Had Nate Ruess sung lead for bands in the late ’70s, he might’ve sounded like the improbable love-child of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Pete Townshend, with a hint of Billy Joel. Instead, Ruess has found fame in both the 2000s and the 2010s, as the former front man of the Format and, later, as the face of fun., which earned two Grammys in 2013 off sleeper hit “We Are Young.” Still, a guy can always dream, and for his first short film, “The Grand Romantic,” debuting this week on Apple Music, Ruess has taken a bit of artistic license in reimagining his career. Making his acting debut for veteran video director Anthony Mandler (who directed fun.’s “Some Nights” and “Carry On” clips), Ruess plays a version of himself going up against the music industry of 40 years ago, when all some musicians had to worry about was staying on pitch long enough to cut a hit record.
It’s too bad for this alternate-reality Ruess, then, that just as he starts work on his new album, he can’t hit a note to save his life. And like any “goddamn rock star” (or so an exec at the fictional Atlantis Records touts him) in a slump, he’s kind of a dick about it. Unfortunately for a team of vocal coaches and “miracle workers” brought in as reinforcements, that’s how the nightmare begins — most of all for one concerned secretary (Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson), who unwittingly gets dragged into the chaos of Nate’s quest to get his groove back. It’s a decidedly less flattering image of the usually charming Ruess, one he wasn’t convinced he could pull off. “I don’t consider myself to be very like, Here I come,” he says, having nearly talked himself out of going solo with this year’s Grand Romantic after nearly 15 years of being in bands.
Ruess bit the bullet, he says, when he realized he might not get another opportunity to do this “while [he] still wanted to make music.” Songs from his first solo album make the film’s centerpiece, performed often with theatrical extravagance in Ruess’s daydreams. The kind of music he isn’t as inspired to make at the moment, however, is with fun. “I haven’t even thought about it,” he says. Earlier this year, the band reassured fans that they hadn’t disbanded, despite each member branching off. (Jack Antonoff has solo project Bleachers and songwriting creds all over Taylor Swift’s 1989, while Andrew Dost is scoring films.) And while no one’s individual work has overshadowed fun. just yet — “The Grand Romantic” even includes a wink to “We Are Young” — Ruess says it could be another year or two until we hear from the band.
Now, at least, he’s learned that any uncertainty about where he’s headed next doesn’t have to feel so daunting: “I really don’t know what I’m gonna do with my life, and I’m actually really happy about that.”
Apple Music will roll out “The Grand Romantic” in four parts this week, the first of which you can watch below.