Local band takes to big screen in ‘The Comedian’

Local band takes to big screen in ‘The Comedian’

The Free Downloads, a seven-member band of mostly Rhode Island natives, performed the most memorable wedding gig of their lives when they filmed for the upcoming romantic comedy “The Comedian,” starring Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro and Leslie Mann.
The Free Downloads appear in new movie with De Niro, DeVito, Mann

LINCOLN – The Free Downloads is accustomed to playing for wedding crowds, but actors like Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito aren’t usually among the guests.

That changed when the local band was chosen to appear on the silver screen for the biggest “wedding gig” of their lives – the set of “The Comedian,” a romantic comedy coming to theaters in February.

The seven-member band appears in the movie starring De Niro, DeVito and Leslie Mann, and their tunes are heard both during the film and in a wedding scene, where the musicians take the stage. Lead singer Neil Letendre, of Lincoln, was also shocked to hear his own voice as the credits rolled at the end of the movie.

While preparing for the filming, it felt like any other show, keyboardist Marc Trachtenberg, of Lincoln, said – that is, until DeVito walked across the dance floor during the beginning of the set, shot in Queens, N.Y.

After getting their hair and makeup done, the musicians, composed of vocalists, a keyboardist, saxophonist, bassist, drummer and lead guitarist, set up to rock out onstage, and were complimented by the actors on their sound.

While the band recorded most of its music before filming, The Free Downloads had a chance to make some noise on set as well. The band, which formed in 2010 and plays mostly in New England, is now anxiously waiting to watch the movie with friends and family when it comes to theaters Feb. 3.

Appearing in a movie is a first for the group, made up of mostly Rhode Island natives. Some of the band members, lead guitarist George Leonard III, of Providence, said, have been jamming together since their high school years, but this performance takes the cake.

The Free Downloads’ members range in age from early 30s to mid-40s, and a few of the members teach music locally. Leonard teaches out of a home studio near Shea High School in Pawtucket with Greg Takemoto, of Providence, saxophonist for The Free Downloads, and Leonard also teaches at the Rhode Island Philharmonic.

Letendre has been teaching music at Agnes E. Little Elementary School in Pawtucket for years after working as choir director at Lincoln High School.

Trachtenberg launched Rock-A-Baby, a company that teaches classes in New York and multiple places in Rhode Island for infants and toddlers. Rock-A-Baby has recorded CDs and performs at parties and birthdays as well as a monthly concert at Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Riccardo Pearlman, of East Providence, John Wilson, of Pawtucket, and Sheree Dunwell, who lives in Boston, round out the band. Letendre said the group is so successful because of their friendship. Letendre said the band’s level of musicianship and professionalism are a rare package, which he said makes his job as lead singer easier and enjoyable.

While songs like “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey are played by request at nearly every wedding, Letendre said even after four hours of performing about 50 songs, by the time the band belts out the track, “We’re all jacked up, like it’s the first time we ever played it.”

“I don’t know how we do that,” Trachtenberg said, laughing with his fellow band mates.

Playing at weddings, Leonard said, can be compared to theater. In the few moments it takes to change over between songs, the entire mood of the room can shift, he noted.

“It kind of unfolds like a movie,” he said, adding that if there are strange cuts or awkward silences, the entire audience notices.

Leonard, who handles the administrative duties of the band, said The Free Downloads avoids taking a more “corporate” approach to their performances, and lets loose while remaining professional.

Leonard said he responded to an advertisement from a casting agency looking for a wedding band in early 2016, figuring a New York group would get the role.

“I didn’t think for a million years we had a prayer at this,” he said, until Oscar-winning director Taylor Hackford called him up and began humming songs, asking if the band was familiar with the music. In February 2016, Leonard said, he heard word that the New England band was chosen.

Leonard explained that the movie chronicles an aging man trying to “redefine himself” as a stand-up comedian, while growing closer with Leslie Mann’s character in the film. “The Comedian,” Leonard said, pays homage to the stand-up comedy scene.

After finishing their portion of filming for the movie, it was right back to work for the band that performs at weddings and private events. His favorite part of performing, he said, is “when the energy that we’re giving out sort of catches fire with the crowd.”

With some audiences, he said, “it’s just magical.”

“They get really into it, they’re doing 150-person congo lines or they’re lifting each other up, just going crazy, and for us, that’s really cool because it means that there’s some communication. We’re not just playing music to a group of people.”

From left are George Leonard III, Neil Letendre and Sheree Dunwell, a few of the members of The Free Downloads, a local wedding band that will appear on the big screen when the film “The Comedian” is released in theaters next month. (Photo courtesy of Blueflash Photography)