Atlanta, right across from Piedmont Park.

"David Picker, who became a studio head (at Columbia Pictures) soon after, produced or executive produced the film, and was on site for much of the filming. He also produced most of the early Steve Martin movies, including The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

"Lassiter marched in the Tournament of Roses parade in January 1988, and I went out for the parade, and we saw a newspaper ad for the movie in L.A., so it may have had a (very) limitedtheatrical release, possibly just to make it Oscar-eligible :-).

"Speaking of which, Mercedes Ruehl won her Oscar the year after
Leader Of The Band for Married to the Mob."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Secret Agent Club, The Rivals, Slaughter High