Behind the Music–The Muppets Mayhem gets the rockumentary just right

Review by C.J. Bunce

Jim Henson’s magic is still alive.  Fans of the Muppets have really lucked out, first with the Muppet cousins’ fantasy The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance and now with The Muppets Mayhem, it’s clear The Muppet performers are as brilliant as ever.  From 1976 to 1981 The Muppet Show was must-watch TV.  With the 1979 big-screen event The Muppet Movie, the Muppets became recognizable worldwide.  The movie provided the backstory for the house band, Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, a fully-formed group of players who covered all sorts of rock, country, oldies, and pop classics for years on the TV variety show (later they would be the house band for Up Late with Miss Piggy).  They are in every way a real band, and like Murph and the MagicTones in The Blues Brothers, or Otis Day and the Knights in Animal House, they continue to be a band long after the show they were created for.  The Muppets Mayhem, the new series on Disney+, in some ways is like This is Spinal Tap, but it really isn’t.  That was about a fake band and The Muppet Show band actually performed with some of rock history’s best known performers, from Elton John to Lou Rawls (also Hal Linden and Don Knotts), even performing Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” on The Tonight Show.  The Electric Mayhem has been around for nearly 50 years now, so this is really more rockumentary than mockumentary.

As with every Muppets production since The Muppet Show, a new player leads the story.  Here that’s Lilly Singh as Nora, a wannabe music exec who works for Wax Town Records, the studio that is managed by Dr. Teeth’s ex-wife, Penny Waxman, a boisterous human-sized Muppet performed by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph.  Nora’s sister/BFF Hannah is played by Saara Chaadry, and Anders Holm plays JJ, a studio owner bidding on buying the studio holding the Mayhem contract, who has been fawning after Nora since they were in school together.  The new players work better than usual because of the documentary format–it lends itself easily to outsiders looking in with the audience.

But we’re really showing up for the band.  That’s veteran Bill Barretta performing Dr. Gerald Teeth, Jr., the not-really-the front-man keyboardist, whose family returns and expands his backstory in episode (called “track”) #6 (Stephanie D’Abruzzo performs his mother as the strongest new Muppet of the series).  Probably the most famous is Animal, the fabulous over-the-top drummer, performed by Eric Jacobson (who took over the Muppet roles from Frank Oz in 2001).  Animal, the towering savior of The Muppet Movie, is–no surprise–the heart of the band, especially as Baby Animal, the next Baby Groot and Baby Yoda.  And “Sergeant” Floyd Pepper serves as co-lead of the band with Dr. Teeth, performed by Matt Vogel, who took over many Muppet roles from original Muppet performer the late Jerry Nelson, including Kermit and Big Bird.  These three Muppets get fleshed out backstories, and a bigger part of the series than the other players, which leaves opportunities for us to learn about the other players in a possible second season.

The rest of the band includes Janice, the guitarist and flower child/spiritual mother, originated by performer and Emmy winner Fran Brill, performed this time by David Rudman, one of the longest tenured Muppet performers going back to the movie Labyrinth.  The only original Muppet performer, Dave Goelz, is back performing sax player “Zoot” Zutowsky, who gets the least lines, but some of the funniest scenes.  And then there’s trumpet player Lips, Steve Whitmire’s mumbling character now performed by Peter Linz.  How did these three players join the band?  That’s left a bit open, as is a subplot where we learn Janice has a lost twin sister, a thread left hanging for a possible future follow-up.

The comedy series’ ten half-hour episodes dig into everything you’d expect in a rockumentary.  Kudos to the writing team, including Julie Bean, Hannah Friedman, Crystal Shaw, Hans Rodionoff, Gabrielle Rodriguez, and Danielle Maransky, for getting it right, including (mostly) dodging the “sex and drugs” and addiction of the typical modern rock biopic effort.  You’ve got to imagine there are as many real bands that are more like The Electric Mayhem than not.  The biggest win is digging into the song writing process, so that after five episodes of the bandmates not finding inspiration to write anything new, Floyd starts plucking some strings while driving down the road after a failed “vision quest” in the desert (see, for example, Val Kilmer’s The Doors).  It’s a seamless, almost natural reflection of real life as something just clicks for Floyd and a new song is born.

The new songs for the series are good, and fit the history and vibe of the band.  The cover songs are also good additions both for the series and the accompanying new album–the subject of the series being an unfulfilled deal to make The Electric Mayhem’s first studio album.  Fans know they’ve played on albums before, like John Denver and the Muppets’ Rocky Mountain Holiday, and singles like Jack White and the Electric Mayhem’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of My Life.”  The show wisely includes The Muppet Movie memorable Mayhem hit “Can You Picture That?,” and adds tunes “Rock On,” “Gotta Be,” “The Sound of Us,” “We Are One,”  “Gonna Get There,” “Believe in Us,” and “Makin’ Mayhem,” all written by 4 Non Blondes lead singer and Songwriters Hall of Famer Linda Perry.  These aren’t as perfect as we might have seen from the likes of early band songwriter Paul Williams, but they’re solid numbers and the show theme song will stick in your head, with the series theme, “Gotta Be,” and “Believe in Us” probably the best of the bunch.  Covers in the show and on the album include certified classics like The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” KISS’s “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”

The crazy thing is how the band’s origin is steeped in rock ‘n’ roll.  The first appearance of the band was actually in a 1975 pilot for an adult-targeted show called The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, a Henson send-up of shows like Dragnet.  That’s hard to beat.  The band has been around, also playing at a Dickensian Christmas party in the 1840s in A Muppet Christmas Carol (the gang’s second best movie after the first) and later as a pirate ship band in Muppets Treasure Island.  They’ve been all over.

The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie solidified the franchise as the go-to for celebrity cameo appearances.  Here you get Weird Al Yankovic, Paula Abdul, Susanna Hoffs, 1970s comedy icons Cheech & Chong, Kevin Smith (filming a documentary within the documentary), Morgan Freeman (auditioning to play Zoot in that rockumentary), and Peter Jackson (creator of The Beatles documentary) arriving to make his own documentary, along with dozens of music celebrities.  Is anyone going to know all the music celebrities appearing on the series as themselves?  Probably not, and that’s the point of casting a wide net.  Everyone is invited to this party.  They even get a “I Want My MTV” animated video, Minecraft style (based on the band ABBA’s recent digital music show, “Voyage”), and an attack from the fans of a bunch of major music celebrities, including Taylor Swift and Beyonce.  Kevin Smith hiding behind a film camera, and Morgan Freeman playing Zoot is really funny stuff.  But nothing beats Animal being Animal.

The series is a great counter to the current competing rockumentary series Daisy Jones and The Six.  The overlap shows that the rockumentary or mockumentary is a thing with its own list of requirements to tick off: both shows have references to Laurel Canyon, the Whiskey a Go Go, Joshua Tree, and the inevitable Hollywood Bowl concert, both have a scene where there is confusion over who the love song is about, there’s the female with the best friend, the jerk outsider who disrupts the band, the Yoko Ono substitute that none of the other band members like, family issues, and the wacky drummer that lives in his own world.  Like the movie Almost Famous, this series also has the tagalong.  Here that’s Tahj Mowry as Moog, the band’s biggest fan, who also falls for Nora.  Mowry is a lot of fun opposite “straight man” Nora, and a good, fun addition to the series.  He also brings the heart to the show from the humans’ side.

Nothing else is like The Muppets.  You’ll watch the entire series and have forgotten these are fabric creations with hands and strings and people behind them.  That’s the magic of the show, and The Muppets Mayhem is the best integration of the characters into a story since The Muppets Christmas Carol.  Catch all ten episodes of the first season streaming now on Disney+.

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