PHOTO COURTESY OF J. BENSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Lynn native Sheree Dunwell sings up a storm during a recent wedding. She and the band the Free Downloads will appear in the new Robert De Niro film “The Comedian.”
By BILL BROTHERTON
LYNN — When Robert De Niro’s new movie “The Comedian” opens on Feb. 3, filmgoers should be on the lookout for Lynn native Sheree Dunwell.
It’ll be tough to miss her. Dunwell is lead singer for the band The Free Downloads, and her powerful vocals will ring through the theater during an extended wedding scene. The band will be on screen for nearly seven minutes.
“I’m still kind of in shock. It’s one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve had in my life,” said Dunwell, a 2003 Classical High graduate. “I met and talked with Patti LuPone, one of my favorite singers and one of the biggest Broadway stars of all time. She said I have a wonderful voice. I still can’t believe it.”
In “The Comedian,” De Niro plays an aging insult comic who attends his niece’s wedding. During a scene in which he gives a toast, The Free Downloads are the chosen wedding band. Dunwell said the band had 24 hours to learn three songs. “Siman Tov Mazel Tov,” which accompanies the traditional Hora dance, was already in their repertoire. But they had to start from scratch with “(We Want) The Same Thing” by Belinda Carlisle and “Would I Lie to You” by Charles and Eddie.
For The Free Downloads, filming took place in New York City over 36 hours in March, and Dunwell said she and her bandmates have been on cloud nine ever since.
“The cast and crew were invited to a screening in December, and we all got to see the film. It’s a pretty funny movie, slightly vulgar but hilarious,” said Dunwell. “It was wild to sit there, knowing that the scene we filmed was coming up. We watched the film with director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Ray,” “The Devil’s Advocate”), De Niro and Danny DeVito, Leslie Mann, Patti LuPone, all the stars. Everyone was so nice. I thought, ‘OK, I’m a girl from Lynn. Is this really happening?’”
The Free Downloads have been together for more than seven years. The seven-piece band performs top 40 hits, dance pop, hip-hop, Motown and classic rock. With a list of some 250 songs, the Rhode Island-based septet plays private events, corporate functions and social gatherings throughout New England and New York. Dunwell estimates she and Neil Letendre (vocals), George Leonard III (guitarist/bandleader), John Wilson (bass), Riccardo Pearlman (drums), Greg Takemoto (saxophone) and Marc Trachtenberg (keyboards) have played more than 200 weddings.
Dunwell knew she had musical talent from about the time she learned to walk. “I’d sing along to the radio; I’d harmonize,” she said. “According to my mom, the rumor was that I was singing along to my great-grandmother, an opera singer.”
The daughter of Kathleen Swanson and Wendell Dunwell said she was supported by her family and encouraged by Classical High teacher Joe Picano — “the music god of Lynn” — who praised her singing talent and helped her join the Wang Center’s Young at Arts program and receive a scholarship from the Handel & Haydn Society to study voice at the New England Conservatory Preparatory Program.
“I never would have been able to afford voice lessons without this,” she said.
After one year of formal voice training, she advanced to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and earned her BFA in Vocal Performance, eventually performing with Michael Feinstein and the Pittsburgh Pops in 2007.
One year later she returned home. ”It was a transitional period. I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she said. “I wanted to sing opera, but I doubted my abilities. I didn’t think I measured up. … I got stage fright. I cried. I started working at a bank and stopped singing. I thought that was it.”
Then, in 2008, someone needed a singer for a wedding; it was an emergency situation that Dunwell hesitantly filled. Soon after, Greg Coles’ Picante Soul band in Marblehead needed a vocalist and Dunwell landed the gig. She was on her way. Local musician Wayne Jones heard her potential and told her there was a band in Rhode Island that needed a singer.
It was The Free Downloads. She was just what they needed. In 2013, she was crowned North Shore Star at North Shore Music Theatre. She won the Community Auditions TV show championship in 2015.
Music is not quite a full-time job for Dunwell; she works for a Boston-based real estate development company by day. She and her bandmates aren’t sure what’s in store for them once the movie comes out and people start asking, “Who is that band?”
“We have no idea what to expect,” she said. “It was fun for us just to be selected. So anything more will be great. Hopefully, people will like us and want to book us.”
Here’s a link to the movie trailer; The Free Downloads can be heard playing at 1 minute and 28 seconds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALlj3RRF9h8
Bill Brotherton is the Item’s Features Editor. He can be reached at [email protected]