The Independents — Review and Interview

At the Movies Blog

The Sweet Remains aka The Independents.

A lot of teenagers I’ve talked to recently have said that without going to school, they actually have a lot more homework than they ever had. The teachers they see on Zoom have shorter classes, but give them a lot more work.

As a film critic, it’s a similar situation. We used to go to the movie theatres twice a week, for a film the studio was screening for us. And maybe every few weeks, there’d be an indie movie that would have a link sent to us so we could view it online; or we’d get a DVD sent to us in the mail. Yet with movie theatres closed, now all the big studios are sending their blockbuster films for us to watch at home, and we’re being sent a lot more foreign and indie films as well. I’ve been watching about six movies a week (although it’s a lot more this time of the year, as we have to vote on the films for various awards groups I’m part of).

So when I saw a film come in called The Independents, and saw it was about musicians…I rolled my eyes. That’s probably because I thought of the Descendants, who were a punk band in the ‘70s, and a bully at my school who always wore a dirty T-shirt of that band. It’s weird how a memory from childhood can be so powerful.

When my wife and I sat down to watch this, another childhood memory popped up. I was in a history class in 8th grade and we had a substitute teacher. The regular teacher was tough, always giving us pop quizzes and lots of homework (side note: this is the most I’ve mentioned homework in a movie review, including teen comedies that take place in school). The substitute teacher was telling us that Mr. Hartman didn’t leave an assignment for us, so he was just going to talk movies. He said, “A few nights ago, I saw the most amazing movie, with great special effects. It was called An American Werewolf in London.”

He was so excited and animated talking about this, I was determined to see it. Since the movie was rated R, that didn’t happen until it made it on HBO a year later. Of course, I was blown away. Michael Jackson was so blown away, he used those same make-up artists when he did a video for his album Thriller the following year.

It wasn’t just the special effects that blew me away, though. I loved the charm of the leading actor, David Naughton. I had seen him in Dr. Pepper commercials, but here he was blending humor and horror. This was at a time when movies didn’t combine genres.

So it was great to see another Naughton, David’s nephew, Greg, and his band The Sweet Remains. They made a fictional movie about a band (where they all play the parts). Greg Naughton has a Jackson Browne vibe. Rich Price has a James Taylor vibe. And Brian Chartland has a Dinosaur Jr. vibe. Hey…he can’t be offended by that. I mean, he’s playing the long-haired, creepy hitchhiker they pick up. 

Greg Naughton went from writing songs to writing, directing, and producing this movie. It might seem like an arduous task for a singing keyboardist, but his dad was two-time Tony winner James Naughton. His wife Kelli O’Hara (who is also in this) has also received a Tony. Now, this movie might not win any awards, other than a few small film festivals. That’s not a knock on the picture. It’s a terrific little love letter to struggling musicians. It reminds me of the trilogy of films I’ve loved by John Carney — Once, Sing Street, and Begin Again (Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine). 

This fictional story starts with Rich, a grad student in New York, working on his dissertation. He writes songs in his apartment, which bugs the crap out of an old lady who lives upstairs (she should be glad it’s an acoustic guitar and not an electric, as my first roommate had). Another neighbor (Greg) sometimes stands by the door and listens. They cross paths on campus when Greg is trimming trees, and a branch almost hits him. This leads to them quickly working on songs together. It helps that he has a makeshift studio in his broken down van (which would look awesome, if I didn’t just see the studio Riz Ahmed has in his RV in Sound of Metal). The duo ends up deciding to try their luck at a big folk festival in Ohio. For reasons that would only make sense in a movie, they pick up a long-haired, scraggly hitchhiker. This is Brian, who might not say a lot at first, but he hears them working on their songs, and joins. Now they’re a trio, and nothing can stop them! Well, okay. Lots of things can stop them — a cop (played brilliantly by James Naughton), an unhappy girlfriend, nagging parents, professors that don’t like your thesis, etc.

Of course they’ll play a few places along the way. One of those leads to a great scene, where a hot shot record promoter from L.A. (played by the always brilliant Richard Kind) lines up a showcase for them at the Troubadour. He’s one of those guys that you can picture having a cigar in his mouth while on the phone, yelling at his secretary to “Hold all my calls!”

And just as we all love sports movies where we root for the underdog (even if you know how it’s going to end), you don’t quite know how this is going to end. This film doesn’t follow all the usual tropes, which is nice; although, I did feel it needed a bit more. I would have liked to have seen a few conversations where these guys really connect talking about bands they love, or other life experiences. For example, there’s a humorous scene where Greg talks about keeping his job because of the benefits. The response is, “You get benefits trimming trees?”

A few more of those humorous moments would have made for a better film. Don’t get me wrong — I laughed hysterically at the way a depressed member of the band is downing booze in a Mexican restaurant when Greg comes in. An acknowledgement is made of the mariachi band playing.

“Yeah, they’re pretty good.”

Or when Richard Kind introduces them to a guy from Columbia Records (the label that had big troubadours like Dylan and Springsteen). I won’t spoil that joke, but my wife and I were in tears laughing.

I also thought a bit more could have been done with Price’s character. He is just a bit too much of a sad sack. Now, once stuff started going south for them, I’d be fine with his depressed vibe. I just thought in the early parts of the movie, he should have had a bit more enthusiasm. 

For a small budget picture, the cinematography (Piero Basso) is pleasant and creates a good atmosphere of the coffee houses and lounges where the trio play. You can almost smell the cigarettes and stale beer.

One thing that works nicely is that the songs are great. That’s one of the reasons Once was so enjoyable, too.

These guys sound like a much better version of Crosby, Stills, and Nash…with a dash of James Taylor and John Mayer. Their 3-part harmonies are gorgeous (no Three Dog Night reference intended).

Check out the movie The Independents. The bigger music movie coming out last weekend was the Billie Holiday film (which isn’t nearly as good). And when we can see live concerts again, check out their real-life band — The Sweet Remains

3 ½ stars out of 5.

I was thrilled to be able to talk to the three voices that make up the band The Sweet Remains, and harmonized so beautifully in The Independents, an indie movie that you can catch this weekend. Greg Naughton wrote, directed, and stars…along with his bandmates Rich Price and Brian Chartrand. Here’s what I asked them, and what they said.

JOSH BOARD: I’m a movie critic, but also a hardcore music lover. I enjoyed that your movie tapped into both my loves, and that I enjoyed it on both those levels. It reminded me of Once and even the recent animated Soul (as the main character is a music teacher, who has a nagging mom telling him to stick with teaching). It also reminded me of smaller films I adored, like The Sapphires and Juliet, Naked. What are some of those music type movies you guys liked, and…before doing this film, did you bone up on watching some of those to help decide what direction you wanted to take this fictional story about your band?

GREG NAUGHTON: Well thanks a lot, Josh. Love to hear it. Once was definitely a large influence. Not so much in the writing, but when I had finished the script and we were trying to decide what to do with it; and part of the discussion was to find someone to produce it with actors and all of that. I kept coming back to what I so loved about Once, which was the authenticity of the music. So we ultimately made the great leap of faith to try and do the film ourselves so that we could record as much of the musical moments “live” to camera as possible. Love all the John Carney films [Sing Street, Begin Again], though Once the most. And Crazy Heart [Jeff Bridges] was something I had just seen when writing this, so that had an influence. And loved Soul, but this was done before I got to see that.

JOSH BOARD: Since Soul was mentioned, and the mother wanting her son to stick to teaching in that story…were your parents supportive of your musical pursuits, or did they try to nudge you into “getting a real job”?

RICH PRICE: In the film, my character’s mom keeps pushing him to “get a real job.” I’m lucky that in real life my parents have always been really supportive. Now that I’m a dad…my wife and I have five boys…I’m particularly grateful for their belief. I think I was maybe naive to the long odds, but they were always in my corner.

GREG NAUGHTON: I think we all got lucky with supportive parents. Mine being artists, it was very easy to choose to be an artist. Not always as easy to keep being one. Ha!

JOSH BOARD: Since I’ve brought up other music-related movies, one scene made me think of Spinal Tap. It’s when you’re in the van discussing band names. Hysterical line about all the good names being taken, and bands just having sentences for band names. So, two-part question: How did you come up with the name The Sweet Remains? And why in the world wouldn’t the movie be called The Sweet Remains, to help get the band name out there some more? Also, what other names were you considering for the film? Surely when it came to the initials left from the graffiti on the van, you had a few other names that started with those letters. What were some of those? 

GREG NAUGHTON: Ha! Yeah…the secret to our relative longevity as a band at this point is that we enjoy a similar sense of humor. Lots of Spinal Tap references of course. And we did consider calling the band The Sweet Remains, which would be an apt name thematically. But it felt a little too much like a vanity project at that point. I really wanted the story/film to stand on its own in a way. Also the story really is inspired by the way that we started together, and we started as three very independent-minded solo artists. It took a while for us, I think, to find out how to be a band rather than three “independent” dudes. And we did go by RGB for a good while before we found our name, which was really tipping the hat to the idea that we did all meet at a crossroads in our lives/solo careers. So TSR is sort of the phoenix from the ashes idea.

JOSH BOARD: I love ‘60s and ‘70s bands. My wife hates that I love Harry Chapin and Bread, but hey…I like their stories and voices. One band I detest is Crosby, Stills, Nash (aside from “Our House” and “Wooden Ships”)…yet for obvious reasons, I’m going to mention them in reviewing your film. I’ve often read that musicians hate when people compare them to others. The White Stripes hated being compared to Zeppelin. The Black Crowes hated being compared to other ‘70s rockers; or do you like it, because…after all, nobody is going to compare you guys to a lame band?

BRIAN CHARTRAND: I think it’s actually important, at least in the beginning as bands are forming their sound, to be compared to other acts. It helps the listener put the music in context. We obviously draw heavily from CSN and other harmony driven acts, so in the beginning, I think those comparisons were helpful to increase our following and target our listening demographic.

GREG NAUGHTON: Yeah, we totally love the classic supergroups, too.

JOSH BOARD: Two songwriting questions: Did you guys write any of these songs specifically for the movie, or were they already part of The Sweet Remains repertoire? And, with three voices in the band, that harmonize so beautifully together, how is it when it comes to writing together? Or do you each write separately, and then tweak the songs when you get together?

RICH PRICE: Greg really built the arc of the narrative around songs we had written. In a lot of ways, I think, it inspired the journey. And music and the songs obviously help propel the movie, both with songs that are featured and some of the underscore. One of the benefits of having three songwriters…we have a lot of material to pull from. We released our fourth studio album last year, just as the pandemic shut everything down, so we haven’t had a chance to really tour in support of it. As far as writing goes, we each have pretty different processes. And the muse strikes us at different times. We do sometimes write all together. One of our songs called “Takes Time” is an example. I think Brian and I tend to do more cowriting together, but then again, Greg’s been busy trying to get this movie out into the world.

JOSH BOARD: Movie critics have all kinds of weird quirks with how they view movies. Most of the ones I know refuse to watch trailers for the films, for obvious reasons. Obviously, we’re not seeing these at theatres now. Well, I don’t usually look at the cast or anything before I watch a movie. I like to be pleasantly surprised when I get to say “Oh look, George Wendt!” And also with this movie, awesome — Richard Kind! He’s one of my favorite character actors (loved him in A Serious Man and Auggie from last year). How thrilled were you to get him in this? And, I’d have to hazard a guess as to say, writing his dialogue was your favorite bit to write for this film. There’s something about listening to BS record label guys prattle on trying to schmooze ya that’s fun to riff on.

GREG NAUGHTON: Spot on! I started off in theatre and ran a little theatre company in New York that Richard did some stuff with and I’ve known and loved him a long time. So I was writing his character, inspired by a particular BS artist music exec we spent some time dealing with. I could only imagine Richard playing the part. Totally was written for him. I called him when it was done and told him so. He said, ‘Greg, I don’t even have to read it. I’m in.’ We were thrilled.

JOSH BOARD: With regard to the credits and cast of a movie, while watching this, I kept saying to myself, “That guy looks just like the actor from An American Werewolf in London (which I saw in 8th grade when it came out and was blown away). Then I see the credits and say “Oh my god, the last name Naughton. it has to be his son.” And it turns out, you’re his nephew. My wife recognized your dad [James Naughton], as the police officer, and started mentioning his work. What were your memories of your uncle and dad when they were doing films and you were a kid? Stories like that are always fascinating. Beau Bridges told me great stories about watching his dad filming his TV show as a kid. I’d love to hear some stories from you about that experience.

GREG NAUGHTON: Yeah, I certainly get that a lot, that I look a lot like my uncle; and my dad, for that matter…but maybe more so David in some ways. Well, I was always very proud to have them both when I was a kid; proud of their careers. And totally loved visiting sets and hanging backstage and all of that as a kid. And I enjoy acting, but I don’t really think of it as my thing. I’m much more interested in writing, creating in other ways that music, and now screenwriting, are all about.

JOSH BOARD: I’m guessing it’s a lot harder to write a movie then a song. Not just because a song is four minutes long and a movie is a couple hours, but…you guys could write some cliche lyrics for a song, and it would still work because of the lovely harmonies. In a movie, we don’t want cliche dialogue. We want sharp writing, like being told a guy is from “Columbia” and…it’s the country, not the record label, which provided me the best laugh I’ve had in a movie in months. 

GREG NAUGHTON: Ha! Glad you appreciated that. It’s a bit inside baseball, perhaps, but it amused me, which is what was most fun about writing a movie as opposed to a song. I love writing songs, but the chance to expand storytelling onto this much bigger canvas was really fun; and liberating, I guess. I’ve written three since. Hopefully we’ll get to make those at some point, too.

JOSH BOARD: There was an amazing documentary about the heavy metal band Anvil. When that came out, the band actually went to different cities and performed in the movie theatres after the opening night. It would work so much better to have you guys do those acoustic sets after the movie, but because of Covid, that’s not possible. Did you originally plan to do something like that? And, on that subject, how has this pandemic hurt your band when it comes to performing live? And are you writing and recording more since you can’t play live?

BRIAN CHARTRAND: Greg, I’ll let you answer the first part, but on the topic of how this pandemic affected the band…we released our 4th studio album “Music Fills the Spaces” in February 2020, and had a number of tour dates planned to support the release that spring. Obviously, that was all cut short and most all the dates were postponed until 2021. That being said, we continue to write new songs. One thing the pandemic didn’t really affect was how we write songs. We all live in different parts of the country, so historically, we primarily write remotely and share demos via email, develop them at home, and then refine them on the road. We definitely look forward to performing “Music Fills” but also some of the new tunes.

JOSH BOARD: It’s so interesting to think that songs can be written that way. I think the first time I heard about that was with Ben Gibbard’s band the Postal Service, which is how they came up with that name. 

GREG NAUGHTON: Yeah, when Covid reared its ugly head, the plans changed. We ultimately decided to stop waiting for venues to open again, figuring there will be such a deluge of movie released and big act tours, that our little film would just get lost in the noise. Also, while people have maybe worn out everything on Netflix…maybe the timing for a music film like this isn’t so bad right now. Definitely hoping it’s a warm spot in a dark winter for at least a few folks.

JOSH BOARD: Going back to live shows…the showcase scene at the Troubadour, which I won’t dare spoil for the reader, made me want to ask — what was your one best show, and your worst?

RICH PRICE: I feel very lucky that we’ve had many more good shows than bad ones. And part of being in a band is that it’s a team sport in a way, and we can play off each other and have fun together — whatever’s happening and wherever we happen to be playing. We had a chance to play at Carnegie Hall, and that was pretty amazing. For a while, years ago, we did a residency at a club in NYC called Canal Room, and we loved that and actually made a DVD of one of the shows (called Live at Canal Room). Worst show? We opened for Martin Sexton one time. That was great, but Brian was sick as a dog and couldn’t join us. It was definitely Sweet Remains “light.”

BRIAN CHARTRAND: I agree with Rich. We have been fortunate to play some amazing rooms across the country. But as with many bands, there have been some clunkers. I think every band has played the basement bar gig that smells like cat urine, or the club with the blow out PA system from the ‘80s…or the show with more people on stage than in the room; or maybe that is just us.

JOSH BOARD: Well, I certainly hope more than three people see this movie. It’s a feel good film with lots of great songs. And from this point forward, when I hear or see the name “Naughton” it won’t be the Dr. Pepper jingle that pops into my head, but the beautiful and haunting “Night Song.”

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