Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Give Up the Day Job

Rock stars have had a rocky relationship with the movies. Madonna started off well in Desperately Seeking Susan before sinking with Shanghai Surprise, Who's That Girl and Dick Tracy. Jennifer Lopez fared worse with turkeys like Maid in Manhattan and Jersey Girl, which has eclipsed quite good roles in Out of Sight and The Cell. Dolly Parton was upfront in 9-5 and Debbie Harry sexy in Cronenberg's Videodrome. The annoying Barbra Streisand has been in lots of films, from Funny Girl (1962, for which she won an Oscar) to Meet the Fockers (2004).

But on the whole it seems male rock stars have fared better – or at least have more interesting roles (apart from Elvis's and Cliff Richard's lightweight cinematic escapades) – than their female counterparts. Cult existentialist road movie Two-lane Blacktop (1971) was an unlikely star vehicle for singer songwriter James Taylor and late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Featuring almost no plot, very little dialogue, and not much in the way of acting (apart from Warren Oates) the film ends with the projector literally burning the film. James Taylor has said he's never seen the film.

Equally unlikely was The Monkee's psychedelic film Head (1968), co-written by Jack Nicholson. Seemingly conceived as an antithesis to their sanitised TV series, it featured surreal, stream of consciousness sketches, musical numbers and satire of the movies and was apparently intended to damage the Monkees squeaky-clean image.

Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) stars country singer Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and Bob Dylan, who also provided the soundtrack, in a small role as Alias. The film also features singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's then wife. Kristofferson is great as Billy, cocky and confident, and he's appeared in many pretty good films since: Heaven's Gate, Blade I-III, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Fast Food Nation and A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand. Dylan, on the other hand, is pretty bad in the movie, and has appeared in only a couple of films since: the dreadful Hearts of Fire (playing a rock star) and Masked and Anonymous (playing a rock star). Dylan fared far better acting himself in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, and directing himself in the little seen Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara.

Country singer Lyle Lovett became a Robert Altman regular, acting in Prêt-à-Porter, Cookie's Fortune and Dr T and the Women and being especially creepy in The Player and Short Cuts. Tom Waits had a role in Short Cuts too. His cool, somewhat sleazy cigarette-smoking gravelly persona has also been put to good effect in Coppola's The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and er, Dracula. Paul Simon is great as a seedy record producer in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Disreputable Welshman Rhys Ifans was lead singer in Super Furry Animals before finding fame as an actor in Notting Hill, Enduring Love and Twin Town, the best Welsh film ever. He's now in Welsh band Y Peth (The Thing).

Director Nic Roeg has also used rock stars in several films. Mick Jagger starred alongside James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in cult (why are most male rock star films 'cult' whilst most female ones 'crap'? The line between cult and crap has always been a fine one...) film Performance (1968) as, er, a washed up rock star living in a basement in Notting Hill. He then went on to do Ned Kelly (1970), which was awful. David Bowie has been in a surprising amount of films good and bad including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, The Last Temptation of Christ and Into the Night (directed by John Landis, who made Michael Jackson's Thriller video), but it's Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie plays an alien – a perfect role for the 1970s Bowie that was Ziggy Stardust – that is his most iconic, and arguably best role.

Rap stars have frequently been in films either about rap (Eminem in 8 Mile) or life in da hood such as Boyz N the Hood (Ice Cube), Menace II Society (MC Eight and Too Short) and Juice (Tupac Shakur). Ice Cube is one rapper who's escaped the cinematic ghetto by appearing in films such as Three Kings and Anaconda – a great B-movie about a giant snake. See him next year as B.A. Baracus in The A-Team – can't wait. LL Cool J has also had some minor film roles. I almost forgot (it seems so long ago – his first album was back in 1987) – Will Smith is of course a rapper who appeared in TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and went on to Hollywood blockbusters Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men In Black and I Am Legend.

On the flip side, actors have an equally annoying habit of wanting to be rock stars. Whether to expand their audience base or live the rock'n'roll dream, one thing is certain: it's not for the money. Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves are in bands, as was River Phoenix. Scarlett Johansson and Minnie Driver have recently released albums.

Juliette Lewis is more serious about her music than most of her movie contemporaries and seems to have given up acting altogether to live the dream with her band, The Licks. I saw her a while ago in HMV on Oxford Street. She was (not) signing CDs (there was a distinct lack of fans), I was looking at Pavement CDs, then our eyes met... it looked like as if she winked at me, though she might have had something in her eye.

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